Hossō is one of the six schools of Buddhism during the Nara period in Japan and one of three schools (the other two being Kegon and Ritsu schools) which have survived till this day. Hossō in Japanese literature is the school of the characteristics of dharma.
It is the continuation of the Chinese Faxian school which in turn was based on the Yogacarya school of India.
The school was transmitted to Japan by Japanese scholar-monks who studied in China with Faxian masters such as the monk Xuanzang (Jp. Genjo) and K’uei-chi (Jp. Kuiji), and became one of the most powerful of the six Nara schools.
The Yogācāra schools are based on early Indian Buddhist thought by masters such as the brothers Asaṅga and Vasubandhu (380-450AD), and are also known as “consciousness only” since their doctrine stresses that all phenomena are phenomena of the mind. The doctrine of consciousness-only reduces all existence to one hundred dharmas (or factors) in five divisions, namely, mind, mental function,
material, not associated with mind and unconditioned dharma. Contrary to common perception, Yogācāra thinkers placed heavy emphasis on consciousness not because they subscribe to the idea that consciousness has ultimate reality (Yogācāra claims consciousness is only conventionally real since it arises from moment to moment due to fluctuating causes and
conditions), but rather because consciousness is the cause of the karma which they were seeking to weed out (Lusthaus, 2007) Yogācāra tradition expounds that the mind distorts reality and projects it as reality itself (Tagawa, 2009). In the Yogācāra tradition, the mind is divided into the Eight Consciousnesses and the Four Aspects of Cognition which produce what we view as reality (Zim, 1995).
Therefore, the philosophy of Hossō was also known as Yuishiki, or ‘consciousness-only’, because of its fundamental belief that all of reality, including both the objective world and the subjective mind that regards it, are but evolutions of consciousness according
to karma. The Discourse on the Theory of Consciousness-Only (Jo yuishikiron) is an important text for the Hossō school in Japan. Lankavatara Sutra is also a very important text of the Japanese Hossō school.
History of Yogācāra School in China
The movement that would eventually form the Hossō school in Japan was initiated in China by Xuanzang around 630 AD. Xuanzang, the founder of the Faxian school was among the famous scholars who made pilgrimages to India to study Buddhist texts during
the sixth and seventh centuries AD. Xuanzang travelled overland to India through perilous bandit-ridden deserts and treacherous mountains and
studied at the renowned Nalanda monastic university in India. He brought back with him to China volumes of Buddhist texts which he later translated to Chinese. Among the important texts are the ‘Consciousness-only’ texts (Tagawa, 2009)
• The Samdhinirmocana Sūtra
• The Yogācārabhūmi-śastra composed by Nagarjuna (there is much scholarly debate on the origins of this text which some say is attributed to Asaṅga).
• The Mahāyānasaṃgrāha composed by Asaṅga
These, with government support and many assistants, he translated into Chinese, in addition to writing the influential text, the Cheng Weishi Lun (Discourse on the Theory of Consciousness-only or commonly referred to as Wei-shi), which became another core text of the East Asian branches of Yogācāra thought. Xuanzang was also instrumental in promoting devotional, meditative practices toward
Maitreya, the future Buddha, thus leading to a common association of the Consciousness-only school and that deity. Xuanzang’s disciple, Kuiji (one of the founders of the Hossō school) wrote a number of important commentaries on the Yogācāra texts and further developed the
influence of this doctrine in China and was recognized by later adherents as the first true patriarch of the school (Lusthaus,
-). In time, the Faxian school in Chinese Buddhism died out due to competition with more native Chinese schools of thought such as Tiantai and Huayan and later with more popular sects/schools such as Chan and Pure Land. However, the tenets of the Yogācāra
school in China was eventually absorbed into these later schools which heavily relied on its translations, commentaries and concepts (Tagawa, 2009).
Yogācāra in Korea and Japan
The Faxian teachings were transmitted to Korea as Beopsang and Japan as Hossō where they made considerable impact. The Beopsang teachings did not last long as a distinct school in Korea and like China; its teachings were frequently assimilated into later schools of thought (Tagawa, 2009).
The Hossō School was brought to Japan by the Japanese monk Dosho (629-700AD). He went to China in 653AD and became a student of Xuanzang (596/600-664AD) for ten years. Back in Japan, Dosho propagated the Hossō teaching at the Guan-go-ji monastery. His first
student was Gyogi (667-748AD). The lineage founded by him was called the transmission of the teachings of the Southern Monastery.
In 716 the monk Gembo went to China and became a student of the Faxian master Chih-chou. Gembo also remained for ten years. After his return to Japan in 735, he taught at the Kobuku-ji monastery. His student was Genju, who propagated the line of the teaching
represented by Gembo. This line of transmission is known as that of the Northern Monastery. It is generally considered to be the orthodox line. The Hossō School never flourished in Japan to the extent that its counterparts had in India and China.
The Hossō sect still exists in Japan to this day, surviving long after it died out in Korea and China but its influence has diminished since the centre of Buddhist authority moved away from Nara and with the rise of the Ekayana schools of Buddhism (Tendai, Zen, Pure Land, etc.) (Tagawa, 2009). There were frequent debates between scholars of the Hossō school and other emerging schools
during the Nara period. The founders of Shingon Buddhism, Kūkai (774-835AD), and Tendai Buddhism, Saichō (767-822AD) exchanged letters of debate with Hossō scholar Tokuitsu (Abe, 1999) Hossō scholars were particularly at odds with Saichō but maintained amicable relations with the Shingon esoteric school and even adopted some of their practices.
The proponents of other schools like the Jōdo Shū Pure Land school such as Hōnen derived their early Buddhist philosophical foundation from Hossō scholars in their early monastic education. After completing his monastic training, Hōnen later went on to refute the philosophy by debating with
Hossō scholars. Jōkei, a Hossō scholar and one of Hōnen’s toughest critics frequently refuted his teachings, while simultaneously striving to make Buddhism more accessible to the common people (much like Hōnen did) by reviving devotion to Maitreya Bodhisattva and placing
emphasis on the benefits of rebirth in the Tusita Heaven, rather than the Pure Land of Amitabha (Ford, 2009). Jōkei is also a leading figure in the efforts to revive monastic discipline at places like Toshodaiji, Kofukuji and counted other notable monks among his disciples, including Eison who founded the Shingon-Vinaya sect (Ford J. L., 2006).
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Zim, R. (1995). Basic ideas of Yogacara Buddhism. Retrieved July 15, 2010, from San Francisco State University: http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/Buddhism/Yogacara/basicideas.htm