Thursday, July 28, 2011

Historical Figures Who Stabilized Buddhism in China and Japan

There are some people we learn about in history lessons during high school. It is clear what years they lived and what they did. These facts may be seen as the X-axis of history. They form a chronological horizontal line using time as variables. But usually we do not pay much attention to the people who lived in the same era but in different places. Those people may have interactive roles in history. They form the vertical axis. The Y-axis of history uses places as variables. We may be able to find interesting facts about history if we pay attention to both the X- and Y-axes of history.

Today, I was thinking about Buddhism. I know several famous historical figures. I picked four key people from the history of Buddhism, without paying much attention to which age they lived in, and discovered an interesting fact. Buddhism, an Indian-born religion, propagated to China between the first and the second century. It became popular in China and was introduced to Korea in the fourth century and Japan in the sixth century. The following are the four key features that stabilized Buddhism in China and Japan.

Bodhidharma; He was an Indian monk and the founder of Zen. He was active in the 5th and 6th centuries in China.

Xuanzang; He was a Chinese Monk. He traveled to India to obtain and deliver original Buddhist documents to China. (602 - 664 AD.)

Prince Shotoku; He was a Japanese imperial crown prince. He was the key person who brought Buddhism to Japan. He built the foundation for the stabilization of Buddhism in Japan. (574 - 622 AD.)

Jian Zhen (Ganjin in Japanese) was a Chinese Monk. He propagated and stabilized Buddhism in Japan. (688 - 763 AD.)

While thinking about early days of Buddhism in China and Japan, I selected these people without knowing their chronology. It is evident from this list that the propagation of Buddhism from India to China and Japan happened in a relatively short period between the sixth and seventh centuries.

Buddhism today would not exist without all the efforts of the foregoing four people, especially Jian Zhen (Ganjin in Japanese), who was invited to teach and guide Japanese Buddhist monks and to stabilize Japanese Buddhism in the early stages. He tried to travel to Japan six times. However, his first five attempts failed due to political reasons and storms. He lost his eyesight during the storm that occurred on his fifth attempt. At the time of his final attempt to travel to Japan, he was sixty-six years old. He did not give up going to Japan to propagate Buddhism. He finally made it in 753 AD. His contribution to Japanese Buddhism is priceless.

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