Buddhism in Japan | Overview


1. Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism in Japan has been practiced since its official introduction in 552 CE from Baekje, Korea, by Buddhist monks, according to the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan).

Buddhism has had a major influence on the development of Japanese society and remains an influential aspect of the culture to this day.

In modern times, Japan's popular schools of Buddhism are Pure Land Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism, Shingon Buddhism and Zen.

As of 2008, approximately 34% of the Japanese identify as Buddhists and the number has been growing since the 1980s, in terms of membership in organized religion.

However, in terms of practice, 75% practice some form of Buddhism (compared with 90% practicing Shinto, thus most Japanese practice both religions to some extent).

About 60% of the Japanese have a Butsudan (Buddhist altar) in their homes.

2. Arrival of Buddhism in China along the Silk Road

The arrival of Buddhism in China is ultimately a consequence of the first contacts between China and Central Asia, where Buddhism had spread from the Indian subcontinent.

These contacts occurred with the opening of the Silk Road in the 2nd century BCE, following the travels of Zhang Qian in 138-126 BCE.

These contacts culminated with the official introduction of Buddhism in China in 67 CE.

Historians generally agree that by the middle of the 1st century, the religion had penetrated to areas north of the Huai River in China.

3. Kofun period (250 to 538)

According to the Book of Liang which was written in 635, 5 Buddhist monks from Gandhara travelled to Japan in 467. At the time, they referred to Japan as Fusang (Jp. Fusō), the name of a mythological country to the extreme east beyond the sea:

Fusang is located to the east of China, 20 000 li (1500 km) east of the state of Han (China). In former times, the people of Fusang knew nothing of the Buddhist religion,

but in the 2nd year of Ming of the Song Dynasty (467), 5 monks from Kipin (Kabul region of Gandhara) travelled by ship to Fusang:

They propagated Buddhist doctrine, circulated scriptures and drawings, and advised the people to relinquish worldly attachments. As a result the customs of Fusang changed.

— the monk Hui Shen, Book of Liang, 7th century

4. Asuka Period (538-710) and Nara Period (710–794)

Japan Buddhist temple

Although there are records of Buddhist monks from China coming to Japan before the Asuka Period, the "official" introduction of Buddhism to Japan is dated to 552 in Nihon Shoki

- when King Seong (r. 523–554) of Baekje (now western Korea) sent a mission to the Emperor Kinmei (509–571) that included Buddhist monks or nuns together with an image of Buddha and a number of Sūtras to introduce Buddhism.

The powerful Soga clan played a key role in the early spread of Buddhism in the country.

Initial uptake of the new faith was slow, and Buddhism only started to spread some years later when Empress Suiko (554 – 15 April 628) openly encouraged the acceptance of Buddhism among all Japanese people.

According to legend, in 552, there was an attempt to destroy a tooth relic, one of the first of Buddha’s to arrive in the country; it was hit by a hammer into an anvil. The hammer and anvil were destroyed but the tooth was not.

On January 15, 593, Soga no Umako (551- 626) ordered relics of Buddha deposited inside the foundation stone under the pillar of a pagoda at Asuka-dera.

In 607, in order to obtain copies of sūtras, an imperial envoy was dispatched to Sui China.

As time progressed and the number of Buddhist clergy increased, the offices of Sōjō (archbishop) and Sōzu (bishop) were created.

By 627, there were 46 Buddhist temples, 816 Buddhist priests, and 569 Buddhist nuns in Japan.

5. Six sects

Japan Buddhist temple

The initial period saw the 6 great Chinese schools, called Nanto Rokushū (lit. the Six Nara Sects) in Japanese were introduced to the Japanese archipelago:

1. Risshū (Dharmaguptaka) - This sect studied the teachings of the famous Chinese "Blind Monk" Jianzhen (688–763), who taught his followers to strictly observe the Pratimokṣa and monastic ordination. They were not so focused on doctrine as they were on the moral structure of their monks and nuns.

2. Jōjitsu-shū (Satyasiddhi) - This sect implied the use of sūtras in the Abhidharma-style was the best path.

3. Kusha-shū (Sarvāstivāda) - Also known as the "Dharma Analysis Treasury School", this sect studied the Abhidharma-kośa of Vasubandhu. It focused on Abhidharma. This philosophy centres on the idea of that which the "self" is.

4. Sanron-shū (East Asian Mādhyamika) - Also known as the "Three Treatise School", this sect studied the teachings of a Korean monk named Hyegwan:

This thought focused on 3 treatises that explained emptiness, mystical knowledge, and realities of physical things. This displayed a less strict, rules orientated, path to Buddhism. This school was followed by the Prince Shōtoku (574 -622).

5. Hossō-shū (East Asian Yogācāra) - Also known as the Vijñānavāda, Cittamātra or Consciousness-only school, this sect studied on mastering the consciousness and mind. This is explained as the Indian idea of Yogācāra that was intense drills on use of the mind.

6. Kegon (Kegon-shū) (Mahāyāna) - Originating as the Chinese Huayan school, this sect studies the Avataṁsaka Sūtra. These Sūtras theorized the unobstructed interpenetration of all phenomena, or that all ideas and things can be penetrated and collected into one mind.

These schools were centred around the ancient capitals of Asuka and Nara, where great temples such as the Asuka-dera and Tōdai-ji (Eastern Great Temple) were erected respectively.

These were not exclusive schools, and temples were apt to have scholars versed in several of the schools. It has been suggested that they can best be thought of as "study groups".

The Buddhism of these periods, known as the Asuka period and Nara period – was not a practical religion, being more the domain of learned priests whose official function was to pray for the peace and prosperity of the state and imperial house.

This kind of Buddhism had little to offer to the illiterate and uneducated masses and led to the growth of "people’s priests" who were not ordained and had no formal Buddhist training:

Their practice was a combination of Buddhist and Daoist elements and the incorporation of shamanistic features of indigenous practices:

Some of these figures became immensely popular and were a source of criticism towards the sophisticated academic and bureaucratic Buddhism of the capital.

6. Tangmi

The Late Nara period saw the introduction of Tangmi (Esoteric Buddhism, Japanese mikkyō) to Japan from China by Kūkai and Saicho, who founded Shingon Buddhism and the Tendai School, respectively.

7. Heian Period (794-1185)

During the Heian period the capital was shifted from Nara to Kyoto. Monasteries became centres of powers, even establishing armies of Sōhei, warrior-monks.

Shinto and Buddhism became the dominant religions, maintaining a balance until the Meiji Restoration (1868).

8. Kamakura Period (1185–1333)

The Kamakura period was a period of crisis in which the control of the country moved from the imperial aristocracy to the samurai:

In 1185 the Kamakura shogunate was established at Kamakura.

This period saw the introduction of the 2 schools that had perhaps the greatest impact on the country:

the schools of Pure Land Buddhism, promulgated by evangelists such as Genshin (942-1017) and articulated by monks such as Hōnen, which emphasize salvation through faith in Amitābha and remain the largest Buddhist sect in Japan (and throughout Asia);

- and Zen, promulgated by monks such as Eisai (1141-1215) and Dōgen (1200-1253), which emphasize liberation through the insight of meditation, which were equally rapidly adopted by the upper classes and had a profound impact on the culture of Japan.

Additionally, it was during the Kamakura period that the influential monk Nichiren (1222 -1282) began teaching devotion to the Lotus Sūtra:

Eventually, his disciples formed their own school of Nichiren Buddhism, which includes various sects that have their own interpretations of Nichiren's teachings.

Nichiren Buddhism established the foundation of Japanese Buddhism in the 13th century. The school is known for its socio-political activism and looks to reform society through faith.

9. Muromachi Period (or Ashikaga) (1336–1573)

In the Muromachi period, Zen, particularly the Rinzai School, obtained the help of the Ashikaga shogunate and the Emperor of Japan, and accomplished considerable development.

10. Azuchi–Momoyama Period (1573–1600) and Edo Period (or Tokugawa) (1600–1868)

After the Sengoku period of war, Japan was re-united in the Azuchi-Momoyama period:

This decreased the power of Buddhism, which had become a strong political and military force in Japan.

Neo-Confucianism and Shinto gained influence at the expense of Buddhism, which came under strict state control.

Japan closed itself off to the rest of the world. The only traders to be allowed were Dutchmen admitted to the island of Dejima.

New doctrines and methods were not to be introduced, nor were new temples and schools.

The only exception was the Ōbaku-shū lineage, which was introduced in the 17th century during the Edo period by Ingen (1592-1673), a Chinese monk:

Ingen had been a member of the Linji School, the Chinese equivalent of Rinzai, which had developed separately from the Japanese branch for hundreds of years.

Thus, when Ingen journeyed to Japan following the fall of the Ming dynasty to the Manchu people, his teachings were seen as a separate school.

The Ōbaku School was named after Mount Huangbo, which had been Ingen's home in China.

Also notable during the period was the publication of an exceptionally high quality reprint of the Ming-era Tripiṭaka by Tetsugen Doko (1630–1682), a renowned master of the Ōbaku School.

11. Meiji Restoration (1868–1912)

With the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the new government adopted a strong anti-Buddhist attitude, and a movement to eradicate Buddhism and bring Shinto to ascendancy arose throughout the country due to the strong connections of Buddhism to the Shoguns.

During the Meiji period (1868–1912), after a coup in 1868, Japan abandoned its feudal system and opened up to Western modernism. Shinto became the state religion.

Within the Buddhist establishment the Western world was seen as a threat as well as a challenge to stand up to.

Buddhist institutions had a simple choice: adapt or perish:

Rinzai and Soto Zen chose to adapt, trying to modernize Zen in accord with Western insights, while simultaneously maintaining a Japanese identity.

Other schools and Buddhism in general, simply saw their influence wane.

The edict of April 1872 ended the status of the Buddhist precepts as state law and allowed monks to marry and to eat meat.

This codification of a secularized lifestyle for the monk coupled with the revival of the Emperor system and development of State Shinto were fundamental in desacralizing Buddhism and pushing it to the margins of society.

12. Japanese Imperialism (1931–1945)

Japanese identity was being articulated in Nihonjinron, the "Japanese uniqueness theory". A broad range of subjects was taken as typical of Japanese culture.

D. T. Suzuki contributed to the Nihonjinron by taking Zen as the distinctive token of Asian spirituality, showing its unique character in the Japanese culture.

Nichiren was one particular expression of Japanese Buddhist nationalism.

During World War II, almost all Buddhists institutions strongly supported Japan's militarization:

In contrast, a few individuals such as Ichikawa Hakugen, and Girō Seno’o (1890–1961) were targeted, and the Soka Kyoiku Gakkai, a Nichiren lay believers' organization, was ultimately banned by military authorities.

During the 1940s, "leaders of both Honmon Hokkeshū and Soka Gakkai were imprisoned for their defiance of wartime government religious policy, which mandated display of reverence for state Shinto.

Post World War II, there was a high demand for Buddhist priests who glorified fallen soldiers, and gave funerals and posthumous names, causing a strong revival.

However, due to secularization and the growth of materialism, Buddhism and religion in general continued to decline.

13. Post-war (1945–present)

Japan has seen a growth in post war movements of lay believers of Buddhism and a decline in traditional Buddhism in the 20th century, with roughly 100 Buddhist organizations disappearing every year.

As of 2008 approximately 34% of the Japanese identify as "Buddhists" and the number has been growing since the 1980s, as Buddhists were 27% in 1984.

Still, around 90% of Japanese funerals are conducted according to Buddhist rites:

"In 1963 the term Funeral Buddhism came to be used to describe traditional Buddhism in Japan as the religion engaged in funerary rites and removed from the spiritual needs of people."

Contrary to the ritualistic practice of traditional Buddhism,

- a revived modern form of Nichiren Buddhism led by lay believers Soka Gakkai grew rapidly in the chaos of post war Japan from about 3000 members in 1951 to over 8 million members in 2000, and has established schools, colleges and a university, as well as cultural institutions.

A study about the reason for the growth in lay believers and increased engagement in society attributes the cause to Nichiren teachings of 'social responsibility':

"In the tradition of Nichiren Buddhism, however, we find the Lotus Sūtra linked to a view of social responsibility that is distinctive".

According to an academic study, lay believers of Buddhism offer an alternative view of Japan where their form of Buddhism would form the religious foundation of a peaceful and psychologically and materially enriched society.

14. Japanese Buddhist schools

East Asian Buddhism is very diverse in its teachings and monastic practices, and Japanese Buddhism, in particular, represents almost every strand of Buddhist teachings and practices.

However, in comparison to Chinese or Korean Buddhist schools that are generally more united and less sectarian in their groupings,

Buddhist denominations in Japan have developed into independent sects with autonomous organizations that have differing emphases on the doctrine and separate lay followings.

In the post-Meiji, pre-WWII period, there were officially 13 schools and 56 branches of traditional Buddhism (i.e., those not established in modern times):

The official schools included 3 from the Nara period, 2 from the Heian period (Tendai and Shingon), 4 Pure Land schools, 3 Zen schools (Rinzai, Soto and Ōbaku), and Nichiren.

During the war, this was halved to 28 branches, but the law enforcing this was repealed following the end of the war, allowing former branches to return.

Further, since then, many groups have split off from existing branches.

The most known schools or traditions of Japanese Buddhism are:

15. The Six Nara Schools

1. Jōjitsu-shū (Satyasiddhi)
2. Hossō-shū (East Asian Yogācāra)
3. Sanron-shū (East Asian Mādhyamika)
4. Kegon (Kegon-shū) (based on Avataṁsaka Sūtra)
5. Risshū (Dharmaguptaka)
6. Kusha-shū (Sarvāstivāda)

16. Esoteric Schools:

1. Tendai
2. Shingon Buddhism

Kamakura Buddhism

17. Amida (Pure Land) Schools

1175: Hōnen (1133-1212) introduces Pure Land Buddhism to Japan.

1. Jōdo-shū
2. Jōdo Shinshū
3. Ji-shū
4. Yūzū-Nembutsu School

18. Zen Schools

Several variants of Zen's practice and experiential wisdom were separately brought to Japan. Note that Zen influences are identifiable earlier in Japanese Buddhism, esp. cross-fertilization with Hossō and Kegon, but the independent schools were formed quite late.

1. Rinzai
2. Soto
3. Ōbaku School
4. Fuke-shū
5. Nichiren Buddhism

19. Societal influence

During the Kamakura (1185–1333) and Muromachi (1336–1573) Buddhism, or the Buddhist institutions, had a great influence on Japanese society. Buddhist institutions were used by the shogunate to control the country.

During the Edo (1600–1868) this power was constricted, to be followed by persecutions at the beginning of the Meiji restoration (1868–1912).

Buddhist temples played a major administrative role during the Edo period, through the Danka or Terauke Seido system:

In this, Japanese citizens were required to register at their local Buddhist temples and obtain a certification (Terauke), which became necessary to function in society:

At first, this system was put into place to suppress Christianity, but over time it took on the larger role of census and population control.

20. Temples

Soga no Umako built Hōkō-ji, the 1st temple in Japan, in 588-596. It was later renamed as Asuka-dera for Asuka, the name of the capital where it was located.

Unlike early Shinto shrines, early Buddhist temples were highly ornamental and strictly symmetrical.

The early Heian period (9-10th century) saw an evolution of Wayō style (lit. Japanese style) based on the mikkyō sects Tendai and Shingon Buddhism.

The Daibutsuyō style (lit. great Buddha style) and the Zenshūyō style (Zen style) emerged in the late 12th or early 13th century.