The origin of Buddhism can be traced back from Hinduism religion in India though it is important to note that its introduction to Japan was through China. Buddhism in Japan was divided into four periods as we shall discuss below. These periods include the Nara period which ran from 701-794, it was then followed by Heian period which ran from 794- 1185. The third period was the medieval period which ran from 1133-1600 and finally the modern Kyoto school. These periods shall be discussed from the earliest to the just recent.
Nara school of Buddhism (701-794)
The Nara school of Buddhism was characterized by different schools of thoughts with Sanron being the first. The Sanron school of thought denied all views or ideas which at any given time could prevent an individual from attaining enlightenment. The school was introduced in Japan by a Korean monk and though it was difficult for the Sanron school of thought to develop and be recognized as independent, many people still followed its teachings.
The Sanron School advocated for teaching of the middle path These teachings of the middle translated into four views which the school held closely in its teachings. These views were: existence, non existence, existence and non existence, neither existence nor non existence. It developed its concepts of the middle path based on the absolute and the relative truths.
The second school of thought during the Nara period was Jojitsu. This school of thought was based on two propositions. The first proposition was that phenomena are usually transitory and thus they tend to pass away. The second proposition was that both the self and the world lack the required essential substantiality.
It was also through Jujitsu that a set of practices were introduced which when followed would allow the followers to experience what the real truths are. It was only after experiencing the real truths that they would be able to differentiate reality and illusions. The school main arguments were based on how an individual could discover the real truth. The school hoped to exert the four noble truths as the best process towards enlightenment.
The third school of thought during the Nara period was Hosso. Hosso explained that reality in our lives was brought out by our minds and not from real life experience as many people tried to put it. The school explained that our mind tampers with the real truth modifying it. The modified truth is then expressed by our minds as the reality itself (manifestations of our minds) The Hosso School then divided our minds into eight consciousnesses and which included: sight, sound, smell, taste, among others.
According to this school, these consciousnesses help us in understanding the cognitive world. It is however important to understand that Hosso did not deny in the existence of the physical world, but they maintained that what people knew or thought was the real world was usually not the real world but a manipulation of our minds. If only we could perfect our conscious only that time could we have taste of what reality is all about.
Introduced under the sarvastivada traditions, the Kusha School of thought sought to explain a method through which an individual can achieve nirvana (enlightenment). To explain this, they analyzed the elemental building blocks of phenomenal reality.
In their analysis, it was concluded that for one to achieve nirvana, the individual had to undergo through the daily activities such as the acts of thinking, perceiving, willing and desiring since it was through such activities that people were able to generate the required karmic energy that collectively brought out a continuously evolving person.
Contrasting with the other schools of thoughts, Ritsu main interests were focused on the practical matters of faith and how the faith could be maintained. Ritsu in Japanese means precepts .It is all about the moral obligations which Buddhism expects from its followers. The Ritsu School of thought was all about guarding the moral issues which are concerned with the religion. It indicated that before people could be converted to monks, they had to know and understand all the rules that were contained in Vinaya.
Kegon was the last school of thought during the Nara period. This school of thought was based on how the Buddha got his enlightenment. It explored the vision that changed or transformed Gautama the father of Buddhism into a Buddha.
During the day of his enlightenment, it is claimed that he saw dharma appearing in the eyes of his mind and these dharma were mutually related and interdependent. It was therefore an assumption under this school of thought that all living things depend on each other and that the universe itself is self creating.
As a result of all these things that happened to Buddha, Kegon School explained that Buddha was like a god. He was the center and ground of the universe and all phenomenons originated from him. As a result of these views, the court accepted the presumed imagery of the central power to which all living things owned their allegiance to.
It was as a result of these teachings that the emperor saw a good chance in which he could transform himself to be the Buddha where everything would be originating from him and everybody else would have to be under him. As time went by, the emperor liked the teachings and the views of the school and gave them a temple which would be the center for their activities.
The emperor also changed his name to Roshana which when translated partially meant Buddha. The Kegon School devoted their study to the scriptures but as time progressed, it found itself on the verge of being absorbed. Even though the group resisted being assimilated by the other groups, Kegon School was never able to exist as an independent institution. This school of thought was regarded by many as the best and the most profound statement on the way people view life.
Heian schools of Buddhism (794- 1185)
The Heian period witnessed the improvement of Buddhist technology and architecture. The Buddha sculptures which had been inherited from the earlier period (Nara) were during this period modified. Making of new images of the Buddha was also being made using bronze changing from the old forms when they were made out of wood. The Heian period was marked by two schools of thought the Tendai and Shingon.
The Tendai School of thoughts contained several views which tried to relate and bring together Buddhism doctrine and some aspects of the Japanese culture. This school of thought based its foundation on Mahayana Buddhism. Tendai school of thought stated that Buddha hood as a religion was the capability to attain enlightenment.
This enlightenment or Nirvana in all living things was an aspect which came from within (intrinsic). Under Tendai school of thought, the way people view things and what they have experienced is all what Buddha law is about. However, this view brought problems to many people due to the many and different experiences people go through. Under Tendai anything as the people see it is usually on of the many expressions of Dharma.
Contrary to the Tendai school of thoughts where enlightenment was achieved intrinsically, according to Shingon, the rituals connected with the three secrets (body, mind and speech) were passed orally from whoever was giving the instructions to the student who was receiving the teachings
The Heian period was followed by the medieval period which had three main sects: the Jodoshu or the pure land school, the Hokke or the Nichren School and finally the Zen. The Jodoshu was based upon the pure land sutras.
The pure land school became prominent with the founding of the monastery which spread through China before entering in Japan where it gained its prominence slowly. According to Jodoshu, entering the pure land was like rebirth or what is commonly referred to as reincarnation. If one could enter the pure land, to the Jodoshu School, this was the same as achieving Nirvana.
The followers of Jodoshu believed that during reincarnation, the Buddha had to help the individual as he or she underwent the multiple rebirths so as to prevent losing the person or avoid the person being possessed by the devils. As a result, it was only through the help of Buddha that nirvana was achieved.
The idea behind the pure land Buddhism was based on the fact that it was very hard to achieve the enlightenment and so that’s where the Buddha comes in to help us. According to Pure Land Buddhism, enlightenment could only be achieved through the combine efforts that we make and the assistance we receive.
Compared to other schools of Buddhism when putting focus on this world, Nichren School was different. The school viewed itself as the only correct tradition and emphasized that it is the role of individual to improve themselves and that Buddha was not involved.
The school of thought argued that individuals have got the capability of empowering and then transforming themselves inside and if this happened, this would contribute to a better world. Nichren school of thought taught that enlightenment was available to anybody irrespective of what he or she did. According to Nichren, enlightenment was opening of a person’s innate Buddha characteristic in this world.
The last school of thought during the Heian period was Zen. It removed much importance on the theoretical knowledge one possessed to the self realization through the meditation and dharma practice. There were two schools of thought under Zen schools and they were the Rinzai and Soto schools.
In the Rinzai School of thoughts, the religion was marked with its emphasis on places such as kensho which meant seeing one’s nature and perceiving the self as the connector between the real and the only true Buddhism. The Rinzai believed their approach towards enlightenment was the best since the over emphasis helped in meditating.
While the two belonged to the Zen school of thought, rather than the rigorous activities one had to undergo in Rinzai before achieving enlightenment, Soto placed great importance on Zazen (sitting meditation).
The putting of much emphasis on Zazen was based on the assumption that Buddha achieved his enlightenment when he was meditating while seated. Most of the followers in Soto devoted their activities to Zazen hoping to achieve the enlightenment and move to the next level. Zazen did not only help the Soto in achieving their enlightenment but it also formed the center of their philosophy.
Kyoto school was the name which was given to Japanese scholars who absorbed the western lies about the religion and tried to reformulate it. Kyoto schools philosophy of absolute nothingness formed the fundamental basis for the members of the Kyoto school and remains on of the features which has carried much criticism since its inception. They had derived their origin from sunyata Buddhist notion.
Beginning with Sunyata which forms the basis for Kyoto school, it is hard to understand its meaning since it derives its meanings from several factors. First, Sunyata has got many meanings in the Buddhist history, and then translating its meaning to English from its nature is another difficult thing. Given the difficulties, sunyata can be said to mean nothingness or emptiness. In terms of religion, it is said to mean religious attitude or a focus meditation.
When one compares the Buddhist emptiness or the absolute nothingness of the Kyoto school of thoughts, problems arise when defining the emptiness in Buddhism. Emptiness is a difficult idea to understand not only due to the technicalities involved but also due to the fact of the many ways it has been interpreted in the history of Buddhism. Every school of thought developed its own way of defining emptiness and as a result, it was hard to define which emptiness was more representative than the other.