Buddhism in the Nara period and the Heian Period


The Nara and Heian Periods in Japan Stretched over 710 to 1185. The year 710 marked the commencement of the Nara period through the establishment of the first permanent Japanese Capital in Nara that was modelled after the Chinese capital. Also built in the new capital were large Buddhist monasteries which accumulated strong political influence with an aim of protecting the position of the emperor and the central government. The capital was later moved to Nagaoka and later to Heian (Kobayashi, 1975), marking the commencement of the Heian period where it remained for over a thousand years. One of the common features of the Nara and Heian periods was the gradual reduction of the Chinese influence even if it remained quite strong. Ideas that had mostly been imported became gradually Japanized. The periods saw the government act to ensure different needs of the Japanese were made which saw establishment of different government offices added. The periods also saw the increased popularity for the native Japanese movements in arts. There was also the establishment of the Kana syllables that facilitated the creation of Japanese literature. During the Heian period, various Buddhist sects from China became localized to fit the Japanese context. This paper will review the Nara period and the Heian period and place them in their geographic, political, and Buddhist context to bring out the differences and their effects to politics.

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Nara Period

The Nara period began with the relocation of the capital to Nara. The new capital adopted the model of the Chinese capital of Chang’an which was an evidence of the Japanese acceptance of Tang culture, sculpture, painting, and architecture. The period began during the reign of Empress Genmei. The period extended to the reign of Emperor Shomu between 724 and 749 (Kobayashi, 1975). During this time, the capital at Nara was a residence to between 70,000- 200,000 people. It stretched over 4.2 kilometers from East to West and 4.7 kilometers from North to South. The city was well planned and laid out on a rigorous grid. It was intended to be a permanent capital but was shifted several times due to political reasons; between 740-745 to Kamo, between 740 and 744 to Shigaraki and between 744 and 745 to Osaka. It later relocated back to Nara in 745 (Kobayashi, 1975).

Among the distinguishing characteristic of this period was the political governance which was characterize with dominance of Fujiwara clan and continuous struggles with its rivals. During this period there was discontent from the members of the imperial family. The imperial government made moves to put in place nationwide control at the expense of the local administration. Factional conflicts were witnessed during this period as members of the imperial family sought to be influential. The Fujiwara’s clan dominance was temporarily diminished with deaths of the four sons of Emperor Fuhito due to outbreak of smallpox disease (Kobayashi, 1975).

During the Nara period, artwork was mainly a reflection of Chinese influences, with aristocratic tastes and imported sculptural models from China. Wood had still not yet gained momentum as the dominant material for building Buddhist imagery as metal and clay were still dominant elements[1]. The discovery of the copper deposits in large quantities contributed to the proliferation of large bronze statues during the Nara period(Kobayashi, 1975).

During the Nara period, majority of the Japanese were found in villages. They mainly followed the Shinto religions that was centered around the worship of natural and ancestral spirits. With the reign of the Nara period based on the model of the Chinese capital, there was development of lavish palaces and accumulation of wealth. This was an effect of Buddhist ideology and Chinese culture which collectively led to the alienation of Japanese aristocracy from the Japanese people.  Under Emperor Shomu, there was establishment of a nationwide system of provincial temples kokubunji (Kobayashi, 1975). The emperor resolved to adopt the teachings of Kegon school, which is part of the schools in Nara and that based its scriptural authority in the Garland Sutra with the main veneration being on the Birushana Buddha. Emperor Shomu ordered the construction of a giant efficy of Birushana called the Great Buddha.

One of the factors that contributed to the increased influence was the emergence of shoen or the land estates. Rice-growing land was initially managed as a public domain that was redistributed after every six years thereby preventing the localized accumulation of wealth. The system collapsed due to the influx in the demand for food thereby making the government declare that anybody who reclaimed unused land for rice production would own the land. This allowed the proliferation of large privately-owned estates that were not tasked to paying taxes which subsequently placed a tax burden to the traditional cultivators. Majority of the shoen holders were Buddhist. This accumulation of wealth among the Buddhist strengthened their power against the government (Grooner ,1995).

Buddhists also gained strength and political influence due to the establishment of symbols of imperial authority. The government sponsored the establishment of Buddhist temple with epicenter at the Great Temple of Todaiji. This made Buddhism and various external trappings become important symbols of imperial authority. Empress Koken is considered to be the last influential female emperor. Her act of sponsorship of Buddhist monk, Dokyi, nearly made him succeed in the throne despite being regarded as a commoner. This action led to the consensus that only men should be crowned as emperors. The incident also pointed to the level at which the Buddhist clergy had become a political power. It is for this reason that Emperor Kanmu, last emperor of Nara Period, shifted the capital from Nara as a means of escaping the influence of the Buddhist clergy.

The Heian Period

This period commenced with the migration of the site of the imperial capital from Nara to Heian in 794. The move was initiated by Emperor Kanmu with an aim of avoiding the increased dominance of the Buddhist clerics in Nara. Heian was located to the east of Nagaoka and was situated on a plain that was sheltered on west, north, and east by mountains. It had the North-South rivers crossing across it (Grooner ,1995).

Emperor Kunmo instituted reforms with an aim of diluting the ties of the government and Buddhism. This saw him engage in efforts to restore a fully functional government through what was in accordance to the ritsuryo system. He also made some amendments to the ritsuryo system for instance, the allocation of the rice field once every six years was changed to once every 12 years and strict rules were set in dealing with corrupt leaders. The amendments also made the interference of the state by religious authorities illegal. The emperor supported Buddhism in its efforts to attain its proper functions(Hurst, 2007)

Through Emperor Kanmu’s support, there were established two new sects of Japanese Buddhism. This was after the emperor sent two monks for studies in China. Upon their return to Japan, they each developed a sect of Japananse Buddhism, with Saicho creating the Tendai Sect while monk Kukai developed the Shingon sect. The two sects of Buddhism were distinct from the Buddhism that was practiced during the Nara period. During the Nara period, Buddhism was more of an adoption of the exact Buddhism of Tang China. However, under the Heian period, the Buddhism created by the two monks was structured within the Japanese style. The headquarters for Tendai sect were on Enryaku Temple on Mount Hiei and Kongbu Temple on Mount Koya. The two Japanese Buddhism sects collectively formed the Esoteric Buddhism (Orzech, 2011). In the Nara period, use of Buddhism as a means of attaining the state goals had failed. This had only resulted to excess expenses that were incurred in setting up huge temples and commission of different related art work. This has ended up significantly consuming the state’s treasury. The attempts by Buddhist to join in politics was noted to have resulted in religious dictatorship. Under the Heian period, measures were put to reduce these influences. Only two Buddhist temples were allowed in the capital and were situated in the east and west side of the Rashomon. Their location was appropriate to separate them from the imperial palace and government officers that were located in the North of the Capital.

The Esoteric Buddhis were initially confined in the mountainous areas and this affected the layouts and architecture of the temples relative to those of the Nara period which had mainly been situated in the flatland architecture. The result of this was placement and structure that was adapted to the rugged terrain and in a manner that created unique solutions. It can be noted that this individualism in style was symbolic to the breakdown of trends in the Nara period and they symbolized the hierarchical dispersion of power through visual means.

The Japanese Buddhism under Tendai and Shengon sects, took into consideration the indigenous religions as emanations of Buddha. Unlike the Buddhism in the Nara Period, the Esoteric Buddhism did not confront and compete with the indigenous deities and beliefs systems but sought to incorporate them in their features.

It can be noted that the Japanese Buddhism posed no threats provided the Japanese aristocrats with a compatible belief system that did not seek to challenge the already established political order. Kukai developed ritual for the protection and prosperity of the nation. Despite being initially confined to the mountains, Saicho and Kukai, the founders of the two sects of Japanese Buddhism, were later offered the independent ordination authority by the emperor. This event marked the eclipse of the Nara Buddhist power (Orzech, 2011).


The two important period that marked the shift in the Buddhist political power as discussed in the paper above are the Nara period (710-794) and Heian period (794-1185). The period was named depending with the location of the capital for the imperial government (Morton, 2004). It has been observed that during the Nara period, the Buddhist had gained popularity, power, and wealth that caused trouble to the imperial political system. The erecting of Buddhist symbols as symbols of imperial government and the accumulation of wealth under the Shoen system was the main cause of the increased threat to the political order. The peak of this move was when Monk Dayko almost succeed the throne. Emperor Kanmu initiated the Heian period when he relocated the capital to Heian with an aim of escaping from Buddhist interferences to the political order. Here, two Japanese Buddhism sects were founded. Religious interference to political government was also forbidden. Therefore, it is clear that the Buddhism under the Nara and Heian period differed concerning the control exerted to the imperial system of political governance. 


Abe, Ryuichi. The weaving of mantra: Kukai and the construction of esoteric Buddhist discourse. Columbia University Press, 1999.

Groner, Paul. “A Medieval Japanese Reading of the Mo-ho chih-kuan: Placing the Kankō ruijū in Historical Context.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (1995): 49-81.

Hurst, G. Cameron. “The Heian Period.” A Companion to Japanese History (2007): 30.

Kobayashi, Takeshi. Nara Buddhist Art: Todai-ji. Vol. 5. New York: Weatherhill, 1975.

Morton, Scott W. Japan: Its history and culture. McGraw Hill Professional, 2004.

Orzech, Charles, Henrik Sørensen, and Richard Payne, eds. Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia. Vol. 24. Brill, 2011.

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