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The Main Religion of the Heian Period

Two Buddhist sects, Tendai and Shingon, dominated religion in the Heian period. The word tendai means heavenly platform, and the word shingon means true word. Both of them belonged to the Mahayana, Great Vehicle, branch of Buddhism originating in India, and both of them were imported from China by the Japanese court at the beginning of the ninth century. In their new surroundings, the sects came to terms with the change from the centralized monarchy of early Heian times to aristocratic familism.

Together the spread throughout the countryside, absorbing Shinto in the process, and became a fruitful ource of artistic inspiration. In those years, two prominent scholar-monks, Saicho and Kukai, each at the height of his powers, returned to Japan from a period of study in China. Saicho, the founder of Tendai Buddhism, was born in 767 in the province of Omi into Mitsuomi family, who were originally immigrants from China. His father was such a devout Buddhist that their house was turned into a temple.

At the age of 12, Saicho entered the Kokubunji monastery of Omi and became a disciple of Gyohyo where he received his first ordination at the age of 14 (in 785 C. E. ) His life was relatively uneventful up until this point, until he received his complete ordination at the age of 19. Then, three months after his ordination he went to live in a small hermitage on Mountain In 788, Saicho established the Hienzanji temple where the carved image of Yakushi the healing Buddha is a central image.

It was sometime during this period that he began studying Ti’en-t’ai scriptures. As a devoutly religious idealist, Saicho was very impressed by the undiscriminating and universal aspects of Ti’en T’ai and thought the Teachings would be a welcome change to the somewhat sterile theology of the Six Nara The mood of the Nara sects was scholastic rather than devotional, and the major Nara practices were magical rites to improve memory or to expand the mind for study, and on occasion to impress the aristocracy.

These were far from the daily devotional exercises found in the writings of Chih-i, the founder of Chinese Ti’en-t’ai. In 802, in favoring monks like Saicho, Emperor Kammu doubtless intended to strengthen the States control over ecclesiastical affairs. Apart from any immediate hecks to the political power of the Nara Monks, the move to a new capital marked a fresh start in religion as well as politics. In Nara, the monks had taught the higher arts of civilization and government to the dynasty and its ruling elite.

In Kyoto, the imperial house and bureaucracy were to be the sponsors rather than pupils of Buddhism. Saicho himself enthusiastically argued that religion should not only submit to the political authorities but also actively help them in their task of administration. A patriot at heart, he held that monks should be ready to put their learning and special skills at the isposal of the national community. Partly to enable them to do this, he insisted that his followers study, as he himself had done, all the variously teaching of Buddhism.

As a result, Tendai came to be the most scholarly of the sects and Hieizan the seat of Japanese These two principles, of partnership with the state, and stress on education, are illustrated by some of the rules Saicho framed for his pupils. Students shall be appointed to positions in keeping with their achievements after twelve years training and study. Those who are capable in both action and speech hall remain permanently on the mountain as leaders of the nation, and those capable in action but not in speech shall be the functionaries of the nation.

Teachers and functionaries of the nation shall be appointed with official licenses as Transmitters of Doctrine and National Lecturers. They shall also serve in such undertakings which benefit the nation and people as the repair of ponds and canals, the reclamation of uncultivated land, the reparation of landslides, the construction of bridges and ships, the planting of trees, the sowing of hemp and grasses, and the igging of wells and irrigation ditches.

They shall also study the Sutras, and cultivate their minds, but shall not engage in private agriculture or trading. Two lay intendants will be appointed to this Tendai monastery to supervise it alternately, and to keep out robbers, liquor and women. Thus the Buddhist Law will be upheld and the nation However, Tendai was never simply a branch of the public service that happened to be organized as a religion. The document quoted makes it clear that while its monks had a duty to the world, they were not to be of the world.

Neither Saicho nor the later leaders of the sect doubted that a monk? fundamental business remained what it always had been: self-guidance through study and moral discipline to a state of spiritual enlightenment where he would cease to be reborn (nirvana). They also agreed with the older sects in thinking that this individualistic vocation could best be fulfilled in a monastery. There, the seeker after truth would find books and instructions as well as the bare necessities of food, Where Tendai did differ from the Nara sects was in its actual doctrine.

It was the irst fully Mahayana (Great Vehicle) teaching in Japan and with Shingon, eclipse the older Hinayana (Small Vehicle) teaching found at Nara. In other words, since about the end of the tenth century, Japanese Buddhism has been very largely one or other school of Mahayana Buddhism developed in India and China over the period 100-600 A. D. Having many branches and much subtle philosophy, it is a vast and complicated field of study. However, one can say that both Tendai and Shingon retained the Hinayana concepts of rebirth (karma), monasticism, and self-effort.

Man was fated to suffer in existence for so long as he remained attached to an illusory, sinful world and to his own selfish desires. The only way he could escape was to listen to the Buddhist message, enter a monastery, and once there learn to rid himself of any sense of attachment. To this stock of basic ideas the Mahayana Buddhists added some equally important dogmas of their One of these was the bodhisattva ideal. Bodhisattvas were a class of exceptional beings who had acquired sufficient merit to enter nirvana, but had given up this reward in he interests of help9ing others along the path to enlightenment.

The role of bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism is similar to that of saints in Christianity. It was believed that a bodhisattva would increase the spiritual purity and welfare of those who prayed to him. This idea is known technically as the doctrine of the transfer of merit, and was quite contrary to the strict Hinayana insistence on the monk? achieving nirvana through his own determination and without any outside help. As a religious ideal, the bodhisattva stood for compassion and service to others rather than for self.

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