Prince Shotoku

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


PRINCE SHOTOKU


This Dharma is the most excellent of all Teachings, though
difficult to master and hard to comprehend; even the Sages of
China would have found it difficult to grasp. It bestows endless
and immeasurable blessings and fruits, even the attainment of
supreme
bodhi, enlightenment. Just as the chintamani jewel is
said to fulfil every need according to desire, so the Treasures
of the glorious Dharma will never cease to give full response to
those who seek for it. Further, the Dharma has come to Korea,
far from India, and the peoples between them are now ardent
followers of its Teaching, and none are outside its pale.

PRINCE of PAEKCHE


All men are influenced by partisanship, and there are few
who have wide vision.

PRINCE SHOTOKU

Japan first appeared in Chinese chronicles as a cluster of some one hundred semi-barbaric states, but by 57 C.E. the state of Nu in Wo (Japan) sent emissaries to the Chinese emperor and received a gold seal from him. A century later, a woman named Himiko, who had used her spiritual authority to end a civil war in Wo, gathered thirty states into a federation which maintained diplomatic relations with China and Korea. In time the federation collapsed, and Japan disappeared from Asian consciousness for a century and a half, only to be remembered with the Japanese conquest of three Korean kingdoms in 391, a feat suggesting a reunification of the states under powerful leaders. By 400 the Yamato court in central Japan, enriched by tribute from the Korean kingdoms, had reached a peak of imperial authority. Nonetheless, fierce competition between influential families and strong nobles made its underpinnings precarious, and soon the court fell into decline. During this period, the Buddhist teachings, which had long spread quietly amongst seafarers and common people, appeared at the court. In time, they would provide the stimulus for a national rejuvenation on both spiritual and secular levels.

In 538 the prince of the Korean kingdom of Paekche presented buddhadharma, the Teachings of Buddha, in the form of a Buddha image, images of Bodhisattvas, ceremonial articles and a collection of sacred texts to Emperor Kimmei of Yamato. So long as Buddhist influence spread only among the general populace, the emperor was not required to notice its presence officially. But once it had been presented to the court, he had to decide whether to allow this foreign faith into Japan. The uji or clans nominally loyal to the throne were sharply divided into those which disdained foreign influences and those which saw them as essential to Japanese civilization. Kimmei compromised by allowing one clan to convert, which it gladly did, as much for political as for spiritual reasons. Although one account says that Kimmei later proscribed the new religion, his successor, Emperor Bidatsu, tolerated it, apparently because he thought its magic was powerful enough to overcome possible hostility by the local gods. His successor, Emperor Yomei, ruled only two years, but he officially embraced the Teachings of Buddha and initiated the construction of a temple to house an image of Bhaishyajyaguru, known in Japan as Yakushi, the Healing Buddha. Although he died before the project was completed, his sister became Empress Suiko and saw the work to its conclusion. For both Japan and the Buddhist tradition, her accession to the throne marked the beginning of a cultural flowering never equalled before or since.

First of all, the death of Yomei set off a civil war between the clans which eventually resulted in a decisive victory for the Soga, the uji which had accepted Buddhist faith and practices. This triumph assured Empress Suiko's accession to the throne and the recognition of the Buddhist path as a state religion. Secondly, it led to the appointment in 593 of Prince Shotoku, Yomei's son, as regent for his aunt. Born Prince Umeyado in 574, he received an excellent education which included considerable study in Buddhist philosophy and culture. His character and intellectual insight must have been exceptional, for he demonstrated a metaphysical understanding of religion far beyond that of his peers and a capacity for statesmanship which is still astonishing. He was made regent at the age of nineteen and was the de facto ruler of Japan through three decades of rapid change. Even in his lifetime he was given the name Shotoku, meaning 'holy and virtuous'.

Immediately upon accession to the regency, Prince Shotoku proclaimed buddhadharma the religion of state and established the Tenno-ji, a complex of Buddhist institutions, including a temple which contained a college and a monastery, an asylum, a hospital and a dispensary, all of which became models for future institutions of a similar kind. He built the temple near the beach of what is now Osaka, located so that embassies and immigrants alike passed through its portals when entering the kingdom. Having given the new state religion a solid foundation, Prince Shotoku turned his attention to matters of state, giving them a distinctive Buddhist dimension. For almost a decade he cultivated balanced relations with the Korean kingdoms of Paekche, Silla and Koguryo so that none would gain a disproportionately advantageous position in relation to the others. This allowed him to seek direct relations with China. As a Buddhist, he felt that all sovereign kingdoms ruled by Buddhist monarchs stood on an equal footing. Using the title Tenno, 'Heavenly Ruler', perhaps invented by him, he sent a letter to the emperor of China addressed, "The Ruler of the Land of Sunrise sends his message to the Ruler of the Land of Sunset." According to Chinese chronicles, the emperor was displeased by the presumed equality and the (to him) unflattering metaphor. The emperor was mollified by Prince Shotoku's ambassadors, however, when he was told that Shotoku thought of him as a Bodhisattva and that relations between the two nations were based upon moral and spiritual bonds.

The emperor wrote back, clearly stating his perspective in the words, "The Emperor speaks to the Prince of Yamato." Unfazed, Prince Shotoku responded: "The Tenno (Heavenly Ruler) of the East speaks to the Emperor of the West." In the end, Prince Shotoku managed to nurture relations with China without compromising his belief that all nations are equal. His envoys were accompanied by Japanese monks and students who spent long periods of time studying Chinese religion and science. When they returned to Japan, they enthusiastically supported Prince Shotoku's reforms. He also encouraged Chinese and Koreans to move to Japan and share their artistic and technological skills. Since Buddhist thought experienced a renaissance in China at this time, new schools followed one another into Japan and were allowed to spread freely throughout the land. Within a generation Prince Shotoku revitalized the life and culture of Japan.

In 604 he penned and promulgated a kempo or constitution, which came to be known as the Constitution of Seventeen Articles. It was less a set of laws than a treatise establishing the moral basis and political foundations of sound government, and it came to be regarded as a statement of the presiding principles of national life. For Prince Shotoku, the unique stature of Buddha as redeemer of all human beings implied the supreme value of each individual, since each can be one with Buddha in consciousness. By analogy, he argued, the singular status of the prince implies the equality of all people, just as their equality suggests the need for a single monarch. "Harmony is to be valued", he wrote at the beginning of his kempo, "and discord is to be deprecated." Yet, since all people are divided into clans or some equivalent, partisan views narrow the vision of every person. Insofar as government has a function beyond simple administration – and even to fulfil that function adequately – it must seek to rectify the evil and degrading consequences of division by setting out and adhering to the highest moral and spiritual ideals.

Reverence for the Three Treasures – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha – is the ultimate resort for all people, and so they should be the supreme objects of faith. Since few human beings, if any, are irredeemable, it must be possible to bring individuals to truth through instruction. For Prince Shotoku, if the Three Treasures represented the summit of faith and aspiration, then they should be applicable to every aspect of national life. Whilst such views could be construed as supporting a conservative approach to government, Prince Shotoku made a revolutionary application of them by advocating a centralized government administered by a hierarchy of merit rather than heredity. Although he could not fully implement this radical development, he provided the momentum for the successful Taika Reform of 645, in which his aims were fulfilled a quarter of a century after his death. At the practical level, he became the first road builder in Japan, and sometimes personally directed construction.

Since temples were not only places of worship but often contained centres for education and social relief, Prince Shotoku saw them as natural foci for the burgeoning culture of cities and rural regions. He built, or prevailed on others to build, forty-six temples during his rule, including the Horyuji Temple where he himself meditated. The present Horyuji Temple is a faithful restoration built shortly after a disastrous fire in 670, and it remains the oldest surviving wooden building in Japan. Within its precincts is found the Yumedono or Chapel of Vision, containing a statue of Kwannon (Kwan-Yin), the feminine form of Avalokiteshvara, Lord of Mercy. There, legend says, Prince Shotoku meditated and entered into spiritual communication with Buddha. Subsequent generations came to believe that Prince Shotoku himself was an incarnation of Kwannon.

He is also associated with the Arahakadera or Shitennoji Temple, which is dedicated to the four Shitenno or deva-kings, known in Hindu tradition as the Lokapalas, or guardians of the four cosmic directions. Although research has cast doubt on whether the temple was originally dedicated to these gods, archaeological examination has proven that the original temple was constructed in the time of Prince Shotoku. Perhaps the greatest temple then existent was the Asukadera or Hokoji, built in honour of the Soga clan's victory which resulted in Prince Shotoko's rule. Excavations in 1956 and 1957 unearthed jade artifacts, swords and Buddhist relics carefully deposited under the floor of the main pagoda. The Hokoji was the main temple of the Soga clan, and in later years it was called the Gangoji. When the court moved to Nara in 716, a new Gangoji – Shingangoji – was built there to continue the tradition. Whilst Prince Shotoku oversaw the establishment of temples, the Empress Suiko generously endowed Buddhist hospitals and monastic institutions for both men and women.

Although Prince Shotoku was an active man of affairs and saw himself as helping to found a national culture, he was also a spiritual leader of his people. He welcomed new Buddhist schools as they came to Japan in rapid succession, but he adhered to the philosophy in which he had been raised – that of the Sanron or Three-Treatise school, which flourished in China. This viewpoint took its inspiration from three treatises of Nagarjuna, and its idealism influenced Prince Shotoku's work. He gave public lectures on Buddhist thought and showed how his ideals of government and society were related to it. In addition, he selected three sutras upon which he wrote commentaries. These were neither the three treatises of Sanron nor the triad of any school, but rather his own selection which, he believed, best represented his thought and intentions. His handwritten commentary on the Lotus Sutra survives in the Horyuji Temple.

Besides the Lotus Sutra, known in Sanskrit as the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra and in Japanese as Hokke-kyo, Prince Shotoku chose the Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra, known as Yuima-gyo, and the Lion's Roar of Queen Shrimala, called Shoman-gyo. The Lotus Sutra teaches that the Buddha of history was an expression in time of dharma or Eternal Truth. Like dharma, Buddha laboured incessantly to draw all beings into ekayana, the One Way which can take myriad forms. The sutra likens the path to enlightenment to a heavenly rainfall consisting of water which is everywhere homogeneous but nourishes all living beings according to their needs. The historical Buddha is thus a paradigm to be followed, and this is done by those who seek the way of renunciation in the selfless service of others. Since Buddha in his real nature is lord of the universe, his work continues in innumerable ways and specifically through the Bodhisattvas he sends into the world at all times and to every culture. For Prince Shotoku, the ruler should strive to emulate the Bodhisattvas in their work. As head of state, this meant supporting religious and charitable institutions, but it also meant furthering commerce, securing peace, upholding the law and engaging in every sort of public works.

The Yuima-gyo centres around Vimalakirti, a virtuous layman of Vaisali who embodies the Bodhisattva life. The sacred text characterizes Yuima (Vimalakirti) in sublime terms:

His mother is Wisdom, his father Tactfulness, his kinsmen all beings, his abode shunyata. the Void. His wife is Joy, his daughter Love, his son Truth. Thus, though he lives the life of a householder, it does not bind him to worldly existence.

In his commentary Prince Shotoku set out the ideal he himself laboured to attain, linking the perfection of Yuima with the spiritual strivings of every human being:

Yuima was a great Sage who reached the apex of Buddhist perfection, being equal to Buddha in Enlightenment. In its metaphysical being, his person was identical with tathata, ultimate Reality, and in its manifestations, his life was identified with all beings. . . . His spiritual life had forever transcended the boundaries of intentions and volitions, and his mind was not affected by affairs of state and society. . . . Being moved by a ceaseless compassion, he worked perpetually for the benefit of the people in living the life of a householder.

For Prince Shotoku, whose reverence for monks and priests was reflected in the institutions he built for them, the true test of the regenerative strength of buddhadharma is its power to transform the lives of ordinary people, giving a whole new meaning to the necessary tasks of everyday life.

Queen Shrimala or Shoman, the heroine of the Shoman-gyo, represents the model of womanhood. Although she is a noble queen, she is reverential towards her mother and devoted to her husband. She took vows before Buddha to practise compassion and self-denial, dedicating her possessions to the poor and seeking to help those in need by every possible means, including the sacrifice of her own life, if required. In the Shoman-gyo she delivered a discourse in which she distinguished between persuading others to lead a virtuous life, which can be done only by proper exhortation and example, and combating vice and wrongdoing, which sometimes requires repression. Prince Shotoku took her vows as a model for his own resolve, and throughout his long reign he delicately balanced the power of persuasion and exemplification against the power of coercion in administration.

After the death of Prince Shotoku in 622, the Soga clan tended to pursue personal ambitions at the expense of imperial government. In 643 they even killed Prince Shotoku's heir because he supported the prince's policies. This callous act alienated the rest of the court, and in 645 the Soga leadership was executed. With the accession of Emperor Kotoku in the same year, Prince Shotoku's reforms were firmly set in place, including such revolutionary policies as the abolition of private land ownership, the equitable distribution of land and universal taxation. A series of decrees removed Buddhist institutions from the exclusive control of the Soga clan and placed them directly under government sponsorship. Although this policy gave the government administrative control over monks and nuns, Emperor Kotoku was a Buddhist and did not seek to interfere in religious affairs. Rather, he created a board of ten distinguished Buddhists to oversee Buddhist education, and they included a number of individuals who had studied in China at the behest of Prince Shotoku. In addition, he elevated some Buddhist festivals, including the birth anniversary of Gautama Buddha, to the level of state ceremonies.

The fact that Prince Shotoku's successors relied on the counsel of students he had sent to China and successfully completed many of the reforms he inaugurated testifies to his administrative, moral and spiritual stature. Without exaggeration he can be called the Father of Japan. On his deathbed he quoted a verse from the Dhammapada (XIV.5) which at once summed up Buddha's Teaching and his own work:

Abstention from all evil, the cultivation of the good, the purification of the mind – this is the Teaching of the buddhas.