During the early seventh century, Buddhism spread like wildfire across the islands of Japan. Spurred on by the ruling Soga Clan, its presence began to permeate the minds and hearts of the Japanese people. Born in 591 A.D. during the Asuka period, Soga no Hitoshi became one the many who too, fully embraced Buddhism.
As a member of the Soga Clan, his uncle was Soga no Umako (551 A.D. – 626 A.D.) and his granduncle was Soga no Iname. Both men were critical to the impressive social and cultural transformations that Japan experienced during the Asuka period. Included amongst these transformations was the widespread adoption of Buddhism within their domain.
Soga no Hitoshi’s life was determined before his birth by the Soga Clan’s determination to spread Buddhism. Hitoshi was destined to join the local Buddhist temple because his uncle believed that to effectively project Buddhism into his domain, he would have to actively invest members of his family into the establishment. Therefore, Hitoshi who was far enough away from the line of inheritance was selected to become a mon. Soga no Umako believed his nephew’s status as a monk would encourage vassals to convert to Buddhism; and so at an early age, Hitoshi was sent to a local temple in Nara to start his training as a Buddhist monk.
Hitoshi, being just over five years old, was the youngest novice at the Nara temple, while his peers were almost all twice his age. Between meditation sessions and lessons from older monks they frequently bullied him for being so small. The older monks, who could have protected Hitoshi against the older boys, either did not notice Hitoshi’s suffering or did not care. However, their lack of caring had its benefits; Hitoshi was often escaped home to see his mother and his uncle Umako. Instead of meditating or preparing vegetarian meals for the monks, Hitoshi would express his frustrations to his uncle Umako who would give Hitoshi advice; telling him to be strong and that even Buddha faced difficulties. Umako’s advice, always brought Hitoshi comfort. These interactions created a strong relationship.
Though the other young novices made Hitoshi’s life difficult, his training, which should have been unnecessarily strict, was not nearly as difficult as the other initiates’. His esteemed position as a part of the family who funded the temple’s existence afforded him many privileges. This included an expedited learning experience; Hitoshi was initiated as a full monk before his fifteenth birthday. His peers all had turned twenty before earning the right to take their full vows.
Hitoshi would later find out, as he matured, that his peers had simply disliked him because he had received so many privileges. While his teachers felt justified in allowing him to be bullied because they gave him so many privileges.
Hitoshi’s mixed feelings about the monks around him, encouraged him to engage with the local population. Almost singlehandedly, Hitoshi became responsible for spreading Buddhism to the local population living around the temple. This was in part because the temple finding itself well-funded due to tax exemptions found willing converts in the local population. Perhaps more importantly, the vegetarian feasts that the monks served regularly to the local population, convinced many that this new religion might be a newfound miracle.
Word of Hitoshi’s success in garnering converts to Buddhism spread, until even Soga no Umako had learned of it. While Hitoshi was fulfilling his calling as a monk, Umako had become immensely powerful. He had installed his other nephew, the Crown Prince Shotoku as Japan’s imperial regent and was using Shotoku’s position to spread Buddhism and introduce Chinese civilization and culture into Japan.  Shotoku, posthumously, would earn the distinction of being “the founder of Japanese Buddhism.”
After learning of Histoshi’s accomplishments, Umako summoned Hitoshi to his residence. Hitoshi, surprised to be recalled by his uncle, nevertheless hastened home to the man who had been sole friend and mentor. Hitoshi, now over thirty, had forgotten the majesty of the Umako’s residence. Unfamiliar with its customs and the elaborate lifestyle within, Hitoshi was unsure of himself. Yet he instantly recognized his uncle who had aged due to the burden of leadership. Meanwhile, his uncle saw Hitoshi transformed from an undisciplined initiate into a monk filled with dignity.
Umako greeting his nephew, explained why Hitoshi had been summoned. Umako described that in China, Emperor Taizhong of the Tang Dynasty was in power. His father, the Emperor Gaozu, had ended the Sui Dynasty, and the two men had led China into an age of stability and prosperity. Umako hoped to replicate the Tang Dynasty, and he felt capable of accomplishing this because Prince Shotoku, Japan’s Regent, took his counsel very seriously.
Therefore, Umako was sending a Tributary Envoy to China. This envoy would perform the ceremonial kowtow in submission to Emperor Taizhong and present him with the finest gifts that Japan could provide. Umako said that no expense would be spared, as he knew that Emperor Taizhong would give the Japanese envoys gifts as well and also allow trade between the two nations. Umako had learned China’s neighboring countries were also participating in this submission ritual and that the Tang Dynasty was open to foreigners.
Soga no Umako told Hitoshi that he would be joining the Japanese envoy to China as part of the coalition of men who would travel to the Chinese Capital, Chang’an and present the gifts to the Emperor Taizhong. Hitoshi’s mission was twofold. First, he was to act as Umako’s eyes and ears. Secondly he was to absorb all that he could about Buddhism. Umako told Hitoshi that envoy would be leaving shortly.
Three months later, Hitoshi boarded the ship that would bring him to Korea. From Korea, Hitoshi the Tributary Envoy would travel overland to the Chinese capital. Standing next to the rails of the ship, Hitoshi could see the final preparations being made. Various gear was being tidied up and expensive gifts meant for the Emperor of China were being rewrapped to protect against the moist sea air.
Fortunately for Hitoshi, who was prone to seasickness, the journey to Korea was mercifully brief. He quietly thanked his ancestors when the shipped docked. In Korea, the first thing he noticed was that he could not understand the local people. Luckily, Hitoshi discovered that both he and the Koreans used the same writing system and so when he found a literate Korean, he could communicate using a little chalkboard that he carried around with him. Altogether, he found his time in the little Korean port enjoyable but he was anxious to be on his way to China.
From Korea, The Tributary Envoy traveled to Chang’an. Traveling overland allowed Hitoshi to see a great many things, yet what truly caught his attention was the Yellow River. Large, slow moving, and most of all, a peculiar shade of yellow, Hitoshi’s imagination was captured when he was told how much silt the river carried and how dikes had given the river an almost “hanging” quality. In his mind, he imagined each drop of sand in the river as another human in the stream of life, guided by the forces of Buddhism.
As the convoy traveled towards the capital, they came into contact with people. As they got closer to the capital the crowds increased. While waiting for an audience with the Emperor they were given lodgings and told to wait by a eunuch. As the days passed, they were informed that receiving audiences with the emperor took time and that they would have to wait for quite some time.
After a few months, the Japanese envoys received their audience. They taught by a eunuch how to kowtow. Hitoshi was overwhelmed by the grandeur of the Imperial Palace, but he was confident that he could make a good impression.
When they finally met the Emperor, Hitoshi kowtowed and presented the Japanese gifts with the dignity that Umako had expected. After the ceremony, Emperor Taizhong gave the Japanese delegation gifts of great value Proud of his time spent in Chang’an, Hitoshi and Envoy returned to Japan.
Hitoshi immediately reported to Umako the greatness of the Tang Dynasty. Hitoshi had picked up two things in particular. First he made sure to tell Umako about the new law codes present within the Tang Dynasty. This “Tang Code” equalized the legal system and was held in high regard by the Chinese people on account of its relative fairness. Hitoshi stated that he believed his lord should take this code and institute it in Japan. Hitoshi, although he disliked thinking ill of Umako in any way, believed that Umako’s main motivation foe modeling the law code was not out of a sense of fairness but rather he wanted “his dynasty to be just as glorious as the Tang.”
Hitoshi also imparted all that he had learn about Buddhism to Umako. He explained while in China, Hitoshi learned within the main Chang’an temple that the monks had differing opinions on the nature of Enlightenment and who it was accessible to. Hitoshi had noticed that some of the monks followed Mahayana or “Greater Vehicle” Buddhism, which said that any Buddhist could reach Enlightenment. While others subscribed to Hinayana or “Lesser Vehicle” Buddhism. These monks felt that only monks who had taken vows could reach Enlightenment. Hitoshi also learned that the two groups debated whether Buddha was a teacher or a divine being. The Greater Vehicle Buddhists believed that Buddha was actually a divine being whereas the Lesser Vehicle Buddhists thought he was only a teacher. Albeit, one of great stature.
Umako was impressed with the knowledge that Hitoshi had acquired but was disappointed that he had not brought back more. Umako had again increased his efforts to spread Buddhism and he needed more information. He and Prince Shotoku had begun importing Chinese people into Japan to accomplish this goal, but he preferred to use his own family as his own personal resource.
Therefore, Umako decided to send Hitoshi back to China, so that Hitoshi could continue his pursuit of education. His mission would be to spend several years in China and then return at his own discretion, when he felt that he had learned all he could.
As Hitoshi stepped back onto the ship that would take him away from Japan, he recalled the first time he left Japan, in the service of Umako. This time, leaving felt different to Hitoshi. As the wind that would take him far him home, blew across his face, the feeling that he was never coming back to his homeland welled up inside him.
Taking the exact same route back to Chang’an at a much slower pace, Hitoshi looked at the world around him attempting to see his homeland and China as two places that were connected by similarities and not divided by differences as the Buddha would have done. When he arrived in Chang’an, Hitoshi went directly to the main temple that he had previously studied at, to enroll as a traveling monk. He made it clear to the head of the temple, that he intended to stay only briefly and travel to other temples to increase his understanding of Buddhism.
Yet he fell into the rhythm of the Chang’an temple and soon grew to love his adopted temple. He spent many sessions of meditation attempting to discern his beliefs and what Buddhist school of thought he belonged to. On one hand, Hitoshi personally believed that Enlightenment could be reached by any person as the Mahayana Buddhists believed. After all his own lord, Umako, was the man most deserving worthy of Enlightenment that he knew. However, Hitoshi did not see Buddha as a god, similarly to the Hinayana Buddhists. To ease his doubts he read many Buddhist texts, his favorite by far was Lotus Sutra which was translated by the monk Kamarajiva in 406 A.D. Even though he was conflicted, he came to realize that the monks who subscribed to the different schools lived in harmony and so he calmed the turbulent thoughts within him.
The years slid by and Hitoshi remained in Chang’an. Eventually, Hitoshi remembered that he was supposed to travel across China and not simply remain in one spot. Conveniently, other monks were planning a pilgrimage to India. They planned to follow the route of Faxian (traveled 399 A.D. – 413 A.D.) who had visited India about two hundred years earlier. They told Hitoshi that Faxian had personally seen “the region of India where the Buddha preached, the site of the Buddha’s first sermon, and the place where the Buddha achieved nirvana.” Faxian recorded his travels in his book “Record of Buddhist Countries” When Hitoshi expressed interest, they offered him a place in their little pilgrimage, which he gladly accepted.
Yet, this pilgrimage was not to be. Hitoshi started to develop a cough and soon Hitoshi was coughing up blood regularly. He uncharacteristically struggled to maintain alertness during his daily meditations. Until finally, he meditated for the last time. When the chime to denote the end of a meditation session went off, Hitoshi did not rise from his mat. The novice monks rushed over to check on Hitoshi, only to find that he had.
The Chang’an monks sent word back to Soga no Umako of his nephew’s death but the message was lost. Thus, Umako never heard news of Hitoshi again. Years later, as Umako lay dying, he gently wondered what had happened to his beloved nephew. In his last moments he simply concluded that Hitoshi had reached Enlightenment and so had never returned home.
Hitoshi’s life took him from the center of Japan to the center of China. He learned that Buddhism was spreading across Asia along with trade, culture, and thought. He saw the grandeur of China’s Imperial and met the men of Japan who hoped to model world after China’s. Although Soga no Hitoshi lived a remarkable life, he was one of the many who visited Tang Dynasty and brought its culture back to their homeland.
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