Buddhism has frequently been perceived as a stable and singular tradition with the goal to overcome suffering and transcend the cycle of death and rebirth. This common notation of seen “Buddhism” as a “world religion” has been rooted in the perspective of Western scholars . It is important to take a step back and look at Buddhism in different lenses. Especially, if we are trying to understand how it contributed to the development of Japan. For instance, from the moment its introduction it has been used by higher social class to have control over the Japanese system. It is important to understand the different school of thoughts and philosophies within the tradition. Buddhism was so important for the social dynamics that without it some clans or shoguns would haven not been able to rise to power. By looking at the origin of Buddhism and its relations to the government, the tensions it created will be clear. These aspects are also present during the medieval Japan (specifically the Tokugawa shogunate) and at the transition out of this period.
To understand how Buddhism was tightly connected with the imperial government , we need to look back at how it was introduced to Japan. The Soga clan was a group of immigrants from Korea, that brought with them their Buddhist believes. Korea had been exposed to Buddhism and quickly adopted and internalized it; thus, it was an important cultural aspect for the Soga. They also often interacted with foreigners, especially those from Korea and China, so it was also of their interest to bring aspects of the Chinese Confucius governmental system to Japan . According to William E Deal, “The Soga became strong proponents of continental culture, especially Buddhism, and urged the acceptance of Buddhism by the court. They, along with powerful immigrant kinship groups such as the Hata, built temples, sponsored the education of Buddhist clerics, and engaged in other pro-Buddhist activities.” . During the late sixth century, Buddhism already supported by the Soga aristocratic family, was becoming a significant ideological presence in the development of a centralized bureaucrat court according to the “Nihon Shoki” chronicles . Slowly the Soga clan assume higher social status, however, the Soga clan heads who were no longer content with acting behind the scenes. They utilized their resources and the influence of the Buddhist religion got to marry their daughters with the imperial family to access even further power.
Once the Soga family established its control over Japan, it was Prince Shötoku that encouraged the people to follow Buddhism and institutionalized it, the basis for its future growth was consolidated. Shötoku was accredited with the new constitution, called the “Seventeen Article Constitution or Seventeen Injunctions (Jushichijo-kenpo)”. The document was inspired by him and was a tribute after his death. The document justified the centralization of the government (following China’s system) and emphasized both Buddhist and Confucian principles. The constitution was unabashedly promoted the power and authority of the emperor.
Moving forward from this point Buddhism kept playing a role in the distribution of power in Japan. For instance, the emperor Temmu used the strong foundations of the religion for his benefit. He was able to start a myth, which from that point on would establish the emperor as a descendant of the god Sun, the emperor would become a deity. This was measure solidify the stability of the empire and to legitimize that system. The only criteria to decide social status was being descent from mythical ancestors. He mixed this mythic origin of the royal house with religious institutions that supported his ruling .
Buddhism played an important role in defining the social role of the emperor in Japan, it was used to establish the social status and to spread certain ideas through japan. Piggott describes that “the trajectory of warrior kingship was rejected in favor of nurturing new idioms of royal sacrality, and an ideology of divine kingship came to invest the sacerdotal emperor in the late seventh century’ .
The other period which we are going to analyze is the Tokuwaga period in Japan (or Edo period). It was from this point on until the end of early modern Japan that the citizens would be able to break free from a violent social-political upheaval. Previous to this period there were constant warfare between different provinces, lords would be fighting over who preceded who to rule. Once again, the return to a more centralized rule was possible by utilizing religion for political purposes. In contrast with the Soga clan, the Tokuwaga will complement Buddhism with the traditions of Shinto and Neo-Confucianism. It is important to remember that the Tokugawa achieved their dominance mostly though violence and silencing sects that took up militant arms. It was not only by political strategies.
Turning back to the Asuka period, one of their first measure to gain power was similar to what had been done before, establishing the emperor as a deity. Religion was used to idolize and worship the shogun as patron figures. The first Tokugawa shoguns was Ieyasu, he was worshiped at the Tōshōgū Shrine in Nikkō. From this point on, all the shoguns would have this politico-religious tool at their disposal to ensure their legitimacy. This ideology was essential, because shoguns now would be able to minimize the political instability without the use of more violence.
During this period, religion was also used to control the population. Every person had to register with a Buddhist sect and a temple. The monks became government officials, they helped the government to monitor the population. As Kitagawa explains it “that it was not only an important arm of the feudal regime; it was also an effective framework for family and social cohesion” . This particular case was also a measure to retain the loyalty of the people and temples, and to fight Christianity. Another measure taken was known as the “purple robe incident”. The shogun took away the purple robs of monks. They signified their rank and title; it fully recognized the clerics as head of temples. This way the Tokugawa could directly control the Buddhist institutions. Only the monks whose ideas agreed with the Tokugawa and those who could not disrupt the peace an achieved would be able to get their purple robes. This was one of the few ways that the shogun was able to limit the power of the imperial household.
At the end of the Tokugawa, Buddhism paid a high price for being utilized to control political matters. A majority of the people considered Buddhist had little understanding of the doctrines and a Buddhism started to suffer spiritual emptiness. Furthermore, the leaders of the Shinto revival and Neo-Confucian joined in a campaign against the Shogunate and Buddhism. Eventually the Tokugawa regime finally collapsed, Japanese Buddhism was confronted by a new situation for which it had been totally unprepared .
The function of Buddhism during the Tokugawa period can be reflected in the effect of the common people. This perspective is summarized by Vesey contrast of two books of Hur, Nam-lin, “Death and Social Order in Tokugawa Japan” and “Prayer and Play”. Initially during the Tokugawa, the Buddhism perspective can be understood “had a unique world that offered relief from the structures and strictures of Tokugawa daily life”. This overlap of religious and secular attributes created the possibility for a mutually beneficial integration of lay and clerical interests. But towards the end of the period, as Vesey cited captured the change in paradigm, “by the era’s end the integration generated a strong undercurrent of clerical-lay alienation, because the Buddhist clergy worked to maintain social barriers and repressive warrior law codes rather than offering a respite from them”.
In conclusion, Buddhism during Japan was utilized to create certain social orders. One of the examples was during the Azuka period, the Soga family was able to stablish Buddhism as the official religion and they utilized it to achieve a great social status, to the point of having control over the imperial household. In the same way, the Tokuwaga were able to boost the longevity and legitimacy of their clan. They promoted the worship of the shoguns and took measure to control the population by regulating their access to religion. Eventually for both cases, the overuse of Buddhism hurt the religion itself and contributed to the downfall of the clans.