Buddhist influence on Japanese literature
Culture is the way in which groups of people organise their lives. It
includes their political system, language, gender roles, leisure and
social relations and each culture produces its own literature.
Literature as a whole grows and changes from time to time and
generation to generation. Each age has its own interest and its own way
A nation's literature is made up of the works of individual writers
and it is also true that these writers get inspired by internal and
Many scholars believe that the literature of any age is necessarily
shaped and coloured by all the elements which entered the civilisation
of that age.
Japanese literature is no exception to this norm. The influence of
Buddhism gave a distinct character to the Japanese literature specially
in the Heian period (790 AD).
Japanese literature has a long history as English literature, and
contains works in as wide of genres as may be found in any country. It
includes some of the world's largest novels and short poems and plays
which are miracles of muted suggestion and others filled with the most
extravagant bombast. It is, in short, a rich literature.
Some of the early poetry in Japanese was devoted to Buddhism. The
Buddhism of the early period was that it was an optimistic religion
marked by pageantry and the lavish patronage of the great temples of
With the Heian period, particularly as a result of the activities of
such men as Kukai (774-835), Buddhism became the study of many of the
best minds of the age.
The Buddhism taught by Kukai was essentially an aristocratic
religion, or at least restricted to those people who had the
intellectual capacity to understand its profundities and the taste to
appreciate its aesthetic manifestations.
Towards the end of the Heian period, however, greater attention was
given to spreading Buddhist teaching to all classes of the people, and
it is in the light of this development that we should read such works as
"Tales from the UJI collection" which was designed to communicate in
simple and interesting language some of the Buddhist doctrine.
It was from about this time too that the invocation to Amida Buddha,
a seven syllable prayer, came to be considered a certain means of
gaining salvation, became popular.
Buddhism is to be found to a greater or lesser degree in most of the
famous writings of the Heian period. With out any doubt the outstanding
religious leader of the Heian period (794-1185 AD) was Kukai (774-835
AD) who is also known by his title of Kobo Daishi.
He was enormously gifted in almost every art and science of his day.
Kukai sailed to China in 804 AD for study, returning in 806 AD. The
Buddhism which he learned and brought back to Japan was known as the
true words (Shingon in Japanese).
Following are some excerpts from Kukai's Shorai Mokuroku. Kukais was
writing about his conversation with his master Hui-Kuo in China.
"When you first arrived I feared that I did not have time enough left
to teach you everything, but now my teaching is completed, and the work
of copying the sutras and making the images is also done.
Hasten back to your country, offer these things to the court, and
spread the teachings throughout your country to increase the happiness
of the people.
Then the land will know peace and everyone will be content. In that
way you will return thanks to the Buddha and to your teacher. That is
also the way to show your devotion to your country and to your family.
My disciple I-Ming will carry on the teachings here. Your task is to
transmit them to Japan. Do your best! Do your best!
These were his final instructions to me, and he was kind and patient
as always on the night of the last fullmoon of the year when he purified
himself with a ritual bath and lying on his right side with his hands
making the gesture of Vairocana, breathed his last.
"That night, while I sat in meditation in the hall, the abbot
appeared to me in his usual form and said, "You and I have long been
pledged to propagate the esoteric teachings. If I am reborn in Japan,
this time I will be your disciple."
This episode illustrates three great nations, India, China, Japan
coming together in spreading the Buddha's teachings.
Here is a poem written in the ancient period, but preserved in a
Heian collection in praise of the Buddha.
The sun of his wisdom lights a thousand worlds;
His merciful clouds all creatures Hide.
A myriad destinies are fulfilled in his love;
The voice of his law-how it strikes my heart!
- Empress Shotoku
Hence Heian period was marked throughout by the prominence of the
Buddhist thought, and this was one of the most persistent and
characteric notes of Japanese literature.
Owing to the astonishing wealth and variety of its literature, only
the barest sketch of it can be attempted here.
The dominance influence of Buddhist religious factor could be seen
throughout the history of Japanese literature.
"All the prayers that I have for this world to the Gods and to the
Buddha, I here and now direct to the future, and in the world to come
may we remain together on one lotus."
(Journey of Two Lovers - 1703 AD)
One can surely say that the Buddhist thought was one of the
influences which most profoundly affected Japanese literature from the
earliest era to the present time.