ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Japanese Hongaku

Updated on July 5, 2012


This is Amida Butsu, or the Great Buddha.
This is Amida Butsu, or the Great Buddha.

The Japanization of Buddhism

All Buddhisms are not equal. I learned that this past semester in a course on Japanese Religion. Since I could literally write an entire book on all the things that make Japanese Buddhism different from Chinese and Indian Buddhism, I will use this hub to focus on a tiny aspect of Japanese Buddhism, which is hongaku, or original enlightenment.

Original enlightenment is basically the potential for enlightenment in unenlightened beings. With that said, the influence of hongaku in Japan during the medieval period can be seen best in the context of the different schools of thought that emanated from schools such as Tendai and Shingon started by Saicho (767-822) and Kukai (774-835) respectively. For a better understanding of how exactly hongaku is responsible for the process that turned Buddhism into something very Japanese I will highlight practices born from this original enlightenment thought process. A great place to start is with the different interpretations of the Lotus Sutra.

The Lotus Sutra

The Lotus Sutra is the central scripture of the T’ien-t’ai school and is deeply rooted in Madhyamaka thinking. As the founder of the Tendai school of thought in Japan Saicho relied heavily on exoteric teachings, or kengyo, and specifically the Lotus Sutra. Saicho’s dream was to incorporate the four traditions—the T’ien-t’ai, Zen, esoteric Buddhism, the bodhisattva precepts, and later the addition of the nembutsu—all in one unifying spirit. That spirit, he claimed, was summed up within the Lotus Sutra. Essentially, Saicho took an element from Buddhism that he could interpret into something that could translate easily to the Japanese, hence the Japanization of Buddhism.

Another example is Ennin's interpretation of the Lotus Sutra. He suggested that Buddhism was encompassed in “one great perfect teaching," and that teaching was the Lotus Sutra. Annen, another Buddhist, further helped this idea out in his Shingonshu kyoji gi where he asserted that not only are all teachings one, but all Buddhas, times and places are one, as well.

In the thirteenth century, Dogen’s reading of the Lotus Sutra represented the Japanese world view of earth, space, and time—an influence from Kamakura Tendai. “The world abides forever,” is a verse from the Lotus Sutra but its Japanese interpretation is tied closely to the four seasons. The poetic motto that resulted from this was, “Bloom and bloom, this is eternity; fall and fall, this is eternity.”

Nichiren also had his own Japanese insight into the Lotus Sutra—merely reading it was like an encounter with Sakyamuni himself, face to face. Another understanding Nichiren had of the Lotus Sutra was, “…even to read one letter is by that very act also to include eighty thousand chambers of letters, and to receive the merits of all the Buddhas.” He derives this notion that ‘one contains all’ from a Mahayana tradition expounded in the Avatamsaka Sutra, and developed by Chinese and Korean Buddhist commentators. For Nichiren, “one thought encompassing three thousand realms,” or ichinen sanzen, was the most important principle of Buddhism, and something he equates with the five characters of the title of the Lotus Sutra—Myoho-renge-kyo.

Different Interpretation, Different Salvation

What we can know for certain is that one Buddhist scripture, the Lotus Sutra, remained central to the Tendai teachings. Although interpreted differently at different times and by different Japanese Buddhists, this only reaffirms its importance within hongaku and the evolution of Japanese Buddhism. The fact that it was “re-invented” through interpretation throughout the centuries, every time offering a new way to salvation, demonstrates how hongaku, or “original enlightenment” was, as Jacqueline Stone said, an “aspect of conventional deluded consciousness.” Conveniently so, each new interpretation seemed to fit in nicely with the general concern of the times. This had a huge impact on Kamakura Buddhism.

Shinto Influence

There were other ideas and thought processes that influenced and changed Buddhism in Japan. Shinto (kami worship), of course, not seen as a religion at all by the Japanese, but as the natural way of things, had a major influence on Buddhism. One text retrospectively attributed to Kukai, suggests that there were three categories of kami: kami of original enlightenment (hongaku), kami of nonenlightenment (fukaku), and kami of acquired enlightenment (shikaku). This new concept influenced how the unities of kami and Buddhas or bodhisattvas were understood. Honji suijaku, for example,is a doctrine that identifies kamias traces of the Buddha. In other words, it was the belief that kami were actually manifestations of Buddhas and bodhisattvas.

An example of a kami that was a manifestation of a Buddha was Sakyamuni. Initially as a kami of Hie, in the early fourteenth century the kami of Hie became embodiments of Dainichi. In other words, all sentient beings exist only in the meditation of Dainichi. This also allowed for the Japanese archipelago to become the “Original Land of Dainichi,” or Dainichi Hongaku. The idea that Japan was a representation of Dainichi’s Dharma realm was embraced. In doing this the assertion was made that Japan was now the center of Buddhism, not India or China.

"New" Kamakura Buddhisms

While Tendai Buddhism was at the center, Kamakura Buddhisms were at the periphery. In the twelfth century Buddhisms for the common people had evolved from the hongaku principles seen in earlier, medieval times. These new forms of salvation still relied on earlier ideas, but were simplified to just one verse or action that could theoretically guarantee enlightenment. Six religious leaders were responsible for this new trend in Buddhism: Honen (1133-1212), Shinran (1173-1262), Ippen (1239-1289), Eisai (1141-1215), Dogen (1200-1253), and Nichiren (1222-1282).

Honen, Shinran and Ippen used the nembutsu as their mode to salvation. As the founder of the jodo or pure Land sect, Honen was the first to promote the exclusive practice of the nembutsu. Shinran was a disciple of Honen and carried out his enthusiasm for the practicing of the nembutsu but with two added elements: akunin shoki, or the conviction that evildoers were the principle object of Amida’s compassion, and tariki nembutsu, or the doctrine of other power. By “other power” he meant Amida’s absolute power and human’s absolute lack of power. This was Shinran’s unique contribution to Japanese Buddhism and traditional nembutsu practice. Finally, Ippen, who was highly ascetic, advocated self-power practice. He started by proselytizing the nembutsu and distributing talismans, but as a hijiri, dancing was another mode of expressing the salvation powers of the nembutsu. Reciting the nembutsu, according to him, could be reduced to merely saying, “Namu Amida Butsu.” That was all it took for one’s mind, actions, thoughts and words to belong to Amida.

Eisai and Dogen took a much more physical approach to their salvation. Although a Tendai priest, Eisai was the one responsible for introducing Zen to Japan. He was greatly opposed by Tendai scholars and eventually moved to Kamakura where the shogunate and warrior culture embraced his teachings. Things like drinking tea to promote one’s life and chanoyu, or the tea drinking ceremony, were supported by the shogunate in Kamakura. Then later in the thirteenth century the Soto sect of Zen was founded by Dogen, who was influenced greatly by the impermanence of all things. He introduced the practice of zazen and claimed that shikan taza, or seated meditation, was the highest and best mode to salvation. He dismissed the practice of the nembutsu as a mode of salvation, and rejected the idea that Japan was in the period of Decay of Law, or mappo.

And, as stated before, Nichiren's mode to salvation was the Lotus Sutra.


I've only touched the tip of the iceberg here. There are many more aspects to hongaku than I can fit into one tiny hub. For more information I highly recommend Jacqueline Stone's books and articles as she seems to be the expert on this subject right now. I used one of her books to write this article. It is cited below. Japanese Buddhism is vast, and can take you a lifetime to understand. While I am an atheist, myself, I love to learn about other religions because it solidifies the reasons why I am an atheist, but if Buddhism is your path to enlightenment, I hope I offered you a good start.


Kitagawa, Joseph, M. “The Buddhist Transformation in Japan.” History of Religions Vol. 4, No. 2, Winter 1965, pp. 319-336

Stone, Jacqueline, I. Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999.


This website uses cookies

As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

Show Details
HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)