Japanese Thought Japanese Philosophy
Periodization Of Japanese Intellectual History
Japanese intellectual history can be roughly divided into four periods, Buddhism, Confucianism, the Western Canon, and the Heisei era. Each period is characterized by the production of a "virtual other" and a "canon."
China and the Buddhist canon.
The Japanese inherited from the kingdoms of Korea and China a great variety of texts belonging to different traditions, namely, Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist. However, during the first period of Japan's intellectual history, literati chose the sacred texts of Buddhism as the most authoritative. During that period the major centers of learning were Buddhist monasteries and the most influential thinkers were Buddhist monks. Buddhist teachings rely on a common set of sutras that are used by all Mahayana traditions, the most important sutras being the Flower Garland (Kegon) and the Lotus (Hoke). The teaching of Buddhism also relied on a variety of Chinese commentaries, mainly those of late Mahayana (Mahyamika and Yogacara). One of the characteristics of Japanese Buddhism is that, while it is highly intellectual, it is also down to earth and often very practical, thus appealing not only to the literati but also to ordinary Japanese. Buddhist teachings are not confined to the highly sophisticated treatises produced by Kukai (774–835), who transmitted the Shingon tradition to the Japanese, or by the monks of the Tendai tradition. Works such as the Nihonryoiki, written by the Nara monk Kyokai in the early Heian period, spread Buddhist principles to ordinary Japanese. Contrary to what is often said, Buddhism did not wait until the Kamakura period (1185–1336) to become popular. Sophisticated and popular Buddhist works contributed to the harmonization of religious teachings and practices by incorporating former Japanese beliefs (honjisuijakusetsu and ryobushinto). Through the deeds and stories of the monks, Japanese as a whole took Buddhist cosmology—the theory of karma, the theory of the six worlds (rokudo), Buddhist piety, Buddhist architecture, and Buddhist rituals—as their norm. The study of the Genji monogatari (early 1000s C.E.; Tale of Genji), as well as other monogatari of the Heian period also show that Japanese writers used the concept of impermanence and instability (mujo) to characterize their perception of nature and society.
During the twelfth century, dissonant voices began to disturb the harmony of Heian society. The military were opposed to the rich and grandiose capital city of Kyoto and preferred the modest and rustic "tent government" (bakufu) of Kamakura. To the hierarchical distribution of the Heian system, a new age favoring the nonhierarchical and the provisional had succeeded. On the Buddhist side, dissident monks, most of them trained in the Tendai tradition, abandoned the traditional Buddhist centers to experiment with new forms of practices. Among many other Buddhist monks, Kakuban (1095–1143), Jien (1155–1225), Myoe (1173–1232), Honen (1133–1212), Shinran (1173–1262), Eisai (1141–1215), Dogen (1200–1253), and Nichiren (1222–1282) addressed—each one in a very creative way—the new concern that Buddhist teachings might have entered a period of decay (mappo). The rich debates affecting all the Buddhist traditions had remarkable effects on Japanese Buddhism. However, the Buddhist traditions were now offering such a variety of cosmologies, visions of the perfect society and understandings of the human, that Buddhist texts could no longer be the authoritative canon. After a short encounter with Western thought that accompanied the arrival of Jesuit missionaries, the Japanese literati constructed a new authoritative canon.
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