Tenji and Temmu’s ritsuryo religion: “there is only one imperial way”

After the death of Soga no Emishi in 645, the rulers and administrators in Asuka adopted reforms that led to the formation of a Chinese-style state known as the ritsuryo state. Measures were taken to increase the emperor’s autocratic power by making Buddhism a state religion. Buddhist temples and Buddhist worship were used in support of the ruler’s authority, similar to what had taken place in China and Korea.

 Before the Soga leader’s death, the Buddhism that was practiced in the capital had the stamp of the Soga clan on it as it had been the key patron of Buddhism and the ujidera temple complexes were in the control of the Soga clan. After his death however, actions were taken to sever established Buddhist temples from Soga patronage and the control of temple complexes was placed under the charge of emperors and empresses instead. This marked the beginning of the period known as ritsuryo Buddhism.

A few days Soga no Iruka’s death, according to Nihon shoki, Emperor Kotoku assembled members of the imperial family and his ministers and made them swear an oath that under heaven there is only one imperial way. In all the imperial messages sent to governors of the eastern provinces, their contents began with an affirmation of kami worship and the emperor’s divine authority, “in accordance with the charge entrusted to me by the heavenly kami“.

While affirming his divine priestly role as emperor,  Emperor Kotoku also sent a message to the “great Buddhist temple” (either Asuka-dera or Kudara Taiji (the Great Paekche Temple, later named Daian-ji) founded by Emperor Jomei in 639 where priests and nuns listened to his edict, the last part of which emphasized the new steps of imperial control and patronage:

“… we appoint the following [ten] Buddhist masters … Emmyo [the last named master] is also appointed chief priest of Kudara-dera. The ten Buddhist masters are to give special attention to teaching and guiding all other Buddhist priests and to making certain that Buddhist teachings are practiced in accordance with the law. If anyone below the emperor down through the provincial governors has problems handling the administration of a temple, he is to receive assistance from us. Temple commissioners [tera no tsukasa] and chief temple priests [tera shu] will be appointed. They are to visit temples, ascertain the conditions of priests and nuns and slaves,assess the prodcutvitiy of temple fields, and take full reports to the throne.”

Immediately following the edict, three secular officials’ were apponted Buddhist superintendents (hozu). Together with the ten Buddhist masters who were heavily influenced by Tang-learning (at least four had returned from several years of study at Chinese temples), these Chinese trained masters were at the forefront of the movement that transformed Soga Buddhism into the state religion, the type of Buddhism that was flourishing in China at the time. 

Thus attempts to limit the influence of pro-Paekche clans can be seen with the transfer of patronage of Buddhism from the head of the immigrant Soga clan to the emperor whose authority was derived from his position as chief priesthood of kami worship. Japanese Buddhism was in fact becoming more like Silla’s brand of Buddhism. Silla at the time was the most powerful Korean state, with close ties to the Chinese Tang empire. Many of Japan’s China-trained priests had returned home via the Silla route. Thus, it is assumed there was considerable influence from the increasingly powerful Silla kings who were reinforcing their sacred authority with the worship of Buddha.

Tenji’s this-worldly ritsuryo religion

Even though Prince Shotoku had promoted universalist and humanistic ideals of Buddhism, Buddhism appeared to prosper in its popular magical forms, as support for the state. The new leaders including Emperor Tenji did not seem to be interested in the more intellectual ideas of Buddhism, focusing instead on Buddhist practices that promised this-worldly benefits. Hence, more commonly seen were the holding masses (hoe) at court, makign of Buddhist images, preparing Buddhist meals, and conducting the colorful “burning-of-lamps” (nento) rite. When Emperor Tenji fell seriously sick in 660, one hundred Buddhist images, according to Nihon shoki, were dedicated at court and that the emperor sent messengers to make valuable offerings to Buddha.

Temmu’s state-protecting sutras

Emperor Temmu who reigned briefly after his victory in the civil war of 672, moved first to maintain and strengthen his control of the imperial system through strengthening his spiritual authority. He upgraded the Ise Shrine where ancestral kami of the imperial hosue (Amaterasu the Sun Goddess was worshiped), again like Suiko had, highlighting his role as chief priest for kami worship for the entire nation. And he had scribes compile the chronicles that would justify and sanctify the position of emperors as direct descendants of the Sun Goddess.

In his role as patron of Buddhism (which seemed secondary to that of kami worship), he demonstrated some support of Buddhism by initiating the practice of having Buddhist scripture readings at Kawara-dera temple, ordering that animals be set free in the provinces, paying stipends to Buddhist priests and nuns and holding Buddhist retreats at the imperial palace. Significantly, he had the old Takechi no O-dera renamed the Great Official Temple (Daikan Daiji) – in effect, designating the temple as the new centerpiece of the new ritsuryo Buddhist system. The temple had a nine-storied pagoda comparable in grandeur to the seven-storied pagoda that would be built later at more famous Todai-ji.

From the Daikan Daiji, Buddhist ceremonies and institutions spread to outlying regions. By 677, lectures were held in the provinces on Buddhist sutras known as the “state-protecting sutras“; the “Golden Light” and the “Benevolent Kings” sutras. These sutras clearly show their intended effect to deliver promises of protection for states and their leaders. The sixth chapter of the Golden Light Sutra which was highly regarded, went like this:

“the Four Deva Kings, the Guardians of the World, promise with all their numberless followers (demons and spirits) to protect their kings (together with their families and countries), who attentively listen to this sutra and respectfully make offerings, receiving and keeping this holy text.”

In a similar mode, the fifth chapter of the Benevolent Kings Sutra emphasized the protection of states:

“There were in former times 5000 kings of countries, who always read this sutra, and who in their present life have got their reward. In the same way, you, sixteen Great Kings, must practice the Rite of Protecting the Country, and you must obey, read and explain this sutra. If in future ages, the kings of countries wish to protect their kingdoms and their own bodies, they too must act in the same way.”

In 685, Emperor Temmu ordered “Buddhist chapels to be built in every house of the several provinces”;” Buddhist images and Buddhist sutras … to be placed therein; and Buddha … to be worshiped and offerings to be made” … in effect extending  the reach of his state temple system, radiating outward from the Daikan Daiji to the outlying provinces.

The two sutras containing the basic doctrines of ritsuryo Buddhism, feature prominently in the development of the ritsuryo system and continued to be  honored throughout the Nara period.

Finally, the Emperor Temmu had constructed for Empress Jito’s sake, the Yakushi Temple. Although ironically, it was Temmu who died and Empress Jito who continued the building of the Yakushi Temple, the Yakushi Temple was prominent for the Yakushi triad (that is regarded as a treasure of the pre-Nara period today) and the Yakushi sutra which contained the Buddhist teaching of the perfect Buddha of Healing (Yakushi Nyorai), who, in unsurpassed wisdom, vowed to bless individuals on the path to Buddhahood. The Yakushi triad sculpture was a splendid symbol of the healing Buddha (flanked by two attendant bodhisattvas (deities who attend the Buddha on the path to Enlightenment) of the sun and of the moon.

That belief in the mysterious power of the healing Buddha was an important aspect of ritsuryo Buddhism that helped Buddhism to continue to spread and prosper in later times.

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