Sometimes the world seems eternal; sometimes the end looms black and near. We moderns know the apocalyptic mood well, having survived Dec. 21, 2012, in spite of an ancient Mayan “prediction” of doom on that date, but, facing as we do numerous other portents of extinction — climate change, environmental rot, political and moral chaos — we resist extravagant relief, no doubt wisely.

In Japan, the world began ending in 1052, the seventh year of the Eisho era.

Buddhist theology had given mankind ample warning. The Buddha’s death (circa 483 B.C.) would be followed by three distinct epochs: a golden age of the True Law (Shoho), a lesser age of the Imitative Law (Zoho), and finally the dread Latter Days of the Law (Mappo) — when, wrote a ninth-century Japanese cleric, “there will be none to keep the Buddha’s commandments … if there are any such they will be as rare as tigers in the marketplace.”

The metaphor suggests the law of the jungle filling the vacuum left by the waning Law of the Buddha. The calculations are obscure, but the sages who made them arrived at 1052 as year one of degeneration and decline — and you can, without doing violence to the truth, read the history of the next 600 years as proof the sages knew whereof they spoke.

Pessimism has always darkened the Japanese mind. Appreciation of beauty runs deep, but is sad rather than joyous. Flowers bloom only to fade; life is here today, gone tomorrow; transience, impermanence, is the reigning theme in Japanese literature long before Mappo. By the mid-11th century, a sense of cultural exhaustion had set in. The ease and refinement of the aristocratic Heian Period (794-1185) seemed increasingly vulnerable — to what? To warriors restlessly biding their time in the far north, still under control but only just.

Sure enough: “On the second day of the seventh month of the first year of Hogen (1156),” reads the 13th-century chronicle “Gukansho,” “fighting and strife began in Japan, and the country entered the age of warriors.”

Or, as a court poet of the day put it, “The islands of our small country … are poisoned by troubles.” So they were. Japan’s first civil war in 500 years (1156-1185) swept the soft, elegant aristocracy off to the margins. The military government that replaced it stiffened the national backbone. From its base in remote Kamakura, far from the effete imperial capital, Kyoto, it inculcated a new culture of strength, loyalty, self-denial, self-sacrifice — what later came to be known as bushido, the “way of the warrior.”

The Kamakura Period (1185-1333) is marked by land hunger, power hunger, and the struggles that naturally ensue from them. Landlord contended with landlord, Kyoto with Kamakura. Historians generally accord the military government high praise for the institutions it built and the laws it formulated, but daily life was hard, sparse, more uncertain than ever.

In those days a Buddhist priest named Honen (1133-1212) had a vision — more accurately, he read a vision, in a text known as the “Essentials of Salvation,” by the priest Genshin (942-1017). The vision is of the “Pure Land.” Dark reality fades into illusion, luminous illusion bursts into reality: “After the believer is (re-)born into this land and when he experiences the pleasures of the first opening of the lotus, his joy becomes 100 times greater than before. … He is clothed naturally in jeweled garments. … When he looks upon the light radiating from the Buddha, he obtains pure vision.”

Why cannot all mankind be reborn in the Pure Land? But all mankind can be, Honen taught. Had not Amida, the “Buddha of the boundless light,” vowed, in a previous life, that everyone who invokes his name will be saved?

The invocation of Amida’s name is the nembutsu: “Namu Amidabutsu” (“I take refuge in the Buddha Amida”). Should this be recited repeatedly, or once? Once is enough, declared Honen’s disciple Shinran (1173-1263). Repetition suggests doubt; once implies absolute faith. The point is, salvation was not only for the learned, the adept, the worthy, but for everyone. “Even a good man,” said Shinran cryptically, “is reborn in the Pure Land; how much more the wicked man.”

It was a religious revolution. “For the first and perhaps the last time in Japanese history,” writes historian Shuichi Kato, “in the 13th century values transcending everyday reality became the nucleus of Japanese thought.”

Mappo and the Pure Land — two sides of the same moon, the dark side and the light. This world was lost but the next world beckoned. Honen and Shinran traveled the countryside. Crowds thronged to hear them preach — in city and hamlet, in streets and fields. The established sects were hostile. If nembutsu was enough, then all they represented — the big temples, elaborate rituals, vast learning; vast landholdings too — were useless if not worse. The sects had royal favor; the nembutsu was banned. Honen and Shinran were exiled. Some of their followers were killed. “This,” writes historian George Sansom, “was the first instance of bitter religious animosity and persecution in Japan.”

It got bitterer still with the appearance of the third great figure of “Kamakura Buddhism” — Nichiren (1222-1282). Mappo’s fury was growing. An earthquake in 1257 was followed by storms, floods, famine, plague. Nichiren stormed and raged — the calamities, he said, were the wages of sin. Other religious leaders, Honen and Shinran among them, were “liars,” “traitors,” “fiends;” their nembutsu was “a hellish practice.” He himself was “the greatest man in Japan,” and if the nation did not change course and follow exclusively his, Nichiren’s, teaching, woe betide it, for current suffering was as nothing compared to what was brewing — to wit, he warned, a foreign invasion.

This was bracing stuff. It was terrifying. A foreign invasion? Japan had never known such a thing. This was worse than rabble-rousing; it was subversive — Nichiren was claiming paramountcy for religious law over state law. Enraged, the Kamakura government exiled him; apparently it had him marked for execution; he escaped and preached on. Did he know — could he have known? — that the Mongol threat lay just around the corner?

Part one of a two-part series. The series will be concluded in print on March 15.

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