A Look At The Kegon School of Buddhism in Japan

The Great Buddha of Nara

Hi all,

Since this week is Buddhists-themed posts for Nirvana Day, I wanted to start off with something I have wanted to blog about for a long time, but didn’t have enough information on.

Recently, I’ve been reading a good Buddhism-introduction book in Japanese, and it talks about the Six Schools of Nara Buddhism, or nanto rokushū (南都六宗). I’ve talked about the Hosso School quite a bit in the past, though I might review again, but today I wanted to start off with a Japanese School of Buddhism that’s well-known and yet not well-known: the Kegon School, or kegonshū, also known as the “Huayan School” in China, or “Hwaeomjong” (화엄종) in Korean.

Sources used in this article:

  • 知っておきたい日本の仏教 – 武光誠
  • Talking About Buddhism, 英語で話す「仏教」 – 高田佳人 and James M. Vardaman Jr.

History

The “Flower-Garland School” or Avataṃsaka School, is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that started in China during the famous Tang Dynasty, not India, but it is based on a huge Buddhist text from India called the Flower-Garland Sutra or kegon-kyō (華厳経).1 The school was a special study group around the sutra, and had several patriarchs, but Fa-zang (法藏, 643-712) was by far the most famous and his writings were the high-mark of Huayan thought.

Not surprisingly, Huayan thought came to Japan too. Huayan teachings first came to Japan through a Korean monk from the Kingdom of Silla named Shimsang (심상, 審祥, ? – 742), Japanese name Shinjō. Shimsang was invited by the famous Japanese monk Roben (良弁 b. 689), the same one who built the February Hall at Todaiji (which I visited a couple years ago), and established the Shunie ritual still observed today. Roben was originally a monk of the Hosso Sect, but at the request of Emperor Shomu, he became the founder (or second patriarch) of Huayan/Kegon teachings in Japan.

Later, a Chinese monk named Dao-xuan (道璿, 702-760) had come to Japan bringing a lot of important teachings from Tang-Dynasty China, including the Hua-Yan school. He was an important figure in early Japanese Buddhism and helped oversee the building of the Todaiji Temple. Through his influence, the temple was build intentionally as the center of the new Kegon school, and when it was completed, Roben established the school from there in 736.

Like all the temples in Nara, the school declined as power shifted away from Nara, and later from Kyoto, eastward to Kamakura, but also it adopted practices from esoteric Shingon Buddhism as well. Kegon scholars were still writing important Buddhist texts even into the Kamakura Period, so although it declined, it was still an active school throughout Japanese history. More on that later. During the Warring States Period, the Kegon sect (along with the Nichiren sect) was on the losing side of a conflict with the warrior monks of Tendai sect in a conflict called the Hokke-ikki (法華一揆) Disturbance in 1536. Some Kegon temples were destroyed and did not recover their former glory.

Features

The Kegon/Huayan school, as mentioned before, is centered around the Flower Garland Sutra. It’s primary contribution to Buddhism is the idea of total inter-connectedness. Using the classic analogy of the jewelled-net of Indra (or Brahma), the every jewel in the net reflects the light of every other jewel. In the same way, all things exist only in relation to all other things. Thus, if anything changes, the whole universe changes. It usually won’t change much, but it does change. This is called ichimijin (一微塵), as in a single mote of dust (一微塵) reflects the entire universe.

In the Sutra, the primary Buddha featured is Vairocana Buddha, or birushana butsu (毘盧遮那仏), the “Buddha of the Sun”. Vairocana Buddha represents the totality of this interconnected-ness, thus in a way Vairocana Buddha is the Universe itself. That’s the same Buddha you see at Todaiji temple in the main hall, by the way.

The imagery of the “sun” here emphasizes the power of the Dharma (light dispels darkness), but also the compassion of the Buddha. According to the Flower Garland Sutra, the Buddha, after a very long period of austerities, gained Enlightenment and became a Buddha. When this happened, he create a “pure land” called the “Lotus Store” world (蓮華蔵世界) which he presides over. That’s why in the statue at Todaiji, he sits on a Lotus platform, and wears monk’s robes.

Kegon teachings were absorbed and propagated heavily in Esoteric Shingon Buddhism and in Zen, so although Kegon itself is a relatively small school, it’s influence on Japanese Buddhism is profound. But as mentioned above, the relationship worked both ways, and the esoteric practices of Shingon Buddhism gave Kegon a way to put teaching into practice, so when you visit Todaiji Temple, you can see a lot of esoteric rituals and deities there as a result.

Kegon School Today

Todaiji Temple is still the main temple of the Kegon School, but among its 40 temples include 新薬師寺 (Shin-Yakushiji), 元興寺 (Gangoji) and 安部文殊院. The number of lay followers is thought to be about 50,000 or so.

Also, some of temples will identify themselves as “Shingon” temples but maintain their connections with Todaiji. This is partly due to efforts by the Meiji-Era government to control and diminish some of the schools of Buddhism at the time.

Conclusion

Kegon is one of the late-comers to Japan in the Nara Period, but it’s influence is still heavily felt today in Japanese Buddhism even after it’s rise and fall.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Kegon School or Huayan thought, the classic book Hua-yen: The Jewel Net of Indra is a must-read. Unfortunately very few sources on Kegon or Hua-Yan Buddhism exist in English, so as I said above, if you can read Japanese, you’ll find more information.

The next article will be on the “Ritsu” school of Nara Buddhism, the “Precepts” school. Stay tuned!

P.S. My amateur photo of the Daibutsu at Todaiji temple. It was sunny outside, but very dark inside. Hence the picture is not very good.

1 Seriously, the Sutra is the second-largest in all of Mahayana Buddhism, and in English print is 1600 pages. One time a certain Chinese-Buddhist monk told me online he had spent 6-12 months reading the sutra from cover to finish, and it was a huge investment of time, but he said it had been well worth it. I hope to try that feat someday as well.

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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.

4 thoughts on “A Look At The Kegon School of Buddhism in Japan”

  1. Hello. I just happen to visit your blog while I was looking for a discription ot Kegon Sect in English.
    I am a Japanese who live in Nara, and have been interested in Buddhism.
    Especially, I like to look at the things in my life with the veiw of cross-cultual way.
    This blog helped me a lot to understand my own culture and how to explain it in English.
    Thank you very much! And I will stay tuned!!

    Like

  2. Doug,
    Just came across this while looking up more information on Kegon. I just got my copy of The Flower Ornament Scripture translated by Thomas Cleary. Yes, huge book! Have you started reading it yet? Would like to hear your thoughts about how this sutra relates to Jodo Shinshu and Buddhism in general.

    Gassho

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    1. Hi Michael,

      I have read bits here and there, mainly the Sutra of the Ten Stages (I forget which chapter that is, but I updated Wikipedia at the time when I did), plus some of the final chapter, the Gandavyuha Sutra. I’ve been told the sutra as a whole is pretty profound, but I am definitely not able to barrel through it these days.

      Shinran’s thoughts on the Flower Garland Sutra are hard to discern to be honest. I remember a lot of people comparing Amida in the JSS-sense with Vairocana Buddha in the Sutra, but it’s not clear if Shinran really felt that way, or it was a later interpretation. Certainly Shinran and others of his generation were familiar with it, and its message. Shinran’s notion of Amida Buddha is also somewhat non-standard in how he seems to elevate Amida to the level of the Dharmakaya and the connotations that go with it, but again I don’t have much information apart from that.

      Hope you find it useful though. 🙂

      Like

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