When Nichiren discusses different teachings of Buddhism, he does so in reference to ten schools of Buddhism that existed in Japan by the 13th century. He assumes that the reader is generally familiar with them. We, however, are not familiar with these schools, their origins, their founders, or their distinct teachings and practices. So in this chapter I am going to present a brief overview of the history of Buddhism in India and East Asia in order to show how these schools arose and what they were about in order to provide the context for Nichiren’s discussion of them.

I have already discussed the life of Śākyamuni Buddha and how scholars such as Hajime Nakamura believe that he passed away in 383 BCE. Though others might put forth other dates, I am going to go with that one. The traditional story (which can be found in chapters 11 and 12 of the Cullavagga section of the Theravādin Vinaya) is that during the rainy season retreat after the Buddha’s parinirvāna the elder Mahākāśyapa convened a council of 500 arhats to recite the discourses (Dharma) and discipline (Vinaya) that had been taught by the Buddha so that they would not be forgotten or altered. Ānanda recited all the discourses (what became the Sūtra-basket) and Upāli recited all the precepts (what became the Vinaya-basket) on that occasion. In time, the Abhidharma-basket was added to the Sūtra-basket and Vinaya-basket to complete the Tripitika (lit. three baskets). The Abhidharma is a collection of works that present a systematic analysis of the teachings found in the other two baskets. The Tripitika was then passed on by oral transmission for several centuries in different languages and dialects. After just a few generations, however, many different versions existed of the Three Baskets. In regards to this first council Charles Prebish wrote:

The historicity of the council as described is questioned by almost all scholars. That a small group of Buddha’s intimate disciples gathered after his death is not unlikely, but a council in the grand style described in the various texts is almost certainly a fiction. (Prebish, p. 23)

In East Asian Buddhism, Mahākāśyapa’s role in leading the Sangha after the Buddha’s parinirvāna did not end with the conclusion of the first council (whatever that may or may not have been). He is viewed as the Buddha’s successor and the heir of the Dharma. This claim is contradicted in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta of the Theravādin version of the Buddha’s teachings, wherein the Buddha flatly refused to designate a successor.

And the Lord said to Ānanda: “Ānanda, it may be that you will think: ‘The Teacher’s instruction has ceased, now we have no teacher!’ It should not be seen like this, Ānanda, for what I have taught and explained to you as Dharma and discipline will, at my passing, be your teacher.” (Walshe, pp. 269-270)

Other accounts found in Indian sūtras did, however, portray the Buddha as designating Mahākāśyapa the first in what would become a lineage of successors.

Perhaps more to the point, in the Mūlasarvāstivādin vinaya, the Buddha explicitly confirms Mahākāśyapa as his legitimate successor. Similarly, when the convocation of the five hundred arhants occurs, we are given a picture of Mahākāśyapa presiding by acclamation. Mahākāśyapas’s preeminent position is further defined in Northwestern texts; he is listed several times as the Buddha’s successor, who in turn is to choose his own successor and even the successor of his successor. (Ray, p. 108)

In 472, a work called the History of the Transmission of the Dharma Treasury was translated into Chinese, though a Sanskrit copy has never been found and it may have been a Chinese creation. According to this work, after the Buddha’s passing, Mahākāśyapa transmitted the “Dharma treasury” to Ānanda, who in turn transmitted it to Śānavāsa and Madhyāntika. Śānavāsa then transmitted it to Upagupta. The succession continues on from Upagupta until the 23rd (or 24th if Madhyāntika is included) and final successor, Āryasimha who was martyred in the Kashmir by a king hostile to Buddhism. Included in this linage of 24 successors were the great luminaries of Mahāyāna Buddhism as the 11th successor Aśvaghoṣa (c. first or second century), the 13th successor Nāgārjuna (late second to early third century), and the 20th successor Vasubandhu (c. fourth or fifth century). This lineage was accepted in the T’ien-t’ai school and listed by Kuan-ting (561-632; also known as Chang-an) in his introduction to the Great Concentration and Insight of Chih-i (538-597).

Leaving aside the matter of whether or not a lineage of patriarchs was established, traditional accounts are in agreement that a second council was held a century after the first council. This council was held at Vaiśālī, the capital of the Vriji confederation. The second council composed of 700 elder monks was called because of a disagreement over the precepts. According to the Theravādin account there were ten points at issue wherein the Vrilji monks had become lax. For instance, they allowed for the acceptance of offerings of gold and silver on the part of the monks. By the council’s end the ten points had been condemned. This was the last council universally recognized by all schools of Buddhism. Prebish says, “Almost all scholars agree that this council was a historical event.” (Prebish, p. 25) The time of the council, however, is more likely to have been around middle of the fourth century BCE, if one accepts 383 BCE as the date of the Buddha’s passing. (See William , p. 16)

Some time after the second council (perhaps around 300 BCE) a new controversy arose when a monk named Mahādeva claimed that arhats were still fallible in a number of areas. According to some accounts, another council was held in Pātaliputra (the new capital city of Magadha) to resolve the issue. There may also have been disagreements about the precepts between conservative and liberal factions of monks. The result of this controversy was the first major schism in the Sangha. The conservative group who held the arhat in higher regard came to be known as the Sthaviravāda (lit. School of the Elders). The more liberal group that saw the arhat as fallible came to be known as the Mahāsamghika (lit. Greater Sangha). These two groups split into even more factions over time until there were some 18-20 major schools of Buddhism. These 18-20 schools each had their own distinctive interpretation of the Abhidharma-basket so they are considered Abhidharma schools, but many of them had their own versions of the Vinaya-basket and the Sūtra-basket as well. After the aforementioned second council at Vaiśālī, there would no longer be any pan-Buddhist councils.

In 268 BCE, Aśoka became the emperor of the Mauryan dynasty that had conquered all but the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. In 260 BCE, Aśoka was so conscience stricken by the bloody conquest of the Kalinga kingdom that he renounced warfare and became a Buddhist layman. Emperor Aśoka ruled peacefully until his death in 232 BCE. Among the many things he did to support Buddhism two are significant in terms of its development. One was that, according to the Theravādins, he convened a third council of Buddhism in 250 BCE in Pātaliputra, now the capital of the empire. 1,000 Sthaviravādin monks attended this council in order to clarify the moral and doctrinal standards for the Sangha. Those who did not meet those standards were expelled. The second thing Aśoka did was to send missionaries to all parts of the known world, including sending his son Mahinda and his daughter Sanghamitta to Sri Lanka to spread Buddhism there. That branch of the Sthaviravāda later spread to Burma, Thailand, and other parts of SE Asia, where it is now known as Theravāda (the Pāli name for School of the Elders). The Theravāda recension of the Tripitika was recorded in the Pāli language in Sri Lanka in the first century BCE, and is often referred to now as the Pāli Canon. Theravāda is now the only survivor of the pre-Mahāyāna schools of Buddhism.

In northwest India and the Kashmir, other branches of the Sthaviravāda flourished for a time. The most important of these was the Sarvastivāda, whose later branches or sub-sects included the Dharmaguptakas (whose Vinaya lineage is still maintained by the monks and nuns of China, Korea, and Vietnam) and the Sautrāntikas (who did not consider the Abhidharma canonical). King Kanishka I (c. 128-151), third ruler of the Kushana dynasty that ruled much of central Asia, the Kashmir, and northern India, became a patron of the Sarvāstivāda and convened what that school considered the fourth Buddhist council wherein a treatise on Abhidharma called the Mahāvibhāshā was written (though scholars believe that it was actually compiled in the 3rd century during the reign of King Kanishka II). Sarvāstivada as well as all other schools of Buddhism disappeared        from central Asia and India by the end of the 12th century due to the resurgence of Vedic religion and Muslim conquests. The Tripitika of the Sarvāstivāda was recorded in Sanskrit but today only a portion of it exists in its Chinese translation.

Beginning in the first century BCE, a new form of Buddhism called Mahāyāna (lit. Great Vehicle) arose within the existing Abhidharma schools, particularly within the Mahāsamghika and the Sarvāstivāda. Monks (and nuns) within those orders began to aspire to buddhahood and engage in contemplative practices that they hoped would grant them visions of buddhas and bodhisattvas who could give their blessings and even new teachings to these aspiring bodhisattvas. Apparently these Mahāyāna monks and nuns remained a minority within Indian Buddhism and because they did not have their own Vinaya-basket or (at least until the fourth century) an Abhidharma-basket, they remained members of the Sarvāstivāda, Mahāsamghika, or other schools that they were ordained in. Though Mahāyāna monastics may have been involved in the stūpa cults, wherein both lay Buddhists and even the monastics revered the relics of the Buddha and other great saints, Mahāyāna itself held that upholding the perfection of wisdom brought infinitely greater merit than stūpa veneration. A Mahāyāna monk or nun probably did not appear all that different from the non-Mahāyāna monastic, the difference was in their aspirations, the nature of their contemplations, and perhaps their private devotions. Tensions did arise eventually, but records from Chinese monks who traveled to India testified that Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna monastics coexisted within the same monasteries.

Over the following centuries, until the end of Buddhism in India and central Asia, the Mahāyānists compiled the Mahāyāna sūtras. These sūtras critiqued Abhidharma scholasticism for reifying its categories of analysis and what they saw as the limited and even spiritually selfish goal of becoming an arhat in order to escape samsāra by attaining nirvāna only for oneself. Instead, the early Mahāyāna sūtras taught the emptiness of all phenomena and upheld the bodhisattva-vehicle discussed in the last chapter. Later Mahāyāna sūtras emphasized the mind-constructed nature of experience and the purification of the mind to reveal the buddha-nature. Among the early Mahāyāna sūtras that appeared between the first century BCE and the second century CE were the Flower Garland Sūtra, the Pure Land sūtras, the Vimalakīrti Sūtra, the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras, and the Lotus Sūtra. Later Mahāyāna sūtras of the third and fourth centuries include the Revealing the Profound Secrets Sūtra, the Lankāvatāra Sūtra, and the Nirvāna Sūtra. Starting in the seventh century, tantric forms of practice began to appear within Buddhism that incorporated mantras, mudras, and mandalas. The purpose of tantric or esoteric Buddhist practice was to achieve the aims of both worldly benefit and the quick attainment of buddhahood. Esoteric themed sūtras like the Mahāvairocana Sūtra, the Diamond Peak Sūtra, and the Acts of Perfection Sūtra appeared at this time.

The earliest Mahāyāna monk that we know of by name was supposedly Aśvaghoṣa, who was the court poet of either King Kanishka I or King Kanishka II. Aśvaghoṣa was the author of the earliest Sanskrit biography of the Buddha, the Buddhacarita. He is also credited with the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna Treatise, a popular work in East Asian Buddhism that was probably composed in China in the 6th century and became very important in the Flower Garland school.

The most famous Indian Mahāyānist of all was the south Indian monk Nāgārjuna. According to legend, Nāgārjuna retrieved the Mahāyāna sūtras from the nāgas, who had hidden them until the world was ready. He was also the author of the Root Verses on the Middle Teaching (S. Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā), and other works dealing with the perfection of wisdom teachings, the distinction but also interrelationship between conventional truth and ultimate truth, and the doctrine of emptiness. In China he was credited with the Great Perfection of Wisdom Treatise that Kumārajīva translated into Chinese. Nāgārjuna and his disciple Āryadeva were the founders of the Madhyamika (lit. Middle Way) school of Mahāyāna.

Vasubandhu is the next most prominent Mahāyāna teacher. He lived in northwest India in the fifth century. He was originally a Sarvāstivādin monk who authored the Abhidharma-kośa-bhāshya, a poem and auto-commentary that summarizes the Mahāvibhāshā but also subjects it to a critique from the Sautrāntika perspective. His older brother Asanga later converted him to the Mahāyāna. Legend says that Asanga studied the Mahāyāna with Maitreya Bodhisattva. As a Mahāyānist, Vasubandhu helped his brother Asanga establish the Yogācāra (lit. Yoga Practice) school of Buddhism (also know as the Consciousness Only or Vijñānavāda school). Yogācāra is critical of the teaching of emptiness and its seeming nihilism, and instead focuses on the cultivation of consciousness in order to overcome subject-object dualism and thereby attain buddhahood. Other famous patriarchs of the Yogācāra school who wrote commentaries on Vasubandhu’s writings include Nanda (6th century), Dharmapāla (530-651), and Śīlabhadra (529-645).

Now I will shift the focus to China and Japan. Because Indian Buddhism was not a monolithic entity but a plethora of precept lineages, Abhidharma schools, devotional and philosophical movements, and even competing versions of the Tripitika, as various Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna works were translated into Chinese it became a challenge to make sense of it all. The Chinese began to wonder which teaching represented the true intentions of Śākyamuni Buddha. In time, ten major schools were established that were subsequently brought to Japan.

The Mahāvibhāshā of the Sarvāstivādins had been translated into Chinese as early as the late 4th century, giving rise to an Abhidharma school. That school was later replaced by the Abhidharma Treasury School that became recognized as the preeminent school of Sarvāstivādin teachings in East Asia. The Abhidharma Treasury School was based on the study of the Abhidharma-kośa-bhāshya of Vasubandhu that was translated into Chinese by Paramārtha (499-569) between 563-567 and again by Hsüan-tsang (602-664) between 651-654. Japanese monks who had gone to China to study with Hsüan-tsang brought this school to Japan in 658. In Japan it was called the Kusha Shū. By 793, the Abhidharma Treasury School was merely a curriculum taught within the Hossō Shū.

Another important Abhidharma school was the Completion of Reality School. This school focuses on the study of the Completion of Reality Treatise (S. Satyasiddhi-śāstra) by an Indian monk named Harivarman (c. 4th century) that was translated by Kumārajīva between 411-412. It is considered a Sautrāntika work, but it also teaches the emptiness of all dharmas and so is considered a good introduction to Mahāyāna teachings. The Korean monk Hyegwan brought the Establishment of Truth School to Japan in 625, where it became known as the Jōjitsu Shū. By 806 it had become no more than a curriculum taught within the Sanron Shū.

The Precepts School was founded in China by Tao-hsüan (596-667) who instituted the Vinaya of the Dharmaguptaka School based on the Fourfold Rules of Discipline translated in the early 5th century. From that time on, Mahāyāna monks and nuns in China, Korea, and Vietnam have all been ordained in the Dharmaguptaka precept lineage. The Precept school was brought to Japan by Chien-chen (688-763) in 753 where it was called the Ritsu Shū. In 755, Chien-chen established a precept platform to confer the Dharmaguptaka precepts upon monks and nuns at Tōdai-ji temple in Nara, and two more precept platforms were established in 761 at Yakushi-ji temple (in present day Tochigi prefecture) and Kanzeon-ji temple (in present day Fukuoka prefecture). The Ritsu Shū’s popularity declined after the 8th century. In Nichiren’s day, Eizon (1201-1290) revived the school in conjunction with esoteric Buddhism, thereby establishing the True Word Precept School (J. Shingon Ritsu Shū).

The Three Treatises School introduced the Madhyamika teachings to China. It was based on the study of three treatises translated by Kumārajīva. In 404 Kumārajīva translated the One Hundred Verses attributed to Nāgārjuna’s disciple Āryadeva. In 409 he translated the Middle Way Treatise (a translation of Nāgārjuna’s Root Verses on the Middle Way), and the Twelve Gates Treatise attributed to Nāgārjuna. Chi-tsang (549-632) is considered the founder of the Three Treatises School because he was the one who systematized and refined its teachings. The Korean monk Hyegwan (the same monk who brought the Establishment of Truth teachings) was a disciple of Chi-tsang and he brought the Three Treatises School to Japan in 625, where it was called the Sandron Shū. The Sanron Shū died out as an independent school by the mid-12th century.

The Chinese monk Chih-i founded the T’ien-t’ai School when he established a teaching center on Mt. T’ien-t’ai in the latter half of the 6th century. He was later known as the Great Master T’ien-t’ai. Chih-i was a great scholar and meditator who wanted to systematize all the seemingly contradictory teachings that had been translated into Chinese. To do this, he classified the Buddha’s teachings into five flavors and eight different types of teaching. Chih-i was a practitioner as well as a scholar. He put equal emphasis on meditation practice and doctrine in order to create a balanced system whereby doctrine would inform practice and practice would actualize doctrine. The concept of the “3,000 worlds in a single thought-moment” (covered in a previous chapter) was part of his explanation of the sudden and perfect method of tranquility and insight meditation. He also taught the unity of the three truths of emptiness, provisional existence, and the Middle Way in order to clarify the true meaning of the teachings of the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtras and Nāgārjuna regarding emptiness, causality, and the Middle Way. The T’ien-t’ai School declined in prestige during the 7th and 8th centuries due to the rise of the Dharma Characteristics, Flower Garland, and Zen schools. These schools overshadowed the T’ien-t’ai School in terms of prestige and royal patronage. The T’ien-t’ai school was briefly revived during the time of Chan-jan (711-782; aka Miao-lê), the school’s sixth patriarch (if Chih-i is considered the first). The T’ien-tai teachings were first brought to Japan by Chien-chen, who was also a T’ien-t’ai monk as well as a Vinaya master. Saichō (767-822; later known as Dengyō) later studied these teachings and was greatly intrigued by them. In 804, Saichō was able to travel to China to learn more about T’ien-t’ai Buddhism and other teachings and bring back more reliable texts. Saichō returned to Japan in 805 and began the establishment of the Japanese version of this school, known as the Tendai Shū, on Mt. Hiei.

Translations of the Yogācāra teachings had begun to appear in China by the 6th century, but these earlier translations were not complete or reliable. In order to clarify the Buddhist teachings, the monk Hsüan-tsang traveled to India where he studied with Śīlabhadra and other teachers. He also gathered sūtras and commentaries to translate upon his return to China. He and his disciple K’uei-chi (632-682; also known as Tz’u-en) then established the definitive form of East Asian Yogācāra known as the Dharma Characteristics School. The Dharma Characteristics School was first brought to Japan by the Japanese monk Dōshō (629-700) who had traveled to China to study with Hsüan-tsang and then returned in 661. In Japan it is called the Hossō Shū.

The Flower Garland Sūtra became the basis of its own school in China. The Flower Garland School was established by Tu-shun (557-640), though its third patriarch, Fa-tsang (643-712) was the true founder of the school. The Chinese monk Tao-hsüan (702-760) introduced the Flower Garland School to Japan in 736, but its establishment as a school is credited to the Korean monk Sim-sang (d. 742), a student of Fa-tsang who gave a lecture to the emperor on the Flower Garland teachings in 740. In Japan it is called the Kegon Shū.

Esoteric Buddhism was introduced to China when the Indian monk Śubhākarasimha (637-735; C. Shan-wu-wei) came in 716 and translated the Great Sun Buddha Sūtra with his disciple I-hsing (683-727) in 725. At some point they also translated the Act of Perfection Sūtra. In 720, two more Indian masters of tantric Buddhism came to China, Vajrabodhi (671-741; C. Chin-kang-chih) and his disciple Amoghavajra (705-774; C. Pu-k’ung). Amoghavajra translated the Diamond Crown Sūtra in 746. These sūtras were the basis of the True Word School of esoteric Buddhism. Amoghavajra transmitted the True Word teachings to Hui-kuo (746-805) who in turn transmitted them to Japanese monk Kūkai (774-835; later known as Kobo). Kūkai had gone to China in 804 and returned to Japan in 806 whereupon he founded the Japanese True Word School, the Shingon Shū.

The Kusha, Jōjitsu, Ritsu, Sanron, Hossō, and Kegon schools are known collectively as the six schools of Nara, because all of them were established in Japan during the time when Nara was the capital of Japan (710-794). The next period of Japanese history is known as the Heian period (794-1192) because the capital was moved to Heian-kyo (the name was changed to Kyoto in the 11th century). During this period the Tendai and the Shingon schools were established in Japan.

In the Kamakuran period (1192-1333), Zen and Pure Land Buddhism began to become popular as distinctive Buddhist movements. Both were present in some form before that time. Pure Land devotions were known and practiced by members of all schools of East Asian Buddhism going back at least to the time of the monk Hui-yüan (334-416) and his White Lotus Society that was dedicated to the practice of chanting the name of Amitābha Buddha and visualizing the buddha and his Pure Land of the West. The practice of reciting the name of Amitābha Buddha was also one of the methods utilized for calming and insight meditation by Chih-i. After the persecution of Buddhism by the Emperor Wu in 845, only the Pure Land and Zen schools continued to flourish in China. The Zen school initially held itself aloof from and even criticized Pure Land Buddhism, but in the end Pure Land practice was even incorporated into the Zen school. The Pure Land Buddhism which survived the persecution of 845 and later attained mass appeal throughout East Asia was not, however, the same as that championed by Hui-yüan or Chih-i. Rather, it was a form of Pure Land Buddhism inspired by the Triple Pure Land Sūtras. This form of Pure Land Buddhism deemphasized the visualization of Amitābha Buddha and the Pure Land of the West, and put much greater emphasis on the 18th vow of Amitābha Buddha, called the Original Vow, and the chanting of the name of Amitābha Buddha to the virtual exclusion of all other practices in order to be reborn in the Pure Land after death. Three teachers of Chinese Pure Land Buddhism in particular spread this kind of Pure Land Buddhism. These teachers were T’an-luan (476-542), Tao-ch’o (562-645), and Shan-tao (613-681). In Japan, the exclusive practice of Pure Land Buddhism was advocated by Hōnen (1133-1212) beginning in 1175. By the Kamakuran era, Pure Land Buddhism had become immensely popular, though it was considered a movement within the Tendai Shū and was not recognized as a separate school until the early 15th century.

Bodhidharma is credited with establishing the Zen school in China in the early 6th century. Bodhidharma was the legendary 28th patriarch of Indian Buddhism and 1st patriarch of the Zen school in China. Zen is actually the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word Ch’an, which is in turn a transliteration of dhyāna, the Sanksrit word for meditative absorption. Zen, however, refers to the unity of dhyāna and prajñā (wisdom) and not meditative absorption alone. According to the Zen school the Dharma has been transmitted from person-to-person (or mind-to-mind) from Śākyamuni Buddha through his successors all the way to the present day Zen Masters. In this way the true meaning of the Buddha’s teachings has been passed on through the actual awakening of these successors and not just in the written teachings. By the 10th century there were Five Houses of Zen, but only two have survived: the Lin-chi founded by Lin-chi I-hsüan (d. 866) and the Ts’ao-tung founded by Tung-shan Liang-chieh (807-869) and his disciple Ts’ao-shan Pen-chi (840-901). Zen was actually brought to Japan before the Kamakura period, for instance Saichō was given transmission in the Ox Head lineage while in China, but it was never promulgated. A monk named Dainichin Nōnin tried to establish a Bodhidharma School in 1189 after receiving a certificate of Zen transmission with a correspondent in China, but he was regarded as a fraud. Eisai (1141-1215) succeeded in introducing Lin-chi (J. Rinzai) Zen to Japan 1191, after spending four years in China training with the Zen Masters there. Dōgen (1200-1253) introduced Ts’ao-tung (J. Sōtō) Zen to Japan after studying in China from 1223-1227.  After the Sung dynasty fell to the Mongols, Zen Masters from China such as Lan-ch’i Tao-lung (J. Rankei Dōryū) came to Japan and helped to spread Rinzai Zen.

I hope that this brief survey (by no means comprehensive) will help clarify who and what Nichiren is talking about as he discusses the other schools of Buddhism in relation to the teaching of the Lotus Sūtra.

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