In Japan in 573 CE Anahobe, the wife of the Emperor’s son, had a dream of a priest in golden robes who asked her if he could lodge in her womb as he was about to be born as a world-saving Bodhisattva. The child was born painlessly and unexpectedly in the imperial stables and was named Shotoku (sho meaning sacred, and toku meaning virtue). At the age of 2, he naturally placed his hands together in gassho (reverence), faced the East, and recited the words, Namu Butsu (praise be to Buddha). Buddhism had hardly been heard of in Japan at that time! Prince Shotoku was to rule Japan between 594-622 CE as Regent and to unite his nation of warring clans in the dual roles of the first Buddhist statesman in the world and the lay founder of Japanese Buddhism.
Prince Shotoku had several titles:
- Prince of the Stable Door (Umayodo no Miko) due to the unusual circumstances of his birth.
- Prince of Eight Ears (Yatsumimi no Miko) because of his special intelligence and his ability to listen to eight people at one time and understand each of them.
- Prince of the Upper Palace (Kamitsumiya no Miko or Jogu Taishi) because his father, Emperor Yōmei, loved and respected his talented son so much that he created a special part of the palace for him to live in.
The civic contributions made by Jogu Taishi (the title most people in Japan give him) were impressive and are still in place. Among them, he created the ‘cap system’ for government officials which rooted out nepotism with the recognition of merit. He imported Chinese culture along with the lunar calendar, art and scholarship and he resumed the existing practice of dispatching of envoys to import all manner of cultural and religious knowledge to Japan which had been terminated. He initiated irrigation projects to improve agriculture and implemented extensive welfare measures. He created highway systems and he wrote the first chronicle of Japanese history.
Buddhism in Japan
How he came to be devoted to this new faith which suddenly appeared in the islands of Japan is something of a mystery as mentioned above. However, though a Buddhist scholar and the first patriarch of Japanese Buddhism, he remained a lay practitioner throughout his life. It is thought that Buddhism first became known in Japan when the ruler of a province of Korea called Baekje visited Japan and presented a beautiful gold-plated image of Buddha Shakyamuni and sutra scrolls to Emperor Kimmei (531-571), Shotoku’s grandfather, who was impressed. However, his enthusiasm to adopt Buddhism threw the principal families of Japan into confusion.
Japan had been culturally isolated and conservative until then and showed no sign that the indigenous religion, Shinto, the ‘Way of the Gods,’ was inadequate. Shinto develops a deep appreciation of natural beauty and spirituality but there is no ethical element, unlike Buddhism. Also, at the time there was no formal written language in Japan so the enthusiastic adoption of Chinese pictographs happened simultaneously with the influx of Buddhist sutras in Chinese translation.
However, Shotoku, now Prince Regent to his Aunt Suiko who succeeded her husband in 593 CE, was to convince the country that Buddhism was exactly what was needed. In fact, at the age of 14, he fought in a brief civil war between the progressive Soga family who favoured Buddhism and the conservative Monobes family. It was a Holy War fought over the enshrinement of Holy relics in a pagoda (stupa) which Shotoku insisted was essential as the origin of Buddhism was so far away from Japan in India.
Surprisingly, Buddhism replaced Shinto as the national religion of Japan within 50 years exactly due to its values of tolerance, rationality and philosophical depth, none of which featured in the Shinto faith. The only remnant of Shinto which was retained was the link between members of the Imperial family and the Japanese goddess of the Sun and the Universe, Amaterasu, who are still considered to be her direct descendants.
Perhaps the story which best exemplifies Shotoku’s devout Buddhist faith as an adult is when his father became seriously ill. The Prince sat by his father's bedside day and night meditating on his recovery and as a result, he did recover and became a devoted Buddhist himself.
Temples & Teachings
The Prince initiated the first two Buddhist temples to be built in Japan. Shitenno-ji (530 CE), the temple of the Four Heavenly Kings, of the North, South, East and West, was erected because whilst defending his family in battle, he prayed intently to the 4 Buddhist Kings and victory was achieved. Later Horyu-ji was built in Nara to contain many treasured artworks and artefacts, and he went on to build five more. But these temples were not merely places of worship. Shitenno-ji, built at the seaport, was a religious sanctuary providing training in music and the arts, a dispensary for medical herbs, an asylum for the abandoned and a hospital and sanatorium. Monks took many roles in society, as educators, physicians, and even engineers. Temples in Japan today are often cultural and welfare centres.
Prince Shotoku also gave public lectures on various aspects of Buddhism. He authored eight volumes of commentaries on sutras. The Sangyo-gisho (3 Sutras) was popular among lay Buddhists. It focused on the Lotus Sutra which conveyed Buddha Nature and universal enlightenment, the Vimalakirti Sutra which expounded lay Buddhism and national rulers as Bodhisattvas, and the Srimaladevi Sutra which extolled the virtues of a Buddhist Queen to honour his devout aunt, Princess Suiko.
The 5 bonds of Confucius figure in each article: ruler to ruled, father to son, elder to younger siblings, elder friend to younger friend, and husband to wife. Shotoku declared, ‘‘Harmony is the most precious asset. We all alternate between wisdom and madness. It is a closed circle.’ According to the Nihon Shoki, a definitive history of ancient Japan written in circa 720 CE, Prince Shotoku created a seventeen-article 'constitution' (Jpn. Jushichojo Kenpo) which was implemented as a political tool to unite the warring clans. This was not a modern constitution designed for the governing of state and subjects, but a set of spiritual aspirations inspired equally by Buddhism and Confucianism. It focused on the morals and virtues that should be the aspiration of every subject in the realm and led to him receiving the title ‘Dharma Monarch’ (Skt; Dharmaraja)
The following articles are evidence that this is truly a Buddhist constitution: Article 2: Reverence to the 3 Treasures of Buddhism – Shotoku firmly believed that all beings could benefit from their truth. Article 6: the difference between merit and demerit, reward and punishment – this demonstrates the laws of karma so central to Buddhism. Article 10: self-control and mind-control – the harmony between nature and society, also a strong goal of the Buddhist way of life. They are as follows:
1. Harmony should be valued and quarrels should be avoided.
2. The three treasures, which are Buddha, the (Buddhist) Law and the (Buddhist) Priesthood; should be given sincere reverence, for they are the final refuge of all living things.
3. Do not fail to obey the commands of your Sovereign. He is like Heaven, which is above the Earth, and the vassal is like the Earth, which bears up Heaven.
4. The Ministers and officials of the state should make proper behavior their first principle, for if the superiors do not behave properly, the inferiors are disorderly.
5. Deal impartially with the legal complaints which are submitted to you.
6. Punish the evil and reward the good.
7. Every man has his own work. Do not let the spheres of duty be confused.
8. Ministers and officials should attend the Court early in the morning and retire late, for the whole day is hardly enough for the accomplishment of state business.
9. Good faith is the foundation of right.
10. Let us control ourselves and not be resentful when others disagree with us, for all men have hearts and each heart has its own leanings.
11. Know the difference between merit and demerit.
12. Do not let the local nobility levy taxes on the people.
13. All people entrusted with office should attend equally to their duties.
14. Do not be envious! For if we envy others, then they, in turn, will envy us.
15. To subordinate private interests to the public good — that is the path of a vassal.
16. Employ the people in forced labor at seasonable times.
17. Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone.
These tenets provide the basis of stable and peaceful Japan today 1500 years later and could be said to be part of the essence of its distinctive culture.
Death & Legacy
In 621 CE, Shotoku became gravely ill and as an indication of his popularity, a statue was commissioned in the form of the Buddha. It can now be viewed in the Hall of Dreams of the Horyuji Temple in Nara. After his death in 622 CE, he became known as ‘Japan’s Shakyamuni’ and his relics were enshrined in the various temples he established.
The surviving features of the Mahayana Buddhism he founded are as follows: the notion that all beings have Buddha Nature and can be enlightened regardless of spiritual training, class or gender (Jpn. Ekayana); the spiritual aspects of Buddhism are the most important - this remains true today; gender discrimination in monasteries should not exist; Buddhism should be synonymous with the welfare of the Japanese nation and symbolic of prosperity and peace.
In the Middle Ages, Shinran (1173-1262 CE), the founder of Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land), the largest school of Japanese Buddhism today, worshipped Prince Shotoku as the saviour of Japan. Shinran is famous as the first ordained monk to reject his clerical vow of celibacy which set a trend for Japanese clerics. He openly married and had children with Eshinni and the reason for this departure was that Prince Shotoku appeared to him in a dream as the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Kannon, who assured him that he would be incarnated in Eshinni. So, in a way, Shinran married his greatest hero. Shotoku is also said to have reincarnated as Bodhisattva Eshi of the Tendai faith and later as Amida Buddha, the principal Buddha of the Pure Land School.
In conclusion, as Prince Shotoku firmly believed, it is certain that our sincere relationships with each other are the most important factor of all in society and that individual power and success must only be viewed through that lens. But this 17-article constitution could and can only be successful if humans put aside all their self-seeking ideas and temper their dominant egos and temporal desires. This can best be achieved by cultivating Buddha Nature and embodying our divine mission of unconditional love and light. Altruism - sincerely looking after others before ourselves - is an ancient universal tenet of the human species which Prince Shotoku spent his life embodying.