How Did Buddhism Spread To Japan

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I am a human being and I am not perfect. So, please kindly read the message and not the messenger

By Sanjoo Thangjam

In India several hundred years after the time of the Buddha, Buddhism developed a rich tradition of visual imagery for depicting sacred beings. Based on descriptions recorded in the scriptures, Buddhas are typically shown as human figures with supernatural attributes to represent their spiritually elevated status. The most commonly depicted bodily markings include a bump on the top of the head to indicate wisdom, a mark in the middle of the forehead that also shows great understanding, lengthened earlobes that are a reminder of the Buddha princely youth and a body with idealized proportions and contours. In addition, Buddhas are often, although not always shown as ascetics who wear simple monastic robes and are devoid of decorative shawls, scarves and jewellery. Bodhisattvas, on the other hand, are customarily shown richly ornamented, representing their continued engagement with this world. Buddhist icons offer messages or information to viewers through their hand gestures (mudra). Common gestures include the ones for meditation, teaching, and assuaging fear.

The appearance of Buddhist imagery varies according to when the object was made, contemporary and local stylistic preferences, the materials used and skill of the craftsmen, and religious requirements. Whereas Zen-related representations often are relatively austere, encourage a contemplative attitude, and can be closely linked to Chinese prototypes, icons associated with the court-supported temples of the Esoteric schools can have multiple arms and heads to express great power and superhuman abilities and be richly ornamented with sumptuous materials and complex layers of decorative patterning.

An age-old East Asian route of trade and influence ran from northern China through the Korean peninsula and across the Korean Straits to Japan. Travelling along this route, Mahayana Buddhism was introduced to Japan from Korea in the sixth century traditionally, in either 538 or 552, as part of a diplomatic mission that included gifts such as an image of Shakyamuni Buddha and several volumes of Buddhist texts. By the seventh century, when the religion was firmly established, Japan had dozens of monastery complexes, various orders of priests and a body of skilled artisans to craft the icons and other appurtenances that the practice of the faith required.

It is said that Vajrayana or Esoteric Buddhist and its attendant pantheon of deities and secret, mystical rituals was introduced to Japan in the early Heian period, after 794 by a number of Japanese priests. They studied the religion in China and returned home to found influential monasteries, two of which became the centres of the main Japanese Buddhist sects, Tendai and Shingon. Images of wrathful deities, such as Fudo Myo-o (Achala in Sanskrit), were introduced at this time as part of the Esoteric Buddhist pantheon.

In the late Heian period, that is, until 1185 and following centuries, Pure Land Buddhism became very popular. The Salvationist Pure Land Buddhism taught faith in Amida (Amitabha in Sanskrit), the Buddha of the Western Paradise. Believers trusted that the diligent recitation of his name enabled the soul to be reborn in a heavenly Pure Land rather than in a Buddhist hell or other undesirable rebirth. Intense devotion to Amida produced voluminous requests for Buddhist statuary and paintings and in addition to the many temples dedicated to him an additional Salvationist deity popular at this time was Jizo, who had been introduced to Japan centuries earlier as a Bodhisattva in the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon.

Jizo is a deity of compassion and benevolence whose attributed powers expanded as time passed. During the Kamakura period (1185–1333), Buddhism became the faith of all people of all classes. This was due in part to the many priests who became itinerant evangelists and brought Pure Land Buddhism to the masses.

Zen is the Japanese development of the school of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in China as Chan Buddhism. While Zen practitioners trace their beliefs to India, its emphasis on the possibility of sudden enlightenment and a close connection with nature derive from Chinese influences. Chan and Zen, which mean “meditation,” emphasize individual meditative practice to achieve self-realization and, thereby, enlightenment. Rather than rely on powerful deities, Zen stresses the importance of the role of a teacher, with whom a disciple has a heart-mind connection. This allows the teacher to offer the student helpful assistance in his spiritual development. Zen also values intuition instead of habitual, logical thinking and developed expressionistic and suggestive (rather than explicit and descriptive) painting styles and poetic forms as well as illogical conundrums (koan) to stimulate one’ intuition. While Zen was first introduced into Japan several centuries earlier, it did not become firmly established until the thirteenth century, when the warrior class began to favor this school of thought.

The writer is a lay Buddhist and Human Rights Activist for People Who Use Drugs (PUDs)


Source: Imphal Free Press

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