Daruma, Zen Buddhism founder
The are numerous Buddhist sects in Japan. The largest is the Nichiren sect with about nine million members. The Zen sect has about 4.5 million members. Most Japanese Buddhist sects embrace beliefs of East Asian Mahayana ("Greater Vehicle") Buddhism, which preaches salvation in paradise for everyone rather than focusing on individual perfection as is the case with Theravada Buddhism favored in Southeast Asia.

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.

Most of these sects are followed by a relatively small group of people today. The sects that grew out of them have larger followings. For many Japanese, all sects are the same and they have little understanding of the differences between them.

Links in this Website: RELIGION IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SHINTO Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SHINTO SHRINES, PRIESTS, RITUALS AND CUSTOMS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; BUDDHISM IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; BUDDHIST GODS, TEMPLES AND MONKS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; EARLY BUDDHISM IN ASUKA-ERA JAPAN (A.D. 538 to 710) factsanddetails.com; PRINCE SHOTOKU factsanddetails.com; TODAIJI AND THE ESTABLISHMENT OF BUDDHISM IN NARA-ERA JAPAN (A.D. 710-794) factsanddetails.com; NARA-ERA BUDDHIST MONKS, MANDALAS AND RELIGION factsanddetails.com; HEIAN PERIOD BUDDHISM (794-1185) factsanddetails.com; BUDDHISM AND CULTURE IN THE KAMAKURA PERIOD (1185-1333) factsanddetails.com;

Buddhist Schools: Buddhist Sects of Japan questia.com ; Wikipedia article on Tendai Sect Wikipedia ; Nichiren Buddhism religionfacts.com ; Jodo (Pure Land) School taichido.com ; Kukai and Shingon Buddhism koyasan.org ; Shugendo shugendo.fr ; Wikipedia article on Yamabushi Wikipedia

Famous Temples: Mt. Hiei and Enryaku-ji Temple Websites: Enryaku-ji is currently the headquarters of the Tendai sect. Enryaku-ji Temple official site hieizan.or.jp ; Kyoto Travel Guide kyoto.travel ; Photos taleofgenji.org ; Marathon monks Lehigh.edu ; Chion-in Temple is the headquarters of the Jodo Buddhist school. Website: Choin-in English site chion-in.or.jp Nishi-Honganji Temple Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Hongwanji hongwanji.or.jp ; UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website

Tendai Sect

Saicho, Founder of the Tendai School

The Tendai sect is an eclectic form of Buddhism that incorporates elements of both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra is Tendai’s central text. Followers believe that salvation can be achieved by reciting and copying it.

The Tendai sect appeared at the end of the 8th century and was centered at Enryakuji Temple on Mt. Hiei near Kyoto. Its founder, Saicho (762-822), studied meditation, tantric rituals and the Lotus sutra under the Tient-tai School in China — named after Mt. Tientai in what is now Zhejiang Province — for two years in 804 and 805. When he returned to Japan he found a receptive audience for his message that Buddhist salvation was something that could be achieved by anyone, regardless of class, social status or gender. Saicho is also known as Dengyo Daishi.

Under the patronage of Emperor Kanmu (737-806) and Emperor Saga (786-842) the Tendai sect was officially sanctioned. It was embraced by these emperors who had tired of the authoritarian nature and political power of the priests in the Nara Buddhist sects. Priest were ordained at Enryakuji, the temple founded by Saicho, Tendai artists produced wonderful Buddhist sculpture — graceful and beautiful sculptures of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and deities — in the Heian period.

Tendai was not recognized as a school until after Saicho’s death. After Mt. Hiei received the right to ordain monks the sect took off, At it height Mt, Heie boasted 3,000 temples and 30,000 monks and produced wonderful works of art. The monasteries kept armed retainers and sometimes imposed their will on the government by force.

Almost every sects has its origins in a temple on Mt, Heie. All new sects founded din the 12th and 13th centuries were founded by Tendai monks. Pure Land, Zen and Nichiren all developed from the Tendai school.

Shingon Buddhism

Shingon Buddhism (whose name was derived for the Sanskrit word for "magic formula" or "mantra") is centered at Kongobu-ji Temple at Mt. Koya and To-ji Temple in Kyoto. It is closely linked with the Tendai sect and is known for its ornate art and incorporation of Shinto elements. Today there are 3,700 Shingon-affiliated temples nationwide.

Shingon Buddhism has Tantric elements and is known for it rich ceremonies and has many similarities with Tibetan Buddhism. A central idea is to find the "mystery at the heart of the uncovered — using rituals, symbols and mandalas representing the sphere of the indestructible and the womb of the world.

Shingon Buddhists practice “takigyo” — standing under freezing cold waterfalls at Hakuryu Bentenzan Shumpukuin temple in Mikumocho, Mie Prefecture and the Oiwasan Nissekiji Temple in Kamiichimachi in Toyama, Prefecture as part of an ascetic purification ceremony to mark the beginning of the coldest time of the year. Participants wear white gowns and headbands and chant as they stand under the waterfalls. Sometimes they chant as conch shells are blown. . Sometimes they for stand for over an hour in freezing water.

Pure Land Buddhism

The School of Pure Land (known is Japan as the School of Pure Thought) is another important Chinese school of Buddhism. It emerged about A.D. 500 as a form of devotion to Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise, and differs from the Ch'an school in that it encourages idolatry. The School of Pure Land is not nearly as strong in China as it once was but it remains one of the largest Buddhist sects in Japan.

The School of Pure Land emerged about A.D. 500 in China as a form of devotion to Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise, and differs from the Ch'an school in that it encourages idolatry. The School of Pure Land is not nearly as strong in China as it once was but it remains one of the largest Buddhist sects in Japan.

Pure Land Buddhism (also known as Jodo, Jodoshu, or Jodoshinshu) spread during the Kamakura Period (1185 to 1333) but was introduced by the Chinese to Japan much earlier. It emphasizes faith in the saving grace of Amida, another enlightened being, rather than through meditation. Today it has 6 million followers and 7,000 affiliated temples across Japan and has a large following among ordinary Japanese. Pure Land is another word for heaven.

The School of Pure Land takes the Mahayana belief in Buddhas or Bodhisattvas a step further than Buddhist traditionalists want to go by giving Bodhisattvas the power to help people attain enlightenment that otherwise would be unable to attain it on their own. The emphasis on Bodhisattvas is manifested in the numerous depictions of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Pure Land temples and caves.

Pure Land Buddhists reveres Amida (literally meaning “infinite light” or “infinite life”), the Buddha of the Western Paradise, and stress the universality of salvation. They believe that salvation is achieved through faith rather than good works and that Buddha and heaven are close at hand and everywhere rather in some far off place as Buddhists had been taught to believe.

Nichiren Buddhism

Nichiren Buddhism — the largest of the early sects that remains active today — was founded in the 13th century by Nichiren (1222-82), a Japanese monk who promoted the Lotus sutra as the "right" teaching, and believed that violence was sometimes justifiable. His main claim to fame was predicting the Mongol invasions.

Nichiren Buddhism grew in influence over the centuries. It was based in an interpretation of the “Lotus Sutra”, the central text of text of Tendai and became linked with samurai and the unity of the state and religion. Many present-day Buddhist sects have their roots in Nichiren Buddhism.

Nicheren urged people to chant “Namu myo ho ren ge kyo”—“adoration to the scripture of Lotus Sutra.” The Lotus Sutra affirms that all people, regardless of gender, capacity or social standing, inherently possess the qualities of a Buddha, and are therefore equally worthy of the utmost respect. The Nichiren central doctrine is “ Rissho Ankoku “ which means “spreading peace throughout the country by establishing the True Dharma and uniting society through the Lotus Sutra.”

Based on his study of the sutra, Nichiren established the invocation (chant) of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as a universal practice to enable people to manifest the Buddhahood inherent in their lives and gain the strength and wisdom to challenge and overcome any adverse circumstances. Nichiren saw the Lotus Sutra as a vehicle for people's empowerment - stressing that everyone can attain enlightenment and enjoy happiness while they are alive.

Nichiren Shu is one of the larger modern Nichern sects. It has 3.8 million members and is led by Rev, Ryokou Koga. The group is currently trying to spread itself more overseas and has temples in 12 countries, including Brazil, Germany, Indonesia, India and the United States and has 16 aid projects going Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India and Vietnam.

Zen Buddhism

Zen Buddhism evolved out of the Ch'an School, a Buddhist sect that was founded in China in the A.D. 8th century. Ch'an is pronounced Zen in Japanese. It means "contemplation" or "mediation."

Zen Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China during the Chinese Sung Dynasty in the 10th century by a Chinese monk named Huineng. It had a relatively small following for two centuries and didn't take hold and flourish in Japan until the 12th century.

The Ch'an sect’s origins are obscure. It is it not clear whether its early patriarchs were legendary or real. Under the leadership of its sixth patriarch Hui-neng (A.D. 637-723) it grew from a cult with around 500 members to a distinct sect after Hui-neng spent 15 years meditating in the hills.

Once Zen Buddhism took hold in Japan had a profound influence on the Japanese. Its austere tone and the simplicity of the doctrine appealed to the military class and artists and was a focal point of samurai culture and art from the 12th century onward. Not only that, Zen Buddhists helped bring Chinese philosophy, especially Neo-Confucianism, to Japan and were involved in commercial endeavors, such as shipping lines, that controlled trade between Japan and China.

Samurai were trained by Zen Buddhist masters in meditation and the Zen concepts of impermanence and harmony with nature. The were also taught about painting, calligraphy, nature poetry, mythological literature, flower arranging, and the tea ceremony, which all had Zen overtones. Even swordsmanship and the martial arts were steeped in Zen and ascribed to philosophies that were very esoteric and hard to understand.

Shugendo and Mountain Asceticism in Japan

“Shugendo” is the religion of Japanese mountain ascetics. A unique blend of indigenous Japanese beliefs with Taoist and Buddhist elements brought from China, it is regarded as an esoteric Buddhist school that combines Buddhism with ancient Shamanist practices and Shinto beliefs. It was founded by Enno-Gyoja, an ascetic who is said to have had magical powers and is credited with enlightening kami about Buddhism. Enno-Gyoja sat the summit of a mountain called Sanjogdake, chanting Buddhist sutras, for 1,000 days, until he reached an elevated level of spirituality and evolved into the Kiongo Zao ai Gongen deity to end human suffering.

Japanese mountain asceticism merges Shintoism, Taoism, Buddhism, animism and Japanese folk religion. In the old days, mountains were viewed with awe and fear because of their association with the gods and the dead. Beginning in the A.D. 7th and 8th centuries, mountain ascetics began climbing mountains in an effort to tap into the power of kami. Some scholars trace the origins of Japanese mountain asceticism to Chinese Taoism. The first mountain ascetics were Buddhists and Taoists who absorbed local kami — that local Japanese believed dwelled in the mountains — into their beliefs.

Shugendo evolved in the Katsuragi mountains between Osaka and Nara then moved on to the higher peaks of Yoshino in Nara Prefecture. Early yamabushi sought not only spiritual enlightenment but attempted to obtain magical powers that could be used to heal the sick and prevent disasters.

Practitioners of shugendo are called Shunenja or Yamabushi, Information on shugendo is limited because the sect is very secretive. Followers learn about plants, mountains and animals and use this knowledge for the betterment of humanity. Their rituals have been described but the mechanisms behind them are still sheathed in mystery. The cult has also been compromised by tourism and modernism.


19th century
mountain hermit
“Yamabushi” are Shugendo mountain ascetics. Also known as “shugenja”, they are members of Esoteric Shingon and Tendai sects of Buddhism. Traditionally they were shaman or hermits with long beards who lived in huts on sacred mountains and endured rigorous training and exercises. Yamabushi means “those who lie down in the mountains.”

Early yamabushi went on long treks and mountain climbs and lived for months and even years in the wilderness. Their training and lifestyle were believed to have given them magical and supernatural powers. Villagers welcomed them so they could perform rituals to prevent earthquakes and other natural disasters and bring rain and good harvests.

Yamabushi seclude themselves in the mountains for months or even years at a time, praying endlessly, performing fire rituals, fasting in caves, and subjecting themselves to various physical and psychological tests, such as hanging headfirst from cliffs and standing under frigid waterfalls. Early yamabushi not only pursued inner enlightenment they also sought magical powers which could used to cure disease and prevent disasters.

Shugendo evolved during the 6th and 7th centuries in the Katsuragi mountains between present-day Osaka and Nara then moved to the higher peaks south of Yoshino in what is now Nara Prefecture. By the 10th century shugendo attracted the attention of nobility and the mountains south of Yoshino became a destination for cloistered Emperors. In the 17th and 18th centuries the site attracted the samurai class, and later it became a pilgrimage destination of people from all walks of life. Today it is the Kumano Trail — a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Yamabushi wear a distinct costume that consists of a white tunic and super baggy pants stuffed into cloth boots. They have black lacquered cups strapped to their forehead, two furry pom poms dangling from the neck, a variety of trinkets hanging from their waist and a huge conch shell at their side. The often have deer pelts on the seats of their pants and a carry ringed or wooden staff.

Before the Meiji period, many ordinary Japanese sought out yamabushi in the mountains because they were believed to have supernatural skills and powers of exorcism. During the Meiji Period, yamabushi were banned as quacks as part of Japan's effort to modernize and promote Western medicine. Under State Shintoism, Shugenda was classified as impure. These days few yamabushi live in the mountains full time. Most are part times who, like other Japanese, carry business cards.

Shugendo Beliefs

Shugendo incorporates elements of esoteric Tibetan-style Buddhism, Shintoism, animism and shamanism. Central to their religion is the recognition of strong powers found within mountains and a belief in death and rebirth experiences. Individual soul searching and direct interaction with the spiritual world is emphasized while Ideology, religious hierarchies and interaction with priests are downplayed.

Most yamabushi learn simple spells and chants to enlist the help and protection of deities. A great deal of time and devotion is required to learn the secret magical “mudra” (?positions”) which allows them to merge their spirit with that of a deity, giving them the power to disappear and perform other difficult tasks.

Yamabushi beliefs emphasize mediation and liberation through doing difficult tasks. In the old days yamabushi run all day through the mountains for 1,000 days. They also engaged in firewalking and chanting under freezing cold waterfalls.

The Yoshino area, near Nara and Osaka, was a major yamabushi stronghold. There mountain ascetics had to walk the 24 kilometer distance between Tenkawamaru and 1,719-meter-high Mt. Sanjodadake everyday for 100 days. During the first 50 days they were given two days to make the round trip During the second 50 days they had to the round trip trek in a single day, stopping at more than 20 small hokora shines along the route to chant sutras.

Yamabushi also believe that devotees must spend a long time in the wilderness to absorb the power of nature by living trees, animals, mountains, waterfalls and rocks. Holy mountains are believed to have special powers associated with characteristics such as size and dominance (like Mt. Fuji) or the presence of imposing cliffs or dense forests.

Yamabushi Rituals

Shugendo devotees must observe strict ascetic rituals that have traditionally been held deep in the mountains. They seclude themselves in the mountains for months or years at a time, walking for days on end, praying, performing fire rituals, fasting in caves and subjecting themselves to various physical and psychological hardships, such as hanging off of cliffs or standing under waterfalls. In a bizarre yamabushi purification ritual, acolytes and ordinary people are held headfirst over the edge of a cliff at Mt. Omine near Yoshino to contemplate the transient nature of life and repent their sins. It is belied that people who don't repent are burdened with an extra load that will cause them to fall to a body-breaking death.

Describing the experience Doug Ogata wrote in Kansai Time Out, "Everything happened so quickly. They passed my arms through the loop of the rope and made me clasp my hands. 'Whatever you do. keep them clasped.' was the advice of the second monk as he gestured for me to get on my stomach and inched my way off the cliff. Then he grabbed my ankles and helped me forward."

"Before I knew it I was upside down, a vast gorge above my head and the wind whistled around me. The leader monk had fastened a rope to his waist. He was the only thing keeping me from plummeting to my death." Only after Ogata promising to respect the earth and his parents was he pulled back from abyss.

In another bizarre yamabushi ritual, acolytes and ordinary people are ensconced in complete darkness to simulate death and then suddenly exposed to bright lights and the sound of crashing bell to simulate rebirth. The scholar Carmen Blacker described the experience as "awakening by shock to the ultimate Emptiness of our natures."

Standing Under Waterfalls

Christal Whelan wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “The Shinto, Buddhist and Shugendo practice of misogi or spiritual cleansing through standing under a waterfall, or dousing oneself with buckets of bracingly cold water, derives from the deep desire to be united with the clarity and purity of water. Water by its very nature changes form according to the container in which it is placed. This quality suggested the Buddhist wisdom of the emptiness of form, and the social value of flexibility and a situational ethic over an unchanging stance for all occasions.”

Cold water ablutions are performed under a waterfall at the Shokoji Temple?a Zen Buddhist temple in Kawachinagano, Osaka Prefecture. In recent years the temple has found that many of the people that participate in the ritual are young adults who having trouble finding jobs and a direction in life.

Devises that capture the sound of water are found at many temples and shrines. “The sui-kin-kutsu is a musical instrument played by water as it drips into an overturned perforated bottle buried underground, wrote Whelan. “As droplets fall languorously through the hole, the bottle resonates like music from a dragon's chamber. The sozu, a miniature bamboo seesaw poised above a basin in a balancing act played by water alternately spilling from each end, Kyoto's version of a scarecrow. Its loud, rhythmical, and never-ending clacking characterizes the sound of summertime in the city.”

Hunger, Freezing and Ascetic Buddhist Training

Akira Anzai wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: Sporting shaggy beards and nursing cracked skin, 156 priests celebrated completing a special form of training called Dai-aragyo, which involves following extreme ascetic practices for 100 days. The annual training by the Nichiren sect of Buddhism is conducted from Nov. 1 to Feb. 10 at the Hokekyoji temple in Ichikawa. Dai-aragyo is regarded as one of the world's most disciplined ascetic routines. In the 2011-2012, 156 of the 159 priests from temples around the nation that attempted Dai-aragyo, successfully completed the program. [Source: Akira Anzai, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 2012]

During Dai-aragyo, priests begin their ascetic practices by waking at 2 a.m. and going to bed at 11 p.m. every day. Dai-aragyo is known for three practices: suigyo, which is regular cold water ablutions; dokyo, chanting the Lotus Sutra; and shakyo, copying its words. Suigyo is performed seven times each day, with the first ablution beginning at 3:00am. Priests must endure these harsh practices while only being allowed to eat simple meals served twice daily. The meals consist of white-rice porridge and plain side dishes such as pickled plums.

At 6:00am. on February 10, the last day of Dai-aragyo, a gate connecting the center of the temple--the so-called secular world--to the sacred training grounds was opened for the first time in 100 days. Priests' families and temple parishioners were waiting at the gate with banners bearing the names of those who had completed the training. The priests chanted a mantra as they marched through the crowd.

Kaisho Takeshita from Homyoji temple in Nagayocho, Nagasaki Prefecture, participated in Dai-aragyo for the first time. "The cold temperature and hunger was really tough to deal with. I recited the sutras as loud as I could to overcome the harsh conditions," the 28-year-old Takeshita said. "I was gradually filled with a feeling of well-being as I went through the water ablutions again and again. I look forward to trying Dai-aragyo again," he added.

Image Sources: 1) 1st Daruma, British Museum, 2) 2nd daruma, Onmark Productions, 3) Koyasan and diagrams JNTO 4) Monks, Ray Kinnane, 5) 19th century monks and hermit 6) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 7) calligraphy, painting, Tokyo National Museum.

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 September 2021

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