Wednesday, August 26, 2015

"O ye of little faith?" - The Ji-syu School of Japanese Buddhists

The Pacific Coast 100 km west of Tokyo

The Ji-syu School of Japanese Buddhists

There was once a Buddhist saint in Japan who traveled and preached like Christ Jesus, leading his disciples and wearing rags.

In 1274 and 1281, Mongolians or descendants of Genghis Khan who had occupied China to establish the Yuan dynasty in 1271, tried to invade Japan, in vain twice.

At the time Japan was ruled by the first samurai regime established by Minamoto-no Yoshitomo and his clan called Genji and succeeded by his successor, the Hojyo clan.  These samurais set the political capital of Japan in Kamakura, 80 km west of present-day Tokyo, while the Emperor still presided ritually in Kyoto 500 km west of Kamakura.

Though Yoshitomo was a shogun, the head of the samurai class, Hojyo chiefs did not suceed power as a shogun but deputy of the shogun.  The Hojyo clan controlled all over Japan, except Hokkaido and Okinawa, from Kamakura.  Their rule continued from about 1190 to 1333.  This samurai regime was uniquely appraised by its brave and successful wars against invading Mongolians and accompanying Koreans.  The wars are emphatically taught in history class in Japanese schools as "Mongol Invasion Attempts," since typhoons called kamikaze contributed to the victory of the samurai government of Kamakura.

In March 1282, a band of poor people led by a Buddhist priest in rags approached a checking point before the city of Kamakura.  Then, samurai guards came to stop them, telling them sternly that beggars and tramps were not allowed to enter Kamakura.  And, a samurai leader hit the vagabond-like priest twice with a cane.

At the time Kamakura was the most prosperous city in East Japan, but it was full of poor people in addition to samurais and merchants.  The Kamakura government was restricting inflow of people into the city.

Now, the shabby Buddhist priest being hit twice by the cane said to the samurai, "I have been preaching for poor people traveling the nation.  But I thought the future of my mission was dependent on my missionary work to disseminate nenbutsu (Buddhist invocation and prayers to the Buddha) in Kamakura, the center of the nation.  But if it is impossible, I will rather die here."

Then, the samurai leader said, "It is not banned to preach outside Kamakura."  Accordingly, the Buddhist priest and his band moved to the sea coast around Kamakura to practice their version of the Buddhism: Chanting namidabutsu only could even save souls (without knowing contents of Buddhist scriptures).

This Buddhist priest was called Ippen, a samurai-turned Buddhist priest.  Ippen traveled from West Japan to East Japan, preaching his version of Buddhism.  He taught farmers and other poor people to practice nenbutsu for salvation.  Ippen did not try to become a high-ranking priest who resided in a big temple and received a high title and rank from Buddhist authorities in Kyoto or Nara, the traditional cultural and religious center of Japan.

While preaching to poor farmers, Ippen came to adopt a method of dancing and chanting nenbutsu.  This method was called Odori Nenbutsu (dancing prayers to the Buddha).  Followers and believers were dancing and chanting in an opening or on a makeshift stage in a village all day long.  He led a band of 20 or so followers to visit local villages mostly between Kyoto and Kamakura.  But almost in every village they visited they were welcomed by farmers and they practiced their mission.

Today, successors of Ippen continue their mission as the Ji-syu denomination, though they have temples and do not travel any more to villages for practice the chanting and dancing.

From a cultural point of view, Ippen's mission was very significant as some of his disciples painted scenes of Ippen's mission work in pictures.  They were compiled in a picture scroll.  They showed customs, costumes and manners of living of ordinary people 800 years ago.   Such material is traditionally rare in Japan.  Realistic description had not been so popular and common in Japan till modernization started in Japan in 1860s.  Though the Picture Scroll of Ippen was created for a religious reason, it is a very precious historic work.

What I pay attention to is that like the Kamakura government fought invading Mongolians twice, it also hit Ippen, trying to enter Kamukara, twice.  It means, in my interpretation, that though Japan or samurai rulers could expel foreign powers to secure it, subsequently they had to fully tackle the Japanese versions of the Buddhism, which Ippen's Ji-syu represented, that were emerging actively in the Kamakura era.

However, samurais seem to have failed to fully respect the Buddhism as Ippen was rejected by Kamakura samurais.  And this failure had a significant influence in following eras in the Japanese history.  It was related to the coming of the age of provincial wars in Japan (1457-1615) and the national seclusion under the Tokugawa samurai regime (1639-1854) to prevent an influence of Christianity on the Japanese society.

Last night, I had a dream in which somebody turned my attention to Ji-syu.  So, I wrote some here concerning Ippen, the founder of the Jisyu Buddhist school.

In addition, "Ji" of Ji-syu is expressed with a kanji character that means time in Japanese; "Syu" means a school or a denomination.

Ippen leading his band and facing samurai guards before Kamakura (Ippen Picture Scroll)

イメージ 1
Dancing and chanting nenbutsu for the Buddha on a makeshift stage (Ippen Picture Scroll)

Illustration of dancing and chanting nenbutsu for the Buddha

Dancing and chanting nenbutsu for the Buddha in the Edo era (the 17th to 19th century)

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Mat 8:26 And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm.