Early Schools & Sects of Japanese Buddhism
Japan’s Asuka & Nara Periods (552 to 794 CE)
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SIX SCHOOLS OF NARA BUDDHISM
Nanto Shichidaiji 南都七大寺
SEVEN GREAT SOUTHERN TEMPLES OF NARA
EDITOR’S NOTE: This page also serves as a monograph for topics not generally covered elsewhere at this site, including ordination platforms, important Korean and Chinese monks who played formative roles in the early decades, and the involvement of institutionalized Buddhism in early Japanese state affairs.
OVERVIEW. Buddhism arrived in Japan around + 520-550 via Korea and later China, and spread quickly thereafter under the patronage of the court and Imperial Prince Shōtoku, Japan’s first great patron of Buddhism. Numerous temples were constructed, and Japanese missions dispatched to the mainland to learn more and bring back sutras and icons. The new temples were staffed largely by monks and artisans from Korea and China, and served as centers of Buddhist study. Around +710, the capital moved from the Asuka area to Nara (Heijōkyō 平城京), where Buddhism flourished among the court and nobility. The Six Schools of Nara (六宗) were mostly academic Buddhist sects, introduced to Japan from Korea and China in the late 6th and early 7th centuries. All six sects were under Japanese state control, centered in the capital Nara, devoted to mastering Buddhist philosophy from mainland Asia, and to maintaining court patronage. This period is called Nara Buddhism. It was marked by strong court-clergy relations and by lavish state spending on Buddhist temples, images, and texts. It did not show much doctrinal innovation, and was largely devoted to state functions and academic study. During this period, the six sects competed for prominence and patronage with the Japanese imperial court, and Buddhism remained confined largely to the nobility and imperial family. Because Nara was situated to the south of Kyōto (the capital in the subsequent Heian Era), these six sects are also known as the Six Southern Schools of Nara Buddhism. Clergy and aspiring acolytes studied at various government-sponsored temples, with the Seven Great Southern Temples of Nara (Nanto Shichidaiji 南都七大寺) serving as the main academic centers. Many of the seven also served as home to important government-run workshops that made Buddhist statues and other artwork. The Asuka and Nara periods are considered the Great Age of Gilt Bronze Statuary in Japan.
Rokushū 六宗 (also Rokushuu / Rokushu)
Six Schools of Nara Buddhism
- Hossō-shū 法相宗 (Mahāyāna) Details Here
- Jōjitsu-shū 成実宗 (Theravāda) Details Here
- Kegon-shū 華厳宗 or 花嚴宗 (Mahāyāna) Details Here
- Kusha-shū 倶舎宗 (Theravāda) Details Here
- Ritsu-shū or Risshū 律宗 (Theravāda & Mahāyāna) Details Here
- Sanron-shū 三論宗 (Mahāyāna) Details Here
Note 1. 宗 (Shū) = Japanese suffix translated as school or sect.
Note 2. The Sanron, Jōjitsu, and Kusha schools were never truly established as distinct institutional entities. Three of the six -- Sanron, Hossō, and Kegon, each from the Mahāyāna tradition -- dominated discourse during the period, but they did not embody any novel Buddhist doctrines or practices. The Hossō, Kegon and Ritsu schools thrived for a time, but all three were eclipsed by the newer, more innovative sects of the Heian and Kamakura periods. Today, the Hossō, Kegon and Ritsu schools are still active, but they are considered only minor schools. <Sources: Numerous, both Japanese and English; also follows the treatment of Earl Miner, Hiroko Odagiri, and Robert E. Morrell in The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature, Princeton University Press, 1985. Reprinted 1988. ISBN 978-0691008257.>
Note 3. Buddhist scholar Robert E. Morrell says it is a “remarkable accident of history” that a Pure Land school devoted to Amida Buddha was not introduced to Japan along with the original six “Nara Sects,” for faith in Amida was known in Japan already by Prince Shōtoku’s time (+ 574 - 622). In the subsequent Heian Era (+ 794-1192) came the Tendai and Shingon schools, which collectively are known as the Eight Schools of Early Japanese Buddhism. Only in the Kamakura Era (+1185-1333) do we see the pronounced emergence of the Pure Land sects devoted to Amida, which today are among the most popular nationwide.
Seven Great Southern Temples of Nara
Nanto Shichidaiji 南都七大寺
Buddhist Study in Early Japanese Buddhism
Centers of Learning for the Six Nara Schools of Buddhism
- Tōdaiji, Toudaiji, Todaiji 東大寺 (Kegon School)
- Gangōji, Gangouji, Gangoji 元興寺 (Sanron & Jōjitsu Schools)
- Saidaiji 西大寺 (Ritsu School)
- Yakushiji 薬師寺 (Hossō School)
- Daianji 大安寺 (Sanron School)
- Kōfukuji, Koufukuji, Kofukuji 興福寺 (Hossō School)
- Hōryūji, Houryuuji, Horyuji 法隆寺 (Sanron & Hossō Schools)
Note A: Details about these temples are presented below (listed together with their relevant school).
Note B: The school designation given for each temple is not entirely accurate. It is provided as a convenience to readers. Each of the seven temples studied the teachings of all six schools. Sanron, Hossō, and Ritsu were by far the most studied, with the Hossō school gaining great prominence by the late Nara era, but the temples, as a general rule, did not cling one-sidedly to any single school. Four of the seven temples (Kōfukuji, Gangōji, Daianji, Yakushiji) were established outside Nara, but when the capital moved to Heijōkyō 平城京 (today’s Nara city), these four moved as well. In the subsequent Heian era, when the capital was transferred to Heiankyō 平安京 (modern-day Kyoto), the temples did not move from Nara, as one of the primary goals of the transfer was to distance the court from involvement by the Buddhist monasteries. In the 11th century, the seven great temples became a popular pilgrimage route. In the Edo era (+1615-1868), Tōshōdaiji 唐招提寺 replaced Hōryūji. Tōshōdaiji is the current headquarters of the Ritsu sect. Hōryūji Temple, one of Japan’s most prestigious temples, seceded from the Hossō school in +1950 to establish the Shōtoku sect, devoted to the memory of Prince Shōtoku. Hōryūji Temple, since the introduction of Buddhism to Japan, has remained the key devotional center of Shōtoku’s legacy.
Six Schools of Asuka / Nara Buddhism
Sanron School 三論宗
H = 84.3 cm
Nara Era, 8th Century
Hōryūji Temple 法隆寺
The Sanron teachings were embraced by the Japanese Imperial Regent, Prince Shōtoku, the first great patron
of Buddhism in Japan.
Chinese = Sānlùn. One of the Six Schools of Nara. Literally “Three Treatise” sect. Commonly known as the Middle-Way School. A Mahāyāna school from China introduced to Japan around +625 by the Korean monk Hyegwan (Jp. = Ekan 慧灌, who hailed from the Korean kingdom of Kōkuri 高句麗 (often spelled as Koguryo or Goguryeo). Ekan resided at Gangōji Temple 元興寺 (one of seven great temples in the Nara era). During his day, however, this temple had not yet been relocated to Nara (it was transferred there in +718 after the capital had moved to Nara around +710). During Ekan’s time, the temple was still located at the original Soga-stronghold named Asuka Dera 飛鳥寺 in the Asuka district. In the decade prior to his arrival, Asuka Dera had been the home of two other Korean monks. One hailed from the Korean Kingdom of Koguryo 高句麗 (Goguryeo) and was named Eji 慧慈 (えじ). The other hailed from the Korean Kingdom of Kudara 百済 (Paekche) and was named Esou 慧聡 （Esō えそう). Both served as teachers and mentors to Prince Shōtoku Taishi. Many resources, both English and Japanese, say all three lived at Asuka Dera, but none say they lived together at the same time, or that they actually met each other. One source says Shōtoku gave this temple to Eji 慧慈. Today, Asuka Dera still houses Japan’s oldest extant Buddha statue (+609) whose date of construction is clearly known.
Whatever the true situation, Ekan 慧灌 and his transmission of Sanron doctrine in Japan is known as the Gangōji lineage 元興寺流. He is also credited with introducing the Jōjitsu school to Japan. Records of the period say Ekan brought rain during a drought, which greatly pleased Empress Suiko 推古 (reigned +592 to 628), who accordingly awarded him the highest rank (sōjō 僧正) given to monks in those days. Empress Suiko, the aunt of Prince Shōtoku, also appointed senior monks to oversee all the other monks during her reign, marking the first appearance in Japan of the Office of Monastic Affairs (Sōgō, Sougou, Sogo, 僧綱). This office was staffed by court-appointed monks charged with managing the examinations, ordinations, and behavior of the Buddhist clergy. See Ritsu School for more details on ordinations. Although Sanron was never an independently organized school in Japan, its philosophies were studied by all the other schools then active in Japan, for Sanron contained many essential teachings of the Mahāyāna tradition, the mainstream form of Buddhism in Japan then and today.
The Sanron School is based on three texts (hence the name “Three-Treatise” Sect). Two texts are attributed to Nāgārjuna (Nagarjuna 龍樹), an Indian philosopher who lived sometime between +150 - 250, and who founded the “Middle Path” (Madhyamaka) school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. He is generally considered, even today, to be one of the greatest-ever wellsprings of Mahayana thought. The third text comes from Aryadeva, a disciple of Nāgārjuna who lived sometime in the +3rd century. The Sanron school never achieved great institutional importance in Japan in later centuries, but Nāgārjuna’s teachings were still regarded with utmost respect. The three texts are the Madhyamaka-sastra (中論) and the Dvadasanikaya-sastra (十二門論), both by Nāgārjuna 龍樹, and the Sata-sastra 百論 by Nāgārjuna’s disciple Aryadeva 提婆. All three were translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva 鳩摩羅什 (+344–413).
Temples of Importance to Sanron School
Hōryūji or Houryuuji 法隆寺. World Heritage Site.
Founded by Prince Shōtoku. One of Seven Great Nara Temples.
Hossō Sect originally, but seceded in 1950 to establish Shōtoku sect.
法隆寺・法相宗・聖徳宗・奈良県・Open 7 Days Weekly
TEL: 0745-75-2555 Temple Web Site
Originally known as Ikaruga-dera 斑鳩寺, for it is located in Ikaruga 斑鳩町, a small area in Nara City, Japan. Ikaruga is home to Hōryūji Temple, Chūgūji Temple, and Hōkiji Temple, a group of Buddhist temples collectively designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993. Hōryūji (Houryuuji, Horyuji) Temple was commissioned by Prince Shotoku and became the principle temple of worship for his family. It was first built in +607 by artisans from Korea’s Paekche 百済 kingdom, and in its heyday housed people in adjacent areas where they studied the Buddhist teachings, art, and medicine. The original temple was destroyed, according to most records, in a fire in +670, although much of its artwork was somehow saved. It was rebuilt, according to most scholars, soon thereafter, again by artisans from Korea’s Paekche kingdom. Two other temples closely associated with Prince Shōtoku -- Hōrin-ji 法輪寺 or 法琳寺 and Hōkiji 法起寺 -- were most likely built by artisans of Korea’s Paekche kingdom as well. For more on Korea’s influence on early Japanese Buddhism, art, and architecture, please click here.
Today Hōryūji remains one of the world’s greatest extant treasure-houses of early Buddhist artwork and architecture in Japan. It contains over 2,300 important cultural and historical structures and articles, including nearly 190 that have been designated in Japan as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties. In December 1993, Horyuji and its satellite temples became the first treasure of any kind in Japan to be selected by UNESCO as part of its World Heritage designation. Home to the famous Guze (Yumedono) Kannon, reportedly made in the image of Prince Shōtoku, and part of a mystery story about the death of the prince. Other outstanding pieces include the Shaka Trinity by Tori Busshi (also claimed to be made in the image of the prince), the Kudara Kannon, wall paintings, the five-story pagoda, and artwork of many other Buddhist divinities. See various temple pieces on the Asuka Art Tour page.
Gallery of Horyuji Treasures. Located on the grounds of the Tokyo National Museum, this gallery is furnished with the latest in conservation technology. The reference room on the 2nd floor mezzanine has a "digital archive" that allows visitors to view the entire collection of Horyuji Treasures on computer with explanations provided in Japanese, Chinese, Korean, English, and French. The Horyuji Treasures consist of over 300 valuable objects, mainly from the 7th - 8th century, which were donated to the Imperial Household by Horyuji Temple in 1878. Address: 13-9 Ueno Park, Taito-ku, Tokyo 110-8712. Phone: 03-5777-8600. Open from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm. Generally closed on Monday, sometimes Tuesday.
Exploring the Beauty of Japan #11
July 9th, 2002
40+ pages, 70+ color photos
Japanese Language Only
一ツ橋 2-3-1, TEL: 03-3230-5118
Wonderful magazine featuring treasures of Houryuu-ji Temple. Some photos at this site were scanned from this magazine.
Shitennō-ji (Shitennou-ji, Shintennoji) Temple 四天王寺
Founded by Prince Shōtoku. TELEPHONE: 06-6771-0066 Temple Web Site
According to the Nihon-shoki (日本書紀, Chronicles of Japan, circa +720, one of Japan’s oldest surviving documents), Prince Shōtoku promised to build Shitennōji when he joined the forces of the Soga clan (his own clan) to overthrow the Mononobe clan. This was around in + 587. Those opposed to the introduction of Buddhism were led by Mononobe no Moriya 物部守屋, whose forces fought against the Soga clan under the leadership of Soga no Umako 蘇我馬子, who battled to incorporate Buddhism as a political tool of state control. With the success of the Soga battle against Mononobe, Shitennōji Temple was founded in + 593 by Prince Shōtoku in Naniwa (Osaka). The temple predates even Hōryūji Temple, which has a similar layout, and its buildings represent Japan's oldest style of temple construction, now known as the Shitennōji style. Unfortunately, none of the original buildings remain and the Main Hall (Jp. = Kondo), five-storied pagoda, and other buildings are all postwar reconstructions. According to modern excavations, the temple was founded in the first half of the 7th century. <Above paragraph adapted from this outside site>
Says a TIME MAGAZINE STORY ON SHITENNOJI:
Of 202 Buddhist sanctuaries in Osaka's Tennōji district, there is one that stands out - Shitennōji, the first Japanese temple commissioned by a royal (Prince Shōtoku Taishi) and one of the oldest Buddhist complexes in Japan. Construction began in + 593, just decades after the religion reached the country's shores. One of the carpenters for Shitennoji, Shigemitsu Kongo, traveled to Japan from the Korean kingdom of Paekche (Paekje 百済) for the project. Over a millennium-and-a-half, Shitennoji has been toppled by typhoons and burned to the ground by lightning and civil war -- and Shigemitsu's descendants have supervised its seven reconstructions. Today, working out of offices that overlook the temple, Kongo Gumi Co. is run by 54-year-old president Masakazu Kongo, the 40th Kongo to lead the company in Japan. His business, started more than 1,410 years ago, is believed to be the oldest family-run enterprise in the world. <end Time Magazine quote>
Says author Reverend Ken Joseph Jr., in his book LOST IDENTITY: The official storyline says Prince Shōtoku prayed to the Buddhist deities Shitennou 四天王, the protector gods of the four directions) for victory in the battle with Mononobe and, having won the battle, he built Shitennouji 四天王寺 to commemorate the victory. But there is no independent evidence that this is true. In fact, there is a theory that this temple was originally not even a Buddhist temple at all but was in fact a type of Shinto Shrine called Tamatsukuri Inari Jinja 玉造稲荷神社. (Editor: Need to confirm the Inari Jinja part, as records state that the first Inari Jinja was constructed in + 711, and started by Hatano Kimiiroku, which is well after Shōtoku). According to the story handed down within that Shinto tradition, Prince Shoutoku visited the Tamatsukuri Inari Jinja to pray for victory. Thus, this version of the story has him praying not to Buddhist deities but to the Shinto Inari deities. It is claimed that he broke off a branch from a chestnut tree and plunged it into the ground saying, "If we are to win the battle, let new buds sprout from this branch." Interestingly, this sounds very reminiscent of a scene out of the Old Testament, where Aaron's staff sprouted buds (and even produced almonds) as a sign that God was with him. (Numbers 17:5-8). While not quite as dramatic as that, according to the Shinto story, the stick did produce new buds. At any rate, these two ancient accounts of Shitennouji are clearly at odds and cannot both be true. <end quote by Ken Joseph Jr., who argues that early Christianity, brought to Japan in the 4th and 5th centuries from Central Asia, profoundly influenced the philosophies of Prince Shōtoku. The author was born and raised in Japan, and is an active evangelist of the Christian faith.>
Pagoda & cherry blossom
at Shitennoji Temple
Daianji 大安寺. Originally named Kumagori Shōja 熊凝精舎 before moving several times to its final location in Nara. One of the Seven Great Temples of Nara. TEL: 072-238-1054 or 0742-61-6312.
Hondō 本堂 (Main Hall)
Open 7 Days Weekly, 9:00 am to 17:00 pm. During the early years of Buddhism in Japan, Priest Ekan 慧灌 taught Sanron philosophy at Daianji Temple, then a center of Sanron thought, and was the teacher of many other important monks. One of these was the Chinese monk Fukuryō 福亮 (Ch. = Fuliang). In +645, Fukuryō was designated one of Japan's Ten Teachers (十師). In +658, he lectured on the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa-sūtra 維摩經 at Yamashinadera 山階寺 (now known as Kōfukuji Temple 興福寺). This was an important +2nd-century Mahayana sūtra describing the life of Vimalakīrti, a rich man who treads the Bodhisattva path yet lives in the midst of worldly life. In future centuries, the sūtra was held in high esteem, especially among Zen sects, for it brought to light the value of both the lay life and the monastic life. Fukuryō's lecture marked the start of Kōfukuji’s tradition of holding Vimalakīrti-sūtra assemblies 維摩經會. Daianji Temple also served as the residence of Bodhisena 菩提仙那 (+704-760), an Indian monk who arrived in Nara in +733. A master of the Kegon school, and known for giving powerful incantations 呪術, he presided at the unveiling ceremony for the Great Buddha statue at Tōdaiji 東大寺 in +752, where he acted as the Brahman Supervising Monk 婆羅門僧正. This honor reflects, in part, the death of Tōdaiji director, Priest Gyōki (+668-749), who passed away shortly before the dedication ceremony for the Great Buddha statue in +752. Yet another celebrated monk was the Chinese master Tao Hsuan (Jp. = Dōsen, 702-760; Chn. = Dào Xuān), who spent a great deal of time at Daianji Temple and helped introduce the rules of monastic discipline to Japan (see Ritsu below). Tao-hsuan, who arrived in Japan around +736, is also credited with disseminating Kegon teachings in Japan, and having one of the best voices for chanting the Buddhist prayers -- it was he who chanted the dhāranī (magical incantations) at the dedication ceremony of the Great Buddha of Tōdaiji. Indeed, scholars believe he played a major role in the early development of Buddhist chanting in Japan. Tao Hsuan’s main disciple, Gyōhyō 行表 (+722-797), was Saichō’s teacher and preceptor. Saichō later founded the powerful Tendai sect. Tao-hsuan (of Japan fame) should not be confused with Tao-hsuan 道宣 of Chinese fame. The latter (+596-667) remained in China, where he became a great master of the vinaya (rules of the monastic code) and a noted historian. Daianji Temple 大安寺 also served as an important government-run workshop making Buddhist statues during the Nara period and early Heian era, and the rare statues remaining in its collection are known as "Daianji-yoshiki,” literally “in the Daianji style.” The name of the temple, Daianji 大安寺, means “great peace,” and even today, people visit here to pray for peace and happiness. But the temple, in fact, lies largely in ruins, and its once-great compound and structures are lost. Yet, the ruins to the east and west give visitors a sense of the temple’s grand stature and power during its heyday about 1,300 years ago.
Hossō School (Hosso, Hossou) 法相宗. One of the Six Schools of Nara. Mahāyāna sect introduced to Japan around +653. Known also as the “consciousness-only” or “mind-only” school in Japan (Jp. = Yuishikishou 唯識宗), and based on the ideas of Indian scholars Asanga (Jp. Muchaku 無著) and Vasubandhu (Jp. Seshin 世親), who thrived in the +4th century, and are considered important teachers of the Vijnanavadin (Yogācāra 瑜伽行派) school from India. According to Japanese tradition, there were six patriarchs (Hossō Rokuso 法相六祖) of the Hossō Sect in Japan. See photos below. The sect was especially important to Kōfukuji Temple 興福寺 (Nara) and Yakushiji Temple 薬師寺 (Nara), both among the Seven Great Temples of the Nara period, and both today still serving as the main temples of Japan’s Hossō sect. Each is a modern-day treasure house of artwork from those early centuries. Each is worthy of a long visit. Even more enticing for lovers of Buddhist artwork is Hōryūji Temple (Horyuji) 法隆寺 near Nara, also one of the Seven Great Temples. One of the oldest members of the Hossō sect, Hōryūji seceded from the Hossō denomination in 1950 and established the Shōtoku Sect 聖徳宗, in honor of the temple’s founder, the revered Prince Shōtoku (+ 574-621). Established in +607, Hōryūji is one of Japan’s greatest treasure houses, containing over 2,300 pieces of art, with nearly 190 designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties of Japan. Some of the oldest extant artwork in Japan comes from Hōryūji. In 1993, UNESCO named it a World Heritage site, making it Japan’s first-ever location to receive such an honor. See Asuka Art Tour page for photos of pieces in the Hōryūji collection.
Jp. = Muchaku 無著
Indian Patriarch of
H = 194.7 cm
Six Patriarchs of Japan’s Hossō School
Colored Wood, Dated +1189, H = 73.3 cm to 84.4 cm
National Treasures at Kōfukuji Temple 興福寺
Carved by Koukei, father of Unkei.
Top Row, L to R
Genpin 玄賓 (d. 818), Jōtō 常騰 (d. 815), Gyōga 行賀 (d. 803)
Bottom Row, L to R
Genbō 玄ぼう (d. 746), Shin'ei 神叡 (d. 737), Zenshu 善珠 (d. 797)
Kasō 嘉操 is sometimes included instead of Genbou.
Temples of Importance to Hossō School
Kōfukuji (Kofukuji, Koufukuji) Temple
One of Hossō (Hossou, Hosso) Sect’s main centers. One of the Seven Great Temples. 興福寺 ・ 法相宗 ・ 奈良市 ・ World Heritage Site. Founded in +669 in Yamashina Suehara (today’s Kyoto City) by the powerful Fujiwara 藤原 clan and named Yamashinadera 山階寺. It moved twice after that, once to Umayasaka (Nara prefecture) and then again, when the capital was transferred to Heijōkyō 平城京 (today’s Nara city), when it was renamed Kōfukuji Temple 興福寺. It is also sometimes referred to as Kasuga-ji or Kasuga Temple 春日寺, to differentiate it from the Fujiwara 藤原 family shrine, the famous Kasuga Taisha Shrine 春日大社 (also located in Nara), to which Kōfukuji Temple is closely related. Kōfukuji houses a rich collection of Buddhist art from the Nara era, including statues of the Six Japanese Patriarchs (see above photos), plus statues of Hossō’s Indian patriarchs, the brothers Asanga (Muchaku 無著) and Vasubandhu (Seshin 世親). The latter were carved by the famed Unkei. Also home to famous 5-story pagoda, last rebuilt in +1426. The Kasuga Mandara 春日曼荼羅 is a type of artwork that includes devotional paintings of the deities and landscape of Kasuga Taisha Shrine 春日大社 (founded in Nara in the 8th century), but it may also refer to the scenery and deities of Kōfukuji Temple. Koufukuji Temple also served as an important government-run workshop making Buddhist statues in the Nara and Heian era.
Open 7 days weekly. TEL: 0742-22-7755
Temple Web Site | Another Outside Link
Yakushiji Temple, Main Headquarters Hossō Sect. One of the Seven Great Temples. 薬師寺 ・ 法相宗 ・ 奈良市
World Heritage Site. Open 7 days weekly.
TEL: 0742-33-6001 Temple Web Site | Another Outside Link
Following paragraph adapted from Japan Nat’l Tourist Organization. Yakushi-ji Temple, adjoining Toshodai-ji, is the temple founded by Emperor Temmu in the 8th century, to pray for the recovery of his wife, the Empress Jito, from a life-threatening disease. In a strange twist of fate, the Emperor died, and the temple was finished by the Empress. The magnificently decorated main hall (Garan) was at one time called "the Dragon's Palace on Land". The East Tower (To-Tou) in the precincts is the original structure, which has been preserved ever since its foundation and is the symbol of Nishi-no-Kyo (the western capital). This famous temple, one of the Seven Great Temples of Nara and the headquarters of the Hosso sect, was constructed in + 698 in another section of Nara and moved to its present location in + 718. Yakushiji also served as an important government-run workshop making Buddhist statues during the Nara and Heian eras. It still retains a number of excellent wooden statues from those bygone days.
Hōryūji or Houryuuji 法隆寺. World Heritage Site. See listing above for details, contact numbers, and temple’s web site.
Kegon School 華厳宗 or 花嚴宗. One of the Six Schools of Nara. Mahāyāna sect of Buddhism based on the Garland Sutra (Kegon-kyō 華厳経) and the Chinese Huayen School (華厳) of Fa-tsang 法藏 (+643-712 AD). Introduced to Japan around +736 by the Chinese monk Tao Hsuan. The head temple of this sect, even today, is the famous Tōdaiji (Todaiji) Temple 東大寺 in Nara, one of Japan’s oldest and most influential temples, one that greatly impacted the development of Buddhism in Japan. Emperor Shōmu 聖武 (also spelled Shomu or Shoumu), who reigned from +724 to 749, ordered the establishment of a nationwide system of provincial monasteries (kokubunji 国分寺) and nunneries (kokubunniji 国分尼寺). Each provincial temple was directly answerable to the center of the country, with Tōdaiji Temple in Nara acting as the head of all state-established temples. The emperor turned especially to the teachings of the Kegon sect to form the basis of government. Kegon’s main scriptural authority is the Kegonkyō 華厳経 (Garland Sutra, Skt. = Avatamsaka Sutra), and the main object of Kegon veneration is Birushana Buddha 盧毘盧遮那仏 (Jp. = Rushan, Birushana; Skt. = Vairocana). One of Emperor Shōmu’s greatest artistic achievements was to order the construction of a giant effigy of Birushana, the so-called Great Buddha (Daibutsu) at Tōdaiji Temple. Legend contents that Emperor Shomu himself helped carry buckets of dirt during the construction of the giant bronze image of Birushana, which was reportedly finished in +752. At the time, it was considered the largest statue of its kind in the world. Priest Gyōki (+668-749), another luminary of the period, was instrumental in raising funds for the project. Another great achievement associated with Emperor Shōmu is the Shōsōin (Shousouin) 正倉院, a massive treasure-house of art collected by the emperor. The collection was donated to Tōdaiji in + 756 by Shōmu's widow, Empress Kōmyō 光明. Today, Tōdaiji’s main temple building is still reportedly the largest existing wooden structure in the world. Reconstructed in the mid-Edo Period (+1603-1867), it measures approximately 48 meters in height, 57 meters in width, and nearly 50 meters in depth. Tōdaiji also served as the official government ordination center (ordination platform), where novices and clergy received orthodox (state-approved) ordination as monks or nuns. This allowed the court to limit the number of men and women filling the ranks of the Buddhist clergy. See Ritsu below for more on ordinations.
Editor’s Note. Need to add section on other key sutras of the period, especially the Golden Spendor Sutra (Konkōmyō Saishō-ō kyō 金光明最勝王經) and the Lotus Sutra 法華経 (Hokke-kyō). See Groner. The Lotus Sutra was by far the most important sutra of the time, one that all aspiring monks had to memorize and be tested on before they could complete their monastic vows and join the priesthood. There was the Hokke Hakko (eight recitations of the Lotus Sutra), a ritual in which the eight scrolls of the Lotus Sutra were recited, usually in association with the memorial service; the Hokke Jikko (ten recitations of the Lotus Sutra), first established by Saicho in 798 on the anniversary of death of Chih-i, which covered the opening and closing scrolls in addition to the eight main scrolls of the sutra; the Hokke Sanjuko (thirty recitations of the Lotus Sutra), based on the chanting of the twenty-eight chapters of the sutra plus its closing and opening chapters; and the Hokke Choko (long recitation of the Lotus Sutra), a ritual performed first by Saicho in 809, which is in essence a prayer for the country's security accomplished by reading selected parts from the sutra. See Takagi, Heian jidai hokke bukkyoshi kenkyu, pp. 202-5. <See notes from Songs to Make the Dust Dance for above references.>
Temples of Importance to Kegon Sect
Tōdaiji (Toudaiji, Todaiji) 東大寺 in Nara. Name literally means Great Eastern Temple. Kegon 華厳 Headquarters. World Heritage Site. One of the seven great temples of Nara. Home of Great Buddha (Daibutsu) of Nara and other important artwork. The temple also served as an important government-run workshop making Buddhist statues, and became one of the country's largest and longest-running workshops. Open 7 days weekly. TEL: 0742-22-5511
Temple Web Site
Ritsu School (Ritsu-shū, Risshū) 律宗.
Monk Ganjin 鑑真
Tōshōdaiji Temple (Nara)
Colored Dry Lacquer
H = 80.1 cm
Nara Era, +8th Century
Note for Lovers of
Buddhist Art & Mythology
Ganjin 鑑真 (+688-763)
Chinese priest. Founded Japan’s Ritsu 律 sect but lost his eye sight trying to get to Japan. Ganjin enshrined an image of Senju Kannon (1000-armed Kannon) at his temple Tōshōdaiji 唐招提寺 in Nara. In Japan, Senju Kannon is still prayed to for relief from eye problems and blindness.
One of the Six Schools of Nara. Known as the Vinaya Sect, or School of Discipline. A form of Theravada Buddhism emphasizing adherence to the rules of monastic discipline (Skt. = vinaya) for both monks and nuns. Introduced to Japan around +754 by Chinese monk Jianzhen (Chien-chen) 鑑真. Called Ganjin (+688-763) in Japan, this vinaya master suffered five unsuccessful sea voyages to Japan, and lost his eye sight in the process. Once in Japan, Ganjin founded the Ritsu 律 sect at Tōshōdaiji 唐招提寺 Temple. Soon after his arrival, Emperor Shōmu 聖武 (reigned +724-749), who favored strong disciplinary rules for the Buddhist clergy, granted Ganjin permission to build a precepts platform for conducting orthodox state-approved (kaidan 戒壇) ordinations. This platform was built at Tōdaiji Temple, in front of the hall housing the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) image of Birushana / Rushana 盧毘盧遮那仏 (Skt. = Vairocana), and employed the Dharmagupta version (the Theravadin version) of the Vinaya, which is known in Japanese as Shibunritsu 四分律. Until the arrival of Ganjin and his disciples, there were never a sufficient number of qualified monks in Japan to perform orthodox ordinations (ten monks were required by strict Vinaya doctrines). Later, in +761, Japan’s court also approved ordination platforms at Yakushiji Temple 薬師寺 (in Shimotsuke) and at Kanzeonji 観世音寺 (in Chikuzen), making it easier for people from outlying provinces to pursue ordination. Saichō, the founder of Tendai Buddhism, was ordained at Tōdaiji, but later declared this Theravadin ordination invalid. Saichō instead developed a "bodhisattva ordination" platform according to Tendai teachings -- teachings more in line with Japan’s mainstream Mahāyāna philosophies. Saichō faced strong opposition, and his bodhisattva platform was not officially recognized by the imperial court until after his death. Interestingly, Ganjin considered himself a Mahāyānist, and believed that the Ritsu Sect was more properly considered part of the Mahāyāna tradition. Records by Ritsu monks in Saichō’s time say they did not cling one-sidedly to Theravadin teachings, and that the import of Ganjin’s precepts platform was essentially Mahāyānist, and included elements of the 梵綱経 (Chn. = Fan Wang Ching), one of the most popular sets of Bodhisattva ordination precepts in the Mahāyāna tradition). NOTE: The Ritsu sect attached great value to the “correct” performance of the ordination ceremony. But the sect failed to rise to prominence in Japan, most likely owing to the popularity of the Tendai ordination platform and the more flexible attitudes of the other Buddhist sects, who attached less value to the strict observance of rules than to the spirit behind the rules. In later centuries, the Ritsu sect did achieve some prominence with Eizon (+1201-1290) at Saidaiji Temple 西大寺 in Nara, but the form practiced became known as Shingon Risshu 真言律宗, with its main stronghold at Saidaiji Temple. Sources: Above paragraph adapted from various documents, especially Paul Groner’s “Saichō, The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School” (reprinted 2000 by University of Hawaii Press) and from the Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion, Shambhala, Boston.
Temples of Importance to Ritsu School
Tōshōdaiji (Toushoudaiji, Toshodaiji) 唐招提寺 in Nara
Ritsu Sect (Ritsu-shū, Risshū, Risshuu) 律宗 Headquarters. World Heritage Site. Houses statue of Ganjin and a dry-lacquer statue of Birashana Buddha over three meters high. TEL: 0742-33-7900
Outside Link Ganjin (Gabi Greve) | Outside Link Toshodaiji (JAL)
Saidaiji Temple 西大寺 in Nara. One of the seven great temples of Nara. Shingon Risshu Sect 真言律宗 Headquarters. Temple established +765. Saidaiji = lit. “Great Western Temple”
TEL: 0742-45-4700. Open seven days a week.
- Jōjitsu School (Joujitsu, Jojitsu) 成実宗. One of the Six Schools of Nara. Establishment of Truth School. A form of Theravada Buddhism from China based on the Sautrāntikas of Indian. The main text is the Satyasiddhi (lit. Perfection of Truth) by Harivarman (+4th century), a Buddhist scholar of India. The text was translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva 鳩摩羅什 (+344–413) around the +5th century. Introduced to Japan about +625 by the Korean monk Hyegwan (Jp. = Ekan 慧灌). Ekan resided at Gangōji Temple 元興寺 (one of seven great temples) and is credited with introducing both the Sanron and Jōjitsu schools to Japan. The Jōjitsu school believed the sutras alone presented the true teachings of the Historical Buddha, and rejected the Abhidharma (third part of the Buddhist Tripitaka canon). Although a distinct school in China, the Jōjitsu school in Japan was a scholastic branch that was never organized as an independent sect. It was instead considered a part of the Sanron tradition. Although studied by many, it never climbed to prominence.
Temples of Importance to Jōjitsu School
Gangōji, Gangouji, Gangoji 元興寺. World Heritage Site. One of the Seven Great Temples of Nara. This once-great temple was originally founded in +588 in the Asuka district (near present-day Nara) by the powerful Soga 蘇我 clan, then under the command of Soga no Umako 蘇我馬子. During those days, it was a vast compound (some 200 meters on each side) known as Asuka Dera 飛鳥寺, and it symbolized the growing power of the Soga 蘇我 clan and Prince Shōtoku Taishi in court affairs. A century later, when the capital moved to Heijōkyō 平城京 (today’s Nara city), the temple moved as well (around +718). But by then the usurping Sogo clan had been entirely eliminated, as had the family of Prince Shōtoku before them (the powerful Sogo clan forced Shōtoku’s son to commit suicide in +643, thus ending Shōtoku’s direct blood line). Most of the architecture of the relocated temple was lost or destroyed over the coming centuries, and only a few structures remain intact today. Modern-day Gangōji it is split into two temples, Gangōji Temple in Chuin-cho (Nara City) and a second temple with the same name in Shibanoshin-ya-cho (Nara City). The main hall (hondo) and Zen room (zenshitsu) at the former were reconstructed in the Kamakura period. Both are designated national treasures. As for the original Asuka Dera (built +588), it is still considered by most to be Japan's oldest temple, but its vast compound lies in ruins. Today it serves primarily as a major site of excavation, and as the home of Japan’s oldest “Big Buddha” statue, the famous Asuka Daibutsu.
Gangōji Temple in Nara.
Today part of the Shingon “esoteric” tradition
OPEN: Seven days a week.
Kusha School 倶舎宗. One of the Six Schools of Nara. Form of Theravada Buddhism based on the writings of Vasubandhu (Jp. = Seshin 世親), a Buddhist scholar from Indian during the +4th century. Its teachings are regarded as an offshoot of the Indian Sarvastivada school. Introduced to Japan around +658, the school’s doctrines are based on the text Abidatsuma Kusha Ron (Skt. = Abhidharma-kosa). The Kusha school was never established as an independent school in Japan. Rather, it was considered a sub-division of Japan’s Hossō sect. Vasubandhu is widely recognized as one of the patriarchs of the Hossō school.
Jp. = Seshin 世親
H = 191.6 cm
by Unkei 運慶
Asuka and Nara Periods +552 - 794
OTHER RELIGIOUS & PHILOSOPHICAL INFLUENCES
Shugendō 修験道. Loosely translated as "path of training to achieve spiritual powers." A major syncretic sect of Shinto, Taoist, and Buddhist beliefs that combined pre-Buddhist mountain worship and ascetic practices with esoteric Buddhist teachings in the hopes of achieving magical skills, medical powers, and long life. Practioners are called Shugenja 修験者 or Yamabushi 山伏, meaning ascetic monks or monks of the mountain, who perform fasting, meditation, and austere feats of endurance such as standing under cold mountain waterfalls or in the snow. One of the most celebrated mountain sages was En no Gyoja 役行者 (also known as En no Ozunu or En no Shoukaku 役小角, as well as En no Ubasoku 役優婆塞). His posthumous title is Shinben Daibosatu 神辺大菩薩 (Miraculous Great Bodhisattva). Artwork of En no Gyouja dates from the Kamakura period onward, and is found most frequently among temples of the Shingon sect, which was strongly influenced by Mt. Ōmine mountain asceticism. This legendary holy man was a mountain ascetic of the late 7th century. Like much about Shinto-Buddhist syncretism, his legend is riddled with folklore. He was a diviner at Mt. Katsuragi on the border between Nara and Osaka. Said to possess magical powers, he was expelled in +699 to Izu Prefecture for "misleading" the people and ignoring state restrictions on preaching among commoners. He is considered the father of Shugendo. Popular lore says En no Gyoja climbed and consecrated numerous sacred mountains. En no Gyoja is mentioned in old Japanese texts like the Shoku Nihongi 続日本紀 (compiled around +797) and the Nihon Ryouiki 日本霊異記 (compiled around +822). Shugendo's main centers of practice today are on Mt. Ōmine 大峰山 near Nara (also called Mt. Sanjo), and Mt. Kinpusen 金峯山 near Yoshino. The head temple at Mt. Omine is Ōminesanji 大峰山寺 and that at Mt. Kinpusen is Kinpusenji 金峯山寺, the latter venerating the sycretic deity Zao Gongen 金剛蔵王権現. Both temples are located near each other in the Yoshino-Kumano National Park in Kansai. The park area was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2004. Even today, women are forbidden to climb to the summit of Mt. Ōmine. The age-old tradition of banning women from certain holy sites was enforced widely in Japan until modern times, for women were considered disruptive to the monastic practices of the male practitioners. Among Buddhist deities worshipped by the Sugendou cult, Fudo Myou-ou is perhaps the most popular. During the late Heian era, Shugendou was incorporated into the two mainstream Buddhist schools of that day -- Shingon and Tendai -- and are known as the Honzan-ha (Tendai) and Tozan-ha (Shingon) branches of Shugendou. One particular practice of Shugendou monks was to set up stone or wood markers (Jp. = Hide 碑伝) along mountain trails, presumably to leave proof of their mystical journeys up the mountain. One of the main Shugendou texts, of dubious origin, is a sutra entitled "Sutra on the Unlimited Life of the Threefold Body."
Temples of Importance to Shugendō
This exceptional site, by Craig Emmott, records the author's ongoing effort to photograph places featured in The Tale of Genji and other Heian-era diaries and chronicles, mainly in the area around Kyoto and Nara. The site covers 200+ temples and shrines, accompanied with commentary and numerous photos. Highly recommended.
Emmott’s Pages on the Seven Great Temples of Nara
OFFICIAL WEB SITES OF THE NARA TEMPLES
Japanese language only. Some temples don’t host web sites.
OTHER ONLINE RESOURCES
- A Japanese Curriculum of 758, by Ross Bender and Zhao Lu.
Abstract: In an edict (choku) of 758, the Empress Kōken ordered a curriculum for the students at the National Academy. It listed seven fields of study and the Chinese works to be studied in each field. These include well-known classics and some that are much more obscure. This list provides perhaps the most detailed view available of the official curriculum of study in mid-Nara Japan.
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Last Update November 2010