Buddhism & Early States - Tibet and Japan

In his work Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism Johannes Bronkhorst suggests that Brahmanism was able to secure long-term political influence and power in India in the face of other religious-social ideologies at the time because it offered not only useful priestcraft sought after by rulers, but because Brahmins themselves offered both sound political advice and practical social theories. This is why much of the subcontinent came to adopt Sanskrit as a lingua franca. Until that time states and people, including Buddhists, had little reason to use Sanskrit, especially in Greater Magadha. However, when Brahmins gained for themselves influence and power they also introduced Sanskrit as a new medium of official communication which in turn ended up as the language of elites, who were the primary benefactors of religious institutions.

Buddhism in India co-existed among plenty of other well developed and stable traditions. When the Buddha walked the earth Magadha was enjoying the fruits of sophisticated civilization following the “second urbanization” of the subcontinent. After the demise of the Indus Valley Civilization (3300-1300 BCE) there was a period of ruralization and eventually nomadic pastoralism led to agriculture and finally to cities once again. In the Buddha's time states were already established and functioning. In later centuries given the lack of political utility afforded by Buddhism it was eclipsed by Brahmanism despite the widespread popularity of the former. This started to change somewhat after the demise of the Gupta empire (550 CE) when Buddhist institutions adopted new strategies to contend with a feudal order, but by then Indian Buddhists had become thoroughly brahmanized.

However, in a realm where neither centralized state nor systematized ideologies existed, did Buddhism possess any utility? To answer this question I want to take a comparative look at how and why the elites of Tibet and Japan adopted Buddhism. Early Tibet and Japan share a number of common features which make this comparison especially pertinent to understanding how Buddhism affected the development of cultures in Asia. The most notable common feature was that in the seventh century both were loosely organized tribal confederations on the periphery of much larger and advanced societies. They made active attempts, in emulation of neighboring powers, to form centralized states and overcome a number of internal challenges. We might consider some further similarities between them in the 6th to 9th centuries:

- A lack of a cohesive centralized state in a disorderly multi-tribal society with fringe cultures unwilling to assimilate or accept regal authority.

- A landed aristocracy with their own interests often at odds with those of the royal family.

- Unorganized native polytheist traditions often connected with political interests at odds with the struggling central state.

- A fear of China, which in the Sui-Tang period (589-907) was visibly expansionist, well organized and extremely wealthy.

In such a context, Buddhism offered an attractive model for social cohesion and in turn state consolidation. It moreover had a proven track record of doing so in China. Some scholars believe this utility of Buddhism explains the initial promotion of the religion in Tibet. In The History of Tibet, edited by Alex McKay, this is stated plainly in the introduction:

Thus, while we may acknowledge genuine piety among the community of believers and the attraction of the coherent world view offered by the Buddhist message, we must conclude that Buddhism provided a unifying socio-cultural model that was promoted by Yarlung dynasty kings for political purposes.1

Early on Buddhism was as a component of state prescriptions for commoners. Songtsän Gampo (Srong-btsan sGam-po) (d. 649), who had wed the Chinese princess Wencheng 文成公主 in 641, established a “Sixteen Article Law” as follows:

1. Take refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma (law), in the Sangha (monks).
2. Practise persistently the Dharma of these Three Treasures
3. Observe filial piety.
4. Preserve morality.
5. Respect the aged and the noble.
6. Get rid of selfishness in friendly relations.
7. Give assistance to neighbours and the helpless.
8. Rectify the mind without being influenced by gossip.
9. Imitate the behaviour of the superior ones (monks).
10. Go to no extremes in taking food and in personal conduct.
11. Never forget the favours done by others.
12. Use standard measures for outgoing and incoming goods.
13. Harbour no grudge against anybody.
14. Phrase words so as to please others.
15. Pay no attention to the words of women and those of bad company.
16. Be patient and determined, for neither the code of the mundane world nor that of the supramundane world is easy.2

This law comprised ethical law for men (mi-chos), which differs from the religious law of gods (lha-chos). Together they form a system of law (chos-lugs). On that basis the Tibetans had laws and rulings (rgyal-khrims). It was under Songstän-Gampo that laws were established to punish adultery, murder and theft. He taught popular morals meant for the common people.3

Interestingly around the same time a figure named Prince Shōtoku 聖徳太子 (572-622), a statesmen credited for establishing a centralized state in what is now Japan, drafted a “Seventeen Article Constitution” 十七條憲法 which likewise shows political interest in Buddhism. As recorded in the Nihon Shoki 日本書紀 (compiled in 720), the constitution was personally drafted by him in 604 under the reign of Empress Suiko 推古天皇 (554-628). Articles two and three are as follows (for a bilingual version of the entire text see here).


II. With all our heart, revere the three treasures. The three treasures, consisting of Buddha, the Doctrine, and the Monastic Order, are the final refuge of the four generated beings, and are the supreme objects of worship in all countries. Can any man in any age ever fail to respect these teachings? Few men are utterly devoid of goodness, and men can be taught to follow the teachings. Unless they take refuge in the three treasures, there is no way of rectifying their misdeeds.


III. When an imperial command is given, obey it with reverence. The sovereign is likened to heaven, and his subjects (yatsuko) are likened to earth. With heaven providing the cover and earth supporting it, the four seasons proceed in orderly fashion, giving sustenance to all that which is in nature. If earth attempts to overtake the functions of heaven, it destroys everything. Therefore when the sovereign speaks, his subjects must listen; when the superior acts, the inferior must follow his examples. When an imperial command is given, carry it out with diligence. If there is no reverence shown to the imperial command, ruin will automatically result.4

It is clear here that Buddhism is promoted alongside calls for obedience to the sovereign and his political institution. This served an important function in the state ideology as it bound both secular and religious forces together to secure power for the imperial head and his central government. Delmer Brown describes the constitution as follows:

Most of these injunctions are studded with Confucian words and phrases enjoining officials (even priestly ones) to honor their superiors and perform duties in a loyal and efficient manner. As is clearly stated in the Confucian Classics (on which instruction in the ancient university system was based), any lower-ranking person (whether son, official, vassal, or imperial subject) was obligated to obey his higher-ranking superior. Thus any leader's control was increased - and priestism was made an even more active field of cultural energy - by teachings that ensured obedience from those standing on lower rungs of the aristocratic ladder.5

It seems likely that there was a common inspiration behind both constitutions, which was mostly likely from China. When Buddhism was transmitted to Japan it was not just the religion that arrived, but also Chinese literacy and all the accompanying political ideologies which seek centralized autocracy and unity. The Sui Dynasty (589-618) history even records this fact in the section on Wakoku 倭國 (the former name of Japan):


They had no letters and just carved wood or tied ropes together. They venerate the Buddhadharma. It was in Paekche [Korea] that they sought and obtained the Buddhist sūtras, which is when they first came to have letters.

Prince Shōtoku's constitution articles are directed at ministers and members of the state while Songstän Gampo's are a common set of ethical standards for common men, though both emphasize harmony and cooperation. Both the Japanese and Tibetan states were successfully established only after contending with many inter-tribal conflicts, which consequently led both to emphasize harmony and community.

As noted above, “Buddhism provided a unifying socio-cultural model that was promoted by Yarlung dynasty kings for political purposes.” How much was this also true in Japan?

Shimode Sekiyo 下出積与 in his article (see here) concerning the position of Buddhism in the Japanese Ritsuryō aristocracy, specifically between c650-750 which he identifies as the manyōgana period, points out that Buddhism indeed flourished in said period, so much that in 749 the Emperor Shōmu 聖武 visited Tōdai-ji (prior to the "eye opening ceremony" in 752) and stated the following as recorded in the Shoku Nihongi 続日本紀:


Addressing the Buddha I the emperor, servant to the Triple Gem and serving it, do hereby issue a proposal before the great presence of the image of Vairocana Buddha.

This senmyōtai 宣命體 or senmyōgaki 宣命書 passage is rendered into classical Japanese as follows:


Here 天皇羅我 is the native Japanese すめらぎ (an alternative kun-yomi reading for 天皇) with functioning phonetically as a genitive particle.

Shimode suggests two aspects of a common view about Buddhism in this period. Firstly, Buddhism was an overwhelming alien force that came to dominate much of the culture. Secondly, it is widely believed that Buddhism was received unconditionally, especially by the aristocratic elites. Shimode takes issue with the latter point. He indicates that Buddhism was formally introduced to Japan in the sixth century from the Paekche court for strictly political reasons. It became a component of the Ritsuryō state apparatus whereby Buddhism was regarded as a means of preserving and protecting the country (see an earlier post Buddhist Sorcery and Astrology in East Asia for an outline of the key texts on this matter). There was already a precedent for this in China where in the north Buddhism had been used an ideological support for regal authority and furthermore seen as useful for its more mundane sorcery and material culture.6 According to Shimode, it was not until such figures as Saichō 最澄 (767–822) and Kūkai 空海 (774–835) that genuine spirituality was to be the primary motivating factor in Japanese Buddhism.

However, Buddhism was not entirely welcomed by everyone in Japan. The Nihon Shoki 日本書紀 records the initial hesitation on the part of some nobles and later hostility towards Buddhism during the reign of Emperor Kinmei 欽明天皇 (509-571), resulting in the destruction of the first official Buddhist icons and temple in Japan in 552:


It was on this day that the emperor heard [this prophecy of the Buddhadharma going east] and was overjoyed. He addressed the emissaries, “I have never heard of such a profound teaching as this, but I will not decide myself.” He then enquired about this to his ministers and said, “The western realm has offered us the Buddha, most sublime in appearance, of which we have never had. Do we venerate him?” The great minister of the Soga clan Iname Sukune said, “The countries of the western realms all venerate him. How could abundant autumn Japan alone turn its back on this?” Mononobe Ōmuraji Okoshi and Nakatomi Muraji Kamako together stated, “The sovereign of our country has always made sacrifices to and venerated the hundred and eighty gods (kami) of heaven and earth throughout spring, summer, autumn and winter. Now to change to venerating a foreign god might invoke the wrath of the gods of this country.” The emperor said, “It should be given to the willing man, Iname Sukune, and we shall try worship.” The great ministers all knelt and accepted this, pleased. He [Iname] placed the image in a house in Oharida and diligently cultivated himself in renunciate activities as cause [for liberation] while purifying his house at Mukuhara to make it a temple. Later the country was subject to pestilence from which the people died prematurely. The longer it went on the worse it became. They were unable to remedy it. Mononobe Ōmuraji Okoshi and Nakatomi Muraji Kamako together stated, “In days past you did not require our counsel, which had lead to this plague. Now should you recover things before it is too far there will certainly be blessings. We should promptly cast [the image] away and diligently pursue future fortune.” The emperor said, “As you say!” The officials then abandoned the Buddha image in the Naniwa Canal and then set fire to the temple and burnt it to ashes until nothing remained. Thereupon there was neither wind nor cloud in the sky and suddenly the great palace was aflame.

According to the text the Paekche king highly recommended Buddhism primarily because it was said to offer great blessings and rewards, the likes of which neither Confucius nor Confucian texts could provide. Despite destroying the images and temple, the following year two new statues were ordered to be crafted. While this story has been subject to editorial revisions, it nevertheless likely reflects that mixed opinions existed at the time about the foreign religion.7

There was yet another suppression of Buddhism in 585 where after the country suffered a pestilence two ministers, who were chiefs of traditional clans, suggested a ban on the religion again. Buddhist images, a hall and pagoda were torched and three nuns flogged. Still the pestilence continued and the emperor permitted Soga no Umako alone to continue practicing Buddhism. Curiously the Gangō-ji Engi 元興寺縁起 reports that it was not the two ministers who instigated the ban as the Nihon Shoki does, but rather it was the Emperor Bidatsu 敏達天皇 (reigned 572-585) who was the chief priest, native and not immigrant, and charged with kami veneration.

Images in Kōfuku-ji, Nara.
In 587 the chief ministerial opponent of the Soga clan was killed and then in 592 Emperor Sushun 崇峻天皇 was slain in a court coup. Empress Suiko had the throne in 593 whereupon the Soga clan had firm control of the state and the introduction of Buddhism and Chinese culture could continue without outstanding resistance from opposing elites. The Soga clan were immigrants to the Japan and thus favoured Buddhism more than the natives who were understandably in favor of their agricultural deities (kami). In due time Buddhism became the official religion as endorsed by Prince Shōtoku in his constitution drafted in 604. The highly organized and well developed religion from the mainland brought with it not only supermundane means of preserving the state, but also advanced forms of arts and crafts. More importantly perhaps is that by virtue of the state becoming the primary benefactor of the religion any devotees of it would be less likely to side with forces opposed to the central government and ruling family.

This narrative has many parallels to the problems faced by Buddhism when it entered Tibet. As the Chinese histories note, before the unification of Tibet under Namri Löntsen (gNam ri slon mtshan) and Songtsän Gampo the individual tribes of Tibet were autonomous and not subject to any political organization aside from brief alliances for raids and so on.8

As Eva K. Dargyay notes, “Recorded Tibetan history started when by the 7th century CE the country arose as an empire from instable tribal confederations. Within two generations it made the transition from a tribal society enveloped in mythic and oral traditions to a political power in Asia to be reckoned with.”9

Buddhism had some role to play in such a development. Along with foreign technology and arts, there was a decided interest in the early Tibetan empire to raise the state of its culture from barbarism. It was under Songstän Gampo that the first monasteries were constructed which included the Rasa Trulnang (the future Jo-khang) in Lhasa and the Ramoche. The borderland temples for civilizing the frontiers are also traced back to this period. The architecture for early temples developed from ancient fortresses with defensive bulwarks with inward-sloping thick walls and narrow crenelated windows.

Despite a degree of Buddhism being introduced, Songstän Gampo's reign was marked by continual violent expansion and conflict. He inherited the throne from his father Namri Löntsen between 625-627. In the days before his father's reign central Tibet had been controlled by a confederacy of clans including the dBas, Myang and mNon. Namri Löntsen had obtained oaths of allegiance from these tribes with which to expand his territories to the north and east of Lhasa and to Kong Po. Later the Dagpo rebelled and had to be reconquered. Following Namri Löntsen's death these problems mounted. The histories differ on what later transpired.

The Tun-Huang Chronicles state the following:

...the paternal subjects rebelled; the maternal subjects revolved. ... The father gNam ri was given poison and died. The son Srong btsan firstly wiped out the families of the rebels and the prisoners.

Meanwhile Butön Rinchen Drup (Wyl. bu ston rin chen grub) (1290-1364) relates the following:

...Thirteen years of age he ascended the throne and, brought under his power all the petty chiefs of the borderland who offered him presents and sent their messages (of submission).10

The former would be the earlier history from a time before Buddhism had thoroughly penetrated Tibetan culture. The king is honestly presented as ruthless in crushing a rebellion, while in the latter he is portrayed in much more charitable terms at a time when said king had become a mythic Buddhist figure of the past and revenge killings would not have reflected so positively on him.

Songtsän Gampo with Wencheng and Bhrikuti Devi
Nevertheless, by c636 Songstän Gampo was in a position to attack China, or at least subject Chinese governors in frontier Gansu to extortion. During his reign he consolidated his territories, added new ones and received wives as tribute, including the famous Chinese princess married in 641. This is significant because, as the traditional story goes, she brought with her an image of Śākyamuni and sought to have a monastery built. The king was unable to do this and then perceived Tibet to be a "suprine demoness" which was to be pinned down with twelve temples. Scholars rightfully question whether it really happened like this, but assuming such temples were built, some were presumably built on recently conquered territories who did not already host Buddhism. The king conquered and subjugated foreign tribes, which was not at all unlike the Yamato court in Japan which subjugated the Hayato 隼人 and Emishi 蝦夷 peoples early on.

Despite Songstän Gampo being credited as the Buddhist king introducing the religion to Tibetans, it seems quite minor as even some decades later during the reign of Tride Sugten (Khri-lde-gtsug-btsan) (704–755) a certain Korean monk named Hyecho 慧超 (704–787) kept a journal of his journey throughout India, the Middle East and Central Asia from 723-728, and made the following brief remarks on Tibet as follows:

已東吐番國, 純住氷山雪山川谷之間, 以氈帳而居, 無有城墎屋舍. 處所与突厥相似, 隨逐水草. 其王雖在一處, 亦無城, 但依氈帳以爲居業. 土地出, 羊馬猫牛毯褐之類. 衣着毛褐皮裘, 女人亦爾. 土地極寒, 不同餘國. 家常食麨, 少有餠飯.國王百姓等, 惣不識仏法, 無有寺舍. 國人悉皆穿地作坑而臥, 無有床席. 人民極黑, 白者全希. 言音与諸國不同. 多愛喫虱, 爲着毛褐, 甚饒蟣虱. 捉得便抛口裏, 終不棄也.

East of here is Tibet where they live in wool tents pitched between gorges and mountains totally frozen and covered in snow. With no town walls or houses, their dwellings are like those of the Turks. They move in rhythm with the grasslands and waters, while the king alone lives in one place. Yet even he has no castle, residing simply in a woolen tent. Their land produces sheep, horses, and yaks, as well as carpets and hemp. They wear clothes of fur, hemp, and leather, men and women alike. The weather is very cold, more so than in other countries. At home, they always eat barley flour, and a small amount of breads. Neither the royalty nor commoners know anything of the Buddha’s teachings and there are no monasteries. They dig pits in the ground, lying there to sleep, using neither chairs nor beds. The people are very dark, with those of fair complexion exceedingly rare. Their language is quite different from the other countries. They love catching and eating lice, and since they wear furs and hemp, such creatures are very common. When they notice one, they catch it and immediately toss it in their mouths. They would never let it go.11

Here we have a contemporary witness reporting what appears to be hearsay, though nevertheless it is significant given that he states there is no Buddhism in Tibet. In this period the Tang empire, which included the satellite kingdom of Silla (the Korean peninsula), had uneasy relations with Tibet and moreover thought ill of its culture. Hyecho's remarks may have been colored by such sentiments, though it is remarkable he notes they have no monasteries. Even if this was just a popular notion in the territories he was traveling through west of Tibet, it does speak about an apparent lack of Buddhist influence in Tibetan culture at the time from an outsider's perspective.

In fact there was resistance to Buddhism around this time. In 739 there was a smallpox epidemic. Buddhist monks had been banished from Khotan, Kashgar, Gilgit and Kashmir. They were allowed into Tibet at the urging of the king's Chinese wife, whereupon three or four years later the smallpox epidemic broke out and the anti-Buddhist elites seized their chance to expel the Buddhist monks.12 Again, this is not unlike the Japanese history as quoted above where plague was indirectly associated with the introduction of Buddhadharma into the country, whereupon some elites could seize the opportunity to undermine the new religion.

Buddhism only later started to play a more significant role in Tibetan politics, though it was still not deeply engrained in the fabric of society. The parallel with Japan is obvious where Buddhism there was initially for a few centuries an institution largely promoted by the central authorities for their own purposes rather than being a popular religion. In the case of Tibet, the promotion of Buddhism in the later half of the eighth century under Trisong Detsen (reigned 755-797) is seen by modern scholars as a coordinated attempt by the king to counter the power of the nobility, at which time there being seemingly little widespread adoption of the religion despite there being both patronage of translation projects and a Tibetan monastic community.13 Helmut Hoffman notes,

Although the new bTsan-po ostensibly observed a strict neutrality and supported both the Buddhists and Bon-po, in fact he favored the Buddhists and sent his confidants to India and China to obtain Buddhist scriptures and invite outstanding teachers to Tibet. He also relied on the Buddhist clergy as allies against the nobles in order to consolidate his position as emperor. When one of his emissaries, sBa gSal-snang, brought scriptures from China he found it was necessary to conceal them. Fearing for the safety of his accomplice, he provisionally removed him from the intrigue-ridden centre of the empire and appointed him governor of the southern province of Mangyul on the Nepalese border. From Nepal gSal-snang was able to travel to India, visit Bodh-Gaya, and make the first contacts with the outstanding Buddhist philosophers of the time.14

In 779 Buddhism was declared the state religion. An imperial edict simultaneously ordered support for monasteries along with the monks. Families were in specific numbers were assigned the task of providing for the needs of a monk (three households to each monk according to one source). Despite earlier Tibetan rulers drawing their spiritual authority from their indigenous religious practices and their exclusive position therein, it begs the question why at this point in Tibetan history Buddhism was to be embraced at the zenith of the Tibetan empire. This was likely due to the fact that older models that sanctified imperial power were less and less useful in a mature empire where clan and even ethnicity were less of a concern for people. Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz explains:

It is maybe more than just historical coincidence that the same king who brought the Tibetan empire to its broadest expansion also proclaimed Buddhism as the new state religion. The question arises whether with the expansion of the empire the power of the king needed to be legitimised other than by referring to the indigenous beliefs in his divine origin. As already stressed, the cult of the mountain is deeply grounded in the indigenous belief in a pho-lha (“male god”), bound to the ruling clan, and the yul-lha (“deity of the territory”), who was merged with the pho-lha. A society which no longer is bound to clan structures clearly needs other, clan-extending elements to shape a collective socio-cultural identity. Buddhism as a religion not bound to ethnicity certainly provided the necessary unifying authority in a broader socio-cultural context. This observation could serve as an explanation for the interest and active support Khri-srong lde-btsan gave Buddhism and its protagonists.15

This adoption of course was not universally endorsed. The Buddhist teacher Śāntarakṣita was invited to Tibet, yet there was still much opposition and his visit lasted a mere four months. It is said that at his departure he advised the emperor to invite Padmasambhava, who would be more adept at dealing with the Bon-po. Padmasambhava dealt with the evil spirits, which scholars believe refers to the refractory Bon-po. The construction of Samye Monastery (bSam-yas) proceeded and in due time Śāntarakṣita could return to ordain seven young Tibetan males as probationary monks. Nevertheless the Bon religion still had to be acknowledged, which is demonstrated by the fact that persons from the former Zhang Zhung state were invited to translate their texts into Tibetan.

This is not unlike the early conflict in Japan as noted above between kami worshipers and fledgling Buddhists. In the early Japanese state as the power of the imperial court grew they found themselves having to justify their rule in an environment with multiple sources of spiritual authority. So while Buddhism was able to provide an transcultural sanctification of authority, they still had to acknowledge the power that kami worship entailed. The parallels with Tibet on this point are quite remarkable.

In Tibet the bTsan-po or emperor enjoyed privileges both as an unquestionable figure in the Bon religion as well as a benefactor of Buddhism. Later emperors who favored Buddhism still observed sacral customs for coronation, in funeral rites and when signing treaties. This is quite similar to the position of mikado or emperor in Japan where he (or she) was effectively high priest or priestess and expected to fulfill the appropriate rites related to kami worship, yet at the same time could be a devout Buddhist and even declare themselves servant to the Triple Gem as noted above. Chief Buddhist priests at key temples were charged with performing rites which directly benefited the ruler and his family as well as protected him from defeat in battle and other such calamities. Political leaders assigned the Buddhist clergy political responsibilities and ranks within the imperial order for their services.

Vairocana at Tōdai-ji
Another striking parallel is that of the position of Vairocana Buddha in Japan and Tibet around the same decades. When Samye Monastery was consecrated in 779 an image of Vairocana was installed as the central image on the second storey with the four-faced Sarvavid Vairocana on the uppermost shrine and an image of Śākyamuni on the lowest storey indicating a nirmaṇakāya or emanation body of Vairocana. Vairocana was apparently associated with the royal cult in Tibet. Curiously an image of Vairocana was consecrated at Tōdai-ji in the Japanese capital of Heijōkyō 平城京 (Nara) in 752. The image is surrounded by nirmaṇakāyas emanating from him. This speaks to the influence and popularity of Vairocana in Asia in this period. The image was built at great expense, but was done so alongside the development of statewide temples administered by priests in the capital, and pressing pleas for people to offer worship to Vairocana three times daily.

The Vairocana at Tōdai-ji is probably based on the Brahma Net Sūtra 梵網經 (the scripture appears in fifth century China), though Vairocana also figures prominently in literature directly from India such as the Mahāvairocana Sūtra 大日經 as translated by Śubhakarasiṃha 善無畏 in 724. It is reasonable to assume based on the popularity of Vairocana in Tibet and East Asia that said buddha figured prominently in India as well.

Tibet and Japan after becoming strong states continued to invest heavily in Buddhism, though in the case of the former it ended unwell. The nobles and common people ended up revolting, at least in part, at the privileges of the clergy. Some monks were even punished by having their fingers chopped off or their eyes torn out. The imperial court had mistakenly forced unto the people Buddhist virtues which they were not willing to favor ahead of their ancestral code of ethics. The Bon-po nobility took advantage of the situation and murdered the emperor in his chambers. The infamous Lang Darma (gLang-dar-ma) was put on the throne from 838 to 842. Earlier it was Buddhists who had apparently controlled the emperor Ralpacan, though now it was the Bon-po in charge of the throne. The later histories describe a persecution of Buddhism – foreign monks were ejected from the country and translation projects ended. However, this was a period of disorder and chaos as the empire came to an end. Even the Chinese histories report on it. Finally in 842 Lang Drama was assassinated by a Buddhist hermit. Thereafter the Tibetan empire disintegrated, though Buddhism was never lost.

Curiously, in 845 under Wuzong 武宗 (814-846) there was a vast purge of Buddhism across the Tang empire. In both Tibet and China Buddhist institutions in the preceding decades had acquired abundant resources and influence, but not without irritating certain circles of power. This did not extend to the Korean peninsula or Japan, however, as Ennin 圓仁 (794-864) the Japanese Tendai monk was received well in both Silla and Japan when he returned. Buddhism in Japan thrived in the ninth century, though the country became isolationist owing to the political situation on the mainland. The Tang empire collapsed in 907 and even with the Song Dynasty established in 960 the north was held by the Khitan or Liao Dynasty (907-1125) followed by the Jurchen or Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). Regardless of the political situation on the mainland, Buddhism was well-established in Japan by the late ninth century. Ultimately, however, in the 12th century Japan came to be ruled by military men whose authority was predictably not so much derived from Buddhism.

Gangō-ji, Nara
To sum things up, when Tibet and Japan were emerging states around the same time they faced similar difficulties. They were loosely organized confederations on the edges of other much more sophisticated and technologically advanced cultures. Predictably, both sought to emulate their superiors and Buddhism was adopted alongside other forms of culture. Some of the landed aristocracy with their indigenous religions (Bon in Tibet, kami worship or Shintō in Japan) resisted Buddhism, at times even violently, yet as these two emerging empires developed away from clan-based confederacies towards being centralized empire states subjugating refractory peoples, both domestic and foreign, their leaders gained great spiritual authority by becoming primary benefactors of state-organized Buddhist institutions. Other alternatives such as Brahmanism or Daoism in this period (c6th-9th centuries) did not offer as transcultural and readily adaptable a religion as Buddhism did. Finally, it would have been clear that the religion had already aided state consolidation in the great dynasties of China.

That Buddhism was used primarily for political purposes early on in Japan and Tibet is recognized by scholars, though at the same time we should not overstate this. There were of course many devoted practitioners and masters who sought to benefit immeasurable sentient beings. Buddhist institutions were able to secure resources and priveleges to carry out their activities only by virtue of having the sanction and trust of courts. Historically it has often been the case that Buddhist traditions cannot thrive without state support, which is ironic given that the Buddha himself was a homeless apolitical mendicant living on donations of food and cloth. Nevertheless, as Buddhism matured and developed, there emerged institutions which managed not only monastics but also money and other resources like land. Organized religion when having anything to do with money and power is inevitably used for worldly ends which benefit both the benefactor and beneficiary. This is a historical truth that always needs to be kept in mind.



1 The History of Tibet Volume I The Early Period: to c. AD 850 The Yarlung Dynasty, edited by Alex McKay (London, UK: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 29.

2 See Shih-Yü Yü Li, "Tibetan Folk-Law" in Folk Law: Essays in the Theory and Practice of Lex Non Scripta: Volume I (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1994), 513-514.

3 See Nakamura Hajime, A Comparative History of Ideas (Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass, 1992), 325-326

4 David J. Lu, Japan A Documentary History (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1997), 23-26.

5 Delmer M. Brown, “Introduction” in Cambridge History of Japan Volume I (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 15.

6 Sonoda Kōyū with Delmer M. Brown, "Early Buddha Worship" in Cambridge History of Japan Volume I, 360.

7 Ibid., 375.

8 The History of Tibet Volume I, 58.

9 Ibid., 429.

10 Ibid., 338.

11 For the full translation see volume 10 of the Collected Works of Korean Buddhism (http://www.acmuller.net/kor-bud/collected_works.html), 120-121.
12 The History of Tibet Volume I, 53.

13 Ibid., 33.

14 Ibid., 53.

15 Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz, "The Buddhist Way Into Tibet" in Handbook of Oriental Studies Volume 16 The Spread of Buddhism (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007), 315.


Matt said...

You've cited Bronkhorst's book a few times now and it sounds very interesting. Pity it's not priced for us mere mortals.

I liked this post a lot but I don't know that I agree with the characterization of Japan as having a "fear of China" as such. Tibet had the double whammy of being strategically located and having a history of incorporation into Chinese states; Japan had neither and wasn't really on China's radar at all. In fact, it seems to me that Japan wouldn't have had any relations with China worth the name if it hadn't decided to establish them on its own, in order to get closer to the source of the Buddhist and Chinese culture that it had already received via Korean intermediaries.

That said, I don't think this affects the main thesis that Buddhism was imported to Japan as part of the Sinoform state apparatus, partly because it served the political elite and partly because it served those doing the importing -- monks! It does seem relevant to me that Japan imported the whole thing as a unified system -- statecraft, writing, Buddhism -- whereas Tibet apparently reinvented each element from scratch, but I don't know enough about Tibetan history to pursue that idea.

Incidentally, minor linguistic quibble: manyōgana technically refers only to the kanji used for sound. The passage you quote is in what's known as senmyōtai 宣命体 or senmyōgaki 宣命書, notable because as you point out content words are in kanji while verb endings, particles, etc. are in kana. 天皇羅我 is actually just "sumera ga" -- "sumera" is another word for "emperor", probably the base onto which something was added to make "sumeroki"/"sumeragi"/etc., although this all took place long before writing was imported so the details of the etymology/evolution are not clear IIRC. The spelling 天皇羅 (rather than just "天皇") is used because the "ra" was still understood to be a suffix at that time.

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

Hi Matt,

Some scholars believe that the affairs on the mainland, in particular Korea, prompted a lot of concern in Japanese leaders to rapidly adopt foreign institutions (not unlike what happened in the Meiji period).

We need to consider that China had been meddling in Korea and launching invasions, in particular starting in 598 CE.


The Yamato court had also lost terribly at the Battle of Baekgang in support of its Paekche ally.


The entire peninsula was conquered in a joint Tang-Silla campaign in that decade.

So in the sixth century China itself might not have been the main threat, but just as well Silla was not a close ally.

Thanks for the clarification on the manyōgana / senmyōtai! This is definitely beyond my usual field of study!

Matt said...

Sure, I can certainly believe uneasiness about developments on the peninsula -- up to and including direct pressure from refugees from unrest. Now that you point it out, I must admit that the Goguryeo-Sui wars are suspiciously close, chronology-wise, to Shotoku Taishi and his 17-article constitution!

But the fact that the Battle of Baekgang came as such a shock to the Japanese court (as evidenced by decades afterwards of erecting defenses, etc.) looks to me like proof that THAT was the event that first made them feel threatened, in an existential sense, by China and its allies. And that was more than a century after Buddhism arrived in Japan and decades after even the big Suiko/Shotoku imperial push.

This is surely different from the situation in Tibet, which faced Chinese empires directly. But, as I said, I don't think this cripples your comparison of the two early states -- it just complicates it a bit.

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

Matt, we should bear in mind the Yamato court was probably originally from the mainland (specifically Korea), plus many immigrant clans like the Soga were present in Japan early on.

For Koreans the vicissitudes and chaos of China proper were apparent and sometimes on the border or closer (in the sixth century the Han Dynasty colonization of Korea would not have been so distant a memory, too). The early Wakoku kings would have been aware of this, though perhaps felt more secure on an island on the edge of the known world.