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Aristocratic Buddhism
Mikael S. Adolphson
According to the Nihon shoki, Buddhism was introduced in Japan in the year 552, when the king of the Korean kingdom of Paekche sent Buddhist scriptures (sutras) to the Japanese ruler. The penchant in such texts for assigning distinct beginnings and giving kings sole credit for such accomplishments alone makes it difficult to believe such claims, but there is no doubt that Buddhism did indeed come to Japan around that time, though it was more likely brought over by educated Korean immigrants. That this foreign religion was attractive to many Japanese aristocrats is hardly surprising, since it came with comprehensive rhetoric about an afterlife, and other aspects of the spiritual world, of greater sophistication than previously available in the local cults (Shint). But it also included a writing system, advanced architecture and art forms, and tools for a centralized state, all associated with the most advanced culture in the known worldChina.
Yet there was some resistance as well, and in 587 a war broke out between the pro-Buddhist Soga, of Korean descent, and pro-Shint families such as the Mononobe. Although the conflict has come down to later generations as a war between the two faiths, it was in reality a conflict between aristocrats who wished to create a centralized state, much with the help of Buddhism, and local clans that wished to maintain greater independence, a stance that could be supported by beliefs in local kami (Shint deities). The Soga won, and Buddhist complexes were constructed in central Japan, often adjacent to local shrines, which indicates a lack of doctrinal opposition between Buddhism and local deities.
The most famous of these early temples was Hryji, just southwest of Nara, the home of Japans first national hero, Prince Shtoku (574622), who promoted Buddhism and sent several missions to China, and also favored Confucian ideals among aristocrats serving as loyal ministers. By the mid-eighth century, Buddhism had become the main religion of the imperial state, as evidenced by the completion in 749 of Tdaiji, the centerpiece of the state temple network, just outside the Nara capital. Although smaller than the original, Tdaiji is still considered one of the largest wooden buildings in the world, and houses a fifty-two-foot statue of the Sun Buddhaa clear reference to the temples protective powers over the state and the imperial family.
From the outset, Buddhism was thus both highly political and elitist, and while there were certainly some genuine aristocratic believers, it was also widely used by these elites as a tool for state building. As a result, little if any of Buddhist ideology reached common people in early Japan, despite the evangelizing efforts of mendicants such as Gyki (668749) in the mid-eighth century. In part, this elitist approach was conditioned by a form of Buddhism that was in reality closer to the Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) branch, according to which nirvana could be attained only by improving ones karma after numerous rebirths, than to the Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) teachings, which taught that all living beings had Buddha potential. Commoners were thus hopelessly removed from any chances of achieving enlightenment after this life, whereas monks and nobles who patronized Buddhist temples and rituals appeared to have a distinct advantage. More important, many of the rituals of early Buddhism focused on the state and its main patrons, which naturally helps explain the elites attraction to this foreign ideology.
There were, however, actors in this equation beyond the noble elites. The monks themselves were agents of elitism, as many found it advantageous to cater to the ruling class. This predilection also meant that they could be caught in the factional struggles of the court, as seems to have been the case with the infamous Dky (700772). Dky became a confidant of Empress Kken (reigned 749758) and was even instrumental in her rise to power when she reascended the throne as Empress Shtoku (reigned 764770), much to the dismay of her main group of opponents, the Fujiwara. In the end, the Fujiwara came out victorious in this short-lived struggle, as they managed to exile Dky shortly after the empress died in 770.
Dky has frequently been seen as a usurper who attempted to unseat the imperial family and ascend the throne himself, but given that the historical records were sponsored by the Fujiwara, they may not be wholly reliable. The more important point, however, is that Buddhist monks and institutions were becoming more powerful in the Nara state, a development that, whether real or perceived, bothered some courtiers and rulers. Above all, Emperor Kanmu (reigned 781806) took measures to limit the tax exemptions of temples and enforce more strictly the rules of ordination. Moreover, he decided to move the imperial palace to Nagaoka in 784, only to relocate it farther north to Heianky (Kyoto) ten years later, distancing the court from the Nara temples.1
This is not to say that Kanmu or the imperial court in general was anti-Buddhist. On the contrary, few members of the court at this point could have envisioned a state without the spiritual protection and endorsement of the Buddhas. But the court was ripe for new ideas and schools that could broaden the scope of Buddhism itself. Such alternatives were indeed introduced not long after the move to the Heian plain by monks who explored teachings that opened up Buddhism to a larger contingent of believers. Two monks were crucial to this new development: Saich (767823) and Kkai (774835).
Saich was born in the province of mi, but traveled to Nara to become a monk at a young age. There, he became interested in Tendai Buddhism, a Mahayana school that preached that all human beings had the potential for enlightenment and that held a syncretic view of Buddhist practices. After becoming a monk at Tdaiji in 785, Saich returned to his home province, building a small temple on Mt. Hiei on the western shore of Lake Biwa. This location was fortuitous beyond what anyone could possibly have imagined, as the mountain overlooked the Heian plain, where Emperor Kanmu moved the capital a few years later, in 794. As if that was not enough, Mt. Hiei was also located to the northeast of the new capital, thus protecting the latter from the evil spirits believed to come from that direction. Because of this coincidence and his focus on teachings seen as an alternative to the established Nara sects, Saich caught the attention of the court, earning him an appointment as imperial court monk in 797.
Subsequently, Saich concentrated on collecting texts and lecturing, and after a successful performance in a debate on the Tendai teachings in 802, he began to separate himself from the Nara sects more openly. Saich maintained that the Buddhas own words, most explicitly expressed in the Lotus Sutra, needed more attention than the commentaries that many Nara sects relied on, and so he petitioned the emperor to have original texts obtained directly from Buddhist masters in China. In the twelfth month of 802, Emperor Kanmu granted Saich permission and the funds to go to China.
It was another two years before the pilgrimage took place, but Saich finally arrived in southern China after an arduous journey, travelling straight to the Chinese center of Tendai teachings, Mt. Tiantai. He stayed for a little more than six months before heading back to the coast. While waiting for a ship to arrive, Saich decided to study esoteric rites, which had become increasingly popular in Tang China as they were believed to earn benefactors more immediate benefits. Once back in the capital, Saich set out to promote the Tendai teachings more vigorously, but he soon discovered that the esoteric rites and their magical powers were more in demand at the new court in Kyoto. Unfortunately for Saich, he had received only limited training on such matters, and even though the Tendai teachings were eclectic, he felt rather inadequate in his knowledge. And so when the monk Kkai returned from China with more substantial knowledge of these rituals, he, rather than Saich, eventually became the rage in the capital.
Born on the island of Shikoku to a provincial noble family with central connections, Kkai was sent to live with a relative in the then-capital of Nagaoka at the age of fourteen to study Confucianism. He was not, however, particularly enamored with the reigning ideology of rule, which was in any case not then as prominent or as promising for his career as the alternative that caught his attention: Buddhism. Kkai first appears to have taken private Buddhist vows; when the capital was moved to the Heian plain, he set out to spread the word of Buddha by himself. At some point, he must have caught the attention of the court of Kyoto, for he was added to the mission to China in 804 for which Saich had already been selected. It is unknown exactly why he was chosen, but like Saich, Kkai preached Mahayana Buddhism, and he may thus have provided an attractive alternative to the Nara sects for Emperor Kanmu and his supporters.
The circumstances behind the selection of Saich and Kkai may thus have been similar, but their agendas in China illustrate fundamental differences in their approaches. Kkai, who landed first in the southern Chinese province of Fukien, was more politically astute and went straight to the Tang capital of Changan, where he arrived in the twelfth month of 804. After a three-month stay at a residence supplied by the Tang court, Kkai moved to the famous temple of Ximingsi, where he eventually met the great master Huiguo (746805), who became his teacher. Huiguo was the transmitter of popular esoteric teachings based on the Mahvairochana Sutra (J. Dainichi-ky) that had been introduced in China almost a century earlier. Following his teachers death in 805, Kkai left China with a large number of Buddhist texts, mandalas (cosmic paintings used in esoteric Buddhist meditation), and books of poetry. Arriving on the coast of Kyushu, Kkai sent a memorandum to the court in Kyoto accounting for his achievements while asking for support to start a new esoteric school. He waited almost three years for a response, but the imperial court eventually allowed him to take up residence at Takaosanji, just northwest of Kyoto, though the reigning emperor (Heizei) showed little interest in the monks teachings.
The accession of Emperor Saga in 810 changed Kkais fortunes dramatically. Saga appreciated artworks, which were an integral part of Kkais teachings, as well as the poetry skills of the erudite monk. With the new emperors support, Kkai was allowed to gather a group of students and disciples to study esoteric Buddhism at Takaosanji, and he was appointed head abbot of Tdaiji, a position that eventually enabled him to incorporate esoteric rites in Nara by establishing a subcloister called the Shingonin (822) within the imperial temple.
Kkais knowledge of esoteric rites and his artistic skills won him a favorable reputation and a network of supporters among the court elites. Saich, on the other hand, continued to have incomplete knowledge of esoteric rituals; when his relationship with Kkai broke down after the Tdaiji abbot refused to lend him important scriptures, the future looked bleak for the Tendai temple on Mt. Hiei. In fact, Saich had serious difficulties retaining his own monks, and he encountered resistance from the Nara schools in his attempt to persuade them to acknowledge Tendai as a separate school. Saich died on the 4th day of the sixth month of 822 without having achieved full recognition for Tendais independence, but only seven days later his requests were granted posthumously.
Tendais independence was thus recognized, and the temple on Mt. Hiei was officially named Enryakuji in 823. This concession was an important step toward independence from the Office of Monastic Affairs, which was dominated by Kfukuji monks, and other temples soon followed suit. It was thus now possible for temples in general to manage their own affairs and to establish more direct ties with their patrons, marking the beginning of independent monasteries and eventually leading to the development of religious institutions as powerful elites (see chapter 12).
Although Kkai encountered less resistance from other temples than Saich, he wished to separate his school from the influence of the monastic office, and he eventually received permission to build a temple on Mt. Kya (Kyasan), located several days walk from Kyoto south on the Kii peninsula. Given Kkais success in the capital, one might wonder why he chose such a remote location. He may have been concerned with keeping his own doctrines separate from other schools and ideas in the capital, where monks often became multisectarian. Kkai named the temple Kongbuji (Diamond Peak Temple), thereby using the surrounding peaks to evoke a worldly map of the Buddhist cosmos with his monastery at its center.
In 823, the same year that Saich died and Tendai was recognized, Kkais own school, Shingon (True Word), received official recognition as well. Kkai seems to have outdone his rival again, for he also received an imperial decree stating that only Shingon monks could reside at Tji (one of the two temples marking the southern entrance to Kyoto), where he had been abbot. This was undoubtedly an important moment for Kkai. It not only marked the official recognition of the Shingon School but also gave it the unusual distinction of exclusivity from other schools, contrary to the general practice then current of studying several different doctrines within one and the same monastery. To those who became his disciples, Kkai offered a unique three-pronged approach: the secret transmission of specific mantras (prayers), meditative hand postures (mudras), and cosmic diagrams (mandalas).
By the time of his death on Mt. Kya in 835, Kkai had managed to gain further privileges for his school. First, he established a Buddhist hall within the imperial palace where annual Shingon rituals would be performed for one week in the first month of every year. This series of rituals, known as the Mishiho, became one of the prestigious services performed annually for the welfare of the imperial court and the state in the Heian era. Second, Kkai was granted the ordination of three new state-supported Shingon monks every year. As in the case of Saich and the ordination of Tendai monks, this meant important recognition of Shingon as one of the state-sponsored Buddhist schools.
Shingon Buddhism was now, just like Tendai and Hoss, a recognized part of the Buddhist establishment, marking the early form of a multidoctrinal system that incorporated competing schools within the framework of the imperial state. What the addition of two new schools did not accomplish, despite the founders intentions, was a general proliferation of Buddhist beliefs among the general population. Rather, Buddhism remained an aristocratic affair, albeit with an expanded presence in the economic and political arenas of society.