Buddhism in Japan   仏教

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Muro-ji temple in fall

The 6 schools of Japanese Buddhism

Religion in Japan is often a subject of curiosity for other cultures, because of the peaceful coexistence of Shintoism and Buddhism in Japanese society. Indeed, if we observe 75% of Japanese Buddhist practices, 90% of them say they also practice Shintoism, so in reality the vast majority actually practice two religions at the same time.

Buddhism is one of the two main religions in Japan. It was introduced to the archipelago from the fifth century AD, and developed considerably over the centuries, until becoming a major part of Japanese society. Today, it coexists in Japan alongside Shintoism - an animist religion - and has different schools born of various currents over time.

The beginnings of Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism was introduced to Japan by China, through contact between the different territories of the Far East because of the Silk Road. However, its official introduction is dated as 552 AD, when King Seong of Baekje (now South Korea) sent Buddhist missionaries with Buddhist images and sutras to Emperor Kinmei with the purpose of introducing Buddhism to Japan.

Read: A simplified history of Japan

In less than two centuries, during the Asuka and Nara eras, Buddhism developed considerably in Japan, thanks to its adoption by powerful clans: in 627, there were already nearly 50 Buddhist temples in Japan, as well as more than 800 monks and 700 nuns. By the Nara period (710-794), six different schools of Buddhism had already been founded in Japan: rather than separate religious currents, they could be identified as different groups of thought, settled in different temples. It was at this time that the famous Asuka-dera and Todai-ji temples were erected in Nara.

At that time, the Buddhist temples were places of instruction and education, schools really, and much more influential than today. The religion they taught then was a mixture of Buddhist and Taoist practices, with shamanic and indigenous elements. At the end of the Nara era, two new schools were born in Japan, associated with esoteric Buddhism: Shingon and Tendai, introduced respectively by the monks Kukai (better known as Kobo Daishi) and Saicho. While the basic schools of the Nara era have disappeared, giving way to other developments of Buddhist thought, these two schools of esoteric Buddhism are still around today.

Read also : Aoba matsuri, a festival for Kukai

Asuka-dear was build in the same era as Todai-ji, in the 8th century.

The Golden Temple or Kinkakuji, one of the jewels of Kyoto.

The Golden Pavilion, or Kinkakuji, one of the jewels of Kyoto.

The 6 schools of Japanese Buddhism today

Japanese Buddhism has undergone many changes since the Nara era, and the six schools that originally existed have now disappeared. By chance, the number of schools that survive today is also 6. It was during the Kamakura era (1185-1333) that the other schools of Buddhism that Japan has today developed. They are:

  • Tendai: founded in 822 by Saicho, it is the oldest school that persists today, and the most widespread. This branch of Buddhism reveres the Lotus Sutra, and is distinguished from its Chinese counterpart (Tien Tai) by its mysticism and esoteric aspects.
  • Shingon: founded by the monk Kukai in 835, this school is rival of the previous one. The system of Shingon Buddhism is Tantric. It teaches that through the repetition of mantras, meditation and ritual gestures, one can access the power of Buddhas and Boddisatvas.
  • Jodo, the school of "Pure Land" Buddhism: this school reveres the sutra of the Pure Land and preaches devotion to Buddha Amida. One can only achieve rebirth within the Pure Land this way, that is, the paradise where the Buddha resides. This school has become one of the most widespread forms of Buddhism in Japan.
  • Jodo-Shinshu, or the True School of the Pure Land: this sect goes further than the previous one, and teaches that humility and faith, in the love of Buddha Amida, are already present in the hearts of believers. In fact, Amida saves souls without pre-requisites. That is to say, the faith and the good deeds accomplished come spontaneously from Buddha Amida, who does not need any other proof to grant salvation.
  • Nichiren: Named after its founder, this school reveres the Lotus sutra and teaches that the repetition of this sutra is enough to reach paradise.
  • Zen: Zen includes different schools, but traditionally it is associated with the Rinzai sect, encouraged by Eisai. It relies on the authority of traditional Buddhist scriptures and the repetition of koan, a form of meditative phrase, as a means of transcending linear terrestrial thinking. The Soto sect also supports the authority and validity of the scriptures, but relies only on silent meditation, not on the koan.


For further reading :

  • Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines: what's the difference?

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