Buddhism Around The World


Buddhism in Japan


Japan is a string of islands, on the eastern edge of Asia. The four main islands from north to south are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyūshū. Most Japanese citizens practice a syncretic blend of Shintoism and Buddhism. Very small minorities practice Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism. Japan has a unique and captivating culture that has fascinated people from all around the world. From its rich history to its technological innovations, Japan has continuously proved to be a country that embraces both tradition and modernity.

History of Buddhism

Japanese Buddhism was introduced in 525 CE during Asuka period. Buddhism arrived in Japan from Korea, when the monarch of the Korean kingdom of Baekje sent a mission to Japan with gifts, including an image of the Buddha, several ritual objects, and sacred texts. This event is usually considered the official introduction of Buddhism to Japan. Buddhism's journey from India to China, Korea, and Japan had taken about a thousand years. However, Buddhism did not spread across Japan until the reign of the Emperor the Prince Shotoku (592-628 CE). Prince Shotoku played a significant role in promoting Buddhism, establishing temples, and implementing Buddhist principles in governance. Initially, it faced resistance from the indigenous Shinto beliefs. Still, it gradually integrated into Japanese society and gave rise to diverse Buddhist schools such as Shingon, Tendai, Pure Land, and Zen Buddhism. These schools had a profound impact on Japanese culture, art, and philosophy.

In 653 CE, a Japanese monk named Dosho played an influential role in the founding of Buddhism in Japan, who travelled to China in the 7th century CE to study Buddhism under the Tendai master Xuanzang, who travelled to India from 629 to 645 CE and studied under monk Silabhadra abbot of Nalanda. Throughout history, Buddhism in Japan experienced periods of growth, but it remained a central aspect of Japanese life. It remains a source of wisdom and compassion. Today, Japanese Buddhism is thriving, blending tradition with modernity, and serving as a source of spiritual guidance for millions.

Buddhist Sects in Japan

Buddhism in Japan is characterized by a rich diversity of sects, each with its own teachings, practices, and historical significance. Here are few of the prominent Buddhist sects in Japan:

  1. Tendai: Founded by monk Saichō in 9th Century CE, Tendai emphasizes the Lotus Sutra and the concept of "attaining Buddhahood in this lifetime". Enryaku-ji on Mount Hiei near Kyoto is the main centre of Tendai Buddhism.

  2. Shingon: Introduced by the monk Kukai in the 9th century, Shingon is an esoteric school that focuses on rituals, mantras, and meditation. It traces its origins to Vajrayana Buddhism in India.

  3. Jōdo bukkyō or Pure Land: This sect, founded by Honen and Shinran in the Kamakura period (12-13 century), teaches devotion to the Buddha Amitabha and the recitation of his name to attain rebirth in his Pure Land.

  4. Zen: This sect derived from Chinese Chan Buddhism, emphasizes meditation and direct insight into the nature of reality. Zen Buddhism traces its origin to Indian Dhyana/Jhana comtemplative absorption school popularized by Monk Bodhidharma. It has several sub-sects including Rinzai, Soto, and Obaku.

  5. Nichiren: Nichiren Buddhism was founded by a Tendai monk named Nichiren in the 13th century. This sect focuses on the Lotus Sutra.

  6. Jōdo shū: Jodo Buddhism is a branch of Pure Land Buddhism derived from the teachings of the Japanese ex-Tendai monk Honen. It was established in 1175 and is the most widely practiced branch of Buddhism in Japan, along with Jodo Shinshu.

  7. Kegon: Kegon school was established in Japan by the monk Roben in the 8th century CE. The school emphasis the interconnectedness and interpenetration of all phenomena, as detailed in the Avatamsaka Sutra. The headquarter of the Kegon school is Todai-ji temple in Nara.

  8. Sanbo Kyodan: The Sanbo Kyodan is Zen Buddhist sect based in Japan. This sect was formally founded on 08/01/1954 by Yasutani Hakuun, one of the principal successors of the Zen teacher Harada Daiun. Yasutani had three influential western students. The was Philip kapleau, an American who became a student of Harada's in 1953 and was later a disciple of Yasutani's. Kapleau establish the Rochester Zen Center (https://www.rzc.org/) which now has branches throughout the United States and other countries.

    Robert Aitken was another American who studied with Yasutani. He established the Diamond Sangha a network (https://www.diamondsangha.com/) of temples based in Hawaii which remained part of Sanbō Kyōdan until 1995 when it became a completely independent organization. Yasutani's students also in included Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle, a Roman Catholic priest who eventually became a Zen teacher while retaining his Christian faith. Almost all Sanbō Kyōdan's current membership outside of Japan is made up of Zen-Catholic teachers influenced by Enomiya-Lassalle, along with their supporters.

Buddhist Festival

In Japan, Buddhist festivals known as " bukkyō matsuri" are celebrated throughout the year. These are a few examples of Buddhist festivals celebrated in Japan each with its unique customs, traditions, and regional variations:

  1. Shusho- e Service: (New Year's Day) Shusho- e is celebrated annually to welcome the gods of harvest and the spirits of ancestors who protect their families.

  2. Setsubun Service: The Heralding of Spring means "seasonal division" and is a festival held on the day before the beginning of spring according to the Japanese lunar calendar.

  3. Nehan-e Service: (The Parinirvana of the Buddha) This service is held in observance of Shakyamuni Buddha's passing away in February.

  4. Higan-e Service: Higan is a seven-day Buddhist memorial service held three days before, after and on the spring and autumn equinox.

  5. Obon: (Buddhist Memorial Day) Obon is one of the most significant Buddhist festivals in Japan, honouring the spirits of ancestors.

  6. Hana matsuri or Kanbutsu-e: Also known as the Flower Festival or Buddha's Birthday, Hana matsuri is the celebration of the birth of Siddhartha Gautama in April.

  7. Segaki Service: (Buddhist Thanksgiving) Segaki means the offering to those who are in desperate need.

  8. Jōdō-e Service: (The Buddha's Enlightenment) Jōdō-e Service falls in December on the day Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment.

  9. Joya-e Service: New Year's Eve.

Buddhist Scriptures

Buddhist scriptures hold great importance in Japan as they embody the teachings and wisdom of the Buddha. These sacred texts known as sutras serve as the foundation for Buddhist practice and study and are highly revered. Among the most respected scriptures are the Lotus Sutra, Heart Sutra, and Diamond Sutra each of which is cherished for its profound insights into enlightenment and compassionate living. Over the centuries, Japanese Buddhists have worked diligently to preserve, translate, and disseminate these scriptures, ensuring their accessibility to practitioners throughout the country. Today, Buddhist scriptures continue to be highly valued in temples and households, guiding followers on their journey towards spiritual awakening and enlightenment.

Role of Buddhism in daily lives

Buddhism has a significant role in the daily lives of Japanese people. It influences various aspects such as rituals, traditions, and beliefs. Many Japanese people engage in Buddhist practices such as meditation, visiting temples for ceremonies or prayers, and observing Buddhist holidays. Buddhist concepts such as impermanence, mindfulness, and compassion often shape their perception and guide personal conduct. Additionally, Buddhist rituals are commonly performed for events like births, weddings, and funerals, illustrating its pervasive influence in Japanese society.

Temples and Monasteries

Japan is home to numerous famous temples and monasteries, each with its own historical, cultural, and architectural significance. Here are some notable ones:

  1. Kiyomizu-dera(Kyoto): A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kiyomizu-dera is known for its wooden stage that offers panoramic views of Kyoto. Founded in the 8th century, it is associated with Pure Land and Tendai Buddhism.

  2. Todai-ji (Nara): This temple was founded in 7th century. It houses the Great Buddha statue, one of Japan's largest bronze statues along with the largest wooden structure in the world.

  3. Horyu-ji (Nara): Horyuji Temple was founded in 607 by Prince Shotoku, as one of the oldest wooden structures in the world. It is associated with the Shingon sect of Buddhism.

  4. Kinkaku-ji (Kyoto): Kinkaku-ji is renowned for its stunning gold leaf exterior set amidst a tranquil pond and garden. It was originally built in the 14th century and is affiliated with Zen Buddhism.

  5. Ryoan-ji (Kyoto): This Zen temple is famous for its rock garden, designed to facilitate meditation and contemplation. Ryoan-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is associated with the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism.

  6. Engaku-ji (Kamakura): Founded in the 13th century, Engaku-ji is one of the most important Zen temples in Kamakura. It features a serene atmosphere, traditional architecture, and beautiful gardens.

  7. Enryaku-ji (Mount Hiei): Located on Mount Hiei near Kyoto, Enryaku-ji is the headquarter of the Tendai sect of Buddhism. It played a crucial role in the development of Japanese Buddhism and boasts scenic mountain views.

  8. Eiheiji (Fukui Prefecture): Founded by Zen master Dogen in the 13th century, Eiheiji is one of the main training centers for Soto Zen Buddhism. It is renowned for its rigorous meditation practices and austere lifestyle.

  9. NanzenjiTemple: is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto which was established by Emperor Kameyama in 1291. It is also the headquarter of the Nanzen ji branch of Ranzai Zen.

Present Status of Buddhism in Japan

The current state of Buddhism in Japan is a blend of tradition and modernization. While there are certain challenges such as a decline in membership and an aging population of practitioners, Buddhism still holds significant cultural value and is involved in social welfare activities. Japan's religious approach is syncretic with Buddhism coexisting with Shintoism and other spiritual beliefs. Despite the challenges, Buddhist institutions are adapting and addressing contemporary issues, building links both locally and internationally.

Buddhist organization

These are just a few examples of government-recognized organizations and NGOs related to Buddhism in Japan. They represent a range of activities, from religious administration and education to social welfare and humanitarian aid, reflecting the diverse roles that Buddhism plays in Japanese society. Some of the prominent organisations are:

  1. Nihon bukkyō Kyogikai (Japanese Buddhist Federation): This is an umbrella organization that represents various Buddhist sects in Japan. It serves as a liaison between the government and Buddhist institutions, dealing with issues such as religious affairs, education, and cultural preservation. Website: https://www.jbf.ne.jp/

  2. Nihon bukkyō Dendo Kyokai (Society for the Promotion of Buddhism): Established in 1965, this organization is officially recognized by the Japanese government and aims to promote Buddhist teachings and values both domestically and internationally. Website: https://www.bdk.or.jp/english/

  3. Rissho Kosei-kai is established during a time when Japanese society finds itself greatly affected by World War II. Members strive using skilful means to help people resolve problems of daily life such as extreme poverty, incurable illness, and domestic conflict, and to lead them to the Dhamma. Website: https://rk-world.org/

  4. Buddhist Relief Services: This NGO provides humanitarian aid and support to marginalized communities in Japan and abroad. It operates independently of government recognition and relies on donations and volunteer efforts. Website - relief.utbf.org, email - relief@utbf.org

  5. International Network of Engaged Buddhists: JNEB's primary purpose is not necessarily developing new engaged Buddhist activities at the grassroots level. Rather, as a network, it seeks to increase the systemic efficiency of engaged Buddhists within Japan and internationally through various forms of coordination. Website: https://jneb.net/about/

Buddhist Universities in Japan

Japan's Buddhist universities and monastic schools play a crucial role in preserving and transmitting Buddhist teachings. They offer a unique blend of academic study and traditional monastic training, contributing to both the scholarly and spiritual aspects of Buddhism. Some of the Buddhist prominent universities and monastic Institutions are mentioned below:

Buddhist Universities in Japan

1. Ryukoku University

- Location: Kyoto

- Affiliation: Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha (Pure Land Buddhism)

Founded in 1639, Ryukoku University is one of the oldest universities in Japan and a significant center for Buddhist studies. It offers a wide range of programs, from undergraduate to doctoral levels, and has a strong emphasis on humanities and social sciences with a particular focus on Buddhist culture and philosophy. https://www.ryukoku.ac.jp/english2/

2. Komazawa University

- Location: Tokyo

- Affiliation: Sōtō Zen Buddhism

Established in 1592, Komazawa University is one of the oldest Sōtō Zen educational institutions. It offers programs in various disciplines, including Buddhist studies, literature, economics, and law, promoting the integration of Buddhist principles into modern education. https://www.komazawa-u.ac.jp/english/

3. Taisho University

- Location: Tokyo

- Affiliation: Founded by the four major Japanese Buddhist sects (Jodo, Shingon, Tendai, and Rinzai)

Established in 1926, Taisho University is unique in being founded by multiple Buddhist sects. It offers diverse programs with a focus on Buddhist studies and other fields, promoting inter-sectarian dialogue and cooperation. It is accredited by Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. https://www.tais.ac.jp/english/

4. Bukkyo University

- Location: Kyoto

- Affiliation: Jodo Shinshu

Founded in 1912, Bukkyo University focuses on the study of Buddhism, education, social welfare, and cultural studies. It aims to foster a deep understanding of Buddhist teachings and their application in contemporary society. It is accredited by Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. https://www.bukkyo-u.ac.jp/english/

5. International College for Postgraduate Buddhist Studies

- Location: Minato, Tokyo

- Affiliation: Buddhist Studies

Found in 1995, and formally opened on April 1, 1996. The university offers only one specialized program, a Ph.D. program in Buddhism, and only 20 students are enrolled into the program. The University officially recognised by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Buddhist Monastic Institutions in Japan

1. Eiheiji

- Location: Fukui Prefecture

- Affiliation: Sōtō Zen Buddhism

Founded in 1244 by Dogen Zenji, Eiheiji is one of the two head temples of the Sōtō school. It serves as a major training center for monks, focusing on rigorous Zen practice, including zazen (seated meditation), sutra chanting, and manual labour.

2. Mt. Hiei - Enryakuji

- Location: Shiga Prefecture

- Affiliation: Tendai Buddhism

Established in 788 by Saicho (Dengyo Daishi), Enryakuji is the headquarters of the Tendai school. It has a long history of monastic training and scholarly activity, emphasizing esoteric practices and the study of Tendai doctrines.

3. Koyasan - Kongobuji

- Location: Wakayama Prefecture

- Affiliation: Shingon Buddhism

Founded in 816 by Kukai (Kobo Daishi), Koyasan is the center of Shingon Buddhism. Kongobuji serves as the head temple, with a focus on esoteric practices, meditation, and ritual, providing a comprehensive monastic education.

4. Tsurphu Monastery

- Location: Kyoto

- Affiliation: Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism

Although Tsurphu Monastery is originally Tibetan, its traditions are preserved in Japan through affiliated centers. It offers traditional Karma Kagyu teachings, emphasizing meditation, philosophical study, and ritual practice. https://www.kagyuoffice.org.tw/