Buddhism in Japan


1. Japan

Buddhism in contemporary Japan exhibits several distinctive characteristics:

In a country that sometimes prides itself on having achieved a secular society, the Buddhist religion often seems marginal to contemporary Japanese culture. Yet surveys of the populace reveal that a large majority (roughly 75%) identifies itself as Buddhist.

These same surveys indicate that an even larger majority sees itself as Shinto,

suggesting that, at least for many Japanese, being Buddhist does not necessarily entail exclusive allegiance to the religion.

Indeed, it is sometimes said that Japanese are born Shinto (i.e., receive blessings from a Shinto shrine at birth) and die Buddhist (receive Buddhist funeral and memorial services).

The division of spiritual labour here tells us something not only about the fluid character of religious identities but about one of the primary functions of Buddhism in contemporary society:

If Buddhism often seems marginal to public life, it remains central to private life through its role in the care and commemoration of the family dead.

2. Contemporary organization

The representative institution of contemporary Buddhism is the local temple, which serves as the residence of a married cleric and his family.

The temple is supported by a lay membership, for which it provides a calendar of rituals and festivals, occasional pastoral care, and especially funerals and memorial services.

Such local institutions usually represent branch temples (matsuji) of the many denominations, or schools (shū), into which Buddhism is divided.

These organizations, registered with the government as religious corporations (shūkyo hojin), are typically centred in a main temple (honzan), which serves as symbolic and administrative headquarters.

The larger denominations, which can claim thousands of local temples, may include several monastic centres, as well as parochial schools and universities.

Whether large or small, the denominations operate as independent religious entities, with their own clergy and real property, their own distinctive scriptures and rituals, and their own lay membership.

There is no significant ecumenical body that governs the Buddhist community as a whole:

Hence, in institutional terms, Japanese Buddhism is simply the sum of its denominations, and being a Buddhist means being a member of one of the denominations.

The various Buddhist organizations are typically divided into 2 categories:

1. denominations that trace their origins to ancient and medieval times, and
2. the so-called new religions (shin shūkyo), founded in modern times.

The former category is often understood as consisting of 6 sets of denominations, grouped on the basis of their historical association with particular traditional forms of Japanese Buddhism:

(1) denominations based at temples in the ancient capital of Nara
(e.g., the relatively small Hosso shū, Kegon shū, Risshū, and Shingon risshū);

(2) denominations associated with the Tendai tradition;

(3) denominations associated with the Shingon tradition;

(4) denominations associated with the Pure Land form (e.g., the large Jodo shū, and still larger Honganji and Otani branches of the Jodo Shinshū);

(5) denominations associated with Zen (e.g., the large Soto shū, the small Ōbaku shū, and the various branches of the Rinzai shū); and

(6) denominations associated with the tradition of Nichiren
(e.g., the Nichiren shū and Nichiren shoshū).

These groupings do not typically reflect institutional affiliations; contrary to common usage, there is no organization that could be called, for example, the Zen school or the Pure Land School.

In the category of new religions, there is a wide variety of organizations, from small local groups, to large national and even international, bodies such as the Soka Gakkai.

A few date back to the mid-19th century:

most of the largest, such as Soka Gakkai, Reiyūkai, and Rissho kyoseikai, were founded during the first half of the 20th century and flourished following World War II;

still others arose in the last decades of the 20th century, the most recent sometimes being referred to as the “new new religions” (shin shin shūkyo).

Occasionally these organizations represent lay movements within a traditional denomination (such as Shinnyoen within a branch of Shingon or, until 1991, Soka Gakkai within Nichiren shoshū),

- but for the most part they are wholly independent bodies, typically founded and run by a lay leadership.

The older, more established organizations function much like the traditional denominations in providing services to a stable membership of lay households; the newer groups tend to be tailored somewhat more to the spiritual aspirations of individual converts.

Some organizations base their teachings primarily on texts of the Buddhist canon, perhaps most often on the Lotus Sūtra (Saddharma-Puṇḍarīka-sūtra);

others have developed a distinctive scriptural corpus, which may combine traditional Buddhist material with elements drawn from other sources.

Indeed, within the broad category of new religions are organizations, such as the notorious Aum shinrikyo, so eclectic in their beliefs and practices that it is difficult to identify them as Buddhist.

Still, whether or not they can easily be applied to the contemporary scene, the 2 categories can be useful in revealing tensions, present throughout the history of Japanese Buddhism, between tradition and innovation, orthodoxy and heterodoxy, elite establishment and popular practice.

3. Early modern developments

Many of the distinctive characteristics of the contemporary Japanese Buddhist institution have their origins in government policies of the Meiji period (1868-1912) and the long Edo (or Tokugawa) period (1600-1868) that preceded it.

In the years immediately following the revolution that overthrew the Tokugawa administration, the new Meiji government sought to establish an officially sanctioned Shinto in support of imperial rule:

It thus drew a sharp, and historically dubious, distinction between a native Shinto and the imported Buddhism, and sought institutionally to separate them - a policy that had the practical effect of a brief but severe persecution of many Buddhist establishments.

In the end, the government adopted a policy that at once separated church and state and reasserted state authority over the church:

On the one hand, it revoked the old Tokugawa laws governing the clergy, decriminalizing violations of the Buddhist precepts and allowing the clerical marriage that has now become common;

on the other hand, it carried forward the Tokugawa practice of legal recognition and regulation of Buddhist organizations, setting the precedent for the pattern of religious corporations that we see today.

The contemporary pattern of separate denominations with branch temples serving a local congregation of member households

can be understood as a remnant of the Tokugawa government’s administration of Buddhism through what are known as the honmatsu and terauke systems:

Honmatsu refers to the organization of the Buddhist institutions into a fixed set of sanctioned denominations, each governed from a headquarters responsible to the secular authorities.

Terauke refers to the practice of requiring lay households to register their members at a recognized local temple.

These 2 systems, developed during the 17th century in order to regulate both the Buddhist institutions and the religious options of the populace, had the effect of establishing Buddhism as a branch of government administration and the local temples as the registrars of the citizenry.

Such an arrangement assured Buddhism throughout the Edo period of both government support and popular patronage; and indeed, though the period is sometimes regarded as one of Buddhist decline, in many ways the religion flourished.

Not only did many of the sanctioned denominations thrive as institutions,

but the period also witnessed a marked growth in the popularity of Buddhist funeral rites and pilgrimage to Buddhist sacred sites that cut across sectarian divides.

It also saw the persistence of unauthorized Buddhist communities and the rise of new religious fraternities outside the sanctioned ecclesiastical establishment.

And it fostered within that establishment the development of Buddhist centres of sectarian learning (shūgaku) that generated scholarship on the history, texts, and doctrines of the various denominations.

The Buddhist sectarian scholarship that developed during the Edo period and continued into the 20th century did much to frame the modern understanding of the religion.

In general, it may be said that such scholarship sought to create a systematic account of the history and teachings of each school:

to establish the orthodox tenets (kyogi) of the school, to define the corpus of its scriptural canon, and to provide a history of its origins and transmission.

In more modern times, when attempts were made to tell the story of Japanese Buddhism as a whole, these separate sectarian accounts were often simply brought together in a collection of loosely related narratives:

Indeed, to this day, the story of Buddhism in Japan is often told primarily through an accounting of the basic doctrines and founding figures recognized by the major denominations (or their groupings into related traditions).

Because of the emphasis on the founders, the history of the religion is typically punctuated by the dates of the origins of the schools, which fall into 3 distinct phases, located in the periods of:

1) Nara (710-784),
2) Heian (794-1185), and
3) Kamakura (1185-1333).

The first of these phases covers those schools (traditionally numbered as 6) founded in the years between the introduction of Buddhism from the mainland (usually dated 552) and the end of the Nara.

The second is associated with the two schools of Tendai and Shingon, introduced near the start of the Heian period.

To the last are assigned the traditions of Zen, Pure Land, and Nichiren, all of which look back to founding figures in the Kamakura period.

To the extent that these 3 periods are plotted in a larger historical narrative, it is often one of recurrent spiritual renewal and decline.

Thus, the founding of the Heian schools of Tendai and Shingon are seen as a reaction by the founders (Saichō and Kūkai, respectively) against the stale scholarship and corrupt politics of the Nara Buddhist establishment,

and the rise of the “new Buddhism of the Kamakura” is understood as a reformation, led by famous founders such as Honen, Shinran, Dōgen, and Nichiren, in response to a Heian Buddhism increasingly dominated by the secular concerns of its aristocratic patrons.

The period following the Kamakura is often seen as another time of decline, during which the reforming spirit of the Kamakura founders was lost once again.

Needless to say, this neatly articulated account of the history of the various schools, however well it may reflect the self-understanding of the modern denominations, is hardly the whole, or necessarily the most instructive, story of Buddhism in Japan.

Not surprisingly, it has been challenged by historians who seek a broader understanding of the character of the religion and its role in society:

For such historians, an account that focuses on the sectarian traditions of the schools and the lives and teachings of their founding figures exaggerates not only the historical significance of a few great men but the historical status of the schools themselves.

Even in the early modern and modern periods, when the institutional and intellectual definitions of the schools are fairly well established,

popular Buddhist belief and practice has often, perhaps typically, been oblivious of sectarian distinctions, and the meaning of such distinctions during the pre-modern period developed only gradually over a millennium of Japanese history.

4. Pre-modern background

The founding of the Nara schools is but a minor note in the early history of Japanese Buddhism, which is itself but part of a larger story of the formation of a central Japanese court and its wholesale importation of continental culture during the 7-8th centuries.

While the transmission of Chinese Buddhist books and ideas was certainly one feature of this process, far more conspicuous was the creation of a court-supported clerical establishment, housed at great monasteries in and around the capital cities.

Much of the subsequent institutional history of Japanese Buddhism revolves around the shifting relations between the central government and the increasingly powerful and independent monastic centres. 

Throughout the 8th century, the court sought to bring Buddhism under civil control through the promulgation of regulations governing the ordination, offices, and activities of monks and nuns.

Court ambitions for a National Buddhism administered from the capital reached its apogee during the middle of the century, with the government’s dedication of the great bronze Buddha image of Tōdaiji in Nara and the founding of national monasteries (kokubunji) in the provinces.

What came to be known as the Nara schools of Buddhism represent simply the curriculum of the scholar monks of Tōdaiji and other officially recognized institutions in the capital, a curriculum of particular Buddhist texts for the study of which the government came to sponsor an annual allotment of ordination rights.

Though the court would continue to claim authority to regulate the religion, the vision of a National Buddhism did not survive the Nara period:

Already in this period, it is clear from government efforts to restrict it that Buddhism was taking on an independent life of its own,

- in the proliferation of unofficial monasteries sponsored by the laity,

- the development of independent centres of Buddhist practice, often associated with sacred mountains, and

- the unauthorized activities of popular preachers, healers, wonder-workers, and the like.

These trends toward an Independent Buddhism would only increase as the religion spread throughout the country and into all levels of society during the succeeding Heian period.

The growing autonomy of Buddhism in the Heian period was occasioned not only by the diffusion of the religion to the populace but by the consolidation of power in the monastic centres:

Just as the major aristocratic families came increasingly to dominate the court through the independent means provided by their private land holdings,

so too certain monasteries acquired extensive property rights, that made them significant socio-economic institutions.

As such, they were players in Heian politics, supported by, and in turn supporting, one or another faction at court; as a result, their elite clergy interacted with, and was itself often drawn from the scions of, the aristocracy.

This development produced what is often referred to as Heianaristocratic Buddhism,” with its ornate art and architecture, its elegant literary expression, and its elaborate ritual performance.

The new style of autonomous Buddhist institution is well represented by Tōdaiji, with its historic status as a National Shrine, and the great Kofukuji and Kasuga Shrine complex, with its links to the powerful Fujiwara clan.

But the Nara monasteries were challenged and often superseded by institutions in and around the new capital of Heian (modern Kyoto), of which the most historically influential became Enryaku-ji, on Mount Hiei, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Tō-ji:

Enryaku-ji was the seat of the Tendai School;
Tō-ji was the metropolitan base of the Shingon (which had established itself on isolated Mount Kōya).

Like Tōdai-ji, Kōfuku-ji, and other major monasteries, these institutions not only held significant land rights but developed networks of subsidiary temples that made them, in effect, the headquarters of extended organizations.

The identity of the Tendai and Shingon organizations was ritually reinforced by the adoption of new, private rites of ordination (tokudo) and initiation (kanjo) that supplemented and in some cases even replaced the standard rituals of Buddhist clerical practice.

Thus, the first steps were taken toward a division of the Buddhist community into ritually distinct and institutionally separate ecclesiastic bodies.

It is sometimes suggested that these great Buddhist institutions went into decline at the end of the Heian, to be replaced by the new Buddhism of the Kamakura period:

In fact, such was their power and prestige that they continued to exercise great influence well into medieval times, as what is sometimes called by historians the exoteric-esoteric establishment (Kenmitsu taisei).

Just as the rise of the provincial warriors in the Kamakura did not displace the old court aristocracy but rather added new layers of power,

so too the development of new Buddhist movements did not replace the establishment but introduced additional options of religious belief, practice, and organization.

While some of these options were resisted by members of the establishment, others were welcomed and, indeed, incorporated into the catholic Buddhism of the great monasteries.

The decision to resist or accept rested heavily on the degree to which spokesmen for the new movements aggressively sought patronage in order to establish separate institutions.

Thus, to cite the 2 most conspicuous examples of the time,

- while many within the Nara-Heian establishment saw both the Pure Land preachers’ call to faith in Amitābha (Amida) and the Zen masters’ emphasis on meditation as legitimate forms of Buddhist teaching,

they opposed those versions of the teachings that sought to convert the laity to the new movements as alternatives to other forms of Buddhism.

In this issue, we see not simply a familiar institutional struggle for patronage but the rise of a novel model of religious organization, in which the laity identifies with, and becomes, in effect, a member of a particular Buddhist faction.

The new model would become increasingly popular during the medieval period (especially in the traditions of Pure Land, Nichiren, and Soto Zen) and led to the development of powerful national organizations that could claim millions of adherents.

This is the prime institutional development that made possible the formal division of Japanese Buddhism into the denominations of early modern and modern times.

5. Belief and practice

The outreach to lay believers characteristic of some of the new movements of the 12-13th centuries involved not only novel institutional models but new styles of Buddhist belief and practice.

Conspicuous among these is a style, sometimes termed “selective Buddhism” (senchaku bukkyo),

in which the believer is urged to exclusive faith in a particular version of Buddhist teaching and exclusive commitment to a particular form of spiritual practice.

So, for example, preachers of the Pure Land movement called for abandonment of the spiritual exercises of the Bodhisattva path in favour of faith in the vow of the Buddha Amida to take his devotees into his Western Pure Land.

Similarly, followers of the Tendai reformer Nichiren sharply criticized other forms of Buddhism and taught exclusive resort to the Lotus Sūtra and its revelation of the on-going ministry of the Buddha Śākyamuni.

In both these movements, the new selective style was justified in part by the doctrine that Buddhist history had entered its “final age” (mappo),

a period of spiritual decline during which it was no longer possible to achieve Buddhahood through the traditional practices of the monastic community.

This new religious style of popular outreach, lay organization, and sectarian faith is often said to constitute a “reformation” of Japanese Buddhism, through which the religion emerged from the confines of the cloister into the lives of ordinary people.

Yet this account, based heavily on a model provided by the Pure Land tradition (and influenced in modern times by Western religious historiography), hardly does justice to the full range of Buddhism in the late Heian and Kamakura periods.

It does not, for example, adequately account for one of the most conspicuous developments of the age:

the renewed emphasis within the Buddhist establishment on monastic discipline and the founding of major centres of Chinese-style monastic practice within the new Zen movement.

And it tells us little about the religious lives of the bulk of Buddhists, who neither entered the monasteries nor joined the new movements.

Hence, historians of the period warn against a narrow focus on the novel teachings of the new Kamakura movements,

often preferring to see them against the background of an older, broader religious style of thought and practice that permeated the medieval Buddhist world - a style we may loosely call mikkyo, or “esoteric teachings.”

The esoteric style developed initially within the schools of Tendai and Shingon but spread widely during the Heian period to influence all forms of Japanese Buddhism:

This style was built on a common Mahāyāna vision of Universal Buddhahood

- universal both in the metaphysical sense that the “dharma body” of the Buddha was present in all things and all people,

- and in the soteriological sense that all people could themselves become Buddhas through the realization of this presence.

Given such a vision - what scholars sometimes call Original Enlightenment (Hongaku) thought

- the chief religious issue was often cast in terms less of how one might purify and perfect the self than of how one might best contact the realm of Universal Buddhahood and tap into its power.

The new Buddhist movements of the Kamakura period can themselves be seen as variant strategies for answering this question:

Thus, for example, the Pure Land teachings tended to treat the symbol of Buddhahood in anthropomorphic terms, as the figure of the Buddha Amitābha, and to understand the universality of Enlightenment as the unlimited power of Amitābha’s compassionate concern for all beings.

The religious strategy, then, was to access this power by surrendering the pride that separated us from Amitābha, humbly accepting his help, and calling his name (nenbutsu) in faith and thanksgiving.

In contrast, the new Zen movement preferred to think of Universal Buddhahood less in anthropomorphic than in epistemological terms, as a subliminal mode of consciousness shared by all beings:

Here, the prime religious problem lay not in pride but in the habits of thought that obscured the Enlightened Consciousness, and the chief religious strategy was to suspend such habits, through Zen meditation (Zazen), in order to “uncover” the Buddha mind within.

For its own part, the esoteric tradition itself tended to conceive of Buddhahood in cosmological terms, as the hidden macrocosm of which the human world was the manifest embodiment:

An elaborate system was developed –

- between the properties of the Buddha realm and the physical features of Japan,
- between the deities of the Buddhist pantheon and the local gods of Japan,
- between the virtues of the cosmic Buddha and the psychophysical characteristics of the individual, and so on.

The chief means of communication between the 2 realms was ritual practice - recitation of spells and prayers, performance of mystic gestures, repentance, sacrifice, Pilgrimage, and the like

- through which the forces of the other realm were contacted and channelled into this world, and the people and places of this world were mystically empowered by (or revealed as) the sacred realities of the Buddha realm.

This cosmological style of religion is often now held up as one of the key unifying forces of Japanese Buddhism, a force that flows across history, from the Heian, through the medieval period, and even into modern times;

a force that spreads across the boundaries of clerical and lay communities or elite and popular Buddhism - a force, in fact, that reaches beyond Buddhism proper into Shinto and Folk Religion,

allowing a remarkable freedom of accommodation between the more universal Buddhist vision and the various local Japanese beliefs and practices.

The prevalence of this style may help to explain why Japanese Buddhists tend to think of their dead as ancestral “Buddha” (hotoke) spirits dwelling in the other world,

and why, though the Buddhist denominations today are so sharply divided in formal doctrine and institutional organization, they are so similar in their social function as the intermediaries between the realms of the living and the dead.