Shotoku Taishi
Buddhism is believed to have been first introduced to Japan in 539 A.D.”along with the Chinese language, Chinese ideographs and Buddhist styles of painting, sculpture and architecture — via Korea when a Korean ruler (a king of Paekche) attempting to form an alliance with the Yamato clan sent a Buddha statue and some Buddhist texts as a gift. Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) Buddhism was the school of Buddhism that was introduced.

The famous Tang Dynasty Chinese monk Jianzhen, who is known as Ganjin in Japan, is credited with introducing Chinese-style Buddhism to Japan in the 7th century. His first five efforts to reach Japan were thwarted by shipwrecks, storms and government red tape. He finally made on his sixth attempt after he was blinded by an eye disease. Jianzhen had some success spreading Buddhism in Japan and sent 19 groups of Japanese students to China. They in turn brought back knowledge of Chinese culture, medicine and other things.

At first Buddhism was rejected by Shinto priests on the grounds that embraced foreign “kami” (spirits or deities), but later it was accepted by members of the Japanese court. Its acceptance rose and fell in the early years based on political factionalism and struggles and Buddhism’s perceived role in natural disasters and good and bad harvests. Buddhism spread quickly among the upper classes after the influential and pro-Buddhist Soga family crushed anti-Buddhist factions.

Shotoku Taishi (born in 574, ruled 593-622) is regarded as the "father of Japanese Buddhism." He made Buddhism the state religion by constructing major Buddhist temples such as Horyu-ji near Nara. His was goal was to create a harmonious society. Under Shotoku Buddhism became the state religion, scriptures, art and craftsmen were brought in from Korea and Japanese monks were sent abroad to study. Temples were founded, monks were ordained and ceremonies were held publicly.

Buddhism was promoted in the Nara Period (A.D. 710-794), especially by Emperor Shomu, who ordered the construction of Todaiji Temple and Daibutsi (Great Buddha) in Nara, and issued a decree for the construction of state Buddhist temples in each province. Emperor Shomu was deeply religious. He believed that he could overcome the epidemics and unrest that occurred during his reign with the power of The Buddha. However, the coexistence of Buddhism and Shinto continued. Responsible for carrying out rituals to promote national welfare, the six Nara sects which dominated Buddhism at this time were primarily academic in nature and had little influence on the general population.

Buddhism in Medieval Japan

Japanese monks who studied at Chinese monasteries and returned home in the Southern Song period from the mid 12th to mid 13th centuries had a profound impact on Japan. The Mongol invasions of China in the 13th and 14th centuries caused many Chinese monks to immigrate to Japan.

The main Japanese Buddhist sects’shingon, Tendai, Pure Land Nichiren, and Zen’sprung up during the Heian Period (794-1185) and Kamakura Period (1192-1338). The first homegrown Buddhist sects to take hold in Japan were the Tendai and Shingon schools. The Tendai sect was introduced into Japan by the priest Saicho (767 — 822) and the Shingon sect was introduced by Kukai (774 — 835), who is also known as Kobo Daishi. These two esoteric sects came to be the most important Buddhist sects at the imperial court. Buddhism spread and was embraced by a wide range of people during Kamakura Period (1192-1333), when Japan experienced a great deal of political unrest and social chaos.

After Japan had abandoned its policy of seclusion, foreign missionaries returned in major developments occurred in Japanese Buddhism. First, the Zen school was established in Japan by Eisai (1141 — 1215), founder of the Rinzai sect, and later modified by Dogen (1200 — 1253), founder of the Soto sect. Zen found a receptive audience in the warrior elite of the time because of its directness and its emphasis on self-discipline and meditation. Zen practice utilizes sitting meditation, called “zazen”, and irrational riddles, called “koan”, as means to reach enlightenment (“satori”). The primary difference between the two sects is that Rinzai Zen places much more importance on “koan “practice than Soto Zen.

In the Heian period Buddhist culture was primarily the property of the court and the aristocracy — a very small minority in Japan. Between 1150 and 1300 new sects and doctrines arose that were founded by reformers. They used simple ideas and lively language that appealed to ordinary farmers, fishermen and soldiers.

Mt. Hiei (on a ridge between northern Kyoto and Lake Biwa) is one of holiest mountains in Japan and is regarded as the mother mountain of Japanese Buddhism Enryaku-ji Temple sits on top of Mt. Hiei. Founded in 788 by Saicho, the priest who founded the Tendai school of Buddhism, it was established to protect Kyoto from demons traveling from the northeast and was the center of Buddhism in Japan for 800 years. At its height Enryaku-ji Temple contained 3,000 buildings and the ruling monks that resided there — who were more powerful than the Imperial family — had armies warrior monks to support them. In 1581, the ruling shogun saw the temple as threat and ordered nearly all of the temple buildings and the monks destroyed. Many famous monks are associated with Enryaku and Mt. Hiei: Honen, founder of the Jodo sect; Eisai, founder of the Zen sect; Dogen, founder of the Soto sect; Shinran, founder of the Jodoshin sect; and Nichiren, founder of the Nichiren sect.

Buddhism introduced a style of art to Japan that dominated aesthetic life there until the 17th century and emphasized grace, ease, color, gaiety and harmony that conveyed human interest and narrative and shunned the grotesque and discordant.

History of Buddhism and Shintoism

The term Shinto was first used around the time that Buddhism was introduced in part to distinguish the indigenous religions of Japan from the imports from the Asian mainland. The way (to) in Japanese is the same as Tao in Taoism. It was fortunate that the brand of Buddhism that entered Japan was the Mahayana form, which tended to be tolerant and willing to accept new ideas and form bonds with other belief schemes.

Within Japanese Buddhism, Shinto was explained as a sort of local manifestation of universal truths and kami were integrated as local versions of Buddhist deities. Shintoism accommodated Buddhism by making Buddha a kami that originated from China and making kamis susceptible to the same cycles or death and rebirth that Buddhist believe occur to people. Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were often built near one another. Buddhist sutras were recited to kami and kami were later regarded as incarnations of Bodhisattvas.

Buddhism has coexisted in Japan along with Shintoism for at least 1,400 years. Throughout most of Japan's history, Buddhism was a faith linked with the upper classes while a mixture of Shinto, animist and Buddhist beliefs were observed by ordinary Japanese. Buddhism is credited with making purity in Shinto an internal issue as well as an external one.

Ryobu, or Dual Shinto, is movement based on mutual respect between Buddhism and Shintoism. Originating in the 8th century, it borrowed ideas and doctrines from both religions and manifested itself through Buddhist relics placed in Shinto shrines; statues of Shinto deities erected in Buddhist temples; and the Emperor expressing his loyalty to Three Treasures of the Sun Goddess and promising to revere the teachings of The Buddha.

Temples for the Buddhist Tendai sect had so many Shinto elements they were described as “religious junkyards.” The Tendai believed that Buddhist deities were aspects of The Buddha, thus it followed that Shinto kami could be incorporated as aspects of The Buddha as well. The Shingon sect of Buddhism also incorporated Shinto elements.

In the Heian Period, ascetic Japanese holy men, known as “hijiri”, were thought of as Buddhists even though they wandered in the mountains in an attempt to attain superhuman powers and "ecstatic inspiration" and worked at Shinto shrines as shaman. Beginning in the 15th century there was a concerted effort to rid Shintoism of Buddhist and other foreign elements that gained momentum when Shintoism was transformed into a nationalist ideology in the 19th century.

Buddhist Militarism and Power in Japan

guardian deity in Nara
There was a militant side to Japanese Buddhism. Many monasteries were fortified and had standing armies. These measures began as protective measures against brigands and marauding armies but over time led to the sects becoming like feudal states, sometimes with large armies controlling entire provinces.

Until the 12th century, Buddhism was closely associated with the aristocracy’s strategy of centralizing political control. Temples such as Kofukuji in Nara, Enryakuji in Kyoto and Koyasan south of Nara held a great deal of power. Religious leaders, court nobles and military leaders competed with one another and formed alliances. Temples earned money from taxes and donations, intended to support monks and maintain buildings.

Monks worked as soldiers and formed power networks with the imperial court and influential members of the nobility. It was not uncommon for violence to occur between monks and warriors over conflicts between temples and the Imperial court. The Buddhist monk Shunkan (1142-1179) is a tragic figure in Japanese history. As punishment for his failed plot against the ruling Heike clan, he was exiled to Iojima island, south of Kagoshima, Kyushu. He was left alone on the island after his conspirators were granted amnesty and is believed to have committed suicide. His story is the basis of a famous Noh play.

Many Buddhist monks were involved in business. Many sake brewers were low level Buddhist priests. They were often the most cash rich people around because they received a reliable source of income from their products. They often served as moneylenders, charging interest of between 60 percent and 300 percent a year. The lords were indebted to sake priests for their ability to generate taxable income.

Another important development was the rapid growth of popular Buddhist sects among the common people. These included the Pure Land sects, which taught that the chanting of Buddha Amida’s name is the best way to achieve rebirth in Amida’s Western Paradise, and also the Nichiren sect, which emphasized the chanting of the title of the Lotus Sutra.

In the 16th century, Buddhists were persecuted and many were killed for political reasons. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), the shogun attempted to reduce civil strife by assigning religious groups to a specific sphere and forbidding them to move outside it. The shogunate banned proselytizing and forced all people to register at Buddhist temples as part of an efforts to eliminate Christianity. This insured a large base of temple members, but it did not contribute to the vitality of Buddhism as a living religion. Interest in Buddhism declined during the stable but authoritarian rule of the shogunate.

In the Meiji period (1868 — 1912) Shintoism was made the state religion and Buddhism was given a secondary role. The Edo period system collapsed in a wave of anti-Buddhist sentiment spurred by the government’s desire to eliminate Buddhist influence from Shinto shrines and make Shinto the state religion. In response to this and the changing social environment of the modern era, Buddhism has been striving to redefine its role in Japan.

Book: “The Gates of Power: Monks, Courtiers and Warriors in Premodern Japan” by Mikael S. Adolphson (Hawaii University Press, 2001)

Buddhism in Japan Today

Buddhism in Japan has adapted to the modern world by drawing on elements of Christianity and secular scholarship and abandoning some traditional Buddhist doctrines. Western scholarship methods have been applied to Buddhist studies; Western ideas have been debated; welfare services have been set up;; scholars and leaders have gone abroad to study and spread their message and learn from others; monks have been allowed to marry; lay organizations have been involved in temple activity; and Buddhist leaders have been are involved in politics.

Today, Buddhism is viewed by many Japanese mainly as a vehicle for dealing with the death of loved ones. Buddhist monks are often consulted only for funerals and ceremonies honoring the dead and temples and family alters are seen as way of praying for and honoring deceased relatives. Modern-day Japanese Buddhism is often called “funeral Buddhism.”

One visitor to a Buddhist temple in Tokyo told the Japan Times, “I visit the temple just to communicate with my mother. Even though I offer a prayer to Amida for help for my mother, I’ve never felt I engaged in the practice of Buddhism.”

Most of the money earned by temples comes from funerals and the care and honoring of the dead. Priests are typically paid about $2,000 dollars for their role in a two-day funeral service. They are also well paid for presiding over ceremonies honoring the dead. Temples earn monthly donations for caring for graves and displaying tablets with the spiritual names of the deceased. The money earned though is often not enough to pay up for the upkeep costs of the temple, salaries of the priests and monks and the fee to the administrative headquarters of the Buddhist sect.

Buddhist priests say the believe that interest in Buddhism will grow as the world people live in becomes more uncertain and more complex and that more lay people — rather than people following family members — will become priests.

Image Sources: 1) Nara Buddha, guardian deity, lotus, temple charms, Ray Kinnane 2) Shotaku images, Onmark productions, 3) golden Buddha, altar, Association for the Promotion of Traditional Crafts Industries in Japan 4) Kamakura Buddha, Visualizing Culture, MIT Education

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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