Spring Ohigan 2012: A Look At Its Founder

Once again, we come the twice-yearly Buddhist holiday of Ohigan, which falls on or around the Spring and Fall equinoxes. Instead of the usual sermon, I thought it would be interesting to look at the lives of the man (and wife) who made this holiday possible: Emperor Shomu and Empress Komyo, who are frequently portrayed in Japanese history as devout and pious Buddhists.

Emperor Shomu’s reign oversaw the famous “Tenpyo Era“, which is still celebrated in the city of Nara today as a high water-mark of early Japanese culture, especially Japanese-Buddhist culture.

Buddhism had arrived in Japan roughly two centuries before from Korea, and like the Korean kingdoms at the time, Buddhism was an imported religion and used by the state for political enhancement,1 and also to modernize the culture on par with China. Thus, Buddhism at this time spread to Japan from the top-down.

Emperor Shomu though made considerable contributions to the development of Buddhism in Japan:

  • Promulgated the constructions of the Great Buddha statue at Todaiji.
  • Built the Eastern Golden Hall at Kofukuji (with the Medicine Buddha enshrined) to help aid in the recovery of his aunt.
  • Nationalized all Buddhist temples in Japan under the kokubunji system (国分寺). Each province had a head temple, and Todaiji was the central temple of the entire system (with Hokke-ji the head temple for all nunneries).
  • When Emperor Shomu retired, he took tonsure, and was the first Emperor to uphold this tradition. His wife, Empress Komyo likewise retired to a Buddhist convent.
  • Started the seasonal Buddhist holiday of Ohigan with the intention that all of Japan could rest during the pleasant weather twice a year, and focus on the Buddha-Dharma with renewed effort.

Among other things.

But Empress Komyo was a noteworthy woman as well. She was from the fledgling Fujiwara clan at a time when the clan was young and aspiring (unlike centuries later when it saturated the Heian Court with intermarriage), and the clan put her forward as a consort to Emperor Shomu despite her non-royal background. This led to a prolonged struggle between the Fujiwara and one Prince Nagaya and his clan, and along with a plague at the time, all the heads of Fujiwara clan died leaving Komyo as its leader. Ultimately the Fujiwara prevailed, and as Professor Como notes in his book, Komyo remained a devout Buddhist all her life. She prayed to Prince Shotoku (as an embodiment of Kannon Bodhisattva) during her difficult times, but also remained faithful long after when she was secure as the Queen Mother.

Even to this day, Empress Komyo endures as a figure of Buddhist piety as seen in the illustrations for the Ashura iPhone app I purchased a couple years ago.

Together Emperor Shomu and Empress Komyo represent a kind of Buddhist royalty in Japanese history, who presided over a cultural golden age in Japan that helped fused native culture with Confucian ethics and Buddhist religion. The holiday of Ohigan is just one of many of their legacies that continue today.

1 In Buddhist tradition, there exists a recurring theme of the “Dharma-wheel-turning king”: a political leader who is seen as the embodiment of justice and virtue, and whose reign brings peace and justice to the realm. The most well-known such king is King Asoka of India, but I think that other smaller examples exist through Asian Buddhist history, including Emperor Shomu/Empress Komyo. The real figures probably had their faults, and fair share of nasty politics, but the legacy they leave behind is just as important.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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