Priest Gyoshin statue

A major cultural development of the Nara Period (A,D. 710 to 794) was the permanent establishment of Buddhism in Japan. Buddhism had been introduced in the sixth century but had a mixed reception until the Nara period, when it was heartily embraced by Emperor Shomu. Shomu and his Fujiwara consort were fervent Buddhists and actively promoted the spread of Buddhism, making it the "guardian of the state" and strengthening Japanese institutions through still further Chinese acculturation. During Shomu’s reign, the Todaiji (Great East Temple) was built, and within it was placed the Buddha Dainichi (Great Sun Buddha), a sixteen-meter-high, gilt-bronze statue. This Buddha was identified with the Sun Goddess, and from this point on, a gradual syncretism of Buddhism and Shinto ensued. Shomu declared himself the "Servant of the Three Treasures" of Buddhism: the Buddha, the law or teachings of Buddhism, and the Buddhist community. [Source: Library of Congress ]

Aileen Kawagoe wrote: During the Nara Period, “Buddhism had already gathered momentum in Japan and the number of priests and nuns had increased greatly as well. While in the early years Buddhist clerics were governed by high-ranking priests known as sogo – chosen with considerable autonomy by the Buddhist community, over the years and by 701, the imperial court issued more and more sets of regulations to govern priests and nuns and their daily lives and personal activities. Collectively, these regulations were called the Soni Ryo and Provision Article 27 of Yoro Soni Ryo made it clear that the government sought to prohibit preaching outside temple precincts and to force priests and nuns to live and work within their religious communities. [Source: Heritage Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]

“During the Nara period the power and influence of Buddhism grew under the supervision of Buddhist monks who had studied in and returned from Tang China. Temples in Japan accumulated vast landholdings during this era, their priests gained tremendous political influence (particularly during the reigns of Emperor Shomu and Empress Shotoku). Buddhism in Japan had the stamp of Tang control: ten Buddhist masters who had studied in Tang China as well as the superintendents placed in charge of temple property, extended state control over all Buddhist matters. With the burgeoning numbers of worshippers and clergy, many temples had to be constructed. There were about two hundred temples at the beginning of the period but over a thousand at the end of it. Thus Buddhism gained official recognition as the state religion, and the network of Buddhist temples served to buttress the authority of the central state.

“During this time, there flourished in Nara six major well-known schools of groups of teachers and students who focused each on a particular doctrinal system of study. All of these academic schools were affiliated to Todai-ji Temple and were the “officially recognized” religious centres, signifying the central importance of the Todaiji Temple. However, Nara Buddhism encompassed more than these six schools and the temples of Nara Buddhism were not exclusively affiliated with any school.”

Websites on Nara- and Heian-Period Japan: Essay on Nara and Heian Periods aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Wikipedia article on the Nara Period Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on the Heian Period Wikipedia ; Essay on the Japanese Missions to Tang China aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Kusado Sengen, Excavated Medieval Town mars.dti.ne.jp ; Kojiki, Nihongi and Sacred Shinto Texts sacred-texts.com ; Imperial Household Agency kunaicho.go.jp/eindex; List of Emperors of Japan friesian.com ; Nara Nara Prefecture site pref.nara.jp ; Temples and Shrines in Nara Park: Kofukuji site kohfukuji.com; UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website; Todaiji Temple Wikipedia Wikipedia UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website; Mt. Hiei and Enryaku-ji Temple Websites: Enryaku-ji Temple official site hieizan.or.jp; Marathon monks Lehigh.edu ; Tale of Genji Sites: The Tale of Genji.org (Good Site) taleofgenji.org ; Nara and Heian Art Sites at the Metropolitan Museum in New York metmuseum.org ; Heian Art at the British Museum britishmuseum.org ; Nara Art at the Tokyo National Museum www.tnm.jp/en ; Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com; Japanese Archeology www.t-net.ne.jp/~keally/index.htm ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink archaeolink.com ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; National Museum of Japanese History rekihaku.ac.jp ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents hi.u-tokyo.ac.jp/iriki

How Buddhism Became Established in the Nara Period

Carl Bielefeldt wrote in the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: While the transmission of Chinese Buddhist books and ideas was certainly one feature “ of the establishment of Buddhism during the Nara Period, of this process, far more conspicuous was the creation of a court-supported clerical establishment, housed at great monasteries in and around the capital cities. Much of the subsequent institutional history of Japanese Buddhism revolves around the shifting relations between the central government and the increasingly powerful and independent monastic centers. [Source: Carl Bielefeldt, Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“Throughout the eighth century, the court sought to bring Buddhism under civil control through the promulgation of regulations (soniryo) governing the ordination, offices, and activities of monks and nuns. Court ambitions for a national Buddhism administered from the capital reached its apogee during the middle of the century, with the government's dedication of the great bronze buddha image of Todaiji in Nara and the founding of national monasteries (kokubunji) in the provinces. What came to be known as the Nara schools of Buddhism represent simply the curriculum of the scholar monks of Todaiji and other officially recognized institutions in the capital, a curriculum of particular Buddhist texts for the study of which the government came to sponsor an annual allotment of ordination rights (nenbun dosha).

“Though the court would continue to claim authority to regulate the religion, the vision of a national Buddhism did not survive the Nara period. Already in this period, it is clear from government efforts to restrict it that Buddhism was taking on an independent life of its own, in the proliferation of unofficial monasteries sponsored by the laity (chikishiji), the development of independent centers of Buddhist practice, often associated with sacred mountains, and the unauthorized activities of popular preachers, healers, wonder-workers, and the like. These trends toward an independent Buddhism would only increase as the religion spread throughout the country and into all levels of society during the succeeding Heian period.

Nara Period Buddhism

According to the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: In the Nara period Buddhist doctrine found institutional expression in newly imported schools, representing both Theravada and Mahayana teachings, including the Madhyamika (Sanron) and Vijnanavada (Hosso). Buddhism dominated the religious life of the royal court and was patronized through the building of temples and monasteries and in other acts of merit-making piety. It provided important ceremonial media for reinforcing court solidarity. [Source: Peter A. Pardue, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

Daibutsusan, the world's largest bronze Buddha
Significant contributions to state ideology were made by some of the more politically useful sutras: The Lotus of the Good Law not only represented the unity of all forms of soteriological action in the “one vehicle” but also had a potential affinity for symbolizing national unity, which gave it a permanent place in Buddhist political theory. In 741 Emperor Shomu ordered copies of the Sutra of the Excellent Golden Light sent to all the provinces. He directed the building of provincial temples, staffed them with suitable personnel, and built a central shrine to house the immense statue of the Lochana Buddha. By the mid-eighth century Buddhism was the cultic center and metaphysical base of state authority.

However, the Sangha itself began to gain new political power — a process which culminated in an effort to institute a Buddhist theocracy under a master of the Hosso sect. This was finally blocked by opposing forces in the royal court, and at the close of the Nara and the beginning of the Heian period (794 to 1185) the Nara clergy was significantly discredited. Emperor Kammu deliberately undertook to dissociate the court from the Nara schools by moving the capital bodily to Kyoto and adopting the term heian

Todaiji Temple

Todaiji Temple was built in 741 to be the central temple of all provincial temples established in Japan. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, and restored in the mid-1990s, it embraces several buildings and is the main temple of the Kegonshu sect of Buddhism. It was built under Emperor Shomu (701-756) in hopes of keeping Japan peaceful so he could devote himself to Buddhism, and rebuilt in 1692 and 1709.

Empress Shotoku

The original main temple is said to have been even more spectacular than the one that exists now. The original was 86 meters wide, 29 meters wider than the current building, and the Buddha was covered in gold. Built in the style of a Chinese palace building, the main hall had enormous red columns along with a yellow ceiling, green window frames, white walls and a black tile roof. Two 90-meter-tall, seven-story pagodas stood at opposite ends of the from hall. Both were later destroyed.

Daibutsuden (within Todaiji Temple) is the world’s largest wooden structure. Built to house the world’s largest Buddha, it is a masterpiece of wooden architecture. Many of the criss-crossing beams are positioned without nails. In addition to the Buddha there are towering 30-foot-high wooden statues of warriors and gods. One large wooden pillar contains a small hole large enough for some people to crawl through and is about the size of one of the Great Buddha’s nostrils. The pillar shows that the structure is imperfect and has room for improvement. It is said that those who crawl though it will receive enlightenment and have all their prayers answered. Nearby is Kaidan-in Hall, which was once used for ordination ceremonies and contains clay images of the Four Heavenly Guardians; Sangatsu-do-Hall, the oldest building in the Todaiji Temple complex; and Nigatsu-do Hall. The two stone lions at the temples south gate are believed to have been made in China.

Empress Koken (Shotoku) and Rise of Buddhist Power in Japan

Although these efforts stopped short of making Buddhism the state religion, Nara Buddhism heightened the status of the imperial family. Buddhist influence at court increased under the two reigns of Shomu’s daughter. As Empress Koken (r. 749-58) she brought many Buddhist priests into court. Koken abdicated in 758 on the advice of her cousin, Fujiwara Nakamaro. When the retired empress came to favor a Buddhist faith healer named Dokyo, Nakamaro rose up in arms in 764 but was quickly crushed. Koken charged the ruling emperor with colluding with Nakamaro and had him deposed. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Koken reascended the throne as Empress Shotoku (r. 764-770). The empress commissioned the printing of 1 million prayer charms--the Hyakumanto dharani--many examples of which survive. The small scrolls, dating from 770, are among the earliest printed works in the world. Shotoku had the charms printed to placate the Buddhist clergy. She may even have wanted to make Dokyo emperor, but she died before she could act. Her actions shocked Nara society and led to the exclusion of women from imperial succession and the removal of Buddhist priests from positions of political authority. *

The first known example of mass printing was ordered by the Japan nun-empress Koken (718-770) to avoid a recurrence of a smallpox epidemic that occurred in 735-37. To expel the demons of disease she ordered 116 priests to have the people of Japan build one million four-and-half-inch-high, three-story pagodas with twenty lines of text written inside. The prayers were made with the world’s oldest known examples of copper printing on paper.

Scholarly Buddhism of the Nara Period

During the Nara period, Buddhist activity took place on two fronts: the clergy were trying to understand the newly imported texts, while the government put Buddhist rituals and organizations to work for the welfare of the state. [Source: A. S. Rosso,; Jones, C. B. New Catholic Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia.com]

As to the first, the so-called "Six Schools of Nara Buddhism" comprised groups of clergy who concentrated on the texts and thought of six different Chinese schools: (1) the Sanron school focused on Sanlun teachings; (2) the Kegon school took up Huayan studies; (3) the Ritsu school concentrated on monastic precepts and ordinations; (4) the Jojitsu school studied Satyasiddhi doctrines; (5) the Hosso school dealt with Faxiang teachings; and (6) the Kusha school read the Abhidharmakośa, a Theravadist work attributed to the Indian philosopher Vasubandhu.

The few scholar-monks who engaged in these studies mostly lived in the capital and were housed in the main temple there, called the Toji. Outside of this government-sponsored establishment, a few self-ordained practitioners left society and lived in the mountains performing austeries or magical services for ordinary people. In addition to the scholarly activity in the capital, the principle activity of clergy was to perform rituals on behalf of the imperial family and the aristocracy.

Influential Buddhist Monks in the Nara Period

Buddhist monks played a prominent role in the imperial administration. They served as engineers helping to build roads, bridges and irrigation systems and worked as clerks and scribes. In return the imperial court helped Buddhism spread to provinces by decreeing that each should establish a monastery for at least 20 monks. The Kegon (Huayen in Chinese) sect was the dominant sect.

Kawagoe wrote: Apart from the centrally authorized schools of Buddhism, there existed the so-called “mountain Buddhism” movement. Furthermore, some Nara Period priests devoted themselves to religious life in remote mountain temples such as Hiso-dera (or Hoko-ji) in the Yoshino district of the Yamato Province. Priests who had gained extraordinary powers as a result of religious practice in such isolated spots often went on to become influential special ritualists at court or at major temples. This movement of Buddhism called mountain Buddhism provided a great stimulus for the development of Nara Period Buddhism and its magical practices ranked as one of the pillars of Buddhism along with the academic practices and studies pursued at one of the official temples of the period. (However, it should be noted that apart from Buddhism, the people also practised at the time shamanist magical practices from the continent, indigenous pre-Buddhist magic as well as the Chinese Taoist magical practices that were also very popular). [Source: Heritage Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]

“There arose a kind of popular practical Buddhism that was quit e unnconnected with the officially rcorganized temples. Two such privately ordained monks associated with mountain Buddhism were Taicho (682-767) known as the Great Sage of Koshi and En no Gyoja of Mt Katsuragi. Such monks did not conform to the manners and standards of the capital and so were rejected by the secular and religious authorities as undesirables. The closer they were to the people, the more severely they were persecuted by the authorities usually on two grounds: – for being privately ordained, and by their popularity for disturbing the status quo of church and state. They were also accused of going into the mountains on their own and of setting up hermitages and of abiding in isolated spots and pretending to teach the Law of Buddha.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Ray Kinnane

Text Sources: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com; Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo ++; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated January 2024

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