Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Have there been any important Buddhist religious reformers?

Many of the various Buddhist denominations and sects are the result of attempts at reform. Some people even regard the Buddha himself as one who sought to reform Hinduism. Among the best examples of religious reformers are those who aimed to rescue Buddhist teaching from complex formulas and make it accessible to real people. Tradition calls Bodhidharma (d. 532) the first patriarch of Chinese Zen. Apparently quite a colorful character, Bodhidharma criticized several schools for getting lost in their own long-winded treatises. Toss all the superfluous verbiage, he advised, and focus on direct dharma transmission from master to student.

About three centuries later in Japan, two other reformers set out to develop spiritual methods that would appeal to a broader public than some of the schools that had arrived in Japan during the previous several centuries. Kukai (744-835) and Saicho (762-822) founded the Tendai and Shingon lineages, respectively. But eventually Tendai turned more speculative and Shingon more mystical and esoteric.

Further reform developments eventually grew out of Tendai in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. A Tendai monk, Honen (1133-1212), started a Japanese branch of Pure Land in hope of attracting people with its reliance on Amida Buddha. A successor named Nichiren (1222-1282) took Honen’s insights a step further, insisting that a devotee approaching in good faith had only to repeat the name of the scripture called the Lotus of the Good Law Sutra—a mantra popular singer Tina Turner recommends—to be assured of salvation.

The giant statue of the Bodhisattva Guan Yin, popularly known in China as the Goddess of Mercy, is flanked by a pair of protective doglike lions at a temple on a hill overlooking the harbor of Keelung, Taiwan.


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