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Interpretation of Some Tendai Concepts of Bodhisattva in Japan’s Pre-Modern and Modern Periods
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The present study is concerned with the problem of some aspects of the Tendai Buddhist Sect’s philosophy and its interpretations in pre-modern and modern Japan. The Tendai’s image of “Monk-Bodhisattva” first created by the school’s founder, Saicho (767‒822), (posthumous name―Dengyo Daishi), was selected as the object of study. This author posits that the changing interpretations of this conception could illuminate the complex relationships between Tendai, state and society in modern Japan. Also, this study of the modern image of Saicho’s philosophy and its role in Tendai’s contemporary social movement “Ichigu wo terasu” could explain the growing interest in this Buddhist philosophy in the modern Western world.

Tendai , Monk-Bodhisattva , Saicho , “Ichigu wo terasu.”
  • I. The Conception of “Monk-Bodhisattva” in the Tendai School

    The image of “Monk-Bodhisattva” is one of the basic aspects of the philosophy of the Tendai school of Japanese Buddhism. First it was created by its founder, Dengyo Daishi, known by his monastic name “Saicho” (767‒822), who found the basis of this image in the Brahmajala Sutra (Bommokyo) as one of the arguments that the activity of the Buddhist sangha could protect state from the threat of foreign invasion and natural calamities. It was translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva in 406 and considered as a sutra of precepts. This sutra describes so called “The Way of Bodhisattva” composed of Ten Stages, which means that a Bodhisattva shouldn’t merely follow these percepts but admonish all living beings to live and act accordingly to them. Passage of stages coordinates, in turn, with the observance of the Ten Fundamental Bodhisattva Precepts (jujukai 十重戒), defining their behavioral installations: not to sell wine; not to tell about crimes and errors of both monks and laymen; not to praise himself and not to insult others; not to be greedy; not to be angry; not to slander the “Three Treasures”; not to kill live beings; not to steal; not to lie; not to behave obscenely. These ten basic precepts are supplemented with 48 “light ones” (Groner 1984, 123).

    Actually, the “Bodhisattva” concept in the Mahayana Buddhism is divided into two categories. First, it is a class of the heavenly beings which have reached enlightenment, but continue to be born in samsara in order to help others to be released. At second, it is a special class of monks and laymen who vowed to reach the Enlightenment from compassion to other beings, instead of just for itself.

    Accordingly, the Bodhisattva itself should not only follow to ten percepts, but also lead other people on the right path. Only this way he could obtain the qualities of a Bodhisattva: tolerance, intuition, renunciation, concentration, virtue, practice, and also congenital―analytical and contemplative―intellectual force. Because its main objective is the care for all suffering beings, he also should take active part in worldly life.

    The spiritual legacy of Dengyo Daishi is preserved in Tendai’s philosophy and regulations but in our days it still has become actualized in the modern Japanese religious situation. It involves the drastic changes in traditional Japanese Buddhism within the last two hundred years.

    II. Interpretations of “Defending the Nation” in Tendai during the Pre-modern and Modern Periods

    After so called “Meiji Restoration” in 1868 the new government began a separation of Buddhism and state. First of all, the state relieved many temples of properties bequeathed by the Edo government. Because the Tendai sect held many temples closely associated with the Tokugawa family, the rules of the Edo-period government, Tendai suffered more acutely than the Jodo Shin, Soto, and Nichiren sects (Covell 2006, 65).

    The second step was the legalization of clergy’s marriage which led to the significant changes in the life of Buddhist priests. The very distinction between world-renouncer and householder lost particular meaning and priests joined the ranks of other citizens. On the other hand, it led to appearance of so called “temple families” or Buddhist priest’s families. These families replaced the traditional Buddhist connection between master and disciple by the priest’s children’s (sons) temple’s inheritance.

    In spite of this, Buddhism continued to participate actively in national social and political life.

    During Imperial Japan’s war with China (1894‒95), Russo-Japanese War (1904‒5) and Japan’s war in the Pacific (1941‒45) the Buddhist sangha was allowed the opportunity to serve their fellow citizens and the state as the “state protectors” (chingo kokka 鎮護 国家). For example, in Taisho Buddhist University special “national devotion armies” (hokokutai) were created, which were sent to join the war in Manchuria from 1939 to 1941 (Ikeda 1996, 91‒93).

    The leaders of Tendai as far as the other Buddhist schools, supporting Taisho, didn’t protested against the war, but, on the contrary, tried to include young priests in the government war campaign.

    Yamada Etai, the most influential head priest (zasu) of the Tendai sect in the postwar period, records the following conversation with his master. When he asked what should he do if he goes into the army and will have to eat meat and kill other people, his master replied:

    This master’s speech reminds us of the following passage from Saicho’s petition send to imperial court in 818:

    In Saicho’s petition, as well as in his other compositions, Hinayana is opposed to Mahayana as a teaching for Shravakas and Pratyeka-Buddhas, as they strived towards their own salvation. That’s why the way of Hinayana couldn’t lead to Buddha’s mind. Saicho used this metaphor to show the difference of his “Bodhisattva’s community” to Nara Buddhist schools which he blamed on Hinayanism. In Yamada Eitai’s master’s speech the followers of Mahayana are shown as a Dharma protectors, capable for all measures, in comparison with Hinayanists who actually are just formalists. So, Saicho’s argumentation that Buddhist temples are like fortresses and the Buddhist priests are like the brave soldiers tended to be interpreted as a nationalistic stance during war eras.

    This is not to say that the all the Tendai clergy supported the war policies. Some priests protested; however, they were few in number; and, what is more relevant to the lingering image of Buddhism as once subservient to the state, Buddhist sects as a whole denounced members who stood against the war. For example, the members of the “Youth Alliance for New Buddhism” (Shinkobukkyo Seinen Domei) which had been founded in 1931 in Tokyo protested against war and called for a return to the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha (Koike, Shigenori, and Murakami 1978, 81‒116).

    In the post-war period, Buddhists publicly recognized the role they played in prewar and war times of Japan’s imperialistic efforts. Sugitani Gijun wrote the following in 1995, when he was director-general of Tendai sect:

    More recently, in September 2002, Nishioka Ryoko, the director-general of the Tendai sect, made a personal apology for the sect’s support of war efforts at the religion and peace summit sponsored by the Vatican.

    III. The “Light Up Your Corner” Movement

    The post-war period brought new changes and ordeals to traditional Japanese Buddhism. The economic rise in the 1960s and 1970s led to an increase of urbanization and as a consequence to the break of a great part of the population with their local Buddhist temples. On the other hand the appearance of new religions also caused a reduction of Buddhist followers. Lastly, economic changes in Japan were also reflected in the lives of Buddhist clergy. Before Buddhist clergymen in Japan were sustained by state as officials. Nowadays many local temples subsist by donations and ritual-services income. Because the number of parishioners has been reduced the money picked out for temple’s maintenance always not enough. Therefore local priests were forced to raise the cost of Buddhist services (funerals and so on), and engaged in other works.

    This all formed the image of “corrupt Buddhism” (daraku bukkyo 堕落仏教) in modern Japanese society.

    In 1975 a social examination about the image of the Buddhist priests, organized by the Soto sect, showed that 75% of examined didn’t know the history of the sect’s foundation, 40% find difficulty in answer what Buddhist deity is established in their temple and 80% declared that Buddhist temple is the place of their ancestor’s inhabitance and the priest is the temple keeper.

    During the social movements of 1960s and 1970s most Buddhist sects began similar ones aimed at refiguring themselves as people’s organizations (minshu kyodan 民衆 教団).

    The Tendai sect also start up a popularly-focused movement “Light Up Your Corner” (Ichigu wo terasu, 一隅を照らす).

    This movement was based on the following words of Dengyo Daishi which appeared in the beginning of his work the Sange-gakushō-shiki (Rokujō-shiki):

    Around the very term “light up your corner” raged a scholarly debate. Some scholars, such as Fukui Kojun, hold the view that a character in the original text has been misread. They argue that what had been read as “sen” 千 (one thousand) should be read as wo を (a particle making verb). Reading the character as wo results in the phrase “ichigu wo terasu” (light up your corner) and supports the use of that phrase as the name of the movement. However, others (i.e., Okubo Ryoshin) argue that this is an incorrect reading and, therefore, an incorrect interpretation of Saicho’s teaching. They argue that the character in question should be read as sen. The meaning of the phrase would then be “light up one thousand, and defend and maintain your corner” (sen wo terasu, ichigu wo mamoru) (Covell 2006, 46).

    One of the movement’s achievements is a creation of a social program by which the “Three Practices” strengthened the bonds between temples and families and parishioners involvement in sect-sponsored activities for bettering society.

    The first of the Three Practices is the practice of Living in Harmony, which means protecting the environment and thus furthering awareness of the co-dependent nature of existence. For example, due to the movement’s thirtieth-anniversary a tree-planting effort was undertaken on Mt. Hiei to repair the damage caused in the Saito area by a typhoon (Ibid., 51).

    At the same time Living in Harmony means a return to traditional Japanese society. Tendai leaders consider that due to economical growth the Japanese lost their traditional moral values, which explains the rising of divorces, birth reducing and high percentage of suicides. As an example the following words of Saicho are often quoted:

    This statement taken from the official Tendai homepage means that one can never find true happiness (enlightenment) within consumerism and mass consumption. However, within the search of true happiness one’s material needs will be met.

    The second practice is Service. This practice centers on service to society, especially through volunteer activities. It has two divisions: inner and international.

    Nowadays, the international practice of Service of the “Light Up Your Corner Movement” is expressed in supporting the work of UNICEF, supporting the work of the Duang Prateep Foundation which is registered as an NGO in Thailand, supporting the building and keeping of the children’s house by the Pannya-Metta Association which is registered as an NGO in India, building schools in remote places where few or no schools exist in Laos P.D.R.2

    In Japan the program “Service” means to involve volunteers in social projects. The following words of Saicho became its slogan:

    In this passage Saicho compared the Confucious ideal “the man of virtue” with “Bodhisattva-monk” to show that they both are the “treasure of the nation.” It means that their service to the state is nesessary for the national wealth and prosperity.

    At the Tendai official homepage it is interpreted as:

    This interpretation shows the very meaning of “Service”: individual activities lead not only to help others but to the better one’s character. In practice “Service” appears in charity and social programs. Recently many local temples have organized kindergartens for working moms, day-care facilities for the eldery and bereaved people, and young monks have been involved in these projects. The other activities are: assisting with domestic disaster relief and support operations, supporting programs to provide educational opportunities for low-income children, carrying out street-level fund-raising campaigns in all parts of Japan.

    The last of the Three Practices is Life. It means the realization that happiness is this birth in a human body, because only people could perceive the teachings of Buddha. As Saicho declared in his composition “Gammon”:

    It means that all human beings must be treated with respect and dignity, because human life is such a precious thing. In terms of the “Light Up Your Corner Movement” it calls for revitalization of the institute of traditional Japanese family, venerating its ancestors and keeping bonds with Buddhist temple. A return to the practice of ancestor veneration would solve not only Japan’s current values crisis, but also the negative image of temple Buddhism.

    This program was realized only in part because Tendai in fact couldn’t involve most of its parishioners in the movement. Therefore, the leading roles in the movement were taken by the Buddhist priests.

    However, the movement still continue its activities, participating in various international projects and organizing its own ones on the anniversaries of the sect’s foundation.

    1http://www.tendai.or.jp/thewordsofdengyodaishi/.  2http://www.tendai.or.jp/lightupyourcornermovement/.  3http://www.tendai.or.jp/thewordsofdengyodaishi/.

    IV. Some Aspects of Tendai Philosophy and Modern Psychology

    It is interesting to note that the question on Tendai’s future in the modern world were already raised in the western scientific community in the 1980s. The researcher David Chapell in article “Is Tendai Buddhism Relevant to the Modern World?” has point on the similarity of Tendai’s “Four Doctrines” (Shikyo 四教) with the results of researches in the field of modern psychology. As Chapell informs us, Lawrence Kohlberg, the director of the Center for Moral Education, Harvard University, has found similarity of this doctrine to certain stages of moral development of an individual (Chapell 1987, 247‒66).

    According to Tendai doctrine, developed by the school’s founder Zhiyi, all Buddhist doctrines should be divided into four categories: 1) Doctrines About Three Storehouses (Sanzokyo 三蔵教)―doctrines of Hinayana, Tripitaka; 2) Penetration Doctrines (Tsukyo 通教)―early Mahayana doctrines; 3) Special Doctrines (Bekkyo 別教)―the doctrines intended only for Bodhisattvas; 4) Circular Doctrine (Engyo 円教)―Buddha doctrines, and, accordingly, the doctrines of Tendai (Hurvitz 1962, 268).

    Investigating various stages of moral development, Kohlberg has paid attention to its similarity to the Shikyo Doctrine in following areas: 1) There are recognizable and distinct stages in the moral development of people; 2) The same words, concepts, and actions have different meanings, causes, and consequences at different levels of development; 3) Basically the stages are progressive, and because the new stages are more convincing or satisfying there is little retrogression to earlier stages; 4) Discussion about moral action will be confused and conflicting if people are operating or speaking across different levels of development; 5) Even though the content of specific decisions may differ across cultures, the principles of each stage of moral development are universal and cross-cultural.

    According to Kohlberg and Chapell the comparative analysis of dogmatic concepts of Tendai and methods of research of modern psychology could help us understand the meaning of ancient Buddhist treatises and also bring a fresh air into modern religious life. As the author of article tells: “Communication of Buddhist philosophy and modern psychotherapy can direct and stimulate the spiritual development of modern people” (Chapell 1987, 264‒65).

    The research made by D. Chapell, in my opinion, could explain why the “Service” practice of the movement Ichigu wo Terasu is directed towards international cooperation. First of all, it is connected with the high interest in Buddhism in the modern Western world during last 40 years. It is possible that the leader’s “Ichigu wo terasu,” understanding the important socio-political value of Buddhism in the modern world, don’t want to stand aside from this process. It is necessary to notice that Tendai’s programs of international cooperation and mutual aid are continually criticized by the Japanese society. On the one hand this criticism is absolutely fair, but on the other, it is possible to assume that the activity by Tendai of participation under the pertinent social, political and ecological questions in the modern international community will appear more successful, there is a higher probability that it can find alternative ways of exiting from the ideological crisis of traditional Japanese Buddhism.

    V. Conclusion

    The spiritual and philosophical heritage of Saicho (Dengyo Daishi), the founder of the Tendai Sect, continues to remain its ideological basis. During the modern history of Japan his ideas had various interpretations, at times mutually exclusive, depending on the changing political and social conditions in the country. Nowadays, the traditional Buddhism in Japan has lost its former positions because of the occurrence of new religious movements. And it would be possible for us to conclude that Saicho’s doctrines would have new interpretations for the needs of the Tendai school’s modern development in the future.

      >  Glossary


    Bekkyo (J) 別教

    Chingo kokka (J) 鎮護 国家

    Daraku bukkyo (J) 堕落仏教

    Engyo (J) 円教

    Ichigu wo terasu (J) 一隅を照らす

    Jujukai (J) 十重戒

    Minshu kyodan (J) 民衆教団

    Sanzokyo (J) 三蔵教

    Shikyo (J) 四教

    Tsukyo (J) 通教

  • 1. Abe Ryuichi 1999 The Weaving of Mantra: Kukai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. google
  • 2. Chapell D. W. 1987 “Is Tendai Buddhism Relevant to the Modern World?” [Japanese Journal of Religious Studies] Vol.14 P.250-66 google
  • 3. Covell S. G. 2006 Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation. google
  • 4. Groner P. 1984 Saicho: The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School. Berkley Buddhist Studies Series 7. google
  • 5. Hurvitz L. 1962 Chin-I: An Introduction to the Life and Ideas of a Chinese Buddhist Monk. Vol. 12 of Melanges Chinois et Bouddhiques. google
  • 6. Ikeda Eishun 1996 Zusetsu Nihon Bukkyo no Rekishi: Kindai [The Modern History of Japanese Buddhism]. google
  • 7. Koike Kenji, Nishikawa Shigenori, Shigeyoshi Murakami 1978 Shukyo Danatsu wo Monogataru [The Story of Religious Repressions]. google
  • 8. 1969 Sange Gakush? Shiki 山家?生式. Vol. 1. google
  • 9. 2011 Tendai official website google
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