SOAS University of London

Department of Religions & Philosophies, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Japanese Buddhist Thought

Module Code:
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Term 2

This module explores ideas developed by the most influential systems of East Asia Buddhism, with specific attention to Japan. We will interrogate the ontological, epistemological and logical positions of the Tendai, Zen and Tantric traditions, considering the discrete terminology through which each school articulates its signification of reality, as well as the concerns and interpretations they shared. We will also engage in a critical appraisal of the way in which each tradition has been studied, in East Asia and in the West. Questions to be addressed include the relation between philosophical speculation and practice, the perception of reality, ideas of non-duality and immanence, the place of human beings.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

LO1.              Identify the characteristis of Buddhist thought in East Asia, in particular Japan.

LO2.              Examine in-depth one philosophical question addressed by Buddhists in East Asia.

LO3.              Critically evaluate arguments across Buddhist Traditions

LO4.              Assess how Buddhist traditions have been studied and presented in East Asia and in the West.

LO5.              Critically analyse competing interpretative frameworks

lo6.               Synthesize information from a range of sources, make judgements based on appropriate evidence and communicate ideas.    


Ten lectures, of one hour's duration each, over ten weeks; in addition to ten seminars, of one hour's duration each, over ten weeks.

Scope and syllabus

1.         Buddhism in East Asia

Canons, translations, transmission

Scholar-monks and the aims of “Buddhist philosophy”


2.         Mahayana Buddhism in Japan 

Western approaches to Japanese Buddhism

Buddhist Hermeneutics


3.         Tendai ontology

The ambiguity of being: One yet many

Emptiness and the middle


4.         Tantric ontology

Mandalic realities

Sound and the production of the universe


5.         Epistemologies

Beyond the conventional, within the conventional

Binary and ternary patterns


6.         “Becoming a Buddha”

Transforming sentient and insentient beings

Ecological Buddhism?


7.         Non-dualism and the problems of innate enlightenment 

Ethical implications

Is practice necessary?


8.         Antinomian rhetoric in Buddhism

Language and logic in Zen

Time, immanence and experience


8.         Encountering the other: Buddhism and local systems

A philosophy of dialogue ante litteram?


9.         Reconsidering the impact of Japanese Buddhism on modern philosophy


Method of assessment

OR 1 - group presentation, of twenty minutes' length. 10% of total mark for the module

AS1 - outline of essay with biography - 1000 words - 10% of total mark for the module

AS2 - essay - 3000 words - 80% of total mark for the module

Suggested reading

Core Reading:

App, Urs, The Cult of Emptiness: The Western Discovery of Buddhist Thought and the     Invention of Oriental Philosophy, Rorschach: University Media, 2012.

Deal, William E., and Brian Ruppert, A Cultural History of Japanese Buddhism, Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.

Heisig, James W., Thomas P. Kasulis and John C. Maraldo, Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2011.

Sueki Fumihiko, “Philosophical Literature: Japan,” in Brill Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, vol. 1, Leiden: Brill, 2015, pp. 639-652.

Abe Ryuichi, The Weaving of Mantra, New York: Columbia UP, 1999.

Swanson, Paul, Foundations of T’ien-t’ai Philosophy

Stone, Jacqueline, Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval

            Japanese Buddhism, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1999.

Faure, Bernard The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

 Faure, Bernard. Visions of Power, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Heine, Steven, Shifting shape, shaping text: philosophy and folklore in the Fox koan, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999.


Additional Reading:


Lopez, Donald, ed., Critical Terms for Buddhist Studies, University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Lopez, Donald S, ed., Buddhist Hermeneutics, Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1988.

Sueki Fumihiko, “Philosophical Literature: Japan,” in Brill Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, vol. 1, Leiden: Brill, 2015, pp. 639-652.

Williams, Paul, Mahāyāna Buddhism: the Doctrinal Foundations, London: Routledge 1989


Japanese Tantric Buddhism

Yamasaki Taikō, Shingon: Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, Boston: Shambala, 1988.

Kiyota Minoru, Shingon Buddhism: Theory and Practice, Los Angeles: Buddhist Books International, 1978.

Rambelli, Fabio, A Buddhist Theory of semiotics, Bloomsbury 2013.

Hakeda, Yoshito, Kûkai: Major Works, New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.

Rambelli, Fabio, Vegetal Buddhas, Italian school of East Asian Studies, 2001.

Dolce, Lucia, “Reconsidering the taxonomy of the esoteric: Taimitsu Hermeneutical and ritual practices,” in Scheid and Teeuwen, eds., The Culture of Secrecy in Japanese Religion, London & New York, Routledge, 2006, pp. 146-71 (Part II).



Ziporyn, Brook, "Tiantai Buddhism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <>.

Ziporyn, Brook, “The Three Truths in Tiantai Buddhism” in A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy (Blackwell, 2013) pp. 256-269.

Sueki Fumihiko, “Annen: The philosopher who Japanized Buddhism,” Acta

Asiatica 66 (1994): pp.69-86.

Sueki Fumihiko, "Two Seemingly Contradictory Aspects of the Teaching of Innate Enlightenment (hongaku) in Medieval Japan", Japanese Journal of Religious Study 22 (1-2), pp. 3-16, 1995.

Stone, Jacqueline, "Medieval Tendai Hongaku Thought and the New Kamakura Buddhism", Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 22 (1–2) 1995.



Faure, Bernard The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

 Faure, Bernard. Visions of Power, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

McRae, John (2003), Seeing through Zen. Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy     in Chinese Chan Buddhism. The University Press Group

Heine, Steven and Dale Stuart (eds.), Zen Classics: Formative Texts in the History of Zen Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 2006.

Sharf, Robert  (1995), ‘Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience’, Numen, 42(3).

Sharf, Robert. “Mindfulness and Mindlessness in Early Chan,” Philosophy East & West 64, no. 4 (2014), pp. 933-964

Heisig, James W and John C Maraldo. Rude Awakenings Zen, the Kyoto school, & the question of Nationalism. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995.


Combinatory systems

Faure, Bernard, Gods of Medieval Japan. 1. The Fluid Pantheon. 2. Protectors and          predators, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2015.

Teeuwen, Mark, and Fabio Rambelli eds., Buddhas and Kami in Japan, London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

Blezer, Henk and Mark Teeuwen, eds., Buddhism and Nativism: Framing Identity             Discourse in Buddhist Environments, Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Morrell, Robert, Sand and Pebbles (Shasekishû): The Tale of Mujû Ichien,           Albany: State University of New York, 1985.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules