6 Temples and 1,000 Years of Japanese Buddhism (Part 2)

For Part 1, click here.

Kamakura period (1192–1333)

Buddhism flourished

Japan enjoyed three centuries of relative stability under the rule of the Fujiwara clan. When the influence of the Fujiwaras waned in the latter half of the 11th century, various factions emerged to void in the power vacuum. After the rise and fall of multiple clans and players, Yoritomo Minamoto conquered Kyoto in 1183 and officially established the beginning of feudalism in Japan. For the next seven centuries Japan was ruled by regional military strongmen while the central government was generally weak and ineffective. Land and peasants were rewards in exchange for the loyalty of the samurai class.

Yoritomo Minamoto established a new government at his home in Kamakura as Kyoto remained the official capital. Minamoto wasn’t able to consolidate authority over the entire country, and when he died suddenly in 1199 the struggle for power between the various clans threw the country into a highly factious period. The Hōjō clan came out victorious, but the already limited authority Kamakura retained over the regional strongmen had mostly vanished by this point.

Buddhism continued to flourish. Similar to the Middle Ages in Europe when the general public, under the constant threats of epidemic, famine and warfare, could only find salvation in Christianity, their disenfranchised Japanese counterparts also turned devotedly to religion. While the Nara sects survived, the samurai-preferred Zen and Jōdo-shū sects emerged onto the scene in the 12th century and quickly gained widespread acceptance. Among the two sects, the Rinzai school of Zen was most favored.

Nanzen-ji 南禅寺

Numerous Zen temples were founded not only in Kamakura but also Kyoto in the middle and late 13th century. One of the most representative is Nanzen-ji, built in 1291 and the first Zen temple to be commissioned by the royal family. Emperor Kameyama, after abdicated his throne at the age of 26, built a retirement retreat at the site of the current Nanzen-ji. Plagued by continuous problems, the ex-emperor invited Priest Fumon of Tofuku-ji to perform exorcism in the villa in 1290 and rewarded the priest a portion of land to build a temple. Eventually what became Nanzen-ji overtook the entire ground of the villa and the former emperor named himself as a Grand Priest.

Nanzen-ji is the most prestigious of all Zen temples, holding the title of “First Temple of The Land” and ranks ahead of the “five great Zen temples” in both Kamakura and Kyoto. Destroyed by fire in 1393, 1447 and 1467, Nanzen-ji received a major restoration and expansion in the Edo period.

Nanzen-ji has one of the larger complexes in Kyoto and encompasses 12 sub-temples, but among all the Buddhist monuments stands an idiosyncratic structure — a brick aqueduct built during the Meiji era, part of a canal system that carried water between Kyoto and Lake Biwa. I was fascinated by this mixture of east and west at first sight. Even after visiting numerous temples in and around Kyoto, Nanzen-ji remains my favorite.

Nanboku-chō period (1334–1392)

Civil war

The 14th century was most defined by the Kenmu Restoration, a failed attempt by Emperor Go-Daigo to retake control from the military class. His disastrous three-year reign was defined by his favoritism towards his loyalists and disregard for ordinary civilians and low-ranked warriors. The general public revolted and the general Ashikaga Takauji captured Kyoto and installed himself as the new shogun in 1336. Emperor Go-Daigo escaped south to Yoshino near Nara and established an opposing regime, ushering in half a century of civil war until Ashikaga Yoshimitsu defeated the Southern Imperial Court in 1392.

Tenryū-ji 天龍寺

Buddhism and politics were always intertwined in ancient Japan, especially during times of political turmoil and regime change. Tenryū-ji, ranked number one among Kyoto’s five great Zen temples, was commissioned on the site of an imperial villa by Ashikaga Takauji in 1345. The name Tenryū, meaning “dragon in the sky”, derived from a monk who dreamed the spirit of Emperor Go-Daigo raised up from the Ōi River in Arashiyama. Taking the advice from the monk, the victorious shogun, in an effort to display unity and legitimacy, held a ceremony at the new temple for his recently deceased foe.

Once the most prosperous Zen temple in Kyoto with 330,000 square meters in size and 150 sub-temples, Tenryū-ji suffered massive fire in 1358, 1367, 1373, 1380, 1447, 1467 and 1815. The present structures were reconstructed in the latter part of the Meiji era, many of which no longer completely replicated the original style known as Eclectic, a combination of the Wayō, Daibutsuyō and Zen’yō styles of the Heian and Kamakura eras. The garden, one of Kyoto’s most photogenic, is one of the few remaining aspects of the original design.

Muromachi period (1392–1573)

Peak of Japanese Buddhism

Although Ashikaga Yoshimitsu united the North and South Imperial Courts, he ceded authority to the regional powers, and gradually these regional strongmen established their own rules in oppose to the shogunate. The inherited instability of this multipolar system erupted in 1467 over the succession to Ashikaga Yoshimasa. Hosokawa Katsumoto and Yamana Sōzen backed the shogun’s brother and infant son respectively, and both managed to gain the support of various samurai clans. The ten-year Ōnin War ensured, reducing Kyoto into a wasteland.

The struggle ended without an obvious winner; the Hosokawa clan claimed control over the shogunate, but the civil war had spread to the rest of the country and the shogunate’s little remaining legitimacy had vanished. The country fell into a state of continuous civil war for a century.

This period was the peak of Japanese Buddhism, especially the Rinzai school of Zen. After the country was reunified by Tokugawa Ieyasu, Buddhism, which for a thousand years had acted as a social and political pillar, was actively undermined by the new administration. Instead Neo-Confucianism and Shinto were promoted. While very few new temples were constructed and no new school of thoughts except for Ōbaku was introduced, most of the important Buddhist temples were preserve or rebuilt.

Ryōan-ji 龍安寺

Seventeen years before the onset of the Ōnin War, Hosokawa Katsumoto acquired the land of the former Tokudai-ji for his private home on Kyoto’s western side. He commissioned a temple next to his residence, which became Ryōan-ji, but it was soon destroyed in the Ōnin War. Katsumoto’s son Masamoto rebuilt the temple, which was burned down in 1790; the current structures dated back to the 19th century.

Ryōan-ji’s world-famous Zen garden is twenty-five meters by ten meters of white gravel. Placed within it are fifteen stones of different sizes, carefully composed in five groups; one group of five stones, two groups of three, and two groups of two stones. The number fifteen symbolizes wholeness since the Buddhist world is believed to be consisted of 7 continents and 8 oceans. Until the 1930s the garden was an unkempt sandpile which even the resident monks rarely bothered to rake; its fortune turned when there was a new emphasis on the expression of Zen in gardening. Today it is one of the most overcrowded and least approachable temples in Kyoto.

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