Reading Mahāyāna Scriptures Conference, Sept 25-26, 2021
Dr. Mikael Bauer
Assistant Professor of Japanese Religions (Buddhism), School of Religious Studies, McGill University
‘Tracing the exoteric-esoteric in pre-modern Japanese Dharma Assemblies’
Historians of pre-modern Japan have often described the relation between Buddhism and state by referring to the Gates of Power (kenmon) theory. Developed by the Japanese historian Kuroda Toshio, this concept implies that the state was divided in three power blocs of which the temples and shrines formed one component. The conceptual framework that supported this ‘kenmon’ state was a synthesis of exoteric and esoteric Buddhism or ‘Kenmitsu Taisei.’ Although a conflation of exoteric and esoteric lineages can certainly be observed on the institutional level, just what this exo-esoteric identity encompassed on the textual, ritual and doctrinal level is much less clear. This presentation explores whether this exoteric Buddhism can be discerned in debates (rongi) at the Dharma Assemblies (hō’e) of one of pre-modern Japan’s main monastic centers, Kōfukuji. Founded at the beginning of the 8th century, this grand temple was regarded as the center of the Japanese Mind Only School (Hossō) and became the site of major state rituals such as the Vimalakīrti Assembly or the Yuima’e.
I will approach these debates in two ways. First, I will analyze the preparation period monks had to go through prior to their participation. By doing so, I will not only focus on the texts used throughout this training period, but also reflect on the way these texts are being used as part of the monk’s daily ritual. In my analysis I will go through detailed manuals and commentaries used throughout the Heian period (794-1185). Second, I will turn to actual debates and analyze sessions from the Heian and Kamakura periods as preserved in the writings of the monk Sōshō (1202-1292). A detailed reading of his writings in comparison with an analysis of existing ritual manuals will allow me to assess the presence or absence of exoteric-esoteric Buddhism in the doctrinal debates the monks engaged in.