The Philosophies of India, China and Japan

Date: Sep 14, 2017
Category: Philosophy Essay

1. Nara schools of Buddhism (701-794)

The Nara schools of Buddhism were introduced to Japan from Korea and China during late 6th and early 7th centuries. As Nara was to the south of Kyoto these were called six southern schools of Nara Buddhism.

  1. Sanron school:

    It is literally a 3-discourse school. Sanron was initially developed in China as a Madhyamik school based on 2 discourses by Nagarjuna and Aryadeva. It was transmitted to Japan in 7th century. Madhyamik is a very significant teaching of the Mahayana philosophies which re emphasizes that phenomena are neither truly existent or absolutely non-existent, but characterized by impermanence and insubstantiality.

  2. Jojitsu or Satyasiddhi school:

    This school is believed to be an offshoot of the Sautrantika school, one of the Nikaya schools of Indian Buddhism. The difference in this school of thought was the denial of the Abhidharma as not being the 'word of the Buddha'.

  3. Hosso school:

    Also called 'Dharma Character school' it was first founded by Xuanzang in China (630 AD) and later introduced in Japan in 654 AD by monk Dosho(629-700). The Discourse on the 'Theory of Consciousness-Only' called 'Jo yuishikiron' is an important text for the Hosso school. Here a form of idealism was taught according to which 'all phenomena are phenomena of the mind'.

  4. Kusha school:

    It was brought into Japan from China during 710-784. The name of the school was derived from its authoritative text, the Abidatsuma-kusha-ron(called Abhidharma-kosa in Sanskrit) created by Vasubandhu. Few people regard the Kusha School to be an offshoot of Indian Sarvastivada school.

  5. Ritsu school:

    It was founded in 650 AD in China by Daoxuan. The person to introduce it in Japan was Ganjin in 753 AD. This school specialized in the monastic rules in the Tripitaka reffered to as 'Vinaya'. The version used was Dharmagupta, known as Shibunritsu in Japanese.

  6. Kegon School:

    Kegon was initiated as a field of study in Japanese Buddhism and Kegon-shÅ« came to be known as one of the 6 Nara schools, which played a significant role in the development of Japanese Buddhism. The literal meaning of 'Kegon' is a garland or floral ornament. It is a Mahayana sect of Buddhism that derives its name from the school's chief text, the 'Avatamsaka-sutra'. Founded initially in China during 6th-7th century by Tu-shun, it was introduced to Japan by Chinese monks Chen-hsiang, Tao-hsüan and Indian priest Bodhisena.

    The school believed in the recognition of a 'harmonious whole of all beings, all interrelated and interdependent', with the Buddha Vairocana forming the core, permeating everything. It believed that no element has a separate and independent existence apart from the whole but infact any one of them reflects all the others. In other words, the universe is self-creating. Emperor Shomu was influenced with the 'totalistic principle' of the Kegon school. He applied the teachings of the Kegon sect to form the basic government. Shomu is well-known for the co-founding of the great monastery of Todai Temple which formed the head temple of Kegon. He also donated a massaive art treasure to Todaiji. In the Kegon school doctrines were placed in ascending order of comprehensiveness. The system of 'partial teachings' was followed where teachings were given according to the listener's level of understanding.

2. Heian schools of Buddhism (749-1185): Tendai and Shingon Schools

Tendai and Shingon schools have few similarities including origin. But in terms of expression and practice the teachings are different

Tendai School:

Tendai Buddhism was introduced to Japan by Dengyo Daishi. Teachings from the Lotus Sutra were given high regards in this sect. Besides the thought that 'ascetic exile is the key to right meditation' was promoted. Dengyo Daishi gave a new outlook to Lotus Sutra as he concluded 'all beings had the potential to get enlightened'. Tendai school was built on top of Mount Hei. Its objective was to train and ordain the Buddhist monks. Daishi believed "the Buddhism in Japan must adhere to the set rites, doctrine and the scriptures". He also contributed to the spreading of the Zen practices and Bodhisattva Amida which were later on established as different institutions.

Shingon school:

Shingon school of Buddhism was introduced by Kobo Daishi. As this sect had its root in India, the belief that the mandalas (mystic diagrams) and mantra (mystic syllables) are 'significant resorts to save the world from misfortune' was promoted in this school. Here symbolic and ritualistic practice was followed alongwith special emphasis on detailed positioning of the arms to attain enlightenment. In this esoteric sect it was advocated that the only way to achieve enlightenment is by realizing the 'Dainichi Buddha'- the primal basis of all the beings and the foundation to all the physical forms within one's own self. Mysterious rituals were passed from teacher to disciples. This feature makes it quite different from Tendai sect.

3. Medieval Buddhism (1133-1600)

Pure Land School:

By founding Jodo Shu, monk Honen(1133-1212) introduced the Chinese school of Pure Land to Japan. Pure Land also called Amidism, emphasizes Buddha (Amida Butsu in Japanese) through which one may be reborn in the Pure Land and be nearer to Nirvana. Jodo Shinshu was a school of Buddhism aiming to teach the commoners or laypersons. Today it is the largest sect in Japan.

Nichiren School:

This was the most unique school of Buddhism in Japan, founded by Nichiren (1222-1282), a monk and reformer. From his study and experiences, Nichiren concluded that the entire teachings of the Buddha are contained in the 'Lotus Sutra' itself. Hence the importance of Lotus Sutra was preached and promoted in Nichiren school. As his followers were immense, the school was later on firmly established in Japan. It was probably the last major Buddhist school in Japan.

Zen School:

Founder of Zen philosophy was Bodhidharma, who was associated with Buddha Siddhartha Gautama and Mahayana Buddhist thought. Belonging to Mahayana Buddhism, Zen school is known for its commendable efforts to emphasize the values of practice and experimental wisdom. A combination of theoretical teachings and religious texts were used. Zen philosophy gives more importance to deep meditation and ability to learn how to understand our own nature as compared to teachings and written materials. Eisei became the first Zen i. e. master in Japan Dogen the dharma ancestor of all present Japanese Soto Zen Buddhists wrote the 'Shobogenzo' or Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, which is the core of Japanese Zen.

4. Modern Kyoto school (20th century)

The emergence of Kyoto school of thought was a prime development in Modern Japanese philosophy. Philosophy at that time had taken the form of academic study in universities. Prof. Nishida Kitaro of the Kyoto university along with an influential circle of philosophers worked in unison to address problems about the 'meaning of self, the nature of knowledge, the role of spirituality and the place of both ethical and aesthetic values'. Kyoto school began in 1913. It gradually developed into a well-known and active movement. The school was different from other traditional schools of philosophy as the founder encouraged 'independent thinking'. The features of the Kyoto school were:

  • Teaching at Kyoto University or at a nearby affiliated school.
  • Sharing some basic assumptions about using Asian thought in the framework of western philosophical tradition.
  • Introduction and rational investigation of the meaning of "nothingness" and its importance in the history of philosophical debate.
  • Expansion of the philosophical vocabulary introduced by Nishida.

Indian philosophies

Major Indian philosophical systems are Hindu and Buddhist. The Hindu Philosophy has been the most dominant.


Having a great place in Hindu philsophy the Vedas are collection of sacred thoughts. Some of the earliest schools were based on Vedas like Nyaya, Vaisheshikha, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta.

Philosophical traits:

Hindu philosophy stresses on the meaning and purpose of life. It emphasizes freedom from suffering. Philosophical activity originates due to elementary dissatisfactions with human conditions. Both Hindu and Buddhist philosophy addressed the issue of meaning, purpose and salvation. Inquiry into liberation from surroundings has 3 characters. It aims to discover our true nature, is transformative and religious in nature. Philosophy stresses on the aim to achieve enlightenment also called Moksha(in Hinduism) or Nirvana(in Buddhism). In Indian philosophy salvation and self-discovery are linked. It is believed that Self awakening transcends confining boundaries of a pure intellectual pursuit, demands a complete engagement.

Both Hindu and Buddhist philosophies warn us against relying heavily upon intellect for self-realization. Questioning transforms the questioner Questions about liberation and self discovery are radical and transformative as they ultimately involve who we are in essence. Goal and process are not separate. Philosophy is not just quest for truth but life of truth. In more fundamental senses religion is a)Distingushing sacred from profane b)Pointing to higher and deeper reality behind appearances c)Showing way to personal salvation Quest for self leads to true freedom. Indian philosopher Sankara gave guidelines for the aspiring disciples, which included truthfulness and a desire for liberation. Unlike Western culture, religion and philosophy are interdependent in Indian culture. In Hindu schools like Nyaya 'logical subtlety was combined with conceptual analysis'. The different schools of thought are bound together in the quest for deliverance.

Wisdom as knowledge and compassion

Darshan or point of view is not only an intellectual exercize. For philosophical activity, seeing with both mind and heart are required. The harmony of mind and heart constitutes the pulse of wisdom Pragna is the intellectual basis of wisdom. True intelligence is wisdom and comprises a synthesis of knowledge and compassion(Karuna). True wisdom is harmony of heart and mind. All this is briefly described in Bodhisattva. Bodhi is one who has achieved enlightenment and throughout life shares wisdom with others. This ideal exemplifies union of Pragna and Karuna. Indian philosophy has been divided into 5 ages:

  1. Vedic Age (1500-700 BCE):

    The first civilization was Indus Valley civilization. Aryans(1700-1500 B. C. E. ) established Aryan philosophies.

    Few believe that Dravidians lived before Aryans. Vedas developed as a result of 1500 sacred teachings. There are 4 parts in Vedas: hymns, ritual works, forest writings and Upanishads. Vedic literature is directly heard(sruti) . Teachings given to seers directly were committed to memory so that they pass down orally to future generations. The literature in later ages –epics, shastras, sutras etc. reflect works of memory or smrti. Smrti emphasizes written teachings and are viewed as sacred though not as important as Sruti. Rigveda is the oldest and most important of all Vedas. Written in 1500-900 B. C. E. it contains seeds of philosophical speculation. 1000 hymns given in verse form are divided in sections of ten called 'mandalas. ' Aryans respected Indra as Rain God.


    Literally meaning 'sitting down near' these embody the substance of Vedic thought and also provide the cornerstone for most of indian thought in general. These convey sense of receiving instruction 'which is secret and disclosed through special transmission' by the teacher. Out of 108 Upanishads(written in 800-300 B. C. E. ) 11 are principal Upanishads. To explain reality of nature, the description of Atman and Brahman are described. Atman is the stage of self realization. Brahman is the stage of growth. For a person Avidya or ignorance is a hindrance to self realization. A person who realizes self will be free from the endless cycles of birth and death(samsara)

  2. Epic Age (800 B. C. E. -200 C. E):

    This was an age of creative ferment . The authority of Vedas were challenged at this time.

    Ramayana and mahabharata are notable epics that display victory of virtue and truth over evil. In addition, they are stories of heroism and moral conflicts. Bhagwada Gita had deepest influences on Indian thought.

  3. Age of Sutras (400 B. C. E. -500 C. E):

    Thought and reflection became self-conscious. Philosophies were summarized in sutras (axioms).

    Sutras are generally epigrammatic sentences written in verse-form to preserve and transmit the 'treasure of philosophies' expressed in massive ancient works. Veda Vyas one of the greatest scholars who wrote Brahma-Sutra, also known as Vedanta-Sutra

  4. Age of Commentaries (400 C. E. -1700 C. E):

    Vedas and Sutras were difficult to follow . This encouraged scholars to write commentaries on the ancient literature in general and on the Sutras in particular.

    Several commentaries were written in this time. Very often a commentary was written on the original commentary or on an earlier one. Various scholars wrote commentaries on Brahma-Sutra according to their own way of analysis. Eg. Shamkaracharya, Ramanujacharya . Incidentally, 3 schools of Vedanta were developed like Shamkaracharya's Advaita Vedanta, Vedanta and Dvaita Vedanta.

  5. Renaissance and Modern Thought (1700 C. E-present):

    The most important early reformers who led to renaissance in India were Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. In this period the need for cultural revival was felt.

Nationalist feelings were promoted in educational institutions along with teaching of Modern subjects. Throughout the Renaissance period emphasis was given to innovation and cultural openness. Swami Vivekanand was a reformer who spread the gyst of Hindu philosophies worldwide. In the modern period the concept of philosophy is not much related to spiritual values and has emerged as a different subject.