Great Buddha of Kamakura
The main Japanese Buddhist sects — Shingon, Tendai, Jodo, Nichiren, and Zen — sprung up during the Heian Period (794-1185) and Kamakura Period (1192-1338). The first homegrown Buddhist sects to take hold in Japan were the Tendai and Shingon schools. They evolved in the Heian Period. Jodo and Zen were powerful forces in the Kamakura Period, when Buddhism spread and was embraced by a wide range of people and Japan experienced a great deal of political unrest and social chaos.

Kamakura was the age of the great popularization of Buddhism. In the time of disunity and violence, deepening pessimism increased the appeal of the search for salvation. Two new sects, Jodo (Pure Land) and Zen (Meditation), dominated the period. The old Heian sects had been quite esoteric and appealed more to the intellectuals than to the masses. The Mount Hiei monasteries had become politically powerful but appealed primarily to those capable of systematic study of the sect’s teachings. This situation gave rise to the Jodo sect, based on unconditional faith and devotion and prayer to Amida Buddha. Zen rejected all temporal and scriptural authority, stressing moral character rather than intellectual attainments, an emphasis that appealed to the military class. Growing numbers of the military class turned to Zen masters, regarded as embodiments of truth. [Source: Library of Congress]

In the Heian period Buddhist culture was primarily the property of the court and the aristocracy — a very small minority in Japan. Between 1150 and 1300 new sects and doctrines arose that were founded by reformers. They used simple ideas and lively language that appealed to ordinary farmers, fishermen and soldiers.

Lanxi Saolong, a Chinese Zen master known in Japanese as Rankei Doryu, is credited with making Zen a credible religion in Japan. He arrived from China in 1246 and was welcomed in Kamakura by a powerful feudal leader there. He purified the forms of Zen that were practiced, was involved in establishing the Rinzai school of Zen, and helped spread it throughout Japan. Eisai (1141-1215), the founder of the Rinzai school of Zen, gained strength and credibility after being supported by the Kamakura period shoguns. See Buddhism, Religion

Websites and Sources: Essay on Kamakura and Muromachi Periods aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Wikipedia article on the Kamakura Period Wikipedia ; ; Wikipedia article on Muromachi Period Wikipedia ; Tale of Heike site meijigakuin.ac.jp ; Kamakura City Websites: Kamakura Today kamakuratoday.com ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Samurai Era in Japan: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; Artelino Article on Samurai artelino.com ; Wikipedia article om Samurai Wikipedia Sengoku Daimyo sengokudaimyo.co ; 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 ; Kusado Sengen, Excavated Medieval Town mars.dti.ne.jp ; List of Emperors of Japan friesian.com

Nichiren Buddhism


Nichiren Buddhism — the largest of the early sects that remains active today — was founded in the 13th century by Nichiren (1222-82), a Japanese monk who promoted the Lotus sutra as the "right" teaching, and believed that violence was sometimes justifiable. His main claim to fame was predicting the Mongol invasions.

Nichiren Buddhism grew in influence over the centuries. It was based in an interpretation of the Lotus Sutra, the central text of text of Tendai and became linked with samurai and the unity of the state and religion. Many present-day Buddhist sects have their roots in Nichiren Buddhism.

The son of a fishermen, Nichiren entered a monastery as a boy and was kicked out at age 31 for his militant views. Although he played a role in preparing Japan for the Mongol invasion, he was exiled twice for getting people riled up with doomsday predictions. In his memorial Establishing Right and Making the Country More Secure he insisted that there must be a national religion and all other sects should be suppressed. He called the Pure Land sect the Everlasting Hell and claimed Zen Buddhists were devils. Although he was condemned by the government and the traditional sects he was popular among ordinary people.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Nichiren (1222-1282) was a reformer Buddhist monk in Kamakura era Japan who established his own sect (the Nichiren sect) based on devotion to the Lotus Sūtra and chanting the title of the sūtra Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō. Nichiren was often controversial and criticized by government authorities because of his prophecies that social problems and natural disasters were based on a failure to adhere to his form of Buddhist practice. He considered himself a reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Jōgyō. His last sermon, Risshō ankoku ron (“On Establishing the Correct Teaching and Pacifying the State”), ca. 1250, is one of his most important treatises.” [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Zen Buddhism

Lanxi Daolong

Zen Buddhism arrived in Japan in the Heian Period (794-1185) or earlier but didn’t really catch on until Kamakaru Period (1185-1333) and later. In the early days there were who two competing schools of Zen Buddhism: Soto, which emphasized mediating in the seated position under strict guidelines, and Rinzai, which emphasized lengthy question-and-answer drills and the contemplation of koan (metaphysical riddles that have no logical answer) such as "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

The Rinzai sect, the oldest of the Japanese Zen sects, was founded in the 12th century by Myoan Eisai (See Below). The Soto Zen sect was founded by Dogen (1200-1253), a student of Eisai who also studied in China. It emphasizes shitan taza (literally "just sitting"). Sometimes trainees of the Soto Zen sect a make a vow of silence and spend their time meditating, studying and eating in silence. There are 15,000 Sato Zen temples in Japan today.

Three of the most important Japanese figures in Zen were Ikkyu, a hard-drinking womanizer who thumbed his nose at authority but demonstrated great incite into Zen through his poetry and calligraphy; Hakuin, who developed an influential theory of enlightenment and style of teaching; and Ryokan, a wandering poet who expressed Zen virtue through his simple and contemplative poetry and lifestyle.

Lanxi Daolong, a Chinese Zen master known in Japanese as Rankei Doryu, is credited with making Zen a credible religion in Japan. He arrived from China in 1246 and was welcomed in Kamakura by a powerful feudal leader there. He purified the forms of Zen that were practiced, was involved in establishing the Rinzai school of Zen, and helped spread it throughout Japan.

Dogen Zenji (1200-1253) founded the Soto Sect and Eiheji Temple in Fukui Prefecture. Born to noble parents that died when he was young, he traveled to China when he was 24 and underwent strict training with a famous Zen master. He returned to Japan in 1228 and lived at Kenneinji temple in Kyoto for three years before founding his first temple in Uji, near Kyoto. In 1244 he and his followers founded Eiheji in the mountains of Fukui Prefecture. Eiheji means “eternal peace."

Mappo: Buddhist Cosmic Cycles

Aizen Myoo

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: One of the characteristics of the Mahayana forms of Buddhism is a theory of cosmic cycles in which a Buddha appears to show others how to attain enlightenment. Then, as time goes on, this Buddha’s teachings deteriorate, leading eventually to a long period of general misery and social unrest. Then, a new Buddha appears to start another cycle. Thus, there has been a series of cosmically-ordained Buddhas in human history, with the Buddha Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha who founded Buddhism as we know it today) simply being the most recent, that is, the Buddha for the present cycle. Of course, it is possible that other other Buddhas have existed after Shakyamuni in the form of people who have attained enlightenment. The theory of cosmic cycles pertains only to the Buddhas that appear as part of the cosmic order of things. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“The term mappo literally means something like "end of the dharma." It is the last of the three temporal stages Buddhism mentioned earlier: the true dharma, the semblance dharma, and the last dharma. Let us examine some of the details of this theory, which came into Japan along with the vast corpus of Buddhist texts from India, China, and Korea.~

“According to the theory of cosmic cycles, the age of the true dharma is characterized by three qualities: 1) theory or teachings, 2) the practice of those teachings, and 3) true insight capable of leading to enlightenment. In the age of the semblance dharma, Buddhists go through the motions of practice (2), but without benefiting from them owing to worldly corruption. Therefore, they will not attain true insight (3). So in the semblance age, 1 and 2 are present, but not 3. In the final age, 2 is also gone. Though some may claim to be practicing Buddhism, they do not even go through the motions correctly, and disputes between monks and religious factions become heated. The teachings themselves (1) remain (recall that they are the unchanging essence of the diamond world in esoteric Buddhism), but nobody really understands them, much less putts them into practice. ~

Saicho and Mappo


According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Among the first Japanese Buddhists to act on the implications of the theory of mappo was a prominent monk named Saicho, who was active at the start of the Heian period. At this time, the theory of cosmic cycles, while known to some monks, was not generally a concern among the Japanese aristocracy or clergy. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“By Saicho’s calculations, the true dharma age lasted 500 years; the semblance dharma age 1000. Based on the traditionally accepted death of Shakyamuni, which was significantly earlier than the estimates of most scholars today, Saicho thought that he lived right at the start of mappo. Not everyone accepted Saicho’s timing. Recall that some regarded the true dharma age to last 1000 years, not 500. Also, there were two possibilities for the semblance dharma age, 500 or 1000 years. Why? The main reason seems to be the discussion of time periods found in a scripture called the Great Collection Sutra. ~

According to it, there are five 500-year periods (go-gohyakusai) after the death of the Buddha during which teachings and practice decline. Each period is characterized by a particular feature: 1) firm attainment of liberation (gedatsu kengo), 2) steadfast practice of meditation (zenjo kengo), 3) steadfast hearing of Buddhist teaching (tamon kengo), 4) building of many temples (zoji kengo), and 5) steadfast engagement in doctrinal disputes (tojo kengo). For Saicho, the first of these five constituted the age of the true dharma, the second and third were the semblance dharma, and the final age began with the fourth, that is, the massive building of temples. ~

“Notice that there is room here to make the true dharma last either 500 or 1000 years and the semblance dharma last either 500 or 1000 years. Another possible area of flexibility concerns the length of mappo itself. Might it last only 500 or 1000 years instead of the 10,000 years according to conventional belief? Another factor that added flexibility to the periodization was different dates for the Buddha’s death, some several decades apart.” ~

Doomsday Aspects of Saicho and Mappo

Aizen Myoo

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “In any case, Saicho thought that he lived at the very start of mappo. He had other evidence to support this belief. For one thing, another Buddhist theory claimed that typical human life spans varied, from about 80,000 years at the longest to ten at the shortest, that is, during the depths of mappo. That typical life spans were well under 100 years in Saicho’s day further pointed to the conclusion that final age was at hand. The short life spans were part of a larger collection of symptoms of the approach of mappo. The full list is called the "Five Defilements" (gojoku), which are: 1) famines plagues, wars, etc.; 2) the arising of false views; 3) intensification of evil passions; 4) rejection of moral laws and the physical and mental degeneration resulting from that rejection; and 5) short life spans. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“According to Buddhist theology, although these defilements began to appear when human life spans went below 20,000 years, they became especially obvious when life spans went below 100 years. Think of our own times right now. Does it not seem that the Five Defilements are abundantly present? Probably so. And the same impression would have prevailed at virtually any point in human history. In any case, for Saicho, all the evidence pointed to entry into mappo. Regarding this point, Nakano Masayuki argues convincingly that many of Saicho’s activities in establishing Tendai on Mt. Hiei reflect an active attempt on his part to protect both the state and Buddhist teachings during the impending last age. ~

“There is one essential point in the above paragraphs about Saicho’s theory of mappo: nobody could be certain exactly when mappo would start. One reason was Saicho’s compressing a 5-stage cycle into three stages, thereby leaving room for debate over whether the true dharma stage lasts 500 or 1000 years and also whether the semblance dharma state lasts 500 or 1000 years. Add in some slack for different sets of dates for the Buddha’s death, and one could never be completely certain whether the world was about to enter the final stage or whether it had already entered that stage--an ideal condition for anxiety.

Doomsday Mappo Catches on Late Heian and Kamakura Periods

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Few Japanese at the time of the early Heian period shared Saicho’s sense of doomsday. Using the variables in timing described above, other Buddhists in the ninth century said that mappo was over two centuries away and would not start until 1052. Furthermore, few Japanese outside of the elite members of the clergy knew much about the more sophisticated doctrines of Buddhism during the early Heian period. By the end of the period, however, many things had changed. First, nearly all monastic and aristocratic Japanese were familiar with the major doctrines of Buddhism. Second, it became increasingly difficult to theorize the start of mappo farther into the future, especially after 1052. Third, from the standpoint of the aristocracy especially, it seemed as if society was indeed entering a period of major decline. Problems collecting revenues, political strife between the emperor and retired emperor, the increasing power of warriors and the increasing frequency of warfare, the decline of the central civilian government’s authority, and the increasingly apparent corruption of the Buddhist establishment all contributed to anxiety concerning entry into mappo. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

Amida coming to earth

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “That this anxiety became acute is not to say that all learned Japanese understood mappo in the same way. Some rejected the theory entirely, and those who accepted it were not unanimously agreed about the timing. Furthermore, there was disagreement about how best to react to mappo. In other words, was there anything people could do about it? How could or should Buddhism be altered to suit the conditions of the time? Is it still possible to become enlightened, or at least to avoid rebirth in the lower realms of existence, while in the present, degenerate age? These were the sorts of questions on the minds of many elite Japanese in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and, to some extent, all the way up to the seventeenth century. Even those who rejected the theory of cosmic cycles had to discuss and deal with it. In short, mappo was the defining issue not only in theology, but also in the literary, dramatic, and visual arts of mid-medieval Japan. ~

As William R, LaFleur points out: [I]t is important to realize that people in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries of Japan’s history were deeply absorbed in a debate as to whether the entire world had just entered a necessarily evil era called mappo, the final epoch of the current Buddhist cycle. Many of those who embraced this idea had calculated that as of the year 1052 . . . there had commenced a lengthy period during which the correct understanding and practice of Buddhism had been virtually nonexistent. . . . Some took the calculations to be correct and the current laxity of monastic discipline as proof that the theory was true. Others, especially the Zen master Dogen (1200-1253), argued against the mappo theory; they held that the possibility of understanding and practicing Buddhism was as good as it had ever been and that theories such as that of mappo were merely mental contrivances by which shallow understanding and loose practice were rationalized. [Source: William R. LaFleur, The Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), p. 3.]

“So, in the realm of religion, the fear of either being on the verge of entering mappo or of having already entered it was very much on the minds of elite Japanese during the late Heain period, the Kamakura period, and, to some extent, the Muromachi period. Furthermore, these centuries were a time of fundamental social change as the warriors replaced the civilian aristocrats as the dominant members of society. But these warriors tended to fight among themselves for territory and power, especially during the Muromachi period, when central government was weak or powerless.” ~

Culture in the Kamakura Period

The Yorimoto shogunate considered the pursuit of the arts by the Imperial family and Heian Period nobility to be wasteful and decadent. It encouraged austerity and the pursuit of the martial arts and used its strength to bring landlords under their control and restore control over Japan.

Amida coming over the mountain

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The Kamakura and Nanbokucho eras were remarkable for the shift that occurred in the Japanese aesthetic. The highly refined sensibilities of the superceded aristocracy did not interest the new patrons. Instead, the warrior class favored artists who treated their subjects with a direct honesty and virile energy that matched their own. What followed, then, was an age of realism unparalleled before the late eighteenth century. This renascence was not limited to art.[Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Department of Asian Art. "Kamakura and Nanbokucho Periods (1185–1392)". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, 2000, metmuseum.org \^/]

Religious movements experienced a similar resurgence, and reform and counter-reform currents animated and transmuted Kamakura Buddhism. While the courtly and warrior elites perpetuated the Heian traditions of Amida worship and Esoteric Buddhism, for the first time in its history Buddhism was also actively proselytized among the Japanese masses. In the Kamakura period (1185 and 1333) and Muromachi period (1333-1576) Zen had a large impact on Japanese art and culture as manifested in the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy, ink paintings, haiku poetry, gardening, sculpture and textiles. As might be expected, the literature of the time reflected the unsettled nature of the period. The Hojoki (An Account of My Hut) describes the turmoil of the period in terms of the Buddhist concepts of impermanence and the vanity of human projects. The Heike monogatari (Tale of the Heike) narrated the rise and fall of the Taira (also known as the Heike), replete with tales of wars and samurai deeds. A second literary mainstream was the continuation of anthologies of poetry in the Shin kokinshu wakashu (New Collection of Ancient and Modern Times), of which twenty volumes were produced between 1201 and 1205. [Source: Library of Congress]

Some trace the tea ceremony and tea back to Eisai (1141-1215), an influential monk who introduced to Japan a new method for making powdered green tea. A member of the Rinzai school of Zen, he is said to have brought back tea seeds from tea bushes from China and planted them at his temple. At that time tea had a number of health benefits ascribed ti it in China and was used to harmonize different parts of the body.

Sculpture in the Kamakura Period

The golden age of Japanese sculpture was in the Kamakura Period (1192-1333), when wooden statues of a wide range of subjects, including serene hermits, fierce warriors and omnipotent gods, were carved with wonderful detail and realism from blocks of woods fit together. Some the wooden figures feature realistic even humorous poses.

Famous sculptors include Kokei (active in the late 12th and early 13th century), and his son Unkei (died 1223). Unkei produced magnificent wooden sculptures with crystals inset in the eyes. His images of important figures in Japanese Buddhism and known for being expressive and austere.

Kokei worked during the Heian period (794-1192) and early Kamakura period. He made sculptures of Buddha from cypress wood. Experts determine works made by him based on pleats in clothing and the shape of the ears.

Unkei lived in the early Kamakura period. The years of his birth is unknown. He developed the Kamakura-style of carving and led the Nara-based Kei school of Buddhist sculpture. He played a major role in rebuilding large temples ruined by battles that took place in the Heian period.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Samurai websites, MIT visualizing history

Text Sources: Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com; 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; Time; Newsweek, 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 September 2016

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