Buddhist philosophy, Japanese

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

4. Universal and particular (cont.)

Many Indian Mahāyāna sūtras teach that all sentient beings possess the nature of Buddha. The Lotus Sutra proclaims further that the historical Buddha is not a man who attained awakening but rather is a manifestation of the universal buddhahood that is available to all. It rejected schemes that differentiated levels of potential in beings and that excluded the lowest level from eventual enlightenment. Saichō advocated universal buddhahood, based on the language of the Lotus Sutra. Universal buddhahood and ‘becoming Buddha in this very body’ are ideas based on the notion of hongaku, the Chinese doctrine that all beings are ‘originally or inherently awakened’. Inherent enlightenment, in contrast to ‘acquired enlightenment’, is timeless and independent of spiritual development. For some contemporary scholars such as Tamura Yoshirō, the hongaku idea is definitive not only of Buddhism in medieval Japan but of Japanese culture in general, since it underlies the ideals of equality, harmony and conformity (Tamura 1987).

The ideas of inherent and acquired enlightenment do not form logical contraries, since both depend upon the buddha-nature in all beings, but rather pose a practical question: how is this innate enlightenment related to practice? Legend has it that Dōgen encountered this question in his boyhood Tendai training and made it an existential problem: why undergo rigorous practice when we are endowed with ‘dharma nature’ by birth? Dōgen’s answer is thought to be a criticism of the hongaku idea, but can also be seen as its limit. He proposed ‘the unity of practice and realization’: ‘The dharma [truth] is not manifested unless one practices; it is not attained unless there is realization’ (Shōbōgenzōbendōwa). The practice of concentrated mind–body, epitomized in zazen or seated meditation, is a way to actualize our inherent nature. In §1 above, Dōgen’s words were quoted: ‘As for the Buddha Way, not to voice it is impossible…’ and this sentence concludes: ‘not to study [practice] it is remote.’ Dōgen thus collapses the distinction between practice as means and enlightenment as end. Instead, zazen, the practice of awakening, becomes the manifestation of enlightenment.

Like Dōgen, other Kamakura Period Buddhist reformers reacted against the complacency encouraged by the idea of original enlightenment, but modified rather than rejected it. For Hōnen and Shinran the only ‘practice’ that counts is the nembutsu or invocation of the Buddha Amida. In his form as the Bodhisattva Dharmakara, Amida enunciated a primal vow that made his enlightenment contingent on that of all sentient beings. Those with sincere faith in Amida’s vow were assured of rebirth in the Pure Land, where final enlightenment will be possible. In the original story, countless lifetimes elapse before Dharmakara becomes Amida Buddha, but the logic of the conditions may suggest a non-dual, timeless relation: since Amida Buddha is indeed here to save us, our liberation need only be actualized in this moment. Some writings of Shinran explicitly suggest that to recollect Amida Buddha with a believing mind (shinjin) is already to actualize buddhahood, without waiting to be reborn in the Pure Land. Moreover, this entrusting invocation is strictly speaking not a practice at all; that is, it is not accomplished through one own efforts or ‘self-power’ but rather is a gift of Amida, a result of Amida’s ‘other-power’. Ippen stated that ‘the nembutsu is what recites the nembutsu’. Although faith in personal effort is considered futile, as in some interpretations of inherent enlightenment, true reality must be activated by personal faith. This again is a variation on the theme of the actualization of reality (see Faith; Salvation).

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