In part as a response to the esotericism of Heian Buddhism, and in part as a response to the collapse of the emperor's court at Kyoto and the subsequent rise of individual, feudal powers in Japan, medieval Japanese Buddhism moved towards more democratic and inclusive forms, of which the most important was Pure Land Buddhism. Pure Land or Amida Buddhism was oriented around the figure of Amida Buddha. Amida, the Buddha of Everlasting Light, was a previous incarnation of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. In the previous incarnation, as a bodhisattva, he refused to accept Buddhahood unless he could grant eternal happiness in the Pure Land to whoever called on him; 1 this compassionate promise was called the "Original Vow." Anyone who calls his name, "Namu Amida Butsu,"2 with sincere faith, trust, and devotion, will be granted by Amida an eternal life of happiness in the Pure Land which has been set aside specifically for those who call on Amida.
Amidism was not a Japanese invention; Pure Land develops out of
Mahayana Buddhism in India and became wildly popular in China,
where the invocation of Amida
(in Chinese, A-mi-t'o-fo ) became the most common of all religious practices.
But the spread of Pure Land through Japan signals a profound change in Japanese
thought; above all else, the shift to Amidism represents a shift from a religion
which stresses individual effort aimed at enlightenment to an exclusive reliance
on salvation by the Amida; this opened up Buddhism to all classes, including
women, who had previously been excluded from the various Buddhist priesthoods.
Because of its democratic nature, the priesthood became evangelical rather
than retiring; Buddhism began to become, in late Heian Japan and medieval Japan,
a religion of the streets. Because of Pure Land, Japanese art also profoundly
changed; the art of Heian Japan is placid and rigid; the Amidists began to
produce more involved and animated artworks which portrayed such subjects as
the tortures of all ten levels of hell, the pleasures of Paradise, and the
transcendent and resplendent beauty of the Amida Buddha.