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The Introduction of Buddhism
As the oldest extant Japanese texts — with the probable exception of some Shintō rituals — date from the eighth century, it is only possible to surmise the social conditions of that earlier epoch in which there was no form of religion but ancestor-worship. Only by imagining the absence of all Chinese and Korean influences, can we form some vague idea of the state of things which existed during the so-called Age of the Gods, — and it is difficult to decide at what period these influences began to operate. Confucianism appears to have preceded Buddhism by a considerable interval; and its progress, as an organizing power, was much more rapid. Buddhism was first introduced from Korea, about 552 A.D.; but the mission accomplished little. By the end of the eighth century the whole fabric of Japanese administration had been reorganized upon the Chinese plan, under Confucian influence; but it was not until well into the ninth century that Buddhism really began to spread throughout the country. Eventually it overshadowed the national life, and coloured all the national thought. Yet the extraordinary conservatism of the ancient ancestor-cult — its inherent power of resisting fusion — was exemplified by the readiness with which the two religions fell apart on the disestablishment of Buddhism in 1871. After having been literally overlaid by Buddhism for nearly a thousand years, Shintō immediately reassumed its archaic simplicity, and reestablished the unaltered forms of its earliest rites.
But the attempt of Buddhism to absorb Shintō seemed at one period to have almost succeeded. The method of the absorption is said to have been devised, about the year 800, by the famous founder of the Shingon sect, Kūkai or "Kōbōdaishi" (as he is popularly called), who first declared the higher Shintō gods to be incarnations of various Buddhas. But in this matter, of course, Kōbōdaishi was merely following precedents of Buddhist policy. Under the name of Ryōbu-Shintō,1 the new compound of Shintō and Buddhism obtained imperial approval and support. Thereafter, in hundreds of places, the two religions were domiciled within the same precinct — sometimes even within the same building: they seemed to have been veritably amalgamated. And nevertheless there was no real fusion; — after ten centuries of such contact they separated again, as lightly as if they had never touched. It was only in the domestic form of the ancestor-cult that Buddhism really affected permanent modifications; yet even these were neither fundamental nor universal. In certain provinces they were not made; and almost everywhere a considerable part of the population preferred to follow the Shintō form of the ancestor-cult. Yet another large class of persons, converts to Buddhism, continued to profess the older creed as well; and, while practising their ancestor-worship according to the Buddhist rite, maintained separately also the domestic worship of the elder gods. In most Japanese houses to-day, the "god-shelf" and the Buddhist shrine can both be found; both cults being maintained under the same roof.2... But I am mentioning these facts only as illustrating the conservative vitality of Shintō, not as indicating any weakness in the Buddhist propaganda. Unquestionably the influence which Buddhism exerted upon Japanese civilization was immense, profound, multiform, incalculable; and the only wonder is that it should not have been able to stifle Shintō forever. To state, as various writers have carelessly stated, that Buddhism became the popular religion, while Shintō remained the official religion, is altogether misleading. As a matter of fact Buddhism became as much an official religion as Shintō itself, and influenced the lives of the highest classes not less than the lives of the poor. It made monks of Emperors, and nuns of their daughters; it decided the conduct of rulers, the nature of decrees, and the administration of laws. In every community the Buddhist parish-priest was a public official as well as a spiritual teacher: he kept the parish register, and made report to the authorities upon local matters of importance.
By introducing the love of learning, Confucianism had partly prepared the way for Buddhism. As early even as the first century there were some Chinese scholars in Japan; but it was toward the close of the third century that the study of Chinese literature first really became fashionable among the ruling classes. Confucianism, however, did not represent a new religion: it was a system of ethical teachings founded upon an ancestor-worship much like that of Japan. What it had to offer was a kind of social philosophy, — an explanation of the eternal reason of things. It reinforced and expanded the doctrine of filial piety; it regulated and elaborated preexisting ceremonial; and it systematized all the ethics of government. In the education of the ruling classes it became a great power, and has so remained down to the present day. Its doctrines were humane, in the best meaning of the word; and striking evidence of its humanizing effect on government policy may be found in the laws and the maxims of that wisest of Japanese rulers — Iyéyasu.
But the religion of the Buddha brought to Japan another and a wider humanizing influence, — a new gospel of tenderness, — together with a multitude of new beliefs that were able to accommodate themselves to the old, in spite of fundamental dissimilarity. In the highest meaning of the term, it was a civilizing power. Besides teaching new respect for life, the duty of kindness to animals as well as to all human beings, the consequence of present acts upon the conditions of a future existence, the duty of resignation to pain as the inevitable result of forgotten error, it actually gave to Japan the arts and the industries of China. Architecture, painting, sculpture, engraving, printing, gardening — in short, every art and industry that helped to make life beautiful developed first in Japan under Buddhist teaching.
There are many forms of Buddhism; and in modern Japan there are twelve principal Buddhist sects; but, for present purposes, it will be enough to speak, in the most general way, of popular Buddhism only, as distinguished from philosophical Buddhism, which I shall touch upon in a subsequent chapter. The higher Buddhism could not, at any time or in any country, have had a large popular following; and it is a mistake to suppose that its particular doctrines — such as the doctrine of Nirvâna — were taught to the common people. Only such forms of doctrine were preached as could be made intelligible and attractive to very simple minds. There is a Buddhist proverb: "First observe the person; then preach the Law," — that is to say. Adapt your instruction to the capacity of the listener. In Japan, as in China, Buddhism had to adapt its instruction to the mental capacity of large classes of people yet unaccustomed to abstract ideas. Even to this day the masses do not know so much as the meaning of the word "Nirvâna" (Néhan): they have been taught only the simpler forms of the religion; and in dwelling upon these, it will be needless to consider differences of sect and dogma.
To appreciate the direct influence of Buddhist teaching upon the minds of the common people, we must remember that in Shintō there was no doctrine of metempsychosis. As I have said before, the spirits of the dead, according to ancient Japanese thinking, continued to exist in the world: they mingled somehow with the viewless forces of nature, and acted through them. Everything happened by the agency of these spirits — evil or good. Those who had been wicked in life remained wicked after death; those who had been good in life became good gods after death; but all were to be propitiated. No idea of future reward or punishment existed before the coming of Buddhism: there was no notion of any heaven or hell. The happiness of ghosts and gods alike was supposed to depend upon the worship and the offerings of the living.
With these ancient beliefs Buddhism attempted to interfere only by expanding and expounding them, — by interpreting them in a totally new light. Modifications were effected, but no suppressions: we might even say that Buddhism accepted the whole body of the old beliefs. It was true, the new teaching declared, that the dead continued to exist invisibly; and it was not wrong to suppose that they became divinities, since all of them were destined, sooner or later, to enter upon the way to Buddhahood — the divine condition. Buddhism acknowledged likewise the greater gods of Shintō, with all their attributes and dignities, — declaring them incarnations of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas: thus the goddess of the sun was identified with Dai-Nichi-Nyōrai (the Tathâgata Mahâvairokana); the deity Hachiman was identified with Amida (Amitâbha). Nor did Buddhism deny the existence of goblins and evil gods: these were identified with the Pretas and the Marâkâyikas; and the Japanese popular term for goblin, Ma, to-day reminds us of this identification. As for wicked ghosts, they were to be thought of as Pretas only, — Gaki, — self-doomed by the errors of former lives to the Circle of Perpetual Hunger. The ancient sacrifices to the various gods of disease and pestilence gods of fever, small-pox, dysentery, consumption, coughs, and colds — were continued with Buddhist approval; but converts were bidden to consider such maleficent beings as Pretas, and to present them with only such food-offerings as are bestowed upon Pretas — not for propitiation, but for the purpose of relieving ghostly pain. In this case, as in the case of the ancestral spirits, Buddhism prescribed that the prayers to be repeated were to be said for the sake of the haunters, rather than to them.... The reader may be reminded of the fact that Roman Catholicism, by making a similar provision, still practically tolerates a continuance of the ancient European ancestor-worship. And we cannot consider that worship extinct in any of those Western countries where the peasants still feast their dead upon the Night of All Souls.
Buddhism, however, did more than tolerate the old rites. It cultivated and elaborated them. Under its teaching a new and beautiful form of the domestic cult came into existence; and all the touching poetry of ancestor-worship in modern Japan can be traced to the teaching of the Buddhist missionaries. Though ceasing to regard their dead as gods in the ancient sense, the Japanese converts were encouraged to believe in their presence, and to address them in terms of reverence and affection. It is worthy of remark that the doctrine of Pretas gave new force to the ancient fear of neglecting the domestic rites. Ghosts unloved might not become “evil gods" in the Shintō meaning of the term; but the malevolent Gaki was, even more to be dreaded than the malevolent Kami, — for Buddhism defined in appalling ways the nature of the Gaki’s power to harm. In various Buddhist funeral-rites, the dead are actually addressed as Gaki, — beings to be pitied but also to be feared, — much needing human sympathy and succour, but able to recompense the food-giver by ghostly help.
One particular attraction of Buddhist teaching was its simple and ingenious interpretation of nature. Countless matters which Shintō had never attempted to explain, and could not have explained, Buddhism expounded in detail, with much apparent consistency. Its explanations of the mysteries of birth, life, and death were at once consoling to pure minds, and wholesomely discomforting to bad consciences. It taught that the dead were happy or unhappy not directly because of the attention or the neglect shown them by the living, but because of their past conduct while in the body.3 It did not attempt to teach the higher doctrine of successive rebirths, — which the people could not possibly have understood, — but the merely symbolic doctrine of transmigration, which everybody could understand. To die was not to melt back into nature, but to be reincarnated; and the character of the new body, as well as the conditions of the new existence, would depend upon the quality of one's deeds arid thoughts in the present body. All states and conditions of being were the consequence of past actions. Such a man was now rich and powerful, because in previous lives he had been generous and kindly; such another man was now sickly and poor, because in some previous existence he had been sensual and selfish. This woman was happy in her husband and her children, because in the time of a former birth she had proved herself a loving daughter and a faithful spouse; this other was wretched and childless, because in some anterior existence she had been a jealous wife and a cruel mother. "To hate your enemy,” the Buddhist preacher would proclaim, "is foolish as well as wrong: he is now your enemy only because of some treachery that you practised upon him in a previous life, when he desired to be your friend. Resign yourself to the injury which he now does you: accept it as the expiation of your forgotten fault.... The girl whom you hoped to marry has been refused you by her parents, — given away to another. But once, in another existence, she was yours by promise; and you broke the pledge then given.... Painful indeed the loss of your child; but this loss is the consequence of having, in some former life, refused affection where affection was due.... Maimed by mishap, you can no longer earn your living as before. Yet this mishap is really due to the fact that in some previous existence you wantonly inflicted bodily injury. Now the evil of your own act has returned upon you: repent of your crime, and pray that its Karma may be exhausted by this present suffering."... All the sorrows of men were thus explained and consoled. Life was expounded as representing but one stage of a measureless journey, whose way stretched back through all the night of the past, and forward through all the mystery of the future, — out of eternities forgotten into the eternities to be; and the world itself was to be thought of only as a traveller's resting-place, an inn by the roadside.
Instead of preaching to the people about Nirvâna, Buddhism discoursed to them of blisses to be won and pains to be avoided: the Paradise of Amida, Lord of Immeasurable Light; the eight hot hells called To-kwatsu, and the eight icy hells called Abuda. On the subject of future punishment the teaching was very horrible: I should advise no one of delicate nerves to read the Japanese, or rather the Chinese accounts of hell. But hell was the penalty for supreme wickedness only: it was not eternal; and the demons themselves would at last be saved.... Heaven was to be the reward of good deeds: the reward might indeed be delayed, through many successive rebirths, by reason of lingering Karma; but, on the other hand, it might be attained by virtue of a single holy act in this present life. Besides, prior to the period of supreme reward, each succeeding rebirth could be made happier than the preceding one by persistent effort in the holy Way. Even as regarded conditions in this transitory world, the results of virtuous conduct were not to be despised. The beggar of to-day might to-morrow be reborn in the palace of a daimyo; the blind shampooer might become, in his very next life, an imperial minister. Always the recompense would be proportionate to the sum of merit. In this lower world to practise the highest virtue was difficult; and the great rewards were hard to win. But for all good deeds a recompense was sure; and there was no one who could not acquire merit.
Even the Shintō doctrine of conscience — the god-given sense of right and wrong — was not denied by Buddhism. But this conscience was interpreted as the essential wisdom of the Buddha dormant in every human creature, — wisdom darkened by ignorance, clogged by desire, fettered by Karma, but destined sooner or later to fully awaken, and to flood the mind with light.
It would seem that the Buddhist teaching of the duty of kindness to all living creatures, and of pity for all suffering, had a powerful effect upon national habit and custom, long before the new religion found general acceptance. As early as the year 675, a decree was issued by the Emperor Temmu forbidding the people to eat “the flesh of kine, horses, dogs, monkeys, or barn-door fowls," and prohibiting the use of traps or the making of pitfalls in catching game.4 The fact that all kinds of flesh-meat were not forbidden is probably explained by this Emperor's zeal for the maintenance of both creeds; — an absolute prohibition might have interfered with Shintō usages, and would certainly have been incompatible with Shintō traditions. But, although fish never ceased to be an article of food for the laity, we may say that from about this time the mass of the nation abandoned its habits of diet, and forswore the eating of meat, in accordance with Buddhist teaching.... This teaching was based upon the doctrine of the unity of all sentient existence. Buddhism explained the whole visible world by its doctrine of Karma, — simplifying that doctrine so as to adapt it to popular comprehension. The forms of all creatures, — bird, reptile, or mammal; insect or fish, — represented only different results of Karma: the ghostly life in each was one and the same; and, in even the lowest, some spark of the divine existed. The frog or the serpent, the bird or the bat, the ox or the horse, — all had had, at some past time, the privilege of human (perhaps even superhuman) shape: their present conditions represented only the consequence of ancient faults. Any human being also, by reason of like faults, might hereafter be reduced to the same dumb state, — might be reborn as a reptile, a fish, a bird, or a beast of burden. The consequence of wanton cruelty to any animal might cause the perpetrator of that cruelty to be reborn as an animal of the same kind, destined to suffer the same cruel treatment. Who could even be sure that the goaded ox, the overdriven horse, or the slaughtered bird, had not formerly been a human being of closest kin, — ancestor, parent, brother, sister, or child?...
Not by words only were all these things taught. It should be remembered that Shintō had no art: its ghost-houses, silent and void, were not even decorated. But Buddhism brought in its train all the arts of carving, painting, and decoration. The images of its Bodhisattvas, smiling in gold, — the figures of its heavenly guardians and infernal judges, its feminine angels and monstrous demons, — must have startled and amazed imaginations yet unaccustomed to any kind of art. Great paintings hung in the temples, and frescoes limned upon their walls or ceilings, explained better than words the doctrine of the Six States of Existence, and the dogma of future rewards and punishments. In rows of kakémono, suspended side by side, were displayed the incidents of a Soul's journey to the realm of judgment, and all the horrors of the various hells. One pictured the ghosts of faithless wives, for ages doomed to pluck, with bleeding fingers, the rasping bamboo-grass that grows by the Springs of Death; another showed the torment of the slanderer, whose tongue was torn by demon-pincers; in a third appeared the spectres of lustful men, vainly seeking to flee the embraces of women of fire, or climbing, in frenzied terror, the slopes of the Mountain of Swords. Pictured also were the circles of the Preta-world, and the pangs of the Hungry Ghosts, and likewise the pains of rebirth in the form of reptiles and of beasts. And the art of these early representations — many of which have been preserved — was an art of no mean order. We can hardly conceive the effect upon inexperienced imagination of the crimson frown of Emma (Yama) Judge of the dead, — or the vision of that weird Mirror which reflected to every spirit the misdeeds of its life in the body, — or the monstrous fancy of that double-faced Head before the judgment seat, representing the visage of the woman Mirumé, whose eyes behold all secret sin; and the vision of the man Kaguhana, who smells all odours of evil-doing.... Parental affection must have been deeply touched by the painted legend of the world of children's ghosts, — the little ghosts that must toil, under demon-surveillance, in the Dry Bed of the River of Souls.... But pictured terrors were offset by pictured consolations, — by the beautiful figure of Kwannon, white Goddess of Mercy, — by the compassionate smile of Jizō, the playmate of infant-ghosts, by the charm also of celestial nymphs, floating on iridescent wings in light of azure. The Buddhist painter opened to simple fancy the palaces of heaven, and guided hope, through gardens of jewel-trees, even to the shores of that lake where the souls of the blessed are reborn in lotos-blossoms, and tended by angel-nurses.
Moreover, for people accustomed only to such simple architecture as that of the Shintō miya, the new temples erected by the Buddhist priests must have been astonishments. The colossal Chinese gates, guarded by giant statues; the lions and lanterns of bronze and stone; the enormous suspended bells, sounded by swinging-beams; the swarming of dragon-shapes under the eaves of the vast roofs; the glimmering splendour of the altars; the ceremonial likewise, with its chanting and its incense-burning and its weird Chinese music, — cannot have failed to inspire the wonder-loving with delight and awe. It is a noteworthy fact that the earliest Buddhist temples in Japan still remain, even to Western eyes, the most impressive. The Temple of the Four Deva Kings at Ōsaka — which, though more than once rebuilt, preserves the original plan — dates from 600 A.D.; the yet more remarkable temple called Hōryūji, near Nara, dates from about the year 607.
Of course the famous paintings and the great statues could be seen at the temples only; but the Buddhist image-makers soon began to people even the most desolate places with stone images of Buddhas and of Bodhisattvas. Then first were made those icons of Jizō, which still smile upon the traveller from every roadside, — and the images of Kōshin, protector of highways, with his three symbolic Apes, — and the figure of that Batō-Kwannon, who protects the horses of the peasant, — with other figures in whose rude but impressive art suggestions of Indian origin are yet recognizable. Gradually the graveyards became thronged with dreaming Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, — holy guardians of the dead, throned upon lotos-flowers of stone, and smiling with closed eyes the smile of the Calm Supreme. In the cities everywhere Buddhist sculptors opened shops, to furnish pious households with images of the chief divinities worshipped by the various Buddhist sects; and the makers of ihai, or Buddhist mortuary tablets, as well as the makers of household shrines, multiplied and prospered.
Meanwhile the people were left free to worship their ancestors according to either creed; and if a majority eventually gave preference to the Buddhist rite, this preference was due in large measure to the peculiar emotional charm which Buddhism had infused into the cult. Except in minor details, the two rites differed scarcely at all; and there was no conflict whatever between the old ideas of filial piety and the Buddhist ideas attaching to the new ancestor-worship. Buddhism taught that the dead might be helped and made happier by prayer, and that much ghostly comfort could be given them by food-offerings. They were not to be offered flesh or wine; but it was proper to gratify them with fruits and rice and cakes and flowers and the smoke of incense. Besides, even the simplest food-offerings might be transmuted, by force of prayer, into celestial nectar and ambrosia. But what especially helped the new ancestor-cult to popular favour, was the fact that it included many beautiful and touching customs not known to the old. Everywhere the people soon learned to kindle the hundred and eight fires of welcome for the annual visit of their dead, — to supply the spirits with little figures made of straw, or made out of vegetables, to serve for oxen or horses,5 — also to prepare the ghost-ships (shōryōbuné), in which the souls of the ancestors were to return, over the sea, to their under-world. Then too were instituted the Bon-odori, or Dances of the Festival of the Dead,6 and the custom of suspending white lanterns at graves, and coloured lanterns at house-gates, to light the coming and the going of the visiting dead.
But perhaps the greatest value of Buddhism to the nation was educational. The Shintō priests were not teachers. In early times they were mostly aristocrats, religious representatives of the clans; and the idea of educating the common people could not even have occurred to them. Buddhism, on the other hand, offered the boon of education to all — not merely a religious education, but an education in the arts and the learning of China. The Buddhist temples eventually became common schools, or had schools attached to them; and at each parish temple the children of the community were taught, at a merely nominal cost, the doctrines of the faith, the wisdom of the Chinese classics, calligraphy, drawing, and much besides. By degrees the education of almost the whole nation came under Buddhist control; and the moral effect was of the best. For the military class indeed there was another and special system of education; but Samurai scholars sought to perfect their knowledge under Buddhist teachers of renown; and the imperial household itself employed Buddhist instructors. For the common people everywhere the Buddhist priest was the schoolmaster; and by virtue of his occupation as teacher, not less than by reason of his religious office, he ranked with the samurai. Much of what remains most attractive in Japanese character — the winning and graceful aspects of it — seems to have been developed under Buddhist training.
It was natural enough that to his functions of public instructor, the Buddhist priest should have added those of a public registrar. Until the period of disendowment, the Buddhist clergy remained, throughout the country, public as well as religious officials. They kept the parish records, and furnished at need certificates of birth, death, or family descent.
To give any just conception of the immense civilizing influence which Buddhism exerted in Japan would require many volumes. Even to summarize the results of that influence by stating only the most general facts, is scarcely possible, — for no general statement can embody the whole truth of the work accomplished. As a moral force, Buddhism strengthened authority and cultivated submission, by its capacity to inspire larger hopes and fears than the more ancient religion could create. As teacher, it educated the race, from the highest to the humblest, both in ethics and in esthetics. All that can be classed under the name of art in Japan was either introduced or developed by Buddhism; and the same may be said regarding nearly all Japanese literature possessing real literary quality, — excepting some Shintō rituals, and some fragments of archaic poetry. Buddhism introduced drama, the higher forms of poetical composition, and fiction, and history, and philosophy. All the refinements of Japanese life were of Buddhist introduction, and at least a majority of its diversions and pleasures. There is even to-day scarcely one interesting or beautiful thing, produced in the country, for which the nation is not in some sort indebted to Buddhism. Perhaps the best and briefest way of stating the range of such indebtedness, is simply to say that Buddhism brought the whole of Chinese civilization into Japan, and thereafter patiently modified and reshaped it to Japanese requirements. The elder civilization was not merely superimposed upon the social structure, but fitted carefully into it, combined with it so perfectly that the marks of the welding, the lines of the juncture, almost totally disappeared.
1 The term "Ryōbu" signifies “two-departments” or "two religions."
3 The reader will doubtless wonder how Buddhism could reconcile its doctrine of successive rebirths with the ideas of ancestor-worship If one died only to be born again, what could be the use of offering food or addressing any kind of prayer to the reincarnated spirit? This difficulty was met by the teaching that the dead were not immediately reborn in most cases, but entered into a particular condition called Chū-U. They might remain in this disembodied condition for the time of one hunched years, after which they were reincarnated. The Buddhist services for the dead are consequently limited to the time of one hundred years.