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The Buddha Tree

    Again, we begin with the legendary: A delegation arrived from Korea with gifts for the Emperor of Japan in 538 ad., including a bronze Buddha and various Sutras. Unfortunately a plague led the Emperor to believe that the traditional gods of Japan were annoyed, so he had the gifts thrown into a canal! But the imperial court on the 600's, in their constant effort to be as sophisticated as the courts of their distinguished neighbors, the Chinese, continued to be drawn to Buddhism. 

    Although starting as a religion of the upper classes, in the 900's, Pure Land entered the picture as the favorite of the peasant and working classes. And in the 1200's, Ch'an, relabeled Zen, came into Japan, where it was enthusiastically adopted by, among others, the warrior class or Samurai. 

    Zen was introduced into Japan by two particularly talented monks who had gone to China for their educations: Eisai (1141-1215) brought Lin-chi (J: Rinzai) Ch'an, with its koans and occasionally outrageous antics; Dogen (1200-1253) brought the more sedate Ts'ao-tung (J: Soto) Ch'an. In addition, Dogen is particularly admired for his massive treatise, the Shobogenzo. 

    Ch'an has always had an artistic side to it. In China and elsewhere, a certain simple, elegant style of writing and drawing developed among the monks. In Japan, this became an even more influential aspect of Zen. We have, for example, the poetry, calligraphy, and paintings of various monks -- Bankei (1622-1698), Basho (1644-1694), Hakuin (1685-1768), and Ryokan (1758-1831) -- which have become internationally beloved. 

    One last Japanese innovation is usually attributed to a somewhat unorthodox monk named Nichiren (1222-1282). Having been trained in the Tendai or White Lotus tradition, he came to believe that the Lotus Sutra carried all that was necessary for Buddhist life. More than that, he believed that even the name of the Sutra was enough! So he encouraged his students to chant this mantra: Namu-myoho-renge-kyo, which means "homage to the Lotus Sutra." This practice alone would ensure enlightenment in this life. In fact, he insisted, all other forms of Buddhism were of little worth. Needless to say, this was not appreciated by the Buddhist powers of the day. He spent the rest of his life in relative isolation. The Nichiren School nevertheless proved to be one of the most successful forms of Buddhism on the planet!


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