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A History of the Japanese People by F. Brinkley

Kamatari approved of his eldest son


BUDDHISM IN THE NARA EPOCH

From what has been related above of the priests Kanshin and Gembo, it will have been observed that the Emperor Shomu was an earnest disciple of Buddhism. The heritage of administrative reforms bequeathed to him by Tenchi and Temmu should have engrossed his attention, but he subserved everything to religion, and thus the great national work, begun in the Daika era and carried nearly to completion in the Daiho, suffered its first check. Some annalists have pleaded in Shomu's behalf that he trusted religious influence to consolidate the system introduced by his predecessors. However that may be, history records as the most memorable event of his reign his abdication of the throne in order to enter religion, thus inaugurating a practice which was followed by several subsequent sovereigns and which materially helped the Fujiwara family to usurp the reality of administrative power. Shomu, on receiving the tonsure, changed his name to Shoman, and thenceforth took no part in secular affairs.

In all this, however, his procedure marked a climax rather than a departure. In fact, never did any foreign creed receive a warmer welcome than that accorded to Buddhism by the Japanese after its first struggle for tolerance. Emperor after Emperor worshipped the Buddha. Even Tenchi, who profoundly admired the Confucian philosophy and whose experience of the Soga nobles' treason might well have prejudiced him against the faith they championed; and even Temmu, whose ideals took the forms of frugality and militarism, were lavish in their offerings at Buddhist ceremonials. The Emperor Mommu enacted a law for the better control of priests and nuns, yet he erected the temple Kwannon-ji. The great Fujiwara statesmen, as Kamatari, Fuhito, and the rest, though they belonged to a family (the Nakatomi) closely associated with Shinto worship, were reverent followers of the Indian faith. Kamatari approved of his eldest son, Joye, entering the priesthood, and sent him to China to study the Sutras. He also gave up his residence at Yamashina for conversion into a monastery. Fujiwara Fuhito built the Kofuku-ji, and his son, Muchimaro, when governor of Omi, repaired temples in the provinces, protected their domains, and erected the Jingu-ji.

That among the occupants of the throne during 165 years, from 593 to 758, no less than seven were females could not but contribute to the spread of a religion which owed so much to spectacular effect. Every one of these sovereigns lent earnest aid to the propagation of Buddhism, and the tendency of the age culminated in the fanaticism of Shomu, re-enforced as it was by the devotion of his consort, Komyo. Tradition has woven into a beautiful legend the nation's impression of this lady's piety. In an access of humility she vowed to wash the bodies of a thousand beggars. Nine hundred and ninety-nine had been completed when the last presented himself in the form of a loathsome leper. Without a sign of repugnance the Empress continued her task, and no sooner was the ablution concluded than the mendicant ascended heavenwards, a glory of light radiating from his body. It is also told of her that, having received in a dream a miniature golden image of the goddess of Mercy (Kwannon) holding a baby in her arms, she conceived a daughter who ultimately reigned as the Empress Koken.*

*The resemblance between the legend and the Buddhist account of the Incarnation is plain. It has to be remembered that Nestorians had carried Christianity to the Tang Court long before the days of Komyo.

In spite, however, of all this zeal for Buddhism, the nation did not entirely abandon its traditional faith. The original cult had been ancestor worship. Each great family had its uji no Kami, to whom it made offerings and presented supplications. These deities were now supplemented, not supplanted. They were grafted upon a Buddhist stem, and shrines of the uji no Kami became uji-tera, or "uji temples."* Thenceforth the temple (tera) took precedence of the shrine (yashiro). When spoken of together they became ji-sha. This was the beginning of Ryobu Shinto, or mixed Shinto, which found full expression when Buddhist teachers, obedient to a spirit of toleration born of their belief in the doctrines of metempsychosis and universal perfectibility, asserted the creed that the Shinto Kami were avatars (incarnations) of the numerous Buddhas.


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