FROM COURT BUDDHISM
TO COMMONER BUDDHISM
Japan’s Kamakura Period
First Published: June 1, 2008
Written for World History Encyclopedia
The Kamakura period (1185 -1332) was a turning point in Japanese Buddhism, highlighted by the spread of Buddhism among the illiterate commoner and by a new spirit of realism in religious imagery (see below). The period gave birth to new and reformed Buddhist movements -- Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren -- devoted to the salvation of the common people. These schools stressed pure and simple faith over complicated rites and doctrines. Prior to this, Buddhism was largely the faith of the imperial court, upper classes, and monastic orders. (See Early Japanese Buddhism)
Why the Kamakura era? First, decades of social unrest had culminated in the victory of Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199) and his establishment of the Kamakura Shogunate. The emperor’s authority was thereafter overshadowed for nearly seven centuries. Second, simplicity and frugality became the watchwords of the new military class, replacing the perfumed embroidery of the court and the intellectual elitism of the entrenched monasteries. Third, manliness was prized over scholarship, and the physical and mental vigor of the individual became the keynote of feudal life. Thus arose the idea that any man, from any class, might climb to power by employing his mind and energies.
Religion fell naturally under the same leveling impulse, as did secular art. Monks appeared who walked among the common folk preaching simple faith, in particular Saigyo (d. 1190), Shinran (d. 1262), Nichiren (d. 1282), and Ippen (d. 1289). There were antecedents, to be sure, notably the popular monk Kuya (903-972). The Saint of the Common Folk, Kuya walked among the masses, praying constantly to Amida Buddha for their salvation and their rebirth in Amida’s Western Pure Land -- a spiritual paradise where the souls of departed devotees are reborn to pursue the path to eventual enlightenment.
These missionary monks did not appeal to the court, established Buddhist powers, or nobility to help spread their teachings, and this attracted both dissatisfied clergy and the lower classes. Another factor underpinning Buddhism’s popularization was a widespread belief in the “Three Periods of the Law” -- a concept of society’s rise and fall that originated much earlier in Indian Buddhism but came to prominence later in China and then Japan. It foretold of the world’s ultimate decay and the complete disappearance of Buddhist practice. The Japanese believed the third and final period -- the Age of Mappo (Decline of the Law) -- had begun in 1052. The ensuing decades, moreover, were marked by civil wars, famine, and pestilence. A sense of foreboding thus filled the land, and people from all classes yearned for a gospel of salvation.
The Jodo (Pure Land) sects came to prominence in this era, although Jodo faith was practiced in Heian times by Japan’s court and monasteries. Japan’s popularized Jodo sects were founded by Honen Shonin (1133 - 1212) and his disciple Shinran (1173 - 1262). Both taught that anyone, whether noble or peasant, could gain rebirth in the Pure Land by faithfully reciting the name of Amida Buddha. The popularity of Jodo faith among commoners was a serious challenge to the institutionalized Buddhist monasteries in Kyoto and Nara, which attempted to block this popularization by proclaiming it subversive to public order and by condemning Honen, Shinran, and their followers to exile.
Shinran, in particular, provoked Buddhist authorities by declaring that meat eating and matrimony were not contrary to the Buddha’s teachings, even though the reigning Buddhist sects forbade both practices among clergy. Shinran was expelled from the monastic community for taking a wife. He further angered the establishment by declaring Amida faith alone as sufficient for salvation, other Buddhist deities and practices being unnecessary. In later years, his followers extolled the virtues of religious practice among the laity, and argued that a spiritual secular life was just as valid as a monastic life. Indeed, the monastic ideal was discarded. The sect’s priests stopped shaving their heads and started dressing in ordinary clothes. They did not consider themselves enlightened, but part of a community of seekers. Today, Honen’s school (Jodo) remains monastic, while Shinran’s sect (Jodo Shin) is purely a lay Buddhist group, one of the largest in Japan.
Zen Buddhism also gained tremendous favor during the Kamakura era, although it too, like Jodo faith, entered Japan via China in earlier centuries. The monk Eisai (1141 - 1215) sparked a great flowering in Zen’s popularity from his base in Kamakura. He taught that personal enlightenment was not found in sutras or rituals. Rather, it was found within the self through meditation, restraint, and self-reliance. Zen attracted the samurai (the military class) in particular and infused the arts with new life.
Nichiren (1222 - 1282) was the last of the great Kamakura-era teachers. He was a radical reformer who once studied at the powerful Tendai monastery on Mt. Hiei, as did Honen, Shinran, Eisai, and other noted monks. Nichiren vehemently disagreed with the new Jodo sects, and proclaimed both old and new Buddhist movements to be false religions. He preached in the streets of Kamakura, hoping to revive the purity of the Tendai faith in the Lotus Sutra. He was exiled, but later released. He believed faith in the Lotus Sutra alone would bring liberation, and recitation of the phrase “Hail to the Lotus Sutra” was the sole path to salvation.
The new schools of the Kamakura era broke through the eclecticism and elitism of Japan’s earlier Buddhist orders. By allowing the common people to enjoy worldly benefits with the promise of salvation in the afterlife (or enlightenment in this life), the new Kamakura sects gained widespread popularity. These movements, however, did not consolidate their gains until the Muromachi era (1392 - 1568). Today, the Jodo Shin, Zen, and Nichiren movements remain the most popular schools of modern Japanese Buddhism.
Buddhist Impact on the
Arts in the Kamakura Era
The popularization of Buddhism had a profound impact on religious art and architecture. It sparked a new spirit of realism in sculpture. Unkei (d. 1223), the most brilliant Japanese sculptor of the early 13th century, infused temple statuary with humanistic vitality, and his school is credited with such innovations as using crystal eyes in Buddhist statues. Unkei’s surviving sculptures are still prized today as the peak of greatness in Japanese Buddhist statuary. Portrait sculpture and portrait painting of prominent monks and people were also innovations of the Kamakura period, with the Zen sect in particular pursuing this form of expression.
The great popularity of Jodo faith transformed temple architecture, as the small incrusted sanctuaries of earlier times had to be vastly enlarged in size and simplified in furnishing to accommodate much larger congregations. Jodo faith also led to the predominance in religious art of three deities -- Amida Buddha for the coming life in paradise, Kannon Bodhisattva for assistance in earthly life, and Jizo Bodhisattva for release from the torments of hell. These three remain the bedrock of Buddhism for the commoner to this day. Their effigies are found throughout Japan, and hundreds of pilgrimage routes have been developed. The most widely known Kannon pilgrimage covers 100 sites. Making the circuit is said to save believers from hell and to open the gates to everlasting life.
Kannon legends are particularly widespread in modern Japan. One states that Minamoto Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate, always carried a small statue of Kannon under his helmet (inserted in his hair topknot) during battle. Another says an amulet containing the Lotus Sutra (the key scripture in Japan underpinning Kannon belief) deflected an arrow and thus saved the life of Kusunoki Masahige, the most celebrated samurai of the early 14th century.
In secular matters, literature became romantic in the Kamakura era, with fairy tales populated by demons, ogres, and common folk and no longer devoted to the “silken lords and ladies” of earlier literature. Indeed, the subjects of literature turn to all classes of people, even to the ribaldry and triviality of common life. The period gave birth to a native and secular drama called Kyogen, a stage performance that often focused on the buffoonery of farmers at village festivals.
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