Buddhism was adhered to by aristocrats at the capital and by royalty, beginning with Empress Suiko, toward the end of the 500s. Buddhism became the state religion, and its powers were called upon to protect the Japanese nation. Buddhist monasteries were built. The head of the Nakatomi family continued to serve as the state's Shinto high priest. The Nakatomi were compelled to tolerate Buddhism, and Shinto continued to be a part of official state functions. Buddhist doctrine and Shinto began influencing each other. The Buddha became identified with the Sun Goddess of Shinto worship, and Buddhist ceremonies were woven into traditional court ritual.
The head of the Nakatomi family continued to run daily court ceremonies – still adhering to their belief that the Yamato family was directly descended from the original king, Jimmu and Jimmu's ancestor, the Sun Goddess. Under Nakatomi influence the actual power of the Yamato emperor declined generally, with emperors occasionally trying to re-assert Yamato control.
Japan was growing economically, with aristocratic families growing in wealth and buying more land. Buddhist temples were also amassing wealth and buying more land. Land reclamation favored the wealthy, who could afford the costs involved. Less land was available to the common farmer – repeating what had occurred in Han China. And tax exemptions were given to the most influential families. Good works, however, were done by the Buddhists. Dedicated to serving common people, Buddhists initiated public works such as the founding of charity hospitals, free clinics, free lodging houses, orphanages and old people's homes. Perhaps the spirit of good deeds played a small role in inspiring government projects such as building bridges, excavating canals, improving irrigation and building harbors. And Buddhism was viewed with awe for its inspiring good deeds and for its powers of magic in warding off calamity.
The Buddhists in Japan continued to see the material world as illusory, holding that reality was one's own consciousness. Nevertheless, Buddhist monasteries had their own armies and were unscrupulous in making alliances. As readers of Chinese, some Buddhist monks became expert in administration and technical matters, such as engineering, and these monks served Japan much as the Latin reading clergy served in medieval Europe.
Buddhism in Japan was accommodating feudalism. For some peasants calamity was an overwhelming reality. Common peasants went into debt and if they could not repay their debts they were held in bondage or as slaves. Some peasants escaped to frontier areas. Some became vagrants, and some joined other peasants in working on great estates. The one-tenth or so of the population that became slaves were the possession of government bureaucrats, landlords and Buddhist temples. The main concern of the court nobility, meanwhile, was ritual and ceremony. There, orchestras with string and percussion instruments played. People danced and wore brilliant costumes and fanciful masks.
At the capital city a great bronze Buddhist statue was being built at the monestary-temple Todaiji, to remain Japan's largest wooden building, founded by the emperor, Shomu. The statue was to represent the deity Vairocana, in Japanese: Birushana. Vairocana is considered the universal aspect of the historical Siddartha Gautama and seen as the embodiment of the Buddhist concept of shunyata – emptiness. The statue consumed most of the bronze that Japan was producing and employed many thousands in its construction – 2,600,000 according to legend, which must be an exaggeration because this would have been nearly half the people in Japan at the time. Construction costs left Japan almost bankrupt.
During the construction, Emperor Shomu's daughter had succeeded to power, to become known as the Empress Koken. She had taken Buddhist vows and brought Buddhist priests into court, and the great Buddhist statue was dedicated. But her reign was something other than the tranquility aspired to by Buddhists. She abdicated in 758 on the advice of her cousin, Fujiwara Nakamaro, and she was succeeded by the emperor Junnin. Junnin was murdered, and in 764 Empress Koken re-ascended the throne, with a new name: Empress Shotoku. She appears to have fallen in love with a Buddhist monk, Kokyo, with whom she was rumored to share the same pillow. Empress Shotoku promoted Kokyo as her chief minister. She commissioned the printing of one million prayer charms and may have wanted to make Kokyo emperor. Nara society was shocked. The Fujiwara family stepped in and by 770 she was out of power, and that same year she died. Henceforth women were to be exempted from imperial succession. And Buddhist monks were removed from the offices they held.
The new emperor, Kammu, wished to be free of influence from the Buddhist monasteries around Nara. In 784 he moved his court thirty-five miles northwest to Nagaoka, where a new palace and royal court were built in five months by 300,000 men. To defray the expense of the move, taxes were increased, a burden felt by the peasantry.
Bad omens appeared at the new capital in the form of frequent epidemics and the death of the heir, and it was believed that his spirit had to be placated. So in 794, after only ten years at Nagaoka, the capital was moved again, to Heian-kyo – which means "Capital of Peace and Tranquility." Eventually, in the eleventh century, accompanying the failure of peace and tranquility, the capital was to be renamed Kyoto (pronounced KYOH-toe rather than Key-oh-toe) – which means "capital city."
While cutting ties with Buddhism, the emperor Kammu restored the system of government laws called the Ritsu Ryo. Buddhism was now forbidden to interfere in secular government matters, but its religious functions were encouraged.
Copyright © 2009-2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.