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Japanese Tendai Interpretations of the Environment

by Okubo, Ryoshun, Waseda University

Japanese Tendai interpretations of the environment rest on the foundation provided by its Chinese Tiantai namesake. Accordingly even the religious affirmation of the phenomenal environment --- which under the label of "Theories of Original Awakening" frequently is identified as a distinctive feature of Japanese religion --- actually was not an unprecedented development unique to Japan. Rather, it must be evaluated within the context of Chinese Tiantai doctrinal trends. At the same time we must not overlook the doctrinal impact occasioned by the introduction of esoteric (or tantric) Buddhism into Japanese Tendai. Esoteric ritual and doctrine was so important that Tendai monks like Annen (b. 841) proclaimed the Unity of Tendai and Esoteric Buddhism. Annen's comprehensive systemization of Tendai esoteric doctrines is especially significant for Japanese understandings of the environment. The religious affirmation of the phenomenal environment already appears in Annen's doctrinal system. For Annen theories of the physical environment were inseparably related to theories of the Buddha's cosmological body. In this regard Japanese Tendai developed in new directions beyond the limits of Chinese Tiantai thought. In particular, the religious affirmation of the phenomenal environment was directly related to increased emphasis on the universality of the esoteric Buddha Vairocana (the tathagata Dainichi).

Moreover, according to the Buddhist scriptures the methods used for teaching the dharma and for attaining awakening vary from one world system to another. Although the dharma is preached primarily via words and languages within our world system, in other environments other methods --- such as preaching via flavors detected by the tongue or via odors detected by the nose --- are more primary. These differences result from the special features of the environment in each world system. Annen interpreted scriptural passages concerning this point to mean that the preaching of the dharma in our world also is not limited to words alone.

Thus, all the phenomena of our physical environment can be expressions of the Buddha preaching the doctrine. Based on this interpretation of the environment, Annen developed his own theory of the dharmakaya (cosmic Buddha body) preaching the dharma.

Conference paper presented at Buddhism In (and Out of) Place Conference held 17-18 October 2004

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