Toward the end of the twelfth century, Chan arrived in Japan and became “Zen.” The samurai warrior spirit was thriving in Japan, and the rigors of Zen practice were welcomed by the Japanese. There are two classes of Zen that arose in Japan. The first was called Rinzai and was brought back from China by the Japanese monk Eisai. Eisai's student Dogen brought the second class of Zen to Japanese shores from China. This school of Zen was called the Soto School. The two schools of Zen are covered in much greater detail in a later chapter.
Both schools of Zen emphasized the importance of seated meditation. Over many years, the Soto School became larger than the Rinzai School in Japan (today, it might be as much as three times as large), though both schools are still very prominent. The strictness of practice in the monasteries historically inhibited many people from practicing Zen. But as Zen headed west in the twentieth century, this would no longer be the case.
There was another Buddhist tradition to arise in Japan in the early thirteenth century. A Buddhist monk named Nichiren was the founder of this school, which came to bear his name. Nichiren studied the Lotus Sutra and 127 came to believe it was the embodiment of Truth. He believed that by reciting Namumyoho-renge-kyo (Glory to the Lotus Sutra) one could evoke all of the wisdom contained in its verses. The Nicheren School has proliferated into many subschools and remains popular today in Japan and the West, including an evangelical branch that seeks converts. Much like the Hare Krishnas, someone encouraging you to chant the mantra Namu-myoho-renge-kyo may approach you at an airport or on the street.
Japanese Pure Land
The Pure Land practice went from China to Japan and was practiced from the aristocracy to peasants. One important text, written by Ojoyoshu, “Birth in the Land of Purity,” helped to promote the popularity of these practices that emerged from the ninth to eleventh centuries
Honen's teachings created a paradigm shift for Buddhist practice, replacing the personal path of salvation with Amida, a universal savior who helped the faithful to reach his Pure Land. It was only in the Pure Land that one could achieve enlightenment. While initially suppressed, the Jodo School founded by Honen achieved great popularity and was the religion of the ruling class by the seventeenth century.
The Pure Land practices provided a “short-cut” through countless lifetimes to become a bodhisattva. It employs not only chanting but complex visualization of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and the Pure Land, especially Amitabha. In the text Visualizing the Buddha of Limitless Life Sutra, the story of Queen Vaidehi is presented. The Buddha gave her a vision visible in a golden ray of light emanating from his forehead. In this vision she saw all the celestial worlds and chose her wish to be reborn with Amitabha. Buddhist scholar Michael Willis shares a segment of this text: “You should think of the buddha of Limitless Life. Why? Because the Body of the buddha is the Body of the Universe and it is within the mind of all beings. Therefore when you think of that buddha your mind becomes the One who has the thirty-two Magnificent Figures and the eighty Virtues. It is the mind that is to become a buddha and it is the mind that is the buddha. The Ocean of Omniscient Wisdom of all buddhas grows up from the mind.”
What percentage of the world's population is Buddhist?
Today, it is estimated that approximately 6 percent of the world's population is Buddhist. Christianity weighs in with the largest percentage of adherents at 33 percent, and Islam comes in second at 18 percent. It is estimated there are 100 million followers of Theravada Buddhism worldwide; 500 million to 1 billion followers of Mahayana; and 10 to 20 million Tibetan Buddhists.
It is not clear whether belief in the Pure Land is taken literally or metaphorically as purified states of mind. For indigenous Chinese and Japanese, their relationship to Amitabha as savior is likely regarded as quite literal. In America, if you adopt these practices you have a choice. The Pure Land schools seem to move Buddhism from more of a rational psychology to a theistic, transcendent religion. The ease of these practices compared to arduous sitting meditation in Chan and Zen, and the promise (likely realized in bliss states as one chants the Amitabha mantras) of going to heaven increased its popularity in China and Japan. These practices resemble some of the Vedic practices that Siddhartha would have been familiar with in his search for the Way when he left the palace. Chanting the names of Shiva or Krishna, for example, was a common practice in pre-Buddhist India as it is today.