Buddhist philosophy, Japanese

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

5. Universal and particular (cont.)

The idea of universal buddhahood supported both syncretistic tendencies in Japanese Buddhism and the equality of all beings. The first undermined any ultimate difference between Buddhist and Shintō objects of veneration, and the second any difference between the human and natural worlds, or what we today call culture and nature.

Syncretistic tendencies were formalized in the theory of honji suijaku. This theory regarded indigenous Shintō deities (kami) as trace manifestations (suijaku) of buddhas and bodhisattvas, who were their original ground or true nature (honji). The theory appears to establish a hierarchical relationship, with the bodhisattvas as more basic and important than the kami, and thus Buddhism as more fundamental than Shintō. This interpretation implies that the Shintō gods cannot exist without the Buddhist ideal beings. It not only reverses the historical order of their appearance in Japan; it misplaces the emphasis. In fact, the honj–suijaku theory often worked to set the two realms and their objects of veneration on a par with one another. If a kami functioned as a trace or attribute of a bodhisattva, the particular bodhisattva was best manifested in the kami. The reality of the one depended upon that of the other. This interdependence was explicit in a Tendai version of honji suijaku theory according to which the true nature could only be perceived in its manifestations. A fourteenth-century Shintō school simply reversed the order of bodhisattva and kami. Moreover, specific Buddhist and Shintō ideal beings are sometimes identified with one another and then contrasted with other pairs. In the twentieth century, a ‘new religion’ called Gedatsukai in effect identifies the Buddha Mahāvairocana and the Shintō deity Tenjinchigi as honji, and gives other Buddhist-Shintō deities the status of suijaku. These examples illustrate that the accessibility of ideal beings was more important than any rank order, which was historically variable (see Shintō).

The theory of original ground and trace manifestation was developed in the late Heian Period (794–1185), contemporaneous with the idea of inherent enlightenment. Yet the underlying association of Shintō and Buddhism is evident much earlier and lasted until much later. At the very beginning of Japanese Buddhism, the Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan) report that the Emperor Yōmei (d. 587) ‘believed in the Law of the Buddha and reverenced the Way of the Gods’. Yet the name ‘Way of the Gods’ (Shintō) was a Chinese, quasi-Buddhist concept. In effect, Buddhism prevailed and was established as the state religion, at least temporarily, through the efforts of Yōmei’s sister, Empress Suiko, and especially of his son, Prince Shōtoku, who wrote commentaries on sūtras and built temples (see Shōtoku Constitution). In the Nara Period (710–81), Shintō shrines were incorporated into Buddhist temples in order to protect land interests, and Buddhist altars built near shrines ensured the protection of Shintō. At one locale the god of war, Hachiman, was named the Bodhisattva Daijizaiten in 783; at others he was associated with different bodhisattvas. In the ninth century, Kūkai proposed a ‘dual aspect’ theory that, for example, identified the sun goddess Amaterasu with Mahāvairocana, the Buddha of Great Illumination, whom Kūkai further identified with the dharmakāya or truth-body of Buddha. Although Tokugawa Period (1600–1868) nativists such as Motoori Norinaga reasserted the superiority of indigenous Shintō, the Buddhist inclusion of Shintō was not effectively challenged on a national scale until the early Meiji government’s policies (in the 1870s) of ‘separating gods and buddhas’, persecuting Buddhism and establishing State Shintō. Religion and state have had separate legal status since the Second World War, but Buddhist and Shintō teachings and customs still coexist in Japanese family life.

Japanese Buddhist thought extended the idea of universal buddhahood to the equality of all beings. In particular, the idea of inherent enlightenment lent support to the doctrine of the Buddha-nature of non-sentient beings that is often alluded to in medieval Japanese literature. It was both Tendai and Nichiren doctrine that the grass and trees – in other words, beings not possessed of a sensitive mind – can become buddhas: ‘Grasses, trees, mountains and rivers all attain buddhahood’ became a frequent saying in medieval Buddhist texts. A chapter of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō quotes the enlightenment verse of Chinese poet Su Dongpo:

  • The sounds of the valley streams are His long, broad tongue;

  • The forms of the mountains are His pure body.

  • At night I heard the myriad sūtra-verses uttered

  • How can I relate to others what they say?

(Cook 1989: vii)

For Dōgen, this verse provides one answer to the questions, ‘where is buddha?’, ‘what is buddha?’ and ‘how does he preach?’ The preaching of nonsentient beings, a frequent theme in Dōgen, is echoed earlier in the poetry of Saigyō. It expands Dōgen’s view of ‘expression’ (discussed in §1) to the world of nature. Whether the traditional Japanese love of nature preceded or succeeded the absolute significance accorded to the phenomenal world cannot be determined.

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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