Buddhist philosophy, Japanese

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G101-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 21, 2021, from

2. Doctrine and truth

When early readers began to understand Buddhist texts as expressions of doctrines, and implicitly to grasp written language as signs signifying ideas, they came to understand the world in terms of formerly unseen relations. The Buddhist categories they applied were Chinese translations of Sanskrit terms, and this usage remained predominant even after modern Japanese scholars turned to Indian sources. The categories included names for the basic factors or elements of existence and the relations of cause and effect, conditioned and unconditioned, part and whole, relative and absolute.

The first systematic study of these categories and relations occurred in the so-called six schools of Nara, during the historical period of the same name (710–81). These ‘schools’ were more bodies of doctrine than independent sects with their own adherents. Often the doctrines were studied together in the same locale, such as the great temple Tōdaiji. The Japanese version of the Indian Abhidharmakośa school stressed the analysis of some seventy five conditioned and unconditioned constituents (dharmas) of existence and some ten types of direct and indirect causes that give rise to the conditioned factors.

As abstract as it appears, this analysis was intended as a kind of psychological examination to remove obstacles on the path to liberation. The Jōjitsu (Establishment of Truth) school proceeded to show the emptiness, or lack of substantial reality, of all constituents. The Ritsu (Precept) school conveyed very specific ethical and administrative rules to regulate the ordination and life of monks and nuns, and taught that the observance of precepts was one purification necessary for enlightenment. As discussed below, however, it did not provide an ethical theory or general principles for determining good and evil (see §6).

The Sanron (Three Treatises) school derived from Indian Mādhyamika philosophy (see Buddhism, Mādhyamika: India and Tibet). It practiced the refutation of all claims of the existence or non-existence, truth or falsity, of separate elements and doctrines. The discursive language used to refute all views ultimately pointed to its own limit, beyond which lay absolute truth. The Hossō school formed the scholastic counterpart to Indian Yogācāra or ‘consciousness-only’ philosophy (see Buddhism, Yogācāra school of). It criticized the Mādhyamika tendency to absolutize emptiness, explained the role of consciousness in the appearance of self and world, and taught that enlightenment requires a conversion of the deep unconsciousness, called the ‘storehouse’ consciousness. It rejected the teaching that enlightenment is equally attainable by all. The sixth school, the Kegon (Flower Garland), was historically no more influential than these last two, but introduced a principle crucial to an understanding of the treatment of doctrines and truth in subsequent Japanese Buddhism.

The Nara schools took over doctrines and analyses from their Chinese counterparts virtually without change. These doctrines were partially incompatible with each other, but the discrepancies seemed little cause for dispute. Various doctrines and categories show up in later Japanese Buddhist philosophy, often as a foil for more innovative ideas. An example is the way the Abhidharma breakdown of reality and time forms the springboard of one chapter of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, ‘Ocean Reflecting Samādhi’. This work first accepts the Abhidharma analysis of the causal arising of all elements but then disrupts it to proclaim the totality and sufficiency of each moment. In general, the failure of scholastic doctrines to challenge later generations of Japanese Buddhist thinkers is a sign that the latter have been more at home with practical reasoning and reconciliation than with formal argumentation and adjudication of claims. Indeed, until its introduction from the West there was in Japan no formal logic, where the rules of validity are separable from the content of the argument (see Logic in Japan). This lack does not necessarily point to a deficiency in the ability to reason, however, but may have to do with a way of relating absolute and relative, universal and particular. The philosophy of the Kegon school best epitomizes that way.

The Kegon school accounted for the variety of doctrines by placing them in a scheme of increasing difficulty and comprehensiveness. The level of the teachings matches the hearer’s capacity to understand. Partial teachings, in other words, are ‘skillful means’ designed to lead one to more difficult and comprehensive teachings. The Kegon school typifies the inclusion characteristic of much of Japanese and Chinese Buddhist thought. One Buddhist school would incorporate rather than exclude the doctrines of rival schools, but would regard them as incomplete and place them on a lower level. To be sure, the hermeneutic of inclusion was often politically motivated, intended to increase a power base by incorporating and not alienating other groups; but it also followed the dialectical principle that rival or alternative beliefs were partial truths that fit into a larger scheme.

The Kegon scriptural hermeneutic privileged its own source sūtras and was rivalled by a similar scheme offered in the tremendously influential Lotus Sutra, but it developed a philosophy of totality and interrelation crucial for understanding most Japanese Buddhist thinking. According to this philosophy, each part or constituent of reality perfectly reflects the whole, and the whole depends upon each and every constituent part. All individual parts are therefore equivalent as conditions of the whole, and at the same time they are distinct and interdependent. The implications of this philosophy of nature for a theory of truth are the key to approaching Japanese Buddhist thought. There is no whole, universal or absolute, without its manifestation in concrete, distinct and relative particulars. In the twentieth century, Nishida Kitarō reformulated this principle paradoxically: the more relative a truth is – that is, the more deeply embedded or embodied in particulars – the more absolute it is. The absolute must encompass the relative, not stand in opposition to it. In general, Japanese Buddhist philosophy developed through a kind of synecdochic argumentation that appealed not to a priori reasons or empirical evidence, nor simply to scriptural sources of authority, but to this mutual accommodation of relative and absolute.

Citing this article:
Maraldo, John C.. Doctrine and truth. Buddhist philosophy, Japanese, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G101-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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