Japanese Buddhism An Exploration Guide

Buddhism is currently Japan’s second most followed religion, after Shinto, the traditional Japanese native religion. However, it did not come in a day.

looking at modern Buddhism, many might wonder how Buddhism found its way into Japan and what events shaped present-day Japanese Buddhism. This Japanese Buddhism exploration guide is an exploration guide to how Buddhism came to Japan.

Japanese Buddhism initially came from India during the middle of the 6th century BC. It first developed near the Nara Basin region. After hundreds of years of amendments and reformations in the hands of all types of rulers, came the modern Japanese Buddhism found in Japan today.

Again, politics has been deeply intertwined with religion, and Japanese Buddhism is no exception. Both the great wars of the twentieth century helped disentangle Buddhism from its previous rigidity and made it more liberal and free for the Japanese people.

How Did Buddhism Come To Japan?

The Asuka period can be considered the earliest period in the practice of Buddhism in Japan after the emperor Kinmei’s rule. This was followed by Hakuho, Nara Buddhism, and the early Heian period, spanning from the early 7th century to the end of the 1st millennium.

Two main sects helped pave their way during the Asuka period. The Chinese sect, The Hata clan, and Japan’s aristocratic sects like Soga, developed the basis for Buddhism in Japan during this period.

Afterward, during the Hakuho period, the emperor ordered Buddhist monasteries to be built. Buddhist rituals were performed there to gain merit for the royal family.

Schools were built to study Buddhist scriptures. The following Nara Buddhism period was also patronized greatly by the aristocracy and the emperors.

Early Period Of Japanese Buddhism

The Asuka period can be considered the earliest period in the practice of Buddhism in Japan after emperor Kinmei’s rule. This was followed by Hakuho, Nara Buddhism to the early Heian period, spanning from the early seventh century to the end of the first millennium.

Two main sects helped pave their way during the Asuka period. Chinese sect Hata clan and Japan’s aristocratic sect-like Soga developed the base for Buddhist religion in Japan during this period.

Afterward, during the Hakuho period, the emperor ordered Buddhist monasteries to be built. Buddhist rituals were performed there to pay merit to the royal family.

Schools were built to study Buddhist scriptures. The following Nara Buddhism period was also patronized greatly by the aristocracy and the emperors.

Japanese Buddhism In Medieval Period

From the end of the 8th century to the beginning of the sixteenth century, this period in Japanese Buddhism can be considered the medieval period. During this time, the religion garnered more followers and saw immense amendments in its practice.

Heian Buddhism flourished in Japan from the middle of the 10th century to the late 12th century. The Tendai sect of Buddhism was particularly influential, and the Buddhist monks were instructed to associate their prayers with those of Shinto, the traditional Japanese native religion.

The Kamakura Buddhism period from the 12th to the 14th century is considered the period in Japanese Buddhism which established followers of Amitabha Buddha.

This “New Buddhism” period lasted until the 15th century, during which time Buddhism in Japan saw tremendous amendments, with Buddhist shrines engaging in politics and other state affairs.

Late Medieval To Early Modern Period In Japanese Buddhism

Japanese Buddhism did, in fact, scrub much of its original Chinese doctrinal rigidity from the late 15th century to the 19th century. The Samurai Lords in the 15th and 16th centuries engaged actively in warfare and demolished many monasteries.

Some sects were favored more than others. But with the dominant anti-Buddhist attitude in the late nineteenth century, Buddhism was largely reformed.

In the 16th century, religion’s entanglement with politics, religious temples, and shrines began to struggle for political power. Japanese Buddhism during this period was hardly about peace anymore.

In certain cases, the temples even trained warrior monks to fight against other temples for influence.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Shinto was again restored as the official religion of Japan, towering heavily over existing Buddhism. Many Buddhist temples were closed and if not, had to associate themselves with the Shinto religion.

How War Helped Reform Japanese Buddhism

Japan’s active participation in the great wars was a blow to the monasteries practicing Buddhism in Japan. The government took stricter measures to ensure Buddhist monks paid allegiance to the ruling Japanese emperor. They also could not go against any of the Shinto principles to practice Buddhism.

During the war, Buddhist monks paid complete allegiance to the emperor and were barred from practicing Chinese doctrine that influenced Buddhism.

Doctrines in all Buddhist scriptures underwent strict scrutiny to make sure they did not clash with the Shinto religious beliefs of Japan.

The scriptures were not allowed to preach any idea against the emperor. The ancient writings of Buddhism proponents like Shinran and Nichiren were instructed to be erased so that they do not challenge the ruling power in any form.

So, the religion was reformed in a much more Japanese manner shedding off the foreign influence of any other doctrines of Buddhism on Japanese Buddhism.

Post-War And Modern Japanese Buddhism

Towards the end of WWII, a country torn apart by war atrocities, Japan suffered many forms of losses. As a result, Shinto no longer remained as the official religion. It was, therefore, much more relaxed for people to enjoy more freedom and liberty to practice any religious belief they chose.

In the middle of the 20th century, religion became a trivial issue to fight about with each other in Japan. Buddhist temples were struggling to even survive as they asked for donations and performed all sorts of rituals to earn enough to support themselves.

New branches of Buddhism sprouted which did not follow the traditional strict rules of Japanese Buddhism. Some of these new branches, like the Lotus Sutra, garnered a massive number of followers in short periods.

Every year, hundreds of monasteries closed as they could not provide for their monks. The ones remaining only performed formal religious rituals and rites occasionally.

Is Japanese Buddhism Different From Japanese Shinto?

Shinto is the traditional religion of Japan. Even before Buddhism came into practice in Japan, people paid homage to the deities of the Shinto religion. Shinto has no script or particular deity; followers worship nature. Buddhism, on the other hand, has a specific founder Buddha and a scripture.

In Japan, people have been worshipping nature for hundreds of years before Buddhism found its way to Japan. Japanese people pay homage to Kami or the particular living thing to which they are devoted.

Inari Ōkami Kami of Foxes

It is believed that every element of nature possesses a spirit and can be worshipped. It does not have a particular framework or set rules to follow.

Whereas Buddhism has a particular founder and a religious scripture where the route to enlightenment is drawn out. People can follow the scriptures to follow Buddha. People can also study it to become monks or religious devotees, which cannot be followed in Shinto.

In Japan, more than two-thirds of the people still follow Shinto, their primary religion. Although there is now a large group of followers who are Buddhist, Shinto is still followed by the majority of the Japanese people to this day.

Did Japanese Buddhism Influence Japanese Culture?

For most countries, religion and culture can hardly be separated. What was once a part of religion has now become a part of the culture. Buddhism, likewise, is deeply intertwined with Japanese culture, from religious festivals to funeral rituals and even Japanese wedding customs.

Asakusa Tokyo’s oldest Temple

Many religious festivals, like the Gujo and Awa Odori festivals, are largely celebrated in Japan. Food like Shojin Ryori has become a traditional cuisine in Japan. There are also rites performed for people on deathbeds as well as the funerals.                           

Conclusion

The Japanese Buddhism Exploration Guide demonstrates how the status of Buddhism has changed over time. From the struggle for establishment in the early medieval period to garnering more followers in the post-war period, it is fascinating to see how far Buddhism has come.

With the scratches and polishes, reformations, and renewal, Buddhism seems to have finally found strong ground in Japan. However, as modern Japan is known for its religious freedom, Buddhism can now be considered more of a cultural artifact than a closely followed religion.

Asakusa Temple Tokyos Oldest Buddhist Temple Official Website

MT Lee
My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.