Truth, Contradiction and Harmony in Medieval Japan: Emperor Hanazono (1297-1348) and Buddhism

Truth, Contradiction and Harmony in Medieval Japan: Emperor Hanazono (1297-1348) and Buddhism

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Truth, Contradiction and Harmony in Medieval Japan: Emperor Hanazono (1297-1348) and Buddhism

By Andrew Goble

The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Vol.12:1 (1989)

Introduction: The thirteenth century witnessed an explosion of Buddhist thought that articulated two quite distinct philosophical approaches. One, represented by the two schools of Zen (Rinzai and Soto), stressed self-discipline and the quest for enlightenment; the other, represented by various popular sects (Pure Land, True Pure Land, Lotus Sect,/* or Timely) articulated the philosophy of salvation through external grace. Both of these developments represented a move outside of the framework within which the traditional schools, with their enormous sacral and secular influence, had contained these philosophies as subsidiary currents within their own teaching traditions. Nonetheless, the “older Buddhism” (as it is often referred to), particularly that of the Tendai school centered at Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei, actually weathered the assault rather well. True, Enryakuji’s defense of its position was sometimes conducted in the basest secular terms (the desecration of Honen’s tomb and the attempt to dismember the body and throw the pieces into the Kamo River being perhaps the most graphic example); but the temple complex as a center of theory managed to maintain its overall eclecticism and continued to exercise a strong influence as a viable and integral part of the philosophical world. In otherwords, Kamakura Buddhism was not monopolized by the newer schools which have traditionally drawn the attention of western scholars.

The philosophical world of medieval Japan (here the 12th through 16th centuries, though other periodizations are possible) was a rich and multifaceted one. In the political and ethical realms Chinese thought continued to exercise an extremely strong influence; “native” Shinto thought experienced a strong resurgence; numerous streams of Buddhism (as noted) were in full flow; and in addition there were several widely acknowledged “cultural” concepts—mappo, the age of degeneration; mujo, the idea of impermanence; and michi, the idea and practice of following a particular path through which is revealed universal truths and understanding—which could easily take on lives of their own (this is particularly evident in literature). It is possible, for heuristic purposes, to regard each element on its own, but it is evident that, even should we come across dissonance and contradiction among any of these, they were regarded by medieval Japanese as coexisting without inherent contradiction since it was generally assumed that each represented an equally valid approach to the truths of the world which could be apprehended by humans in their relativity.

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