Buddhist philosophy, Japanese

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G101-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

Buddhism transformed Japanese culture and in turn was transformed in Japan. Mahāyāna Buddhist thought entered Japan from the East Asian continent as part of a cultural complex that included written language, political institutions, formal iconography and Confucian literature. From its introduction in the sixth century through to the sixteenth century, Japanese Buddhism developed largely by incorporating Chinese Buddhism, accommodating indigenous beliefs and reconciling intersectarian disputes. During the isolationist Tokugawa Period (1600–1868), neo-Confucian philosophy and Dutch science challenged the virtual hegemony of Buddhist ways of thinking, but served more often as alternative and sometimes complementary models than as incompatible paradigms. Only since the reopening of Japan in 1868 has Japanese Buddhist thought seriously attempted to come to terms with early Indian Buddhism, Western thought and Christianity.

Through the centuries, Buddhism gave the Japanese people a way to make sense of life and death, to explain the world and to seek liberation from suffering. When it engaged in theorizing, it did so in pursuit of religious fulfilment rather than of knowledge for its own sake. As an extension of its practical bent, Japanese Buddhist thought often tended to collapse differences between Buddhism and other forms of Japanese religiosity, between this phenomenal world and any absolute realm, and between the means and end of enlightenment. These tendencies are not Japanese in origin, but they extended further in Japan than in other Buddhist countries and partially define the character of Japanese Buddhist philosophy.

In fact, the identity of ‘Japanese Buddhist philosophy’ blends with almost everything with which we would contrast it. As a development and modification of Chinese traditions, there is no one thing that is uniquely Japanese about it; as a Buddhist tradition, it is characteristically syncretistic, often assimilating Shintō and Confucian philosophy in both its doctrines and practices. Rituals, social practices, political institutions and artistic or literary expressions are as essential as philosophical ideas to Japanese Buddhism.

Disputes about ideas often arose but were seldom settled by force of logical argument. One reason for this is that language was used not predominately in the service of logic but for the direct expression and actualization of reality. Disputants appealed to the authority of Buddhist sūtras because these scriptures were thought to manifest a direct understanding of reality. Further, as reality was thought to be all-inclusive, the better position in the dispute would be that which was more comprehensive rather than that which was more consistent but exclusive. Politics and practical consequences did play a role in the settling of disputes, but the ideal of harmony or conformity often prevailed.

The development of Japanese Buddhist philosophy can thus be seen as the unfolding of major themes rather than a series of philosophical positions in dispute. These themes include the role of language in expressing truth; the non-dual nature of absolute and relative, universal and particular; the actualization of liberation in this world, life or body; the equality of beings; and the transcendent non-duality of good and evil.

    Citing this article:
    Maraldo, John C.. Buddhist philosophy, Japanese, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G101-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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