Japanese philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G100-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 23, 2017, from

4. Medieval philosophical anthropology: Pure Land Buddhism

During the Heian period the highly literate and elegant culture of the Kyoto court was at its peak. The aesthetically pleasing rituals of esoteric Buddhism found a receptive audience among the aristocrats and clergy. They alone enjoyed the leisure time, education and resources to devote their lives to its study and practice. The general populace were left to their folk religions, an amalgamation of practices with roots in Buddhism, Shintō and Daoist alchemy.

By the early twelfth century, the court had become so politically effete that the provincial aristocracy began to vie for power and the newly risen samurai fought for control of territory. Plagues, famines and earthquakes were also unusually devastating. In short, to any sensitive observer of the times, it was easy to see the decadence of the social order, the harshness of nature and the corruption of the human spirit. There was little time for, or consolation in, metaphysical speculations. The philosophers turned their analyses to this world and their imaginations to wondering what failing in humanity had caused such suffering. By 1185 the Minamoto clan was victorious and in 1192 Yoritomo became shōgun, establishing his centre of government in Kamakura. Thus began the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and a new set of philosophical and religious orientations.

The Kamakura period philosophers such as Hōnen (1133–1212), Shinran (1173–1262), Yōsai or Eisai (1141–1215), Dōgen (1200–53) and Nichiren (1222–82) responded to the decay and suffering of their times. Each developed his own interpretation of the human predicament with an accompanying solution. All had originally trained as Tendai monks, but these reformers eventually left the establishment and founded new Buddhist sects that served the masses as well as the elite echelons of Japanese society. Of the Kamakura schools of Buddhism, Pure Land and Zen have been the most influential in their theories of human being. Shinran was the founder of Shin Buddhism or the ‘True Pure Land School; Dōgen was the founder of Sōtō Zen. Each developed most fully the philosophical foundations for his own tradition (see Buddhist philosophy, Japanese).

These two schools differ radically in their philosophical anthropologies. As Buddhists, both Shinran and Dōgen accepted the general Buddhist analysis about the source of ignorance: egoism. Egoism defines the self as an independent agent that initiates actions and has experiences. The Buddhist view, on the other hand, maintains that ‘I’ is no more than a name for related actions and events, not something that lies behind them. This implies that the boundaries of the self are fuzzy rather than sharply delineated. For example, from a distance we can readily identify the general course of a river, but if we move up close enough, we cannot specify exactly where the river ends and the river bank begins. If the river were self-conscious and tried to specify for itself ‘my’ boundaries as opposed to ‘its’ boundaries, the river would lose sight of the very processes that bring it into being and help define it. Analogously, Buddhists generally maintain that egoism, by attempting to define, delineate and protect the self, ignores the self’s broader context. It overlooks the self’s dependence on what egoism considers to be outside and separate from it.

As a disciple of Hōnen, the founder of the Japanese Pure Land School, Shinran also accepted the specific ideas of that tradition, including the theory that humanity had entered a degenerate period in history. Left to our own devices, we are presumed to be doomed to live and relive an existence of anguish, dissatisfaction and despair. Pure Land Buddhists believe, however, that a celestial buddha called Amida has seen our situation and taken pity on us. He has vowed that if we entrust ourselves totally to his compassion and call on his name, we can be assured rebirth in his Pure Land where the conditions are conducive to Buddhist practice. In his Pure Land we can perform the necessary spiritual disciplines and then return to this world to attain enlightenment. In so doing, we can be a spiritual aid to others in this world. Such was the basic tradition of Pure Land Buddhism that Shinran accepted. Within that traditional framework, however, he developed his own distinctive philosophical analysis of human being.

Shinran believed he had found a contradiction in how most Buddhists understood practice. Specifically, they self-consciously undertook various disciplines (meditation, reading texts, chanting mantras) as a means of eliminating egoism and attaining insight into reality. The implication is that one can overcome egoism by one’s own power, by ‘self-power.’ People believed they were ‘earning merit’ by their religious practices. Shinran argued that if people practice as a means of achieving merit, then the actions only feed, rather than eradicate egoism: discipline is understood as a means by which I can improve myself. Shinran considered this emphasis on self-power to be the psychological foundation of the degenerate age in which he believed he lived. Because people misunderstood the relation between self and Buddhist practice, the teachings of Buddhism had indeed become unintelligible and the prospect for insight had disappeared.

Although Shinran did not explicitly deny the ontological reality of the Pure Land or the account of Amida’s vow as historical, his philosophy focused more on the psychological and logical implications of the Pure Land position. For him the fundamental point was that people must surrender their egoistic senses of self by adopting an ‘entrusting heart-and-mind’ (shinjin). By completely abandoning the ego, people can have faith in the power of Amida’s vow to help. They turn from ‘self-power’ to ‘other-power.’ Assured birth in the Pure Land, the realm devoid of egoism, the sense of a discrete or independent self will disappear. Yet, Shinran reasoned, if there is no self at that point, logically there can be no discrete ‘other’ either. There is just ‘naturalness’ and Amida in effect disappears as well. Shinjin continues as the entrusting that opens itself to this naturalness. In that egoless state, one can spiritually help other people. It can be said that one returns from the Pure Land to be reborn in this world. Yet, by assisting others in this world, the ego may once again be constituted as the ‘I’ who self-consciously helps ‘others.’ As soon as one begins to think that good deeds are done by virtue of one’s own power, the whole process must be renewed. One must again see the delusion of the ego, again turn oneself over to Amida’s power, again be reborn in the Pure Land, again allow self and Amida to disappear, and again return to this world from the Pure Land.

In short, Shinran agreed that to eliminate ignorance one must eliminate egoism. This can be accomplished, he believed, only by the complete renunciation of the notion that one can help oneself. Only by despairing of the efficacy of self-power and by entrusting oneself to Amida’s power can one become naturally what one truly is (see Self-realization). In that egoless state one can understand reality for what it is and act freely in the world as a compassionate being. In addressing the same issue, Zen Buddhism took an almost diametrically opposed approach, however.

Citing this article:
Kasulis, Thomas P.. Medieval philosophical anthropology: Pure Land Buddhism. Japanese philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G100-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2017 Routledge.

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