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Buddhism in Japan

By the time Buddhism entered Japan in the sixth century C.E., it had already become a world religion with a history of a thousand years. The form of Buddhism that from the start was dominant in Japan is known as Mahayana, the Buddhism of the Greater Vehicle, and it brought with it an enormous canon of religious literature, an elaborate body of doctrine, a well-organized priesthood, and a dazzling tradition of religious art and architecture - all of which Shintô lacked in the sixth century. Although its view of the world and mankind differed markedly from that of Shintô, it is important to understand that within the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism both differences from and similarities to the native tradition could be found. On the one hand, for example, Buddhism regarded the world as transient and saw it as a source of suffering for those who remained attached to it, a view that contrasts sharply with Shintô's ready acceptance of the world. On the other hand, however, there was an optimism in Mahayana Buddhism that meshed well with Shintô - an optimism about human nature, for it was committed to the belief that all human beings had the potential to attain the wisdom that brings an end to suffering, and an ultimate optimism about the world itself, since it taught that once human attachments are discarded, the world takes on a new and positive significance.

At first the Japanese regarded the Buddha as simply another kami and were drawn to the religion by the beauty of its art and the hope of such concrete benefits as wealth and longevity that, on the popular level, Buddhism did not disdain to promise. By the seventh century, however, some individuals began understanding Buddhism as having a message of its own. In general, we may understand the subsequent development of Buddhism in Japan as the result of constant interaction between the foreign religion and the native religious tradition. For its part, Buddhism consciously sought to develop a positive connection with Shintô. This was eventually accomplished by identifying the Shintô kami as manifestations of various Buddhas and bodhisattvas (one who seeks enlightenment not only for himself but also for others) that had grown up within Mahayana Buddhism. By this conception, the Buddhists were able to introduce many of their own ideas into Shintô, and, in the end, argue that Shintô and Buddhism were complementary versions of the same fundamental truth - a view that gained wide acceptance in Japan.

The effect of the native religious tradition on Buddhism was to bring to the fore within it those aspects that best suited Japanese tastes. This can be illustrated by brief references to three Buddhist sects that represent uniquely Japanese developments: Kûkai's (774-835) Shingon sect; Shinran's (1173-1262) True Pure Land sect; and the sect founded by Nichiren (1222-1282) and known by his name. All of these sects are still active today.

The Shingon sect stands in the mainstream of Buddhism in terms of doctrine - emphasizing the transient nature of existence and calling upon its followers to transcend the ordinary world of suffering - and in the broad outline of its practices, which stress the importance of ethical conduct, meditation, and study. However, Shingon Buddhism advocates a distinctive type of meditation. More intricate than traditional meditation, it involves the use of symbolic hand gestures (mudras) and symbolic speech (mantras), as well as a form of Buddhist art known as a mandala. The mandala represents the universe as it is seen by the enlightened and serves as the object of meditation. The sheer complexity of Shingon meditation, coupled with the rich symbolism and beauty of the mandala, give this sect an air of mystery that has proven particularly attractive to millions of Japanese from Kûkai's age to the present.

In the True Pure Land sect, we encounter a very different kind of Buddhism, one that advocates salvation by faith rather than the attainment of enlightenment through the practice of morality and meditation. Based upon the belief that as time passes human beings find it increasingly difficult to follow the example of the historical Buddha - an idea that can be traced all the way back to India - it teaches that in the present era salvation can be gained only by relying on the saving grace of the celestial Buddha Amida, who resides in a Pure Land to the West. This belief had been embraced by other Buddhists, not only in Japan, but in China and India as well; but Shinran was the first in the history of Buddhism to draw the radical conclusion that acceptance of it must lead to the complete abandonment of monastic discipline. Consequently, from Shinran's day on, it has been common for True Pure Land priests to marry and live as lay persons, and the sect has been one of the most popular to develop in Japan.

Finally, in the Nichiren sect, we see surfacing in Buddhism, in a dramatic fashion, the strong sense of national pride that has frequently been related to religious sentiment in Japan. Nichiren was an impassioned reformer who envisioned both himself and Japan at the center of a worldwide movement to revive what he considered to be true Buddhism.

These figures and sects do not, of course, reflect all of the many ways in which Buddhism was transformed in Japan; nevertheless, in them we can glimpse some of the salient characteristics of Japanese Buddhism. In Shingon, we see a strong attraction to the mystical and mysterious, as well as to aesthetic modes of apprehension and expression. (Zen Buddhism, another popular sect in Japan, which stresses meditation and offers sudden enlightenment, could also serve as an example of the Japanese attraction to the aesthetic dimension of religion; both Zen monks and lay persons played an important role in the development of such traditional Japanese arts as landscape gardening, the tea ceremony and monochrome ink painting.) In the True Pure Land sect, we observe a preference for a kind of Buddhism that can be followed within the context of everyday life. And in the Nichiren sect, we detect an ever-present consciousness of national identity. Given Shintô's emphasis on ritual and the aesthetic features of the shrine, its this-worldly orientation, and its close connection to the myth of Japan's origins and the Imperial line, it is not difficult to discern the influence of the native religion in the background of these developments.

Acknowledgement: The author of this article is Paul Watt. The article is adapted from FOCUS, issue on Asian Religions, fall 1982, published by The Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10021. Reprinted by permission.

Discussion Questions

l. Explain why an individual in Japan is able to practice both Shintô and Buddhism.

2. Mahayana Buddhism talks about the world as a source of suffering, yet at the same time it is optimistic about the world and the value of life. What beliefs allow these two seemingly contradictory ideas to exist side by side?

3. What are the three main schools of Japanese Buddhism discussed in this article? Name two distinguishing characteristics of each.

4. In what way can the influence of Shintô be seen in these Japanese schools of Buddhism?

Contemporary Japan: A Teaching Workbook | © Columbia University, East Asian Curriculum Project
Asia for Educators |

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