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How Did Buddhism Take Hold In Japan History

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After Buddhism came to Japan in the Asuka Period, this foreign religion became like your girlfriend when you switch her TV website to a football game. It blew up. The upper class in Japan couldn’t get enough of this hot new religion started by a starving guy with groovy hair. The Japanese used to build impressive burial mounds called kofun. They were huge symbols of power for the clan chieftains buried underneath.

As Buddhism got more popular, these kofun got smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller until they stopped building them altogether. It turned out that large, lively Buddhist temples commanded much more respect and awe than burial mounds. In a way, the temples replaced burial mounds as a source of bragging rights. Temples were often created after the death of important clan chieftains. It made sense, instead of a burial mound, I’d rather have a temple built in my honor where people can come from faraway to visit and worship and secretly cheat on their spouses.

Yeah, that happened. People were away from home and familiar eyes, you think they wouldn’t bone? When looking at the spread of Buddhism, we must remember that it wasn’t just about religion, it was also about politics. Buddhism was used by many sides to bolster their power. One of those sides was the Soga clan. They championed the adoption of Buddhism in Japan and used it as a way to gain authority.

Under Soga patronage, Buddhist worship was not all that different from the native worship that the Japanese believed in. Buddhist temples held religious rites that promised benefits in this world, and they performed rituals honoring dead ancestors. Both practices were common in kami worship. What helped Buddhism spread quickly was its doctrine of Ooh Shiny! You see, Buddhist worship used religious objects imported from advanced, faraway lands. These objects had an air of wonder and mystery, and made people think they could perform powerful magic.

At the time, the emperor was the spiritual leader of kami worship. This gave the Imperial Family serious spiritual power, which translates into serious influence in the real world. The Soga hungered for that influence. They thought that if the Japanese court adopted Buddhism, since they were the chief clan associated with Buddhism, they could end up at the top. Maybe even above the emperor, if Buddhism were to somehow supplant kami worship.

Unfortunately for the Soga, their constant promotion of the gospel worked too well. Empress Suiko’s second-in-command, Prince Shotoku, embraced the Buddhist philosophy. No, he bear-hugged it. The student had become the master. He was even more devout than the Soga leaders.

At the time, Prince Shotoku was taking steps to change Japan from a loose collection of clans into a centralized state, but it’s not clear where he thought Buddhism fit into his plans. It could be that he saw it as religious support for his new government. Buddhism was friendly to the idea of a state with a strong leader. Or it could be that he elevated Buddhism above all else. It transcended worldly affairs and they needed to adopt it because everyone should accept the truth of Buddhism.

Either way, he was devout. And his son, Prince Yamashiro, did not fall far from the Bodhi tree. This helps us understand why the Soga blocked Prince Yamashiro’s butt from touching the throne. The Soga leaders feared that the Buddhists would rally around the Imperial Family instead of the Soga clan. It’s a testament to Yamashiro’s faith, or foolishness, that he refused to fight for his own candidacy.

Shotoku, on his deathbed, preached to his children: “Avoid every kind of evil and practice every kind of good.” Yamashiro cited his father’s words and said he would be patient, not angry. Well, he would be dead, it turned out. Something he didn’t consider apparently. After the Soga fell from grace in 645, their fears came true. The Imperial Family drove the spread of Buddhism, taking patronage of Buddhist temples away from the Soga.

It was a time of political change, when the Imperial Family was trying to forge a powerful centralized government. Temples and Buddhist worship became a way to increase state authority, like in China and Korea. Buddhist leaders at this time gave lip service to Buddhist teachings, but mostly concerned themselves with ceremonies that were supposed to grant real-world benefits. They focused more on public spectacles and making impressive statues and art. The Japanese emperors faced an interesting problem balancing Buddhist and kami worship.

The emperor’s spiritual authority came from the fact that he or she was the high priest of kami worship. Promote Buddhism too much and it may replace the native religion, which would demolish a key pillar of their power. They needed the two religions to coexist. When emperor Tenmu came to power in 672, he made his own contributions. He paid stipends to Buddhist priests and nuns, and hosted Buddhist retreats at the Imperial palace.

Across Japan, Buddhist leaders gave speeches on sutras that propped up the state. Tenmu expanded the state temple system to the provinces, and ordered Buddhist chapels to be built in the homes of every aristocrat and local official. They were required to worship, make offerings regularly, and once a month shove a figurine of Buddha down their throats repeatedly, for enlightenment. Tenmu was mainly concerned with strengthening the state, but he did personally worship the healing Buddha, or the Medicine Buddha, who was a Buddhist figure that could heal the sick. He even had a temple built to honor him.

When Tenmu fell sick, he must have gained some comfort in praying to the Medicine Buddha. Tenmu died from his illness, but worship of the Medicine Buddha spread and became an important part of Buddhism in Japan. By the end of the Asuka Period, Buddhism had taken hold and would forever be a part of Japanese culture. Psst. were you confused by the article? There were some references to things I previously talked about, check them out in the description.

Also, shout out to the new patrons this week, Th. Fol and Brian Makepeace. I like that. Much love, guys..

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