Shunjoubou Cougen (1121-1206)

Shunjōbō Cōgen (1121-1206)

Buddhism is a religion and philosophy founded by Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Sakkyamuni or simply Buddha, in India during the period from the late 6th century to the early 4th century BC. Buddhism has played an influential role in the spiritual, cultural and social life of much of the Eastern world. After the death of the Buddha several Buddhist councils were held to decide questions of faith and order, leading to the distinction between those who believed themselves to hold to the most ancient traditions (the Theravadins) and those who claimed their understandings represented the highest and most complete account of Buddha’s message (the Mahayanists).

The history of Buddhism in Japan began in 538 A.D., when the King of Korea dispatched an envoy to present a Buddhist image and scroll of sutras to the Japanese Imperial Court. Most of the Japanese denominations belong to Mahayana Buddhism. In short, the ideal of the followers of Mahayana Buddhism is that of the bodhisattva (‘enlightened being’; one who has taken the vow to become a Buddha), whose compassionate vow will save all sentient beings.

Houryuuji Pagoda 7th century

Pagoda in the Hōryūji Temple complex (Nara, 7th century)

There are two main focuses in the spread of Buddhism in Japanese history. The first was in the 7th and 8th centuries, when in Japan the Hōryūji Temple (607 A.D.) and the Tōdaiji Temple (752 A.D.) were constructed. Culture rose to a high point in intellectual, religious and artistic expression under the influence of Buddhism all over Asia in this period. Then, in the 9th century, two great priests, Saichō (Dengyō Daishi, 767-822) and Kukai (Kōbō Daishi, 774-835) founded two Buddhist denominations, Tendai and Shingon, usually referred to together as Heian-Buddhism. This was the establishment of Japanese Buddhism.
In the 12th and 13th centuries new great priests like Hōnen (1133-1212), Shinran (1173-1262), Dōgen (1200-1253) and Nichiren (1222-1282) founded new sects, which also still have followers today.

Buddha instructed his followers (the sangha) in the dharma (teachings) and in the Middle Way, a path between a worldly life and extremes of self-denial. The dharma teaches the Fourfold Noble Truth:
1. The world is full of suffering.
2. The cause of human suffering is the thirst of the physical body and the illusions of worldly passions.
3. If desire can be removed, then passion will die out and all human suffering will be ended.
4. In order to enter a state without desire one must follow the Eightfold Noble Path: Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Behaviour, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

There are two more essential philosophic points in the dharma. The first is the Law of Causation and the Law of Dependent Origination: everything in this world, including human suffering, has its causes and consequences. The other point is that we are not individual egos, but are all one with creation.

The realization of the truth that we do not have an individual ego and the law of dependent origination were taught as essential for reaching enlightenment, the indescribable state of release called nirvana (satori in Japanese). A person who has reached enlightenment has become Buddha.

Buddha image in Toudaji (745-752)

Buddha image in Tōdaji (Nara, 745-752)

David van Ooijen

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