Buddhism in Japan is more a part of the culture of Japan rather than a religion. This may seem odd to people belonging to religions like Christianity or Islam, but maybe this social influence is one of the unique characteristics of Japan. This influence on Japanese society began in the Edo period when Buddhism was used by the ruling “shogunate” or military government as a way to control the people. Later on, it was used to take a census and regulate the population.
The History and the Spread of Buddhism in Japan
Buddhism is said to have come via the Silk Road to China from Central Asia. Officially, the year 67 CE was the year when Buddhism was introduced to China. Buddhist monks from China have then on occasion traveled to ancient Japan, but according to the “Nihon Shoki,” the second oldest Classical Japanese chronicle, Buddhism was officially introduced to Japan in the year 552. A king in now western Korea dispatched a mission including Buddhist monks to the Japanese Emperor and they brought an image of Buddha along with several sutras to spread Buddhism in Japan. The acceptance of Buddhism in the 6th century was slow. However, by the year 627 there were 46 Buddhist temples in Japan.
In the Nara period, the late 8th century, Esoteric Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China. Kukai is famous for founding the sect of Shingon Buddhism and Saicho is famous for founding the Tendai sect. Pure land Buddhism (the largest sect in modern Japan), Zen Buddhism, and the Nichiren sect were founded in the Kamakura period, in the late 12th to 13th century. It was a difficult era when power changed hands from the aristocracy to the samurai warriors. Buddhist temples had also gained power and popularity over the centuries and became a strong political and military power.
From the late 16th century however, Buddhism’s influence decreased and Shintoism gained power instead. In 1868, the year of the Meiji Restoration, the newly formed government tried to eradicate Buddhism because Buddhism was strongly connected to the former “shogun” or military commanders who were previously in power. Shinto was declared the national religion and the Buddhist sects that remained saw their influence wane or had to adapt to the westernization of the nation.
During World War II, Japan Imperialism demanded for the reverence of Shintoism, the mandated national religion. Almost all Buddhist sects supported the militarization of Japan and those that didn’t were punished, with their leaders imprisoned. This was the wartime government’s policy on religion. At the end of the war, there was great demand for Buddhism, to perform funerals and determine posthumous names for the victims of war. However, this demand was short lived and Buddhist followers, and followers of any religion in general, continued to wane. Only 27% of the population identified themselves as being Buddhist in 1984 and that number has probably decreased more since entering the 21st century.
Buddhism in Japan today
The majority of the people in Japan probably would not consider themselves to be Buddhist, or belonging to any particular religion at all. However, many cultural traditions in Japan are derived from Buddhism.
First off, almost 90% of funerals in Japan are performed by Buddhist monks. So, the religion of Japan has sometimes been described as “funeral Buddhism”. For some people, it could be the only time they even visit a Buddhist temple other than as a place for sightseeing.
Second, is during the New Year’s holidays. On New Year’s Eve, people gather to temples (or shrines) to thank the gods for the past year and to pray for good fortune during the coming year. Buddhist monks strike a large bell on the temple grounds 108 times, the number of the sins of humanity according to Buddhism. Striking the bell is thought to cleanse and purify the world. At some temples, the people who gather there are permitted to strike the bell instead of the monks.
Third, a tradition called “Setsubun” or seasonal division with Buddhism at its roots. It’s held in the beginning of February to drive the “demons” or evil spirits out of homes or temples. As a cultural ritual, usually a male figure wears a demon mask. Children chant “out with the demons” while throwing roasted soybeans at the demon and driving it out of the building. Then they chant “good luck come in” while throwing beans into the house. It’s great fun for small children. Afterwards, eating the same number of shelled soybeans as your own age is said to bless you with good health for the whole year.
Fourth, a tradition held in the middle of summer called “Obon” to honor the ancestors. Though the timing of this “obon” festival is different according to different regions in Japan, it is thought that the spirits of the ancestors come back to visit their living family once a year at this time. People gather at their family homes to clean gravestones and household altars, offer flowers and food to the ancestors, and have prayers chanted by a Buddhist monk at the temple for their ancestors. These traditions are also starting to disappear with the older generation, but “obon” is still a time when many people go and visit their family.
We also hold “bon” (short for “obon”) festivals with “bon” dances. It’s a lively festival held at temples within a community, with music and drums. Everyone dances in a circle and most of the dances are simple so that anyone can join in. Like this summer tradition, many cultural aspects of Japan are derived from Buddhist roots, sometimes without people in the modern age not realizing it.
Zen Buddhism in Japan
Zen is said to have originated in India. The Japanese word “Zen” comes from the Chinese word “Chan,” which in turn came from the Indian word “Dhyana” meaning the practice of meditation. Zen Buddhism is all about liberating your way of life by gaining insight into one’s existence through meditation. To realize this and be “awakened” to your true self means to reach “satori” or a state of understanding.
Nonin established the first school of Zen, the Daruma School, in the 12th century which is during the Kamakura period in Japan. The Zen way of thinking about one’s death, being aware of your own thoughts and actions while also being intuitively aware of what goes on around you, fit the warrior life of the samurai.
Many Zen temples offer sessions of “zazen” or seated posture. It’s quite difficult to sit absolutely still with good posture for 15 minutes and to really be aware of what is going on around you and inside yourself without actually concentrating on what you’re doing. You really need to let go of your consciousness but at the same time be aware of it. This practice takes years to be able to perform correctly, but it’s a good way to learn about Zen Buddhism in Japan. The beautiful Zen rock gardens are also meant to help with meditation. They are made out of gravel raked into ripples of water and carefully placed rocks to create stylized landscape. It imitates the true essence of a natural landscape just as you are supposed to grasp the true meaning of life, not what it appears to be, through meditation.
Shingon Buddhism in Japan
Shingon Buddhism or Japanese Esoteric Buddhism is one of the major Buddhist sects in Japan. “Shingon” is a Chinese word transcribed from Sanskrit, meaning “mantra.” A Japanese monk named Kukai travelled to China to learn Esoteric Buddhism in 804. He returned to Japan in 840 and established his first Monastery on Mount Koya. It’s now a famous spiritual spot for the followers of Shingon Buddhism as well as a sightseeing spot for the rest of the world. Kukai was given the posthumous name “Kobo-Daishi” by Emperor Daigo and is known to his followers as “Odaishi-Sama”. Some of the Shingon Buddhist Temples in Kyoto are also popular as sightseeing spots nowadays like Toji Temple, Daigoji Temple, and Ninnaji Temple.
Shinto vs Buddhism
The Japanese tend to consider themselves non-religious, but they do visit both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples indiscriminately. Shintoism is an indigenous religion of Japan, believing that all things, even the inanimate ones, have a spirit. The spirits are called “kami” or gods and are worshipped.
Buddhism on the other hand originated in India and was brought to Japan via China. Buddhists venerate a human being who has achieved enlightenment, Buddha, and not a god.
At a Shinto shrine, there will be a “Torii” gate at the entrance and the shrine is usually a bright red color. There will also be statues of foxes, dogs, or other animals guarding the shrine. And there is a water basin where people purify their hands and mouth before entering. When you pray at the altar of a shrine, there will sometimes be a decorated rope with bells hanging down from the ceiling, but not always. If there is, give it a shake to ring the bells and rouse the gods. Then throw in a small offering into the money box. Clap your hands twice, and pray with your hands clapped together. Then bow again before leaving.
At a Buddhist temple, you’ll note that the exterior of the temple is usually just natural wood without any extravagant decorations. However, inside the main temple building where the statue of Buddha or a Bodhisattva is enshrined, it will be lavishly decorated in a gold color. And in addition to the water basin like at a shrine, sometimes there is a large incense burner out in front where you waft the smoke toward your body to purify yourself. At the altar, you throw in your coin(s) as an offering into the box, quietly put your hands together and pray. Then bow once before leaving.
These two religions, Shintoism and Buddhism, are non-exclusive and now exist in harmony. Sometimes you’ll find both a shrine and a temple on the same grounds. Maybe this tolerance of other religions is the reason why Japanese people find no problem whatsoever with enthusiastically participating in events of both and even incorporate events from other religions or countries into their lives easily.
Shinto or Buddhist Sightseeing Spots
Below are some of the most famous shrines and temples in Japan that you may want to visit.
Ise Jingu Shrine (Mie Prefecture)
Itsukushima Shrine (Hiroshima Prefecture)
Izumo Shrine (Shimane Prefecture)
Fushimi Inari Shrine (Kyoto Prefecture)
Meiji Jingu Shrine (Tokyo Prefecture)
Mount Koya (Wakayama Prefecture)
Todaiji Temple (Nara Prefecture)
Ginkakuji Temple (Kyoto Prefecture)
Horyuji Temple (Nara Prefecture)
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