Prince Shotoku: Peace and Salvation for all beings of the realm

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According to the Nihon Shoki, the definitive history of ancient Japan, written in Japan in 720, Prince Shotoku created a seventeen-article ‘constitution,’ which was adopted  during the reign of Empress Suiko, his aunt.  This was not a modern constitution designed for the governing of state and subjects, but a set of regulations inspired equally by Buddhism and Confucianism which focused on the morals and virtues that should be the aspiration of every subject in the realm. It is one of the earliest constitutions in history which is as it should be perhaps, ie. more spiritual than legal or civic. 

Prince Shotoku had several titles which provide a neat outline to his biography, as follows:

  1. Prince of the Stable Door (Umayodo no Miko).  This is due to the legend that his mother gave birth to him unexpectedly and without any pain whilst inspecting the imperial stables.
  2. Prince of Eight Ears (Yatsumimi no Miko). This came about because of his special intelligence and his ability to listen to 8 people at one time and understand each of them.
  3. Prince of the Upper Palace (Kamitsumiya no Miko or Jogu Taishi). His father, Emperor Yomei, loved and respected his talented son so much that he created a special part of the palace for him to live in.

 

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His character was naturally strong and devoted to creating a new Japan, and his influence is unquestionable although his absolute authorship of the first constitution Japan is now in question. Jogu Taishi’s civic contributions are impressive, among them: creating a ranking system for government officials which abolished the existing nepotism with a system which recognized merit; importing Chinese culture along with the calendar, art and scholarship, resuming the dispatching of envoys to import all manner of cultural and religious; irrigation projects and welfare measures; highway systems; and writing the first chronicle of Japanese history.

But perhaps he is best known for the remarkable constitution which he accomplished from a brilliant combining of Buddhist and Confucian principals based on Chinese models. In addition, he introduced Buddhist practice which unified a collection of Shinto or animistic cults. His personal faith was quickly awakened which he continued to act on in daily life throughout his life.

Perhaps the story which best exemplifies this is when his father became seriously ill.  The prince sat by his father’s bedside day and night meditating on his recovery and as a result he did recover and became a devoted Buddhist himself.

 

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He initiated the first two Buddhist temples to be built in Japan.  Shitenno-ji  (530 AD), the temple of the Four Heavenly Kings  – North, South, East and West – was erected because at the age of 15 whilst defending his family in battle, he prayed intently to the 4 Buddhist Kings and victory was achieved. Shitenno-ji in Osaka is dedicated to the Kings. (below left) Later Horyu-ji was built in Nara to contain many treasured art works and artifacts. (below right)

 

 

Shotoku’s reign marked the beginning of the era of the unification of many independent states in Japan in which the emperor was to be regarded as the highest authority. The Prince, choosing to remain a lay practitioner throughout his life, also introduced the Three Treasures or JewelsBuddha (the awakened One), Dharma (the Law) and Sangha (the community) as the national object of worship.  He invited outstanding Korean Buddhist priests to tutor him while Confucian scholars became his advisors.

The 17-article constitution speaks for itself of balance and ethics.  He achieved an ideal combination of ethical and spiritual values and an openness to other more sophisticated cultures and systems of government unknown until then.  Japan had been in turmoil until his succession, moral values thwarted and gross unfairness dominating. But in each article the 5 important relationships or ‘bonds’ of Confucius – ruler to ruled, father to son, elder t0 younger siblings, and husband to wife – are apparent and harmonized with the Buddhist aspirations to altruism and the Great Truth. 

Read them for yourself to decide.

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1. Harmony should be valued and quarrels should be avoided. Everyone has his biases, and few men are far‐sighted. Therefore some disobey their lords and fathers and keep up feuds with their neighbors. But when the superiors are in harmony with each other and the inferiors are friendly, then affairs are discussed quietly and the right view of matters prevails.

2. The three treasures, which are Buddha, the (Buddhist) Law and the (Buddhist) Priesthood; should be given sincere reverence, for they are the final refuge of all living things. Few men are so bad that they cannot be taught their truth.

3. Do not fail to obey the commands of your Sovereign. He is like Heaven, which is above the Earth, and the vassal is like the Earth, which bears up Heaven. When Heaven and Earth are properly in place, the four seasons follow their course and all is well in Nature. But if the Earth attempts to take the place of Heaven, Heaven would simply fall in ruin. That is why the vassal listens when the lord speaks, and the inferior obeys when the superior acts. Consequently when you receive the commands of your Sovereign, do not fail to carry them out or ruin will be the natural result.

4. The Ministers and officials of the state should make proper behavior their first principle, for if the superiors do not behave properly, the inferiors are disorderly; if inferiors behave improperly, offenses will naturally result. Therefore when lord and vassal behave with propriety, the distinctions of rank are not confused: when the people behave properly the Government will be in good order.

5. Deal impartially with the legal complaints which are submitted to you. If the man who is to decide suits at law makes gain his motive, and hears cases with a view to receiving bribes, then the suits of the rich man will be like a stone flung into water, meeting no resistance, while the complaints of the poor will be like water thrown upon a stone. In these circumstances the poor man will not know where to go, nor will he behave as he should.

 

6. Punish the evil and reward the good. This was the excellent rule of antiquity. Therefore do not hide the good qualities of others or fail to correct what is wrong when you see it. Flatterers and deceivers are a sharp weapon for the overthrow of the state, and a sharp sword for the destruction of the people. Men of this kind are never loyal to their lord, or to the people. All this is a source of serious civil disturbances.

7. Every man has his own work. Do not let the spheres of duty be confused. When wise men are entrusted with office, the sound of praise arises. If corrupt men hold office, disasters and tumult multiply. In all things, whether great or small, find the right man and they will be well managed. Therefore the wise sovereigns of antiquity sought the man to fill the office, and not the office to suit the man. If this is done the state will be lasting and the realm will be free from danger.

8. Ministers and officials should attend the Court early in the morning and retire late, for the whole day is hardly enough for the accomplishment of state business. If one is late in attending Court, emergencies cannot be met; if officials retire early, the work cannot be completed.

9. Good faith is the foundation of right. In everything let there be good faith, for if the lord and the vassal keep faith with one another, what cannot be accomplished? If the lord and the vassal do not keep faith with each other, everything will end in failure.

10. Let us control ourselves and not be resentful when others disagree with us, for all men have hearts and each heart has its own leanings. The right of others is our wrong, and our right is their wrong. We are not unquestionably sages, nor are they unquestionably fools. Both of us are simply ordinary men. How can anyone lay down a rule by which to distinguish right from wrong? For we are all wise sometimes and foolish at others. Therefore, though others give way to anger, let us on the contrary dread our own faults, and though we may think we alone are in the right, let us follow the majority and act like them.

11. Know the difference between merit and demerit, and deal out to each its reward and punishment. In these days, reward does not always follow merit, or punishment follow crime. You high officials who have charge of public affairs, make it your business to give clear rewards and punishments.

12. Do not let the local nobility levy taxes on the people. There cannot be two lords in a country; the people cannot have two masters. The sovereign is the sole master of the people of the whole realm, and the officials that he appoints are all his subjects. How can they presume to levy taxes on the people?

 

13. All people entrusted with office should attend equally to their duties. Their work may sometimes be interrupted due to illness or their being sent on missions. But whenever they are able to attend to business they should do so as if they knew what it was about and not obstruct public affairs on the grounds they are not personally familiar with them.

14. Do not be envious! For if we envy others, then they in turn will envy us. The evils of envy know no limit. If others surpass us in intelligence, we are not pleased; if they are more able, we are envious. But if we do not find wise men and sages, how shall the realm be governed?

15. To subordinate private interests to the public good — that is the path of a vassal. Now if a man is influenced by private motives, he will be resentful, and if he is influenced by resentment he will fail to act harmoniously with others. If he fails to act harmoniously with others, the public interest will suffer. Resentment interferes with order and is subversive of law.

16. Employ the people in forced labor at seasonable times. This is an ancient and excellent rule. Employ them in the winter months when they are at leisure, but not from Spring to Autumn, when they are busy with agriculture or with the mulberry trees (the leaves of which are fed to silkworms). For if they do not attend to agriculture, what will there be to eat? If they do not attend to the mulberry trees, what will there be for clothing?

17. Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone. They should be discussed with many people. Small matters are of less consequence and it is unnecessary to consult a number of people. It is only in the case of important affairs, when there is a suspicion that they may miscarry, that one should consult with others, so as to arrive at the right conclusion.

As a permanent resident of Japan and a practicing Buddhist, I find my life in Japan stable and harmonious. In the globalization process of my adopted country, it is to be hoped that this spiritual and civil symmetry first established by Shotoku Taishi almost 1500 years ago, will survive.  

 

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It is certain that our sincere relationships with each other are by far and away the most important of all, and that individual power and success must only being viewed through that lens.  If the teachings of the Buddhas are utilized as a raft to travel to Nirvana, the other side of human suffering, and we can then let go of them and encourage our True or Buddha Nature to flow, we can cohabit with tolerance and respect for each other.

But this constitution can only be successful if we put aside all our self-seeking ideas, and temper our dominant egos and temporal desires.  This can best be achieved by cultivating our Buddha Nature and embodying our divine mission of unconditional love and light. Altruism – sincerely looking after others before ourselves – is an ancient universal tenet of the human species which Prince Shotoku spent his life embodying.

 

 

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images courtesy of megapixyl.com, Linden Thorp and Mariko Kinoshita.

References:

Masaharu Anesaki, Prince Shotoku, the Sage Statesman(1948); nine entries in Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697, translated by William G. Aston (1896; repr. 1956); many entries on the prince in the Nihongi are quoted in Ryusaku Tsunoda and others, Sources of Japanese Tradition (1958); George Sansom, A History of Japan to 1334 (3 vols., 1958).

 

 

The Ultimate Teachings: the Buddha’s Last Will and Testament

Nirvana Buddha by H.H. Master Shinjo ito

Nirvana Buddha
by H.H. Master Shinjo ito

In Japan, the death day of Shakyamuni Buddha falls on 15th February. Everyone has heard of the Buddha, but in case this is your first meaningful acquaintance with him, here is a brief biography. It is important to know a little about his life for several reasons: first, his life is inspirational for those who wish to fill their lives with all that is sacred as opposed to secular; secondly, he had profound insights into how to live fully as a human being instead of existing in a twilight zone, pressurized by sufferings and loss; thirdly, his spiritual evolution throughout his 84 human years of life helps to make sense of the lessons left to all generations of humans to follow, known as the great Nirvana Teachings, given on his deathbed.

He was born a Prince of the Shaka Kingdom, hence the name Shakyamuni Buddha, about 2600 years ago. His birth was acclaimed as highly auspicious, the result of the descending into the lower human kingdom of previous Buddhas, Manavaka and Dipamkara. At his birth he proclaimed himself ‘the holy one of heaven and earth’ and vowed to end all sufferings in the human world. When he was 7 years old, the young Prince started training in civil and military arts so that he would be able to take his father’s place as King. But while attending a festival with his father, he was disturbed by the sight of a small bird pecking at a worm turned up by a plough. He hid in a nearby grove and naturally entered into a deeply meditative state highly praised by his father.

baby buddhas

As the Prince’s privileged life progressed, his distress deepened and became apparent to the whole Palace Court. His father became worried about him and so arranged for him to marry the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. But even his love for his new wife could not distract him from his ingrained sadness about the suffering in the world and his birth vow to end it all. Eventually, on learning more about the suffering and death which came to all beings of flesh, he decided to leave his life at the Palace to seek a way to relieve them. His determination to become a monk caused great distress to his family, but he cut off all his hair, put on a simple robe and set out with his begging bowl. After 6 years of terrible austerities, which almost caused his death, he decided to take a Middle Way and to sit in deep meditation until he became enlightened. He then spent the rest of his life sharing what he had experienced with as many people as possible.austerities

The Nirvana teachings reveal the true nature of Nirvana, which roughly translated means ‘release from or the extinguishing of all fear, suffering and craving.’ Another more positive way of viewing it is as freedom or liberation, a state in which we can awaken to the truth of the Universe. In Nirvana, we can become one with the Buddha Shakyamuni and with all beings. There is no longer any separation. At the end of his long ministry, the Buddha had amassed incredible wisdom and insight into samsara (Sanskrit), the sufferings of human life. As he was about to leave the human world and shift back to the celestial realms he had descended from, naturally he wished to leave his fearful mourning disciples a storehouse of teachings and practices, which would motivate them to keep their faith.

final teachings

He announced to them that when his physical body had disappeared, his storehouse of teachings would embody his eternal spirit, and he would be with them always. This body of teachings was known as the Dharmakaya (I wrote an article on this last year – ref:https://lindenthorp.wordpress.com/2013/09/01/dharma-kaya-the-body-of-truth/) So, as energy is indestructible, and as all the Buddha’s disciples have flawlessly protected the teachings for the last 2,600 years, today, in the 21st century, we can become one with the Buddha’s incredible energy. In this way, if we train using the Nirvana teachings, we are intent on realizing and acquiring the true mind of a tathagata, a fully enlightened Buddha. (see:https://lindenthorp.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/dharmata-or-tathata-the-essence-of-enlightenment/)

Tathagata

The Buddha bequeathed these final teachings to all beings, saying that all the teachings that had gone before paled in significance compared with them, and that their mystical quality was beyond judgment or intellectual analysis. A Bodhisattva, as mentioned in a previous series on Bodhi (ref:https://lindenthorp.wordpress.com/2013/09/21/bodhisattva/), is a being driven by compassion supported by wisdom, who pursues the path to Enlightenment through practicing the 6 Paramitas or perfections (which are: giving, moral discipline, patience, exertion, meditation, and wisdom). The Buddha on his deathbed declared that Bodhisattvas dwelling in Great Nirvana are superior to all others who seek enlightenment for their own sake. He said, “Even if they suffer numerous agonies in hell for the sake of all beings, it will not bother them. For them, it will be as if they are in the midst of the serene pleasure of meditation. Therefore, it is wondrous.”

Kannon

Kannon

Pure actions are the key to attaining Nirvana. We are taught that we must accept everything showing our respect for all beings, who are after all Buddhas, and that we must recognize what they are attached to and help them to acquire it while introducing them to the Nirvana teachings. There may be those who speak badly of the final teachings, but we must be tolerant while expounding this wisdom to them. Universal compassion is paramount in our daily lives and thoughts, and towards this end, the analogy is made with doctors curing illnesses. The tathagata administers sweet medicine, which prevents death and rebirth. We can see that in these final teachings the Buddha makes the vow, made at his birth to liberate all people from suffering and loss, complete.

medicine Buddha

I am so fortunate to have encountered these wondrous final teachings in the evening of my life here in Japan. For me, they are the culmination of all the previous teachings, most of which I have studied and practiced as I mention in ‘My path so far’ (ref: https://lindenthorp.wordpress.com/my-path-so-far/) My guru, the founder of Shinnyo Buddhism, had also experienced many teachings before he came upon this Mahaparinirvana Sutra, but he felt that his mission was to find a teaching that the world most needed at that time 78 years ago. In Japan there was war and deprivation, as well as a Dharma crisis in which all religious leaders fell under suspicion. He realized the absolute suitability of the last teachings and boldly stepped forward to make them the core of a new stream of Buddhism in Japan.

Kinkakuji

Most schools here revere the Lotus Sutra, the penultimate teaching, so Shinnyo Buddhism is unique to date in Japan. In addition, Master Shinjo in his determination to bring all sentient beings to Nirvana, decided to sculpt a Nirvana image as the principal image. He had never sculpted anything previously, though he showed considerable artistic talent as a young person. But his prayers, one for each strike of the hammer on his chisel, drove him on and soon he had completed a 4 metre long image to guide us all. He worked tirelessly to finish it as a true Bodhisattva, with no thought for his physical condition.

Shinjo Ito sculpting

We can all find Nirvana in this life if we make the necessary efforts for the sake of others. It is that sincere altruism which brings us closer to the heart of the Buddha. The Nirvana teachings are truly magical and mystical, teachings of the pure heart. There is nothing to analyze or question. The pathway is clear and perfect for this troubled epoch of materialism and cynicism.

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The topics of the following 9 articles in this series ‘The Ultimate Teachings’ are:

Article 2: Buddha Nature; Article 3: Emptiness; Article 4: Tathgata; Article 5: Hearing the Dharma; Article 6: Stupas; Article 7: Junda; Article 8: Lifespan; Article 9: Everpresence; Article 10: Supreme Enlightenment