The Great Buddhist Emperors of Asia

by Shibani Dutta | 2018 | 86,618 words

This study deals with the patronage of Buddhism in Asia by the ruling powers and nobility. It further discusses in detail the development of Buddhism under the patronage of the royal dynasties in the religious history of Asia right from the time of 3rd century B.C. (i.e., the reign of Ashoka) to the reign of Kublai Khan in 13th century A.C....

Chapter 6 - Japanese Dhammashoka Shotoku (574 A.C.–621 A.C.)

Buddhism originated in India around 500 B.C. and swept across Asia in just 1000 years. It came last to Japan, crossing the sea in the mid 6th century, first from Korea and then later from China. At first Buddhism was greeted with some resistance in Japan but thereafter it spread fast under the patronage of the Emperor’s second son, Shotoku Taishi (574-621 A.C.)

Prince Shotoku enjoys a very eminent position in the history of Japanese Buddhism. In this respect he may be compared with emperor Dhammashoka who played a vital role in the history of Indian Buddhism. Prior to his rule King Sei-Mei of Kudara in South Korea sent some religious scriptures to a Japanese ruler (539-572 A.C.) through his prime minister. Along with this gift, the also sent a letter and some specimens of art. Thus Japan could establish relations with China through the medium of Korea. As a result of this Japan was acquainted with Chinese script and other aspects of Chinese culture.

Despite some initial difficulties, Buddhism spread in Japan and won the hearts of Japanese people. Even then opposition to that new religion continued. Of course, the king and the queen continued to be Buddhists in their private life.

Tradition holds that Emperor Yomei (also spelled Youmei) once experienced a serious illness, but the young Shotoku, impressed by the new Buddhist faith, prayed day and night for his father’s recovery. Emperor Yomei recovered and converted himself to Buddhism.

In the years thereafter, Shotoku renounced any claim to the throne and pledged to devote his life to public duty. For the next three decades-during the reign of his aunt Empress Suiko, a member of the powerful Soga clan, he served as prince regent and the foremost proponent of the new Buddhist teachings. Many statues and paintings of the prince were created in the centuries after his death.

Shotoku Taishi (Show -toe -kuu Tie -she) meaning crown prince of saintly virtue[1] was born in 573 A.C. Some are of the opinion that he was born in 574 A.C. He followed Buddhism from his childhood.[2] He learned Buddhism from Hue -Tzu, the Buddhist monk from Korea.

Shotoku wanted to reform the Japanese society by adopting moral principles of Buddhism and also aimed at the development of Japanese culture at that time[3]. He was revered in Japan not only as one of its great scholars and as a serious Buddhist student, but also as a Statesman, Educator, Social worker and creator of various branches of art.[4] Though he was destined to be an imperial prince, he was not in line to become emperor. Instead, he became the Crown Prince and Regent during the reign of Empress Suiko, his aunt. This position placed Shotoku in keeping in his control the machinery of Japanese government. His achievements and influence were great and long lasting.

“Shotoku” was the prince’s ruling name. His unusual name came from the fact that his mother had given birth to this son while visiting the royal stables. According to legend, he was able to speak immediately after his birth. This is one of many stories told about him. He also supposedly had the listen to what ten persons were saying, all speaking at a time. and “to predict the future”. Empress Suiko, the first female to be a ruler, requested that her nephew, Prince Shotoku, be her regent, or a person who ruled in place of an absent or underage monarch.

Shotoku is the title given to the Prince by his admirers, probably his contemporaries, and this term means “Holy, virtuous”. His real name was “Umayado” which meant the “Stable” or.Born in the stable.[5].

Prince Shotoku, being extremely interested in Chinese culture, sent several Japanese scholars and artists to the great country, to learn their culture. He also gladly accepted skilled workers from China. To strengthen the link between Japan and China, Prince Shotoku made a Japanese embassy, or an office of a government in China. However, it is said that even though Prince Shotoku had interest in China, China was the one which initiated the contact.

In 593 A.C., the second year of the reign of his aunt Empress Suiko (592-628), Prince Shotoku became familiar to all Japanese. He was the first Crown Prince to assume an important role in Japanese politics[6]. The imperial Prince Shotoku (537-621 A.C.) was a member of Soga clan. Shotoku was a scholar in Chinese classics. As a soldier he fought against certain members of the Soga family in the dispute over Yeomei’s succession. He was also called upon to play an important political role in Japan.

He is best known, perhaps, for the famous constitution of seventeen Articles (Jushichijo no Kempo) which he promulgated in 604 A.C. This document seems to be a series of platitudes sketching in very clear way, mainly in Confucian terms leading to ideal ethical conditions for the functioning of the country.

The Constitution reflects in an interesting way the primitive, seven chaotic conditions which at that time must have abstained in Japan[7]. Every article is vibrant with a reformatory, even revolutionary motivation, if read in the light of the prevailing conditions, political and social.

The Constitution begins by placing paramount emphasis on the virtue of “Wa” (harmony or concord). The influence of Confucian ethical and political doctrine is almost everywhere apparent in this set of basic principles of government. In Article 11, however, Buddhism is specifically subscribed to as contributing to the ideal of social harmony.

The Prince Imperial is the person prepared for the first time laws. There are seventeen clauses as follows:.

I. Harmony is to be valued and an avoidance of wanton opposition to be honoured. All men are influenced by partisanship and there are few who are intelligent. Hence there are some who disobey their lords and fathers, or who maintain feuds with the neighbouring villages. But when those above are harmonious and those below are friendly and there is concord in the discussion of business right views of things spontaneously gain acceptance.

II. One must have sincere reverence for the three treasures. The three treasures, viz., Buddha, the Law and the Monastic Orders, are the final refuge of the Four generated beings and are the supreme objects of faith in all countries.

III. The lord is Heaven, the vassal is Earth. Heaven overspread the Earth up. When this is so, the four seasons follow their due course and the powers of Nature obtain their efficacy. If, the Earth attempted to overspread, Heaven would simply fall in ruin. Therefore it is that when that lord speaks, the vassal listens i.e., when the superior acts, the inferior yields compliance.

IV. The Ministers and functionaries should make decorous behaviour their leading principle, for the leading principle of the government of the people consists in decorous behaviour. If the superiors do not behave with decorum, the inferiors are found to be disorderly.

V. If the man who is to decide suits at law makes gain of his ordinary motive and hears causes with a view to receiving bribes then it will be the suits of the rich man be like a stone flung into water, while the plaints of the poor will resemble water cast upon a stone. Under these circumstances the poor man will not know whether he will have to take it himself.

VI. Chastise that which is evil and encourage that which is good. This was the excellent rule of antiquity. Conceal not, therefore the good qualities of others and fail not to correct that which is wrong when you see it.

VII. Let every man take his own charge, and let not the spheres of duty be confused. When wise men are entrusted with office, the sound of praise arises. If unprincipled men hold office, disasters and tumults are multiplied. In this world, few are born with knowledge: wisdom is the product of earnest meditation.

VIII. That the ministers and functionaries attend the court early in the morning and retire late. The business of the state does not admit of remittent and the whole day is hardly enough for its accomplishment.

IX. Good faith is the foundation of right work. In everything let there be good faith, for it surely consists of the good and bad, success and feature. The lord and the vassal observe good faith one with another.

X. Let us cease from wrath and refrain from angry looks. Nor let lust be resentful when others differ from us. For all men have hearts, each heart has its own leaning.

XI. Give clear appreciation to merit and demerit and deal out to each its sure reward or punishment. In these days reward does not attend upon merit, nor punishment upon crime.

XII. In a country there are not two lords, the people have not two masters. The sovereign is the master of the people of the whole country. The officials to whom he gives charge are all his vassals.

XIII. Let all persons entrusted with office attend equally to their functions. Owing to their illness or to their being sent on missions their work may sometimes be neglected. But whenever they become able to attend to business, let them be as accommodating as if they had cognizance of it from before and not hinder public affairs on the score of their not having had to do with them.

XIV. Be not envious. For if we envy others, they in turn will envy us. The evils of envy know no limit. If others excel us in intelligence, it gives us no pleasure if they surpass us in ability.

XV. To turn away from that which is private and to set our faces towards that which is public -this is the path of a minister. Now if a man is influenced by private motives he will assuredly feel resentments and if he is influenced by resentful feelings, he will assuredly fail to act harmoniously with others. If he fails to act harmoniously with others, he will assuredly sacrifice the public interests to his private feelings.

XVI. Let the people be employed at inforced labour at seasonable times. This is an ancient and excellent rule. Let them be employed, therefore in the winter months, when they are at leisure. But from spring to autumn when they are engaged in agriculture or with the mulberry trees the people should not be so employed.

XVII. Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone. They should be discussed with many. But small matters are of less consequence. It is unnecessary to consult a number of people. It is only in the case of the discussion of weighty matters[8].

Prince Shotoku early recognized the superior qualities of the new religion and made it a primary means for the realization of the ideal of national unity in the presence of widespread division and unrest among rival clans[9]. He, a strong advocate of tradition, was equally in favour of the new culture[10]. Buddhism was quickly adopted by the court as the official state religion, established to promote the welfare of the land from Prince Shotoku (late 6th century) to Emperor Shomu (Mid 9th century) who ordered temples to be built in all provinces and who constructed the Todai. Joatnara and the huge state of Buddhism within the court who devout patron providing Lavish support for temples and the monks in return for the divine protection they afforded[11]. Shotoku Taishi was probably the single person most responsible for the flowering of Buddhism in Japan. He conceived of an ideal government conducted according to the spirit of the faith. The memory of Shotoku caused the great temple compound of Horyuji, still standing in the village of Ikaruga[12].

Shotoku Taishi raised and established Buddhism as a national religion. He pointed out that for this reason faith in Buddhism was an indispensable condition. Since then Japan became a nation of Buddhists. During 1300 to 1400 years Japan followed, despite the various changes in the political system, not a single incident of rejecting Buddhism occurred. It was as if the racial traits of the Japanese people and Buddhism were one body which could not be separated[13]. Shotoku enjoys legendary status as the founding father of Japanese Buddhism. This is the first time that any religion was recommended under the Emperor’s name in the history of Japan. In 604 A.C. He promulgated the constitution in seventeen Articles, a set of moral injunctions for government officials, based on Buddhist and Confucian teaching as well as indigenous belief in the emperor’s divine origins. In this document the Buddhist-ideals of equality and harmony are applied to state administration. It expresses the attitudes of a Buddhist dhammaraja (Dharma-monarch). Shotoku also patronized the foundation of seven ancient temples including shitennoji (in present day Osaka) in 593 which became the center of social welfare activities in Japan and Horyuji which became the headquarters of Buddhist study.

We may conclude by listing the distinctive characteristics of Japanese Buddhism anticipated in the writings attributed to Prince Shotoku.

First, Ekayana thought is based on the idea that all beings are endowed with Buddha-nature or the potential to be enlightened. Although some Mahayana schools advocated the Three -Vehicle teaching, corers pending to three levels of human capacity for enlightenment, only those that had accepted the Ekayana standpoint flourished in Japan. Japanese Buddhism thus stressed that the road to Buddhahood was open to all and that it can not be confined to those who observe monastic discipline.

Second, Mahayana Buddhism was always concerned with the meaning of the spirit of the teachings rather than with strict adherence to formal precepts and traditional doctrine. The Japanese interpreted all the teachings and disciplines of Buddhism spiritually and based their practices on this understanding. Thus no Japanese denomination at present actually follows the teachings and discipline of original Buddhism and no Japanese denomination has ever imposed disciplines as strict as those observed by Theravada monks in south east Asia.

Third, within the tolerant framework of Japanese Buddhism, the distinctions between priests and devotees and male and female, gradually disappeared in the course of history. The aim of religious practices for both priests and devotees was the life of a Bodhisattva whose love and compassion towards fellow beings is unlimited except that the priests were also expected to play the role of religious leaders in society.

Fourth, in Theravada Buddhism, the process of becoming a Buddha originally required almost superhuman effort during an immeasurably long period of accumulating virtues and merits through countless transmigrations. In Japanese Buddhism on the contrary, it was believed that this highest goal could be attained either in the present life or in the next.

Fifth and finally, until the end of the Muromachi Period (1338- 1573) Buddhism in Japan was identified with the welfare of the nation. Buddhist worship and practice were seen as the basis for prosperity and peace. Annual national events and the everyday life of the people became closely interwoven with Buddhist teachings. Buddhist priests were invited to conduct religious rites and prayers for the welfare of the nation and many prominent priests acted as government consultants[14].

Prince Shotoku early understood the importance of China for the cultural development of Japan, as evidenced by his sending students to the continent. Shotoku’s commentaries show independent judgment rather a slavish following of his Chinese predecessors. He was, moreover, responsible for propagating the moral and intellectual benefits of the new religion. Only with Prince Shotoku’s personal investigations into and understanding of the essence of Buddhism did a more legitimate form leading to oppose the old soga type.[15]

Like Ashoka, Shotoku was naturally kind hearted and perhaps was a constructive statesman. He was attracted by the humanity which it inculcates. His maxims seem to have spread morality amongst common place. The Nihongi relates how Shotoku fed and clothed with his own raiment a starving man whom he found lying by the road as he was travelling.

Quite apart from his position in the history of religion, Shotoku was one of the best and the most benevolent perhaps the very best and most benevolent of all the rulers of Japan[16]. Characteristic of Japanese Buddhism is the fact that the great part of it was played by the personal leadership, the leadership of historical Buddha himself. Its development in Japan consisted for the most part in its practical application. The artistic refinement of Buddhism was attained and was given wide secular applications in Japan. But the most prominent feature was the great influence exerted by the personality of the leaders. The personal influence of prince Shotoku was the determining factor at the first stage of the introduction of Buddhism to Japan[17].

The greatest achievement of Shotoku was his encouragement of Buddhism. When he undertook to build a new Japan, feeling the pressure of the newly rising powers of the Sui Empire and Silla, he thought it urgent to enlighten the people and strengthen their spiritual powers by encouraging Buddhism. Sankyo Gisho (consisting of three volumes with commentary and exposition of three suttas, the Hokke-Kyo, the yuima-kyo and the shoman-kyo) was his work. The manuscripts of his Hokke-kyo exposition, in his own handwriting remain till this day. He regarded Buddhism as an ethical religion, teaching love of mankind, salvation of the world and defense of the country[18]. At first Buddhism was nothing more than a belief held by some clans and was not at all national in character. But it was owing to Shotoku Taishi (574-621 A.C.) Buddhism began to be popular in Japan. He desired to establish the administration of Buddhist government[19].

Prince Shotoku also built two temples, which were the first Buddhist temples in Japan. The Shitennoji was built in 530 A.C., and actually was the first Buddhist temple built in Japan. There The Four Heavenly Kings were worshipped, each watching over either North, East, West, or South. The Shitennoji has four different sections, each for a specific “king” They were to help the Japanese reach higher levels of civilization and humanity.

The other temple Prince Shotoku built was called the Horyuji. It has many unique and beautiful objects related to Buddhism, unlike the Angkor Wat, in the Khmer Empire, which worshiped Vishnu, a Hindu god. Horyuji Shrine is one of the many nations building activities of Shotoku, who built many wonderful things for Japan.

Prince Shotoku greatly contributed to Japanese society. He built two important temples, both of which were very grand, created the Seventeen Articles of constitution, established the official ranks in court, and brought wonderful ideas from China to Japan.

He erected his first temple, the Shitennoji in Home provinces, Naniwa. Other temples also can be historically associated with him[20]. During his reign the number of Buddhist monks and nuns were gradually increasing, but after his death all monasteries came under the control of government. As a result the persons who like to become monks needed permission from the government. Thus number of monks decreased day by day. The monks and nuns were compelled to live in the monasteries and their living expenses were given by the government. One of their duties was to change Suvarnaprabhasa Sutta (The golden splendour sutra) Prajnaparamita sutta, Saddharma pundarika sutta (The louts Sutra) and to pray for the security as well as prosperity of the state. They were also prohibited to preach the devotees outside the Monasteries. At government expenses Shotoku built Buddhist monasteries, pagodas, seminaries, hospitals, dispensaries and asylums for the aged and the destitute. Horyuji monastery built by Shotoku near the city of Nara, is the most ancient wooden building still existing in the world. Under his reign (593-621 A.C.) the Japanese came into direct contact with Chinese Buddhism. He sent students to China to study Buddhism. From his time onwards the influence of Buddhism continued to be conspicuous almost without to the close of the Tokugawa regime (1868 A.C.).

There were 46 temples in 624 A.C. but which increased to 545 in 629 A.C. in Japan. Asuka-dera temple, Kawahara-dera temple, Yakushiji were treated as the national temples. When chanting of the Suvarnaprabhasa Sutra was settled to be of national importance, this was in the New Year’s day in every part of country. They had also the conception to build Kokubun-ji Temple (Provincial temples) in the country[21].

Prince Shotoku drew up Japan’s first constitution proclaiming the “Three Treasures” (Triratna) viz., Buddha (The Enlightened one), Dhamma (The Doctrine) and The Sangha (The Order) to be the ultimate objects of faith and single minded devotion to them to be the fundamental factor of an upright life. Prince Shotoku (574-622 A.C.) is never to be forgotten in the history of Japanese Buddhism and culture. His patronage and devotion was that the Buddhism struck its firm roots into Japanese soil. He himself was a great scholar and gave lectures on the Mahayana suttas, especially, on the Saddharmapundarika (the Lotus of the True Law), the Vimala-Kirtinirdesha and the Shrimaladevi Sinhanada sutta. He wrote commentaries on three important Buddhist suttas i.e., the Pundarika, Shrimala and Vimalakirti. It is mentioned that the Pundarika sutta contains the basic ideas of the Mahayana[22].

Prince Shotoku was appointed regent at the age of twenty and served in this capacity until his death. While early Buddhism in Japan had been associated with magical powers and the fear of disease, Shotoku’s faith was different in that. His teachers were Korean and their role in the formation of Buddhist ideas at this period was important. His personal investigations into and understanding of the essence of Buddhism did a more legitimate form to oppose the old Soga type. He developed Buddhism based on his personal study of such orthodox suttas as the Lotus (Hokke), the Shrimala (shoman) and the Vimalakirti (yuima) to which his commentaries (Sangyogisho) are justly famous[23].

Shotoku Taishi was one of the most remarkable figures of Japanese history. He was universally respected for his learning and beloved for his goodness. He was a devoted Buddhist and studied under a monk from a region of Korea that had close connections with the strong Buddhist Sui Dynasty in China. It is evident that prince Shotoku, important in his own person as the initiator, was also significant as a symbol of certain trends that were to reappear frequently in Japanese history[24]. Shotoku early understood the importance of China for the cultural development of Japan. Buddhism flourished under him in large part owing to his efforts. Shotoku’s commentaries show independent judgment rather than a slavish following of his Chinese predecessors. He was responsible for propagating the moral and intellectual benefits of the new religion. He was the founder of Japanese civilization as well as of a united Japanese nation. But his achievements are not to be credited to his personal merit alone due to his insight and wisdom so well embodied the highest ideals of Buddhism that his work amounted to founding a national life on the basis of spiritual unity and moral edification as inspired by Buddhism.

The Japanese ambassador explained to the Chinese court that the prince Shotoku regarded the Chinese Emperor as a Bodhisattva. When the Prince Shotoku had succeeded in introducing and carrying out various plans of reform he made a proclamation summing up his idea of administration ruling his country in accordance with the moral ideals of the religion that it was the aim of the Prince also to rule his own country as a Bodhisattva. He wanted to decorate the fundamental principles of state organization. It was called a “constitution” (Kempo).

We learn from the ancient history of Japan that at the time of Shotoku's death, there were forty viharas, where more than 816 monks and 569 nuns used to reside. Even before his death, Shotoku had decided a place for buried of his dead body. According to his wishes a memorial has been erected.

Prince Shotoku Taishi passed away in 622 A.C. and he was greatly mourned by the People of Japan. “In contemporary history of Japan, the appearance of Shotoku was timely one for his country” This position could be compared with that of Guru Govind Singh in Punjab, that of Shivaji in Maharastra, that of Rana Pratap in Rajasthan, that of Gamini Abhay in Shrilanka and in whole of India that of emperor Ashoka, and likewise in whole of Japan that of the prince Shotoku..

According to the ancient records, “So deep was sorrow of the people that it was identical with the sorrow of the aged man who was deprived of his only child, of the child which has lost its compassionate parents, the heaven and earth seemed to have fallen and the heavenly bodies of the universe had ceased to glow” It is not difficult for us to understand the sorrow expressed in the ancient records. The image of the Sakyamuni Buddha enshrined in the Golden hall of Horyuji temple, Todaiji Temple today was made in memory of Prince Shotoku a year after his death and was made to stand just the same height as the Prince.[25].

Prince Shotoku served as the ruler of Japan from 593 A.C until his death. His reign was influential in reshaping Japanese Government by importing many Chinese influence especially the creation of a large government bureaucracy. Shotoku promoted Buddhism and Confucianism and brought new political, religions and political concepts. Shotoku compiled the chronicles of the government, after the Chinese model, to make up first book of Japanese history. He is remembered also for irrigation projects and social welfare measures. Shotoku worked for the spread of Buddhism in Japan and after his death he was looked upon as a Buddhist saint.

Footnotes and references:


Exploring the Japanese way of Life, Shunkichi Aklimoto, p. 169.


A Guide to Buddhism, (Ed.), Hinayana, Shotoku, p. 71.


Theravada Buddhist Studies in Japan, Keiko Soda, p. 5.


Japan Encyclopaedia, Boye Lafayette De Mente, p. 451.


Guides to Japanese Culture, Japan Cultural Institute, p. 134.


International Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Nagendra Kr. Singh, (Ed.), Vol. 40, p. 267.


History of Japanese Religion, Masaharu Anesaki, p. 57.


Soura of Japanese Tradition, Ryusaku Tsunoda, pp. 49-53.


Modern Japan and Shinto Nationalism, D.C. Holtom, p. 138.


The History of Japan, Kenneth Scott Latourette, p. 24.


The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Japan, Nagendra Kr. Singh, p. 26.


The Arts of Japan, Noma Seiroku (Tr. John Rosen field), Vol. 1, p. 34.


Buddhism For World Peace, (Tr.), Miyazaki Yumiko, p. 31.


Buddhist Spirituality, (Ed.), Takeuchi Yoshinori, Vol. II, pp. 141-142.


Buddhism in Japan, E. Dale Sunders, p. 98.


Japanese Buddhism, C. Eliot, p. 204.


Religious Life of the Japanese people, Masaharu Anesaki, p. 73.


Japan its Land, People and Culture, Japanese National Commission For UNESCO, p. 8.


Ibid, p. 400.


Early Buddhist Japan, J. Edward Kidder, p. 16.


Theravada Buddhist studies in Japan, Keiko Soda, p. 5.


Studies in the Buddhistic culture of India, Lai Mani Joshi, p. 4.


Buddhism in Japan, E. Dale Saunders, pp. 96-100.


Japan -Its history and culture, W. Scott Morton, pp. 20-22.


The path of the Buddha, (Ed.), Kennth W. Morgan, pp. 312-323.

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