In the sixth century A.D., Mahayana Buddhism began to dominate Japan alongside an earlier animistic religion, Shinto ("the way of gods"). Shinto apparently began with worship of the environment and of spirits seen as related to mountains, rivers, and other forces of nature. Buddhism, more universal in scope, coexisted with Shinto and along with Shinto became Japan's established doctrine under the powerful leader Shotoku (574Ð622).
Mahayana Buddhists in Japan were aware of another faith that emphasized the work of a savior. Christian missionaries, obeying Christ's command to take the gospel to every nation, may have reached China as early as a.d. 61. There they proclaimed a faith soon known as Keikyo, the "Shining Religion." A few believers set up Keikyo temples in Chinese provinces and hopped the sea as well, perhaps arriving in Japan as early as a.d. 200. Their early base was Kyoto: Old writing found in that city's Uzumasa area contains the same Chinese characters used in China to refer to the Keikyo church there.
According to the late Dr. Yoshiroh Saeki, a professor at Waseda University, a Keikyo priest paid an official visit to Japan's emperor around a.d. 475. Soon after more than 2,000 Keikyo believers, members of the Hata clan, came to Japan. As the Christian concept of a suffering savior apparently influenced Mahayana Buddhism, so the story of Christ's birth may have pushed Japanese legend-making. Current missionary Mark Dominey has translated the birth account of Prince Shotoku: According to the story, while Shotoku's mother was a virgin the Buddha appeared to her and said he wanted to borrow her womb.
Kyoto Christians built a church in a.d. 622, according to a thesis by Mario Marega. Keikyo priests and physicians visited Emperor Shomu in 737, according to the Imperial Chronicles, and talked with family members about Christ. The empress apparently became a believer and put her faith into practice by establishing a hospital and orphanage. But early Christianity never attained anything more than the slightest of footholds. One reason may be that then as now, Christians emphasized Christ's teaching that He is the way, the truth, and the life; they refused to syncretize their beliefs with those of others. Mahayana Buddhists, however, found a place in their religion for Shinto and even Confucian ideas, and became Japan's dominant religious power.
It soon became apparent that Buddhists would misuse power just as others did. Buddhists were not the pacifists most are today. Buddhists of the Mahayana sect known as Tendai believed that they could only take advantage of what bodhisattvas offered by becoming spiritually and physically tough. They made an armed camp of their center of power on Mt. Hiei, which overlooks Kyoto, Japan's capital from 794 until the move to Tokyo in 1868. Enryaku-ji, the mountain's first temple, went up in 788, and Buddhists built 3,000 more temples over the next 700 years. Buddhists in the late 10th century began basing there an army of many thousands that became known for overthrowing emperors at will. Emperor Shirakawa (1056Ð1129) listed as the "three things which I cannot bring under obedience" dice, the waters of a rushing river, and the priests on Mt. Hiei.
The Enryaku-ji Buddhists also burned down temples of competing sects, and even destroyed one temple, Mi-dera, nine times over a 250-year period. One historian of Kyoto, Gouverneur Mosher, noted that "Buddhism did not retard war but rather promoted it." The Tendai were Buddhism's Delta Force, and on Mount Hiei today some Tendai monks do kugyo (in two side-by-side, linked temples) similar to what their predecessors did a millennium ago. One monk at a time spends nine days in the Jogyo-Do (constant walking) and Hokke-Do (sitting meditation) temples: There he fasts, drinks only a little water, and tries hard not to fall asleep.
One monk explained the goal: "If we can remove the desire for food or sleep, we can get closer to the goal of leaving behind all desire." Those who fall asleep are supposed to start all over again, but "it's for the individual to tell what happened to him." Another Mt. Hiei temple, Shyaka-do, is the base for elite monks who are supposed to walk for at least 18 miles a day for 100 days up and down the mountain's steep slopes. Others, wearing straw sandals, try to do 1,000 days of walking 50 miles a day. (The monks I asked were vague on how often this was done over the centuries or how often it's done now.)
Regardless of such impressive goals and fanatical records, many Japanese were unhappy being dominated by Mt. Hiei's Buddhists. They asked why a religion preaching nonattachment was yielding such attachment to power. Reform movements spread through Buddhism, each preaching different ways of fixing the evident problems. Three alternatives to the Tendai attempted to gain adherents.
The monk Kukai founded Shingon Buddhism in 816, only 28 years after the founding of Tendai temples on Mt. Hiei, but Shingon monks generally stayed out of politics. (They located their temples on mountaintops not to cow government officials but to remain independent of them.) Today, Shingon Buddhists pride themselves on having had their doctrine embraced by the imperial family until 1868, and they talk of the amazing things their founder, Kukai, purportedly did. (Believers say he did not die but remains in a meditative trance, able and willing to return to the world when needed.)
Today, Shingon jushoku (chief abbot) Koyu Hosokawa is intensely proud of his "physically severe exercises in cold water, or firewalking [on coals]. Like Tendai, we have exercises for the best." He is proud of helping Yamamoto Maya travel from "the so-called real world in which she was living" to "the truly real world on the temple mountain." He is proud of the training that young men like Takagi Kinho go through, even describing with slapstick glee how trainees whose legs had gone to sleep during four hours of lotus-position chanting had fallen down the lacquered stairs.
Shingon practitioners, like most other Buddhists, do a lot of chanting. "Shingon means 'true word'; we have lots of true words," the jushoku explained, and one Shingon practice is to recite a favorite sutra "20,000 times each day for 50 days." Such effort is not a new idea; Elijah on Mount Carmel taunted the prophets of Baal for chanting for their god hour after hour. But the jushoku, fingering his rosary, insisted that chanting is not in vain for those with the "special power to reach enlightenment ... a special voice that opens us up to the whole universe is speaking, but only those who have the ability to hear will hear it. It takes practice to develop that ability."
Some who were disappointed with Japan's condition but did not want to try extreme and severe ascetic practice headed to zazen (meditation), developed in the 12th and 13th centuries by teachers who had studied in India and China. Zen Buddhists taught that the faithful should pay no attention to rational thought processes. They came up with famous Zen questions-"What is the sound of one hand clapping?"-designed to force thinkers to conclude that rational thought is inadequate and should be abandoned. (The most famous Christian medieval question-"How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?"-was designed to produce the opposite of mysticism: Students were expected to think through the problem and conclude that an infinite number could, since angels are incorporeal spirits.)
The Zen emphasis on paradox applied even to its own methods: Teachers spoke of "sudden enlightenment" that could be gained by long periods of practice in meditation. Zen became hot among the elite, such as among samurai warriors who believed they could enter a Zen zone while swordfighting or shooting arrows. Today, Thomas Kirchner, an American who has lived in Japan for three decades and is now the caretaker of a Zen temple in Kyoto, says other Buddhist ideas are "dumbing down," but he doesn't hold that against them: "Differing abilities are best addressed by differing paths. Some people are more contemplatively inclined, others more devotionally inclined, others more intellectually inclined."
Mr. Kirchner grew up Roman Catholic in New Haven but became "a doubter enthralled by a doubt-based religion, Zen Buddhism." An undergraduate at Duke in the late '60s, he questioned everything until a visiting Zen Buddhist gave a lecture; Mr. Kirchner thought, "I don't know what there is about that guy, but what he has I want." Mr. Kirchner soon went to Japan and adhered to Zen because it struck him as the anti-faith faith: "Zen says, 'You doubt? Great. You haven't doubted enough.'" He still participates in orthodox Buddhist activities like monastic retreats, but he noted when we spoke in Kyoto that often the "last thing you want to do is meditate." He also criticized university life where he "saw people utterly distorting Buddhist spirituality so they could get tenure." But he still carries on university work alongside his temple duties, and emphasizes points of contact between the Buddhist and Christian traditions.
During the 13th-century time of troubles, another tough sect grew out of Tendai and began emphasizing the importance of anger and political involvement. This sect's founder, Nichiren (1222Ð1282), a learned monk, attacked unmercifully "evil" forms of Buddhism, including Shingon and Zen, and developed a political solution based on theology. He thought that Gautama Buddha as he aged had gradually revealed more and more of the true way to live. He argued that the Buddha's final opus, the Lotus Sutra, was the Buddha's only true, inerrant revelation. Therefore, according to Nichiren, Buddhists should all day long repeat the mystic phrase "Namu Myoho Renge Kyo," which means "Hail to the Lotus Sutra." If people all over Japan would only do that, Nichiren proclaimed, Japan would become a wonderful land in which people could more readily ascend spiritually.
Thus, for Nichiren, politics was next to godliness, and crucial for the success of Nichiren's mission: If Nichiren adherents could gain power and command all Japanese to recite the Lotus Sutra, everything would change. Nichiren's anger only intensified as he suffered persecution and then exile for 11 years to a remote island. He attracted those dismayed by Buddhist monks who averted their eyes from problems that could break into their meditative day. Nichiren did not weep as Jesus did when confronted by the death of a friend; instead, when an epidemic occurred, Nichiren raged at government officials, claiming that their bad karma (as well as the misdeeds of other Buddhists) caused the deaths.
Soon, entire villages filled with anger adhered to Nichiren ideas and demonstrated-sometimes fought-against other Buddhist sects. Today, Japan's Sokka Gakkai-"Value-Creation Society"-is a Nichiren group with perhaps 6 million to 8 million well-organized members. Its daily newspaper, Seikyo Shimbun, has a circulation of 3 million. Its political wing, the New Komeito-"Clean Government"-Party has 31 of the 480 seats in the Japanese parliament, thus making it the third-largest party.
I met two Sokka Gakkai leaders, Masaya Tomooka and Shigemi Furukawa, at their Kansai Culture Center in Osaka, and heard Mr. Tomooka's claim that "self-actualization" comes less through meditation than through "constructive engagement in securing the welfare of others." According to this semi-secularized Buddhism, "Nichiren did not teach to eradicate all desires, but to direct desires in the right direction." For Nichiren followers, Buddhism is not an ascetic, reclusive, or passive religion; it is Japan's religious left, pressing for more centralized power that Sokka Gakkai can then use to get all Japanese chanting from the same page.