Mahāyāna Precepts in Japan


Mahāyāna Precepts in Japan

The term Mahāyāna Precepts is usually used to differentiate lists of precepts or rules found in Mahāyāna texts from those found in the Vinaya, the traditional source upon which monastic discipline was based. A large number of Mahāyāna texts contain such lists, some detailed and others very simple.

The history of Mahāyāna precepts in Japan was decisively influenced by the country’s geography:

Japan is an island country; during the Nara period, it was difficult to reach from the Asian mainland, and therefore difficult for ordinations to be performed in the orthodox manner, in rituals presided over by 10 monks who had correctly received the precepts.

Ganjin (Jianzhen, 688-763), for example, tried 6 times to lead a group of monks from China to Japan so that they could conduct a proper ordination.

As a result, at least some monks resorted to self-ordinations, a Mahāyāna ritual in which monks would go before an image of the Buddha and perform confessions and meditate

until they received a sign from the Buddha sanctioning their ordination, a sign that could occur either while they were awake or in a dream.

In addition, government control of ordinations led other monks to use Mahāyāna precepts to ordain their followers:

The most famous example of this is Gyōki (668-749), who used a set of Mahāyāna precepts, probably from the Yogācāra-bhūmi,

to ordain groups of men and women who performed social works, such as building bridges and irrigation systems, activities specified in some sets of Mahāyāna rules.

The term Mahāyāna precepts was frequently used in a polemical manner to criticize the rules of the Vinaya. However, most monks who adhered to the Vinaya rules believed that they were following precepts that were largely or completely consistent with Mahāyāna teachings.

Ganjin used an ordination platform that included an image of 2 Buddhas sitting in a reliquary:

This image is peculiar to the Lotus Sūtra (Saddharma-Puṇḍarīka-Sūtra) and indicated that Ganjin probably interpreted the Vinaya in a manner consistent with Tendai teachings

that enabled him to “open and reconcile” Hīnayāna teachings of the mainstream Buddhist Schools with those of Mahāyāna so that no contradiction occurred.

Moreover, Japanese monks were also ordained with the 58 rules from a Mahāyāna text, Brahma’s Net Sūtra:

In this case, the Mahāyāna precepts were intended to supplement those found in the Vinaya, thereby giving the practitioner a Mahāyāna perspective. As a result, virtually the entire history of Buddhist precepts in Japan could fall under the rubric of Mahāyāna precepts.

A decisive break with the rules of the Vinaya occurred

when Saichō (767-822), founder of the Tendai School, argued that his monks should use the 58 Mahāyāna precepts of the Brahmā’s Net Sūtra for their ordinations.

Saichō’s main objective was to free his monks from administrative control of his adversaries in the Buddhist schools of Nara:

His commitment to traditional standards of monastic discipline is revealed in a provision that Tendai monksprovisionally receive the Hīnayāna precepts” after 12 years on Mount Hiei.

Because Saichō died before the court accepted his proposals, Tendai monks were left without clear instructions on how the terse precepts of the Brahmā’s Net Sūtra were to be interpreted when they were the main basis of monastic discipline.

According to the Brahmā’s Net Sūtra, when the major precepts of the sūtra were violated, confession, followed by a sign from the Buddha, served to restore the precepts.

If a person did not receive a sign, the precepts could be received again.

When esoteric Buddhist practices were used, a Dhāraṇī (prayer) might be sufficient to remove the karmic consequences of wrongdoing.

Some later Tendai monks such as Annen (841–889) argued that the esoteric Buddhist precepts were predominant, but these were so abstract that they offered little concrete guidance to monks.

Several centuries later, Tendai monks argued that the principles of the Lotus Sūtra, a vague set of recommendations, were sufficient to serve as precepts:

Such interpretations meant that the Buddhist order of monks and nuns played little or no role in enforcing the precepts. In some cases, monastery rules might play a role in providing standards for behaviour, but Tendai monastic discipline went into general decline.

A number of monks made efforts to revive monastic discipline:

Monks such as Shunjō (Chōgen, 1121-1206) travelled to China and brought back the practice of using ordinations based on the Vinaya but interpreting the precepts in a Mahāyāna manner based on Tiantai teachings.

Ninkū (1309-1388) tried to strengthen monastic discipline by emphasizing stricter adherence to the Brahma’s Net precepts:

Instead of relying on the terse precepts found in that Sūtra,

he wrote detailed sub-commentaries on the text, basing his interpretation of the precepts on a commentary by the de facto founder of the Chinese Tiantai School, Zhiyi (538-597).

Kōen (1263-1317) was the centre of another group based at Kurdani on Mount Hiei that tried to revive monastic discipline by reviving Saichō’s 12 year period of sequestration on Mount Hiei:

At the end of the sequestration, a ritual called a “consecrated ordination” was conducted in which a monk and his teacher affirmed that they had realized Buddhahood with this very body through their adherence to the precepts.

Myōryū (1637-1690) and Reikū (1652-1739) used Saichō’s statement allowing monks to “provisionally receive the Hīnayāna precepts” to argue that the Vinaya could be used to supplement the Brahmā’s Net Sūtra.

The issues and approaches that appeared in Tendai affected other schools in a variety of ways:

Many Zen monks also strove to revive the precepts by using “Mahāyāna precepts:”

Eisai (1141-1215), often considered the founder of Rinzai Zen, deemed the precepts from the Vinaya to be the basis of Zen and wrote several works on them.

Dōgen (1200-1253) used a unique set of 16 Mahāyāna precepts for ordinations and wrote extensively on monastic discipline.

The various Pure Land traditions interpreted the precepts in several ways, sometimes citing the Decline of the Dharma (mappo) as a reason why they were no longer valid, as in the case of Shinshū:

However, the various branches of the Jōdo School continued to use precepts in their ordinations even though monks frequently were not required to follow them.

For Nichiren, adherence to the Lotus Sūtra served as the precepts:

In addition, the establishment of an “ordination platform of the original teaching” played a role in Nichiren’s later thinking; the concept, however, was not clearly defined and has been interpreted in a variety of ways by later thinkers.

Eison (1201–1290), founder of the Shingon-risshū tradition, used a Mahāyāna self-ordination to establish a new lineage that followed the Vinaya.

In the last few centuries, few Japanese monks have followed any set of precepts closely.

However, discussions of the role of precepts have continued to be important, as is shown by the fierce arguments that ensued when the Meiji government (1868-1912) made celibacy and meat-eating optional.

Even though many monks did not observe these rules, the prestige lost by the new government ruling was important.

In addition, the use of Mahāyāna precepts for lay believers should be noted:

These are conferred on laity who wish to have ethical rules to guide their lives; these precepts are also used to ordain the dead so that they will have a good rebirth.

In conclusion, although Japan is often described as a country where monks do not follow the precepts, they have discussed them continuously for well over a millennium.