October 27, 2011

The Ryoanji (ryou an ji, Peaceful Dragon Temple) was originally a country villa belonging to members of the powerful Fujiwara clan, which dominated the government during the Heian Period. After the clan and the estate fell on hard times due to a series of civil wars, the last owner willed it to the Zen Buddhist sect in 1450 to be converted into a temple.
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Nichiren Buddhism

Nichiren (1222–1282) was a Tendai monk who decided that all the existing schools of Buddhism were heretical and needed to return to the correct practice as expressed in the Lotus Sutra. His fierce denunciations of the practices of the Shingon, Zen, Tendai and Pure Land sects created many enemies. He was subjected to several assassination attempts and spent many years in exile. However he was a charismatic leader and was able to recruit many enthusiastic followers.

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Zen Buddhism

“Zen” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word “Chan”. Chan Buddhism was supposedly founded by an Indian monk named Bodhidharma who traveled to China in the early 5th century CE. Some scholars think that Bodhidharma is a myth, and that the sect arose in China from a combination of Buddhism with Taoist influences.

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Early Japanese Buddhist Sects

I’m not sure whether anyone is interested in any more long posts about Japanese Buddhism. This doesn’t even have too much relevance to anime. Anime often has references to Buddhism in general but it rarely singles out specific sects. (Exceptions: X (TV) has a lot of references to Shingon, and Air (TV) makes oblique references to the history of the Tendai and Pure Land sects.)

Nevertheless I ended up with a lot of notes on this subject and I think it’s worthwhile to post them somewhere. Some of this stuff is actually pretty cool, even if you don’t find it referenced in anime.

The first Buddhist missionaries arrived in Japan from the mainland in the middle of the 6th century CE, and by the early 7th century six sects had built temples in and around the capital. These were the Ritsu, Joujitsu, Kusha, Sanron, Hossou and Kegon sects. None of them made much effort to convert the common people. They were primarily sponsored by wealthy courtiers who hoped that by financing the construction of temples and monasteries they would gain spiritual benefits and worldly success. These sects are not particularly important in Japan today.

“Ritsu” means “rules for monastic living.” This is also the name of a character in K-ON, which is probably intended ironically.

In 794 Emperor Kammu moved the capital from Nara to Kyoto, then called “Heian-kyo,” thus beginning the Heian period of Japanese history (794-1185). The move undercut the sects that built their temples around Nara, and opened the way for the rise of some new, more broadly-based sects.

A Visit to the Chuang Yen Monastery

The Chuang Yen Monastery in Kent, New York doesn’t really belong in this blog’s “Japanese Culture” category since it was built by Chinese immigrants. However there is a huge amount of overlap between Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, so I’m going to treat it as “close enough.”

The Bodhi Path at the entrance is lined with statues of Gautama Buddha’s original male disciples.
Bodhi Path
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More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Buddhism and Anime

I’ve been meaning to write a long post about Japanese ideas about death, but I can’t seem to deal with that without discussing the Buddhist religion first. I’m not going to try to write a definitive introduction to Buddhism. That could fill libraries and I’m hardly an expert on the subject anyway. I’m just going to try to explain the Buddhist ideas and symbols that you might encounter in anime.

About 90 million people in Japan (out of a population of 128 million) identify themselves as Buddhists today, though most are probably not very devout and many also engage in Shinto practices. Buddhist rites are used at almost all funerals.

Only a few anime series contain explicit Buddhist messages (examples include Air (TV), Kino’s Journey and Planetes) but Buddhism permeates Japanese culture to such an extent that a Buddhist subtext can show up in almost any anime.
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