Great Buddha of Kamakura
As is the case with Shinto, estimates on the number of Buddhists in Japan varies greatly. According to one count there are 92 million of them, in another there are 37 million. The first figure reflects the majority of Japanese, who visit Buddhists temples and make offerings at Buddhist shrines from time to time, and attend Buddhist funerals. The second figure reflects more serious Buddhist followers.

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.

Buddhism has traditionally been embraced by Japanese because it promised salvation and an afterlife. It is practiced in conjunction with Shinto beliefs — people often say prayers both to Buddha and Shintos kamis — and this is not considered contradictory. Today, Japanese Buddhism contains elements of Chinese-style ancestor worship. Most Japanese are "funeral Buddhists," meaning they partake in Buddhist rituals only when someone dies.

The Japanese name for The Buddha is Shaka. Japanese Buddhism is very similar to Chinese Buddhism. It has held up better than Chinese Buddhism because it has adapted itself better to the modern world and was not repressed like it and other religions were in Communist China. Because of Japan’s historical isolation and hierarchal society, once Buddhism was introduced, it took on a definite Japanese character with sects developing like corporations so their survival would be ensured.

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 IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; ZEN AND OTHER BUDDHIST SECTS 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;

Buddhism in Japan Guide to Buddhism in Japan buddhanet.net ; Wikipedia article on Buddhism in Japan Wikipedia Buddhism and Shintoism in Japan A to Z Poto Dictionary onmarkproductions.com Honganji temple Site honganji.net ; History of Japanese Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Buddhism and Prince Shotoku onmarkproductions.com ; Asia Society article on Buddhism in Japan asiasociety.org Japanese-Buddhism.com japanese-buddhism.com; The Zen Site thezensite.com ; Wikipedia article on Zen Buddhism Wikipedia ; Photos Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Temples at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de

Buddhist Beliefs

Buddhists believe that life is full of misery and hardship and that it is ultimately is unreal. The cycle of birth and rebirth continues because of attachment and desire to the "unreal self." Meditation and good deed will ultimately end the cycle and help the individual to achieve Nirvana, a state of blissful nothingness. To achieve this one must look inward and gain control of the mind and find internal peace. To achieve this takes time and is an evolutionary process that takes place in stages through many lifetimes and cycles or birth, death and rebirth to attain the "real soul" within a person which is in a constant state of flux. .

Buddhists believe that only the things that matters is the inward self and outside world is not really real; that the goal of Buddhism is to reach a state of nothingness; and human beings are compositions of five temporary states — physical form, sensation, perception, volition and consciousness — all of which disappear after death. Buddhist deny the existence of an individual soul and tell their followers they must transcend this egocentric view to reach nirvana. In its purist forms, Buddhism has no beginning and no end, no Creation and no Heaven and no soul.

Buddhists believe: 1) life is full of suffering, death, sickness and the loss of loved ones; 2) life is perpetuated by reincarnation (rebirth); 3) suffering is caused by desire (particularly physical desire and the desire for personal fulfillment) and liberation from rebirth occurs with the elimination of desire; 4) eight steps ("The Eightfold Path") are necessary to live a good life on earth; 5) the only one way to escape suffering is the way of Buddha; 6) this path leads to nirvana; and 7) salvation comes with faith in Buddha and practice of Buddha law (Dharma) as preached by a community of monks (the Sangha).

There are many aspects of Buddhism that simply seem to be beyond expression. The religious historian I.B. Hunter described Buddhism as a religion of “affinities, depths, heights and subtleties, with its solidarity and cohesiveness, its clear pointing to something more than could be actually said in words.”

Middle Way, Four Holy Truths and the Eightfold Path

lotus flower
Buddha's teachings are known as "The Way," "The Path" or the “Middle Way.” The Buddhist "Path" consists of three directions — morality, meditation and wisdom — all of which are pursued simultaneously. The "Middle Way" refers to a life is halfway between a life of self-torture and asceticism and a life of self-indulgence in the material world.

According to the Middle Way one must: 1) live their life “fully but not care what happens; " 2) avoid putting too much emphasis on material success because "it soon turns to dust in our hands;" 3) don’t get “obsessed with the dust, convinced that nothing matters”; and 4) recognize the Four Noble Truths.

The Four Holy Truths of Buddhism are: 1) dukka, the belief that human life is an exercise in suffering replete with evil, disease, imperfection and unhappiness; 2) samodaya, the concept that suffering is caused by craving and desire, which can not satisfy the spirit; 3) nirodha, freedom offered by renouncement of desire, which is rooted in ignorance; and 4) magga, the cessation of desire which culminates in nirvana by following the Eightfold Path. These principals were introduced in the First Sermon at Sarnath.

The Three Jewels — The Buddha, Dharma (The Buddha's teachings), and the Sangha (the community of monks) who preserve and transmit Buddha’s teachings — are central to the understanding and teaching of Buddhism and are the Buddhist equivalent of the Christian Holy Trinity. One definition of a Buddhist is one “one who takes refuge in the Three Jewels.” The vow taken by Theravada monks — "I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the law, I take refuge in the Sangha — is asserts their embrace of the Three Jewels.

The "Eightfold Path," which Buddhists are supposed to follow is comprised of: 1) right understanding (the realization that is full of suffering and suffering is caused by desire); 2) right thought (conditioning the mind to be free of desire and ill thoughts towards others); 3) right speech (refraining from lies, abuse and deceit); 4) right bodily action (refraining from violence); 5) right livelihood (avoiding self-indulgence); 6) right moral effort (showing kindness and controlling passions); 7) right mindedness (developing virtues); and 8) right concentration (practicing meditation).

The "Eightfold Path” is not only seen as a code conduct but also as means of achieving nirvana by overcoming the senses and consciousness in a step-by-step way progressing through the Three Pillars of the Eightfold Path: 1) wisdom (panna, which embraces one and two in the Eightfold Path; 2) morality (sila, which embraces three, four and five); and 3) concentration (samadhi, which embraces six, seven and eight).

Japanese Buddhist Beliefs

Great Buddha of Nara
According to Japanese Buddhist cosmology the universe is composed of six realms with Mt. Sumisem — which stands 560,000 kilometers above the oceans that surround it — at the center. On the slopes are the realms of the “deva” (“tenbu” or “tenjo”), beings considered a rank below Bodhisattvas, with the Devas Benzai-ten and Daikoku-ten being particularly popular with ordinary people. Somewhere around the mountain is another realm, Ashura, the home of the deities where there is always some kind of fighting going on.

The other four realms are found on or under an island located near the edge of the universe. On the surface of the island is our world, the realm of the humans (“ningen”). Below it is the realm of nonhuman creatures, then a multiple-layered hell (“jogoku”) and finally the realm of the hungry ghosts (“gaki”), the saddest and most desperate place, where ghosts search endlessly for food and water the can not have for anything that enters their mouth turns to fire.

There is mobility between the realms. The occupants of any one realm are not thought of as residents but rather as visitors.

Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism encompasses a wide range of philosophical schools, metaphysical beliefs, and practical meditative disciplines. It that is more widespread and has more followers than Theravada Buddhism and includes Zen and Soka-gakkai Buddhism. It is practiced primarily in the northern half of the Buddhist world: in China, Tibet, Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam and Japan.

"Mahayana” means "the Great Vehicle.” The word vehicle is used because Buddhist doctrine is often compared to a raft or ship that carries one across the world of suffering to better worlds. Greater is reference to the universality of its doctrines and beliefs as opposed to narrowness of other schools. It rival sect Theravada Buddhism is referred in a somewhat dismissing way as the Hinayana (“Lesser Vehicle”) sect.

Mahayana Buddhism evolved around the A.D. 1st century during the second phase of Buddhist development as a reinterpretation of the Theravada rules for monks. It teaches that there is only one path to enlightenment and it is open to all beings; holds Bodhisattvas in great reverence; and places an emphasis on ritualistic practices, sutras and meditation and discourages forming attachments on the basis they are impermanent.

Mahayana spread to more distant lands than Theravada Buddhists because it allowed monks to travel more freely and was able to assimilate and accommodate local religions by using the concept of Bodhisattvas. Mahayana Buddhists have great reverence for Bodhisttavas, the future Buddha Maitreya and Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise and the Buddhist equivalent of a savior who helps followers get into "heaven.”.

Mahayana Buddhism Beliefs

modern Buddhist altar
Mahayana Buddhists believe in a multitude of heavens, hells and descriptions of nirvana and have great reverence for Bodhisattvas — Buddhist "saints" on the verge of nirvana who stopped short of attaining it, so, like Buddha, they could teach their method to others.

The tenants of Mahayana Buddhism are more vague and all-encompassing than the strict tenants of Theravada Buddhism, but its followers often conform to a very regimented routine as is the case with Zen.

Mahayana Buddhists believe that salvation is accessible to all those who have faith and regard their religion as a way of life that can be embraced by any one. They also enjoy philosophical discussion and intellectual gymnastics and enlist the help of female deities and magical forces and worship a pantheon of gods, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Mahayana Buddhists see The Buddha as the sum total of everything there is; discount his historical personage; view his life on earth in magical and transcendent terms; and have Bodhisattvas and Buddhas that address issues important to ordinary people. The Supreme Buddha became an all knowing force that pervaded every part of the universe, like a creator God.

Mahayana Buddhism places an emphasis on the process of attaining nirvana through the purification of the consciousness and has been “expanded” to respond to the needs of local people it severed. Its followers a number of mythologies and ontological doctrines. They see true reality as “Emptiness”; define ten stages which Bodhisattvas must pass through to reach Buddhahood; and see everything being connected by a kind of cosmic thread rooted in true reality.

Buddhism, Death and Ancestor Worship in Japan

Buddhism, death and ancestor worship are linked together in Japan. Buddhist priests spend much of their time presiding over funerals. Buddhist temples contain family “butsudan”, or sacred boxes, where ancestral tablets (thought to contain the spirits of dead ancestors) and written prayers are placed. Some temples also contain hundreds of small jizo statutes for the souls of aborted children. You can often see parents making offerings of toys or small clothes to these statues.

To pay respect to their deceased loved ones and ancestors Japanese leave offerings of red rice, sake and flowers and small markers that say "I WILL TAKE SHELTER IN THE LAND OF BUDDHA" at their graves. When pouring the sake over the grave they sometimes say things like "Oh, grandfather, you've had nothing to drink for so long. You must be very thirsty."

Some Buddhist temples conduct ancient bon dances in which the souls of the dead are welcomed and then sent to a place of greater peace.

Ancestor worship involves the belief that the dead live on as spirits and that it is the responsibility of their family members and descendants to make sure that are well taken care of. If they are not they may come back and cause trouble to those family members and descendants. Unhappy dead ancestors are greatly feared and every effort is made to make sure they are comfortable in the afterlife. Accidents and illnesses are often attributed to deeds performed by the dead and cures are often attempts to placate them. In some societies, people go out of their way to be nice to one another, especially older people, out of fear of the nasty things they might do when they die.

Ancestor worship is still very much alive today. Ancestors are generally honored and appeased with daily and seasonal offerings and rituals. It has been said spirituality emanates from the family not a church or temple. Pictures of dead relatives are featured on family alters in many homes, where religious rituals and prayers are regularly performed.

Buddhist Funerals, See People

Modernizing Japanese Buddhism

Donation markers

The inability of Buddhism to address modern problem and to be relevant is regarded as one reason why so many people turn to cult religions in Japan. A monk at Mtizuzoin Temple in Tokyo told the Daily Yomiuri,”People have become estranged from places of worship, especially since the country’s period of rapid economic growth.”

In an attempt to attract younger followers Buddhist temples are hosting concerts and noh performances, staging musicals and magic shows and encouraging monks to perform stand-up comedy routines and do little dances when they chant Buddhist sutras.

A monk at the Kansho Tagai temple in Tokyo told the Daily Yomiuri, “A temple’s Hondo [main building] is meant to be a place where people get together and mingle. But people are forgetting this.” At his temple a number of events are staged which have allowed people to get together and have a good time and get to know each other.

In Japan there is dial-a-monk service. Typically callers are worried about high funeral costs and want advice on how to save money.

In June 2009, the Koysan Shingon Buddhist sect said it was going to help monks and priests and single women affiliated with its temples to find spouses as part of an effort tp make sure the sect stays alive as it is having an increasingly hard time finding priest to manage its temples.

Concrete Theater Temples, Virtual Temples and Modernizing Buddhism

Many Buddhist temples are turning to non-traditional practices to earn money and keep going. For example, Shokoji Temple — a Zen Buddhist temple in Kawachinagano, Osaka Prefecture — offers lay person seminars to help young people find jobs.

Monks of the Jodo Shinshu and Sotoshu sects jointly opened a virtual temple called Higanji (www.higan.net) featuring event information, blogs by monks and recipes for shojin ryori vegetarian dishes. The site has as many as 10,000 hits a day. "Furii-sutairu na Soryo-tachi" (Monks who use unconventional methods), a group comprising young monks in the Kansai region, issues free papers carrying information related to Buddhism. The group holds discussions with readers every month. [Source: Masanori Genko, Yomiuri Shimbun, January 8, 2011]

Ryuho Ikeguchi, 30, a Jodoshu monk, told the Yomiuri Shimbun: "Many people say that in today's society, an increasing number of people lack social bonds and are neglected. But we've received requests to help make temples the centers of local communities. "As various people come together and 'weave' relationships with them, the threshold between temples and local residents will become lower, and it may eventually make it possible to rebuild a community in which Buddhism plays a pivotal role."

Temple charms
Demographic trends have driven a decline in the number of danka, or parishioners who financially support a temple. Also, many young people these days tend to be indifferent toward religion. Under such circumstances, traditional Buddhist temples are looking for new ways to communicate with local residents.

Otenin temple — known as the "theater temple" — is a drum-shaped concrete subtemple of Dairenji temple in Osaka, not far from the Namba entertainment district. Built in 1997, it is equipped with sound and lighting equipment and is open to the public as a theater with an audience capacity of 140. Performances are held almost every week. About 30,000 people, mainly young people, use the hall annually.

Otenin does not have danka. Instead, a nonprofit organization of local residents manages events to be held in the temple, including lectures on themes such as education and welfare, with the aim of becoming a hub of the community. "Just as temples used to do in the old days, our temple is preaching and spreading knowledge to people in the community, but not only to particular ones [danka] but people in general," Mitsuhiko Akita told the Yomiuri Shimbun.

Activist Buddhism in Japan Today

While Buddhism is making a comeback in China, it is on the decline in Japan. "If it doesn't meet the changing needs of modern society, Japanese Buddhism will die," Yoshiharu Tomatsu, a Harvard-trained monk at the Jodo Shu Research Institute of Buddhism in Tokyo, told National Geographic. With the fast pace and competitiveness of Japanese society, young people in particular find little emotional support or sense of community in the ancient rituals of traditional Buddhism. "It's ironic," Tomatsu said, "As much as Japan has looked to the West for its cultural cues, it has not embraced the engaged Buddhism that has become so important among Buddhists in the West."[Source: Perry Garfinkel, National Geographic, December 2005]

Perry Garfinkel wrote in National Geographic: Among “the signs that the heart of Japanese Buddhism is at least still beating” is “is an organization...established in 1993. Called Ayus, meaning "life," it channels about $300,000 a year to national and international groups working for peace and human rights. Two-thirds of the 300 contributing members are Buddhist priests. There's also the sect called Rissho Kosei-kai, founded in 1938 and now boasting 1.8 million households. While firmly planted in the Buddha's teachings, this organization is different. It's a lay group — and it emphasizes service to others. Members forgo two meals a month, donating the money to the sect's peace fund. Rissho Kosei-kai has given about 60 million dollars to UNICEF in the past 25 years.

At the sect's world headquarters in Tokyo, the imposing central meditation hall has a ceiling-high pipe organ and stained-glass windows — more like a Christian church than a Buddhist temple. Tomatsu and I sit in on a hoza, or dharma session, focusing on the social problems that beset Japan but remain conversational taboos: divorce, drug addiction, depression, suicide. In a large, brightly lit multipurpose room, casually dressed participants, mostly women, sit in metal folding chairs in a loose circle around a facilitator, sharing personal dilemmas such as marital problems, disrespectful kids, and aging parents. After each story, the group issues a supportive round of applause. It's a reminder that the new Buddhism doesn't always have to address global issues; the kitchen table can be a war zone too.

Tomatsu also introduces me to Rev. Takeda Takao, a Buddhist priest whom I'd seen leading a protest in front of Japan's parliament building in the heart of Tokyo. Hundreds of demonstrators had gathered to oppose the national Self Defense Forces' involvement in Iraq. Amid the chaos, Takao, in a monk's vest, stood at curbside with several other priests carrying bullhorns, drums, and a banner.

The great bell at Chion Temple in Kyoto in the 19th century

Takao belongs to Nipponzan Myohoji, an international Buddhist organization founded in 1918 whose monks and nuns conduct long peace marches, chanting and beating their drums all the way. "Peaceful protest is the only way to make a peaceful planet," he says. It's a conclusion he came to after participating in demonstrations against the construction of Tokyo's Narita Airport. In the 1970s several policemen and protesters were killed, and thousands injured, defending the rights of vegetable farmers whose land had been taken by the government for the runway. As a monument to the tragedy, the Nipponzan Myohoji Order erected a peace pagoda in 2001 just outside the airport fences.

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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