Buddhist philosophy, Japanese

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

3. Universal and particular

Three interrelated themes display the mutual accommodation of relative and absolute, universal and particular: the locus of liberation, its actuality and the equality of beings.

Indian Mahāyāna sūtras introduced the idea that liberation does not lead to a transcendent realm different from this world, but they often spoke of the ‘three immeasurable eons’ required for its attainment. In contrast, many seminal Buddhist thinkers in Japan developed one Chinese view of the locus of liberation: the idea of becoming a buddha in this very body (sokushin jōbutsu). For Saichō (767–822), the founder of the Tendai school, it meant only a partial realization of buddhahood; but by the time of Tendai scholar Annen (841–89?) it referred to buddhahood attained in this very life. Kūkai (774–835), founder of the rival Shingon school, taught that yogic practices involving body (mudras or symbolic hand gestures), speech (mantras) and mind (mental concentration and visualizations) could unify the practitioner with the Buddha Mahāvairocana. Such practices made it possible to attain buddhahood in this very body. This doctrine, popularized by Kūkai, provided a theoretical basis for the bodily aspects of practice and the enactment of rituals that were important especially in the esoteric traditions of Tendai and Shingon Buddhism.

In summary, the idea of becoming a buddha in this very body or life involved a temporal and a metaphysical reduction. First, it collapsed the various stages of the path to enlightenment that were so important in various Buddhist traditions, and reduced the ‘three immeasurable eons’ to one lifetime. Second, it collapsed any remnant of a difference between the physical reality of life on earth and a transcendent realm, between the transient human body and the transcendent dharma-body. The body we are born with is the site of realization and symbolically embodies the entire universe, the ‘truth-body’ of the Buddha. Dōgen modified the idea further and proclaimed that ‘this very mind is buddha’ (sokushin zebutsu) when the discursive mind was disengaged. Although Dōgen speaks of ‘mind’ and not body, no psychophysical dualism is implied here.

Other Buddhist reformers of the Kamakura period (1192–1333) qualified the idea that liberation was possible in this world or life. Hōnen and Shinran placed this possibility in the Pure Land, which they usually considered as immediately accessible if intermediate between this world and the realm of final enlightenment. Even where it was imagined as a different world, this Pure Land was not nearly so remote a goal as Indian views of nirvāṇa, and was sometimes in effect made immanent in this world. Ippen explicitly stated that the Pure Land was indeed identical with this world. Nichiren too emphasized this world as the locus of salvation.

The affirmation of this world in Japanese thought is often called phenomenalism (see Phenomenalism), but this description neglects the principle or absolute said to interpenetrate all phenomena. One tenet of Kegon philosophy was that ‘principles are not impeded by things’ (rijimuge). Tendai Buddhism stressed the Mahāyāna doctrine of the ‘identity of the phenomenal and the real’ (genshōzoku jissō), and proposed that the phenomena of the world are aspects of Buddha. Dōgen wrote that the ‘true reality’ (jissō) is in fact all things, and that birth and death (impermanence) (see Mujō) is Buddha or nirvāṇa. To understand these developments in Japanese Buddhism, however, one needs to consider the question of the actuality of liberation.

Citing this article:
Maraldo, John C.. Universal and particular. 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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