The Transmission of Buddhism
Asuka (538/552-710) & Nara (710-784)
From Korea to Japan
We are told in the Nihonshoki that in the year 538 or 552 a Korean king sent the Japanese sovereign a Buddhist image, scripture, and other paraphernalia, saying in a letter that all the rest of East Asia worships the Buddha; why not Japan? The date (whichever it is depends on how one reads the Nihonshoki chronology) and the details may not be historical, but undoubtedly reflect the approximate time Buddhism began to make an impact, through Korean immigrants and perhaps also diplomatic contacts, on Japan. (IJR, 93)
King Syong of Paekche’s Memorial
552 or 538 CE
This doctrine is amongst all doctrines the most excellent, but it is hard to explain and hard to comprehend. Even the Duke of  Zhou and Confucius could not attain a knowledge of it. This doctrine can create religious merit and retribution without measure and without bounds, and so lead on to a full appreciation of the highest wisdom. Imagine a man in possession of treasures to his heart’s content, so that he might satisfy all his wishes in proportion as he used them. Thus it is with the treasure of this wonderful doctrine. Every prayer is fulfilled and naught is wanting. Moreover, from distant India it has extended hither to Korea, where there are none who do not receive it with reverence as it is preached to them. (SJT, 100)
The story goes on to say that the emperor was intrigued, but cautious. He asked his principal counselors for advice. One, of the powerful Soga family, urged that Japan should be up to date and accept the latest thing. Two others, of the Nakatomi and Mononobe families, both hereditary Shinto priests, said that the kami would be angry if this intruder was welcomed. The ruler hit upon a cunning solution; he asked the Soga minister to take the image to his house, worship it, and see what happened.
What happened was that his house caught on fire, and voices were quick to say the kami were angry. So the image was thrown into a river. But then an epidemic broke out, and the cry was that the Buddha was outraged. The altar was restored. It is clear that, in Japanese eyes at the time, Buddhism was nothing more than another form of magic, and the situation soon deteriorated into civil war between the Soga and Nakatomi clans. The Soga initially prevailed. Soga no Umako completed his seizure of power in 592 by arranging for the assassination of the emperor and placing his own niece on the throne as the Empress Suiko. She was a devout Buddhist and appointed as her regent an imperial prince, Shotoku (573-621). ... [Prince Shotoku] quickly grasped that, as an outside force, the new faith could unify Japan because it was not identified with particular clans as were Shinto kami, but only with the imperial house. He founded the first national temple, the famous Horyuji outside of Nara, in 607. This great complex, of which one building remains as the oldest wooden structure in the world, is a magnificent treasure-house of early Buddhist art, some from overseas. There is also a small octagonal edifice called the Yumedo (“Hall of Dreams”) where the prince is said to have liked to meditate. (IJR, 93-4; cf. SJT, 100-1)

Established by Prince Shotoku

The subsequent Emperors Tenchi (reigned 661-671) and Temmu (r. 671-686), together with the latter’s widow, Empress Jito (r. 686-697), were strong sovereigns who promoted Buddhism but also made sure that Shinto, under Nakatomi leadership, would have an enduring place in the court and the nation. It was during this time that the Ise Grand Shrine, with members of the Nakatomi clan as chief priests of the Naiku dedicated to Amaterasu (a position they held till 1872), came into prominence as the main imperial shrine. Temmu also ordered the compilation of the Kojiki, the official record of ancient Shinto myths legitimating the imperial lineage, though the book was not completed until 712. (IJR, 96)
The Sutra of the Golden Light
& the Protection of the State
The full title of this work, Sutra of the Sovereign Kings of the Golden Light Ray (Konko myo saisho ogyo), refers to the Deva Kings who came to pay homage to the Buddha. The sutra is credited with inspiring the first temple built by the court, the Shitennoji (or Temple of the Four Deva Kings). When Tenmu seized the throne in 672, this sutra appears to have influenced his decision to promote Buddhism in the interest of the new regime. His predecessor, Tenchi (Tenji), had been clearly associated with the Confucian political order, and as we have seen, Tenchi’s assumption of power was justified by numerous portents indicating that he had received the Mandate of Heaven. Tenmu found a similar justification in the Golden Light Sutra, which set forth a doctrine of kingship based on merit — merit achieved in former existences and through the wholehearted support of Buddhism. It thus strongly implied that kings rule by a kind of “divine right” not based on any hereditary claim but, rather, on the ruler’s religious merit. In Tenmu’s case, his realm would enjoy peace and harmony from the beneficial influence of Buddhist teachings on public morality, and even the cosmic order would respond to his virtue and bestow blessings on him and his people. Here, then, is a Buddhist claim to religious legitimacy overriding any customary right of dynastic inheritance. It is no wonder that Tenmu held this sutra in particular honor and fostered the growth of Buddhism by ordering every family to have a Buddhist shrine in its house. (SJT, 106-7)
Then the Four Deva Kings, their right shoulders bared from their robes in respect, arose from their seats and, with their right knees touching the ground and their palms joined in humility, thus addressed Buddha:
     “Most Revered One! When, in some future time, this sutra of the Golden Light is transmitted to every part of a kingdom — to its cities, towns, and villages, its mountains, forests, and fields — if the king of the land listens with his whole heart to these writings, praises them, and makes offerings on their behalf, and if moreover he supplies this sutra to the four classes of believers, protects them, and keeps them from all harm, we Deva Kings, in recognition of his deeds, will protect the king and his people, give them peace and freedom from suffering, prolong their lives, and fill them with glory. Most Revered One! If when the king sees that the four classes of believers receive the sutra, he respects and protects them as he would his own parents, we Four Kings will so protect him always that whatever he wishes will come about, and all sentient beings will respect him.” …
     Then Buddha declared to the Four Deva Kings:
     “Fitting is it indeed that you Four Kings should thus defend the holy writings. In the past I practiced bitter austerities of every kind for 100,000 kalpas [eons]. Then, when I attained supreme enlightenment and realized in myself universal wisdom, I taught this law. If a king upholds this sutra and makes offerings in its behalf, I will purify him of suffering and illness and bring him peace of mind. I will protect his cities, towns, and villages and scatter his enemies. I will make all strife among the rulers of men to cease forever.” (
SJT, 107)

The realities of Nara during its golden age were not as idyllic as these temples and stories suggest. For the elite Buddhism of the six schools of Nara was not the only Japanese Buddhism of the period. Far from the capital, out in the countryside, something else was happening. Popular Buddhist teachers and wonder-workers, often called ubasoku from a Sanskrit word for disciple, went about combining Buddhism with native shamanism. Their Buddhism may have been only superficially understood as a potent king of magic giving them ability to heal and work miracles, and they may not have been properly ordained, especially by strict Ritsu standards. But they and their admirers regarded them as something much better than an ordinary ordained monk. ...
By mid-century it was evident that these two levels of Buddhism and of society would have to be reconciled. The devout Emperor Shomu desired to build the Great Buddha as a supreme national temple, but donations of money and labor from outside the capital were skimpy. Clearly, confidence in the court and its religion had fallen to a low level. In a dramatic gesture, Shomu appointed a certain Gyogi Bosatsu (670-749), Gyogi the bodhisattva, a recognized leader of the countryside shamanistic Buddhists, as chief priest of the nation. This was despite the fact that earlier (in 717) the same Gyogi had been arrested for preaching the heretical doctrine that one could be saved through good works.

In return, as was no doubt intended, Gyogi won his followers over to the emperor’s cause. Moreover, according to tradition he visited the Grand Shrine of Ise, and there received through an oracle the blessing of the goddess Amaterasu (esoterically identified with Dainichi) on the building of the Todaiji with its Great Buddha. (This was also a step toward the reconciliation of Shinto and Buddhism.) The temple was dedicated in 749, the year of Gyogi’s death. The Emperor Shomu himself then took the monastic robe, abdicating in favor of his daughter Koken. (IJR, 98-9)
Empress Shotoku and Dokyo
The Decline of Nara Buddhism
The abdication of Shomu led to a scandal which did much to discredit Nara Buddhism. Koken herself abdicated in 758, leaving the throne to a young prince named Junnin. She then became romantically involved with an ambitious priest called Dokyo. He persuaded his imperial mistress to depose Junnin. This she did, and for good measure had him strangled. She took the throne again for herself in 764, now calling herself Empress Shotoku. She made Dokyo prime minister and, in 766, chief Buddhist priest of the nation. Not content with these elevations, Dokyo plotted to marry her, seize imperial power for himself, and establish a dynasty. But by this time the lay aristocracy, especially the Fujiwara house, was thoroughly alarmed at what was going on, and not least by  the overwhelming power the Nara priesthood seemed to have, or to want. A timely oracle from the Shinto kami Hachiman thwarted Dokyo’s conspiracies. The Empress died in 770, and Dokyo in 772. With one or two minor exceptions, no empress was again allowed to reign in Japan. (IJR, 99)
Empress Shotoku’s Edict
November 26, 766 CE
We do affirm in this edict our belief that when the Law of Buddha, the Supreme One, is worshiped and revered with perfect sincerity of heart, he is certain to vouchsafe some unusual sign. The sacred bone of the Tathagata which has now been manifested, of perfect shape and unusually large, is brighter and more beautiful of color than ever we have seen; the mind cannot encompass its splendor. Thus it is that night and day alike we pay it humble reverence with our unwavering attention. Indeed, it appears to us that when the Transformation Body of the Buddha extends its guidance to salvation in accordance with circumstances, his compassionate aid is manifested with no delay. Nevertheless, the Law depends on men for the continuation and spread of its prosperity. Thus, it has been due to acts of leadership and guidance in consonance with the Law performed by our chief minister and master [i.e. Dokyo], who stands at the head of all priests, that this rare and holy Sign has been vouchsafed us. How could so holy and joyous a thing delight us alone? Hearken, all ye people, to your sovereign’s will. We bestow on our teacher, the chief minister, the title of king of the Law [sometimes translated as “pope”]. We declare again that such worldly titles have never been of his seeking; his mind is set, with no other aspiration, on performing the acts of a bodhisattva and leading all men to salvation. Hearken, all ye people, to your sovereign’s will. We confer this position on him as an act of reverence and gratitude. (SJT, 120)