An Overview of the History of Japanese Buddhism

Vol 2. Japanese Buddhism in Nara Period

Write by Yukari Misawa

Translated by Shimizu Chatori

  The history of Japan is roughly divided into the Asuka period, the Nara period, the Heian period, the Kamakura period, the Muromachi period, the Sengoku period, the Edo period, and the modern age (to be more detailed, the Kamakura period and the Sengoku period can be further divided into smaller periods, however, they are omitted as it is not of importance in this article). Among the periods listed above, it is said that Buddhism – mentioned in my previous article – was introduced to Japan during the Asuka period. In this article, I wish to observe how Japanese Buddhism developed during the Nara period (710-794).

  The Nara period was still an age where China and the Korean Peninsula heavily influenced Japan, not only limited to Japanese Buddhism, but also for Japanese culture as a whole. One of our journal’s authors, Emi Kanazawa, who wrote in detail about the history and techniques of Japanese painting, has also written in detail of how Japanese culture was originally imported from China and tried to inherit the style as it is, so please refer to her article for more information.

In any case, Japan tends to first accept foreign cultures as an advanced phenomena, and then to Japanify them.


  The Buddhist denominations that flourished in Japan during the Nara period are now collectively called Nanto Rokushu (or “The Six Schools of Nara Buddhism”). The names of the denominations are as follows:

Sanronshu (三論宗)

Jojitsushu (成実宗)

Hossoushu (法相宗)

Kushashu (倶舎宗)

Kegonshu (華厳宗)

Risshu (律宗)

  There are currently no denominations of these that are independent and established as religious organizations. I think that being a stand-alone religious organization is based on the premise that clerics can be educated only by that denomination. Currently, these denominations still exist in names, however, the temples of these denominations are preserved for their historical values and are run by monks who were all educated in other denominations. After all, it is no exaggeration to say that the doctrines of these denominations have been lost in terms of faith.

  The above mentioned denominations may resemble the current state of heretical factions in Christian history. The Gnostics and other denominations, regarded as heretic by the councils, still retain its ideology academically. However, no one teaches the ideology in faith, nor believes in them. In Japan, while the denominations no longer worshiped are not considered as heretic, and is preserved as historical worth, perhaps we can explain the difference between monotheism and polytheism (in this case, polytheism is mainly the ancient Japanese religious view – Shinto and Buddhism, while different, works as a fusion).

The Reason for Nara Buddhism’s Decline

  So why did Nara Buddhism decline?

  In short, the teachings are too difficult. It is generally said that Japanese people are diligent, however, I personally am unable to fully agree on this statement – from the viewpoint of study and ideology especially, the tendency of laziness is remarkable.

  The doctrines of all the six denominations of Nanto are too difficult. These denominations have a strong philosophical aspect, and were not preferred by the political leaders of the time. For those political leaders, religion was expected to have a magical effect. These tendencies can be seen from the fact that the denominations that prospered during the Heian period were different from the Nanto Rokushu and centered on esoteric Buddhism with a strong ritual element. Faith cannot be cultivated by a theory that is difficult for the majority, and this trend is true to this day. Faith often arises from sensibilities and social unity. It can be said that Nanto Rokushu failed to manage the religious organization because it could not incorporate these.

Each Doctrine in Details

  As mentioned above, the doctrine of Nanto Rokushu has a strong philosophical aspect, and it is necessary to write multitudes to describe it accurately. Furthermore, I am unable to say that it is possible for me to describe the teachings accurately. Therefore, this time I would like to limit myself to the dictionary explanation of these denominations.


  Being one of the Mahayana Buddhist denominations of China and East Asia, it relies on the “Three Theories” that combine the “Mulamadhyamaka” and “Twelve Gates” of the Indian Madhyamaka, and the “Hyakuron” of its disciple Aryadeva. It is also known as “Kushu” or “Sky denominations”, as it advocates the sky (simply speaking, the idea of the sky is that all things are everchanging, and there is no such thing as a static “self”).

  The Madhyamaka have originally taught auspiciousness (all things have a causal relationship), the śūnya ideologies (the idea that all things are caused by auspiciousness, so there is no essence), and centrism (all things are various, denying extremism and advocating that nothing can be explained in black and white). Around 150-200 of Nagarjuna in India, it was one of the two major factions, with the other being the Yogachara. The above mentioned three books describe the ideas taught by Sanronshu in detail.

Jojitsushu (Satyasiddhi)

  This denomination focuses on the Buddhist theory of “Tattvasiddhi”, written by Harivarman.

Harivarman was an Indian priest who lived around the 4th century, and “Tattvasiddhi” is a Chinese translation by Kumārajīva. However, the original text in Sanskrit is lost.

“Tattvasiddhi” is not only the position of Mahayana Buddhism, but also heavily influenced by the idea of Sarvāstivādin, which is considered an Early Buddhist School. and the idea of Mahayana Buddhism. Sarvāstivādin is centered on the idea that the law (the law in the sense of Buddhism; the truth of the world) is not real and is based on the sky (空?). Furthermore, it views the human mind in two parts. In the modern sense, it can be interpreted as “reason vs. emotion/reflex”.


  A denomination that inherits the idea of ​​ Yogachara. As mentioned in the Sanronshu, Yogachara formed two major factions in early Buddhism in India. As the name suggests, the idea can be learned by practicing yoga. The doctorine states that there exists a deep psychology (Arai Yasushi), and it is this deep psychology which forms both our consciousness and the outside world one can recognize.

  I personally find it interesting that these ideas are becoming more scientifically reliable, as today’s physics continues to develop.

Hossoushu was brought into Japan by the famous Chinese monk Xuanzang. His story of his travels in India has been written as a fantasy-like style, and it is no exaggeration to say that almost all Japanese know his name.


  A denomination based on “Abhidharma-kośa” written by Vasubandhu. Vasubandhu (India, appr. 300-400 AD) was also an Indian priest, and at first he studied at Sarvāstivādin and developed ideas based on Yogachara. In the first place, Sarvāstivādin values​​research texts of Buddhist studies and theories, but the premise is that there was a faction called Sautrāntika who criticized it and valued the scriptures. Although Vasubandhu is from Sarvastivada, he developed his thoughts, with a belief that it was necessary to adopt a sautrāntika position in his ideologies.

  The Jodo denominations of Japan, which continues to this day, often asks vasubandhu for its origin in India. The reason behind this is that there is another text authored by Vasubandhu named “Muryo-Jukyo Ubadaisha Ganshouge”, which is a theory that explains and interprets an important scripture for the Jodo denominations called “Muryo-Jukyo”. The main difference between Kusha-shu and the Jodo denominations is, while the Kusha-shu mainly base their teachings on the idea of the subconscious realm of the consciousness in humans as well as the Amitabha, the Jodo denominations focus on the book of Amida Buddhism by Vashubandhu in their main teachings.

Kegonshu (Huayan denominations)

  Founded by Dùshùn, Kengonshu is a denomination that has established its own educational system based on “Avatamsaka Sutra”.

  Researchers believe that the “Avatamsaka Sutra” is a compilation of various scriptures transmitted in India around the 4th century. The characteristic feature is a kind of anthropomorphism of law (truth). There is a Buddha named Vairocana (= law), and the light of the wisdom of this Buddha illuminates all people, and the idea is that the universe of Vairocana is also filled with these people. This anthropomorphizing phenomenon forms the idea that “everything is made up of unrelated edges.” It also leads to the idea that all people have the potential to become Buddha. It is possible to conclude that these ideas can be often witnessed in many modern Japanese Buddhism.


  Risshu is a denomination that values the study and practice of the commandments. It is said that a monk named Jiànzhēn introduced it from Tang Dynasty China to Japan. All monks of this denomination are required to keep the commandments, and by doing so, they are qualified as monks. In other words, the Japanese could finally become a “monk” by following the commandments by Jiànzhēn. It is believed that the first Kaidan-in in Japan was built in Dazaifu in order to give the commandments, and there, the command of Bodhisattava was given.

  When we observe the doctrines of each denomination, we see that the ideologies taught are not for believers of the denominations, rather, they exist for the sake of the practice and research of monks. An ideology of a religion seems to be an important element in religious organization, however, surprisingly it is not so in many instances. For a religious organization to be established as a free-standing organization, it is crucial for the acquisition of believers. For that purpose, it is necessary to spread the word to them, form a group, and promote it in a cultural manner. The beginning of a religion may sprout up from theory, but in the end, it depends on the management of the organization whether a religion can grow or not.

  However, religious organizations which are successful in gaining large numbers of believers must not only pursue shows of plain chants and Homa, but also base their teachings on the theoretical beliefs of denominations mentioned above. I would like to mention this more in detail in the subsequent series of my articles.