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Buddhism in Japan: Sects, History, Notable Temples

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Buddhism in Japan holds a significant place in the country’s cultural and spiritual tapestry. With a rich history spanning centuries, this practice has deeply influenced Japan. From its introduction to the evolution of various sects, Buddhism in Japan weaves a narrative of faith, philosophy, and cultural significance. Notable temples in Japan stand as iconic symbols of this religious legacy, preserving history and artistry within their sacred walls. Let’s delve into the quick facts, historical journey, diverse Buddhist sects, renowned temples, and the etiquettes crucial for a meaningful visit to these revered places of worship.

Quick Facts about Japanese Buddhism

Here are some interesting facts about Japanese Buddhism:

  • Buddhism found its way to Japan in the 6th century, traveling along the Silk Road from China.
  • The first Buddhist images and scriptures made their appearance in Japan thanks to a Korean king in the year 552 CE.
  • Over time, Buddhism in Japan diversified into various sects like Tendai, Shingon, Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren. Each of these sects has its unique beliefs and practices.
  • Zen Buddhism, which places a strong emphasis on meditation and self-control, had a significant influence on samurai warriors and the cultural elite.
  • Today, approximately 34% of the Japanese population identify as Buddhists, but a much larger number engage in Buddhist rituals and traditions, particularly during funerals and festivals.
  • Japan is home to around 80,000 Buddhist temples and 150,000 Buddhist priests. Moreover, there are several institutions dedicated to the study of Buddhism.
  • Some of the most renowned Buddhist temples in Japan include Senso-ji in Tokyo, Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, Todai-ji in Nara, and Kinkaku-ji, also in Kyoto.
  • Among the various Buddhist celebrations in Japan, Obon holds a special place. This important festival takes place in mid-August and involves people paying tribute to their ancestors by visiting their graves and participating in traditional dances.
Japanese Monk
Japanese Monk

The History and the Spread of Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism stands as a major religion in Japan, boasting a history that spans over a thousand years. The journey of Buddhism in Japan can be segmented into distinct periods, each with its defining characteristics. Let’s explore these significant periods and schools of Buddhism in Japan:

Early Buddhism (5th-13th century): Buddhism arrived in Japan from Korea in the 6th century, encountering resistance from some Japanese factions favoring Shinto. Empress Suiko and Prince Shotoku supported Buddhism, leading to the emergence of six schools, two of which, Hosso and Kegon, remain.

Heian Buddhism (794-1185): In this period, named after Kyoto (Heian), Tendai, founded by Saicho, and Shingon, founded by Kukai, were the influential schools. Tendai stressed the Lotus Sutra, while Shingon used esoteric teachings for enlightenment.

Kamakura Buddhism (1185-1333): This era marked the rise of new Buddhist schools catering to the masses. Jodo, Jodo Shin, Nichiren, and Zen gained prominence. Jodo and Jodo Shin advocated faith in Amitabha Buddha, Nichiren emphasized devotion to the Lotus Sutra, and Zen focused on meditation.

Later Buddhism (1333-present): This period saw diverse influences and transformations, including the impact of Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism on Buddhist ethics. Additionally, it brought forth various new Buddhist schools, like Rinzai Zen, Soto Zen, Obaku Zen, Nichiren-shu, and Soka Gakkai, reflecting the modernization and globalization of Japanese Buddhism.

Buddhist Sects in Japan

In Japan, Buddhism is practiced in various schools, each with its unique beliefs and customs. Some of the influential ones include:

Shingon (True Word School): 

This form of Buddhism focuses on using mantras, mudras (hand gestures), and mandalas (symbolic representations) to reach enlightenment. Kukai, its founder who studied in China, introduced the Vajrayana school’s teachings. Shingon is among Japan’s oldest and most influential sects with numerous temples and monasteries across the country.

Tendai (Heavenly Platform School):

Embracing elements from Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhism, this comprehensive school is centered on the Lotus Sutra, considered the Buddha’s ultimate teaching. Saicho, who established its headquarters at Mount Hiei near Kyoto after studying in China, founded Tendai. Many other Japanese Buddhist sects, like Pure Land, Nichiren, and Zen, originated from Tendai’s teachings.

Pure Land:

This devotional school concentrates on worshipping Amitabha Buddha, who rules over a paradise known as the Pure Land. Followers seek rebirth in the Pure Land by devoutly reciting Amitabha’s name (nembutsu). Honen and Shinran popularized Pure Land Buddhism, founding the Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu branches. It’s one of the most widespread forms of Buddhism in Japan.

Nichiren:

A reformist school advocating exclusive devotion to the Lotus Sutra as the sole path to enlightenment in the degenerate age of Mappo. Nichiren, its founder, faced opposition for criticizing other sects and promoting chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra (namu myoho renge kyo) as the primary practice. Nichiren Buddhism includes various sub-sects and lay movements like Soka Gakkai and Rissho Kosei Kai.

Zen (Meditation School):

This branch stresses meditation (zazen) as the primary means to attain enlightenment. Originating from the Chinese Chan school, Zen was introduced to Japan by Eisai and Dogen, who established the Rinzai and Soto branches. Known for its strict discipline, artistic expression, and puzzling teachings (koans), Zen Buddhism greatly influenced Japanese culture and aesthetics.

Zen Temple in Japan
A Zen Temple in Japan

Famous Temples in Japan

Japan boasts a plethora of renowned Buddhist temples, each with a rich history, distinctive architecture, and profound cultural significance. Here are some of the most remarkable ones you should consider visiting:

Sensoji Temple, Tokyo:

Situated in Asakusa, Sensoji Temple stands as Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, tracing its origins back to the 7th century. This sacred place is dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy. A towering red lantern marks the entrance gate, leading visitors down Nakamise shopping street to the main hall. Don’t miss the annual Sanja Matsuri festival, drawing millions of eager participants.

Kiyomizudera, Kyoto:

Nestled in Kyoto, Kiyomizudera is a beloved and picturesque temple. Its roots date to 780, when a monk discovered a sacred spring at a waterfall site. The temple, aptly named “pure water temple,” is celebrated for its striking wooden stage that extends from the main hall. This vantage point offers breathtaking views of cherry blossoms in spring and autumn’s vibrant colors.

Kotoku-in, Kamakura:

Kamakura’s Kotoku-in houses the awe-inspiring Great Buddha, an enormous bronze statue of Amida Buddha standing at 11.4 meters in height and weighing a staggering 121 tons. It is an iconic symbol of Japan and one of the world’s largest Buddha statues. This masterpiece once resided within a wooden hall, but a tsunami in 1498 left it exposed to the elements.

Todai-ji, Nara:

Revered as one of Japan’s most significant and imposing temples, Todai-ji was established in the 8th century as the primary temple for all provincial Buddhist temples. Within its walls lies the largest bronze Buddha statue in Japan, a colossal figure towering at 15 meters and weighing 500 tons. This statue is housed within the expansive Great Buddha Hall, one of the world’s largest wooden structures.

Horyu-ji, Nara:

Horyu-ji, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, boasts the distinction of being the oldest surviving wooden structure globally. Founded in 607 by Prince Shotoku, regarded as the patron saint of Japanese Buddhism, this temple complex encompasses two precincts: Sai-in (Western Precinct) and To-in (Eastern Precinct). Each precinct houses its pagoda, main hall, and other significant edifices, preserving numerous national treasures and Buddhist art masterpieces.

Ryoan-ji, Kyoto:

Ryoan-ji is renowned for its Zen rock garden, an exemplar of the karesansui (dry landscape) style. The garden comprises 15 rocks meticulously arranged on a bed of white gravel, encircled by a low wall. Notably, only 14 rocks can be viewed from any vantage point, invoking an air of mystery and contemplation.

Sanjusangen-do, Kyoto:

This elongated wooden hall, Sanjusangen-do, houses an awe-inspiring array of 1001 statues of Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion. These statues are arranged in 10 rows and 50 columns, with a grandiose Thousand-Armed Kannon at the center. The hall also showcases 28 guardian deities and two formidable statues of Fujin (the god of wind) and Raijin (the god of thunder).

Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto:

Also known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji is celebrated for its main building covered in lustrous gold leaf. Originally constructed in 1397 as a shogun’s retreat, it later transformed into a Zen temple. The temple reflects the shogun’s opulent taste and admiration for Chinese culture, set against the backdrop of a captivating pond and garden.

Japan Tokyo Asakusa Sensoji Temple
Asakusa Sensoji Temple

Etiquette for Visiting Temples in Japan

Exploring Japan’s temples and shrines is a fantastic way to soak in the country’s culture and spirituality. Yet, it’s essential to grasp some key etiquettes before you set foot in these sacred places. Here’s a rundown of the crucial points to keep in mind:

  • In Japan, shrines belong to Shinto, the country’s native religion, while temples are dedicated to Buddhism, introduced from China and India. You can distinguish them by their gate: shrines sport a simple torii gate, while temples feature a more intricate sanmon gate.
  • Before entering a shrine or temple, it’s customary to purify yourself at the water basin nearby. Use a ladle to cleanse your hands and mouth, but avoid drinking the water or spitting it back into the basin. Refrain from direct lip contact with the water or ladle.
  • As you come near the main hall of a shrine or temple, show respect by giving a donation and saying a prayer. Drop a coin into the offering box, bow two times, clap your hands twice (this is for shrines), and then bow once again. You could also ring a bell or gong before saying your prayer.
  • While visiting a temple, you might come across Buddhist statues or images. Please refrain from touching or taking pictures of them without permission. Respect any monks or nuns you encounter; avoid disrupting their meditation or chanting.
  • Entering a temple building might require you to remove your shoes and place them on a shelf or in a provided bag. Wear clean socks or bring a pair along if you’re not already wearing any. Also, take off your hat and any noisy accessories before stepping inside.
  • Mind your attire and behavior at shrines and temples. Avoid clothing that’s overly revealing or flashy; dress modestly and suitably for the weather. Refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, or speaking loudly on the premises. Additionally, avoid pointing at anything or anyone using your finger, as it’s considered impolite.

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