Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism, though it is not native to Japan, is the second most practiced religion in the country, and has heavily influenced Japanese culture and philosophy.

Of the many Buddhist schools, the first to arrive in Japan was the Mahayana, which later developed into Zen Buddhism, serving as a foundation for the ways of Japanese warriors (the bushido of the samurai).

Buddhist influence on Japanese society is evident from the thousands of Buddhist temples scattered around the country and the many joyous festivals held during the year. It is safe to say that, without Buddhism, Japan would be a totally different country.

Check out our short article below and learn more about Buddhism in Japan!

Quick Facts

  • Buddhism arrived in Japan around the 6th century via the Silk Road.
  • Zen Buddhism, for which meditation is the most important practice, is the main Buddhist school in Japan.
  • Visiting the temple is an important part of the daily lives of Buddhists.
  • Some of the most notable temples are the Senso-ji in Tokyo and the Pure Water Temple in Kyoto.
  • Visit Japan during summer to join the celebration for Obon, the most important Buddhist festival.

Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism in Japan has been practiced for more than 5 centuries, and nowadays approximately 34% of the Japanese population identify as Buddhists.

The percentage grows to 75% if we consider those who are not part of a religious organization but still follow Buddhist practices. For example, about 60% of Japanese people have a Buddhist shrine (called Butsudan) in their homes.

Practice of Buddhism in Japan

Visiting temples is the main activity of a practicing Buddhist. Visiting a temple is a way to honor the Buddha and pay one’s respects before his images and altars.

Buddhists will silently contemplate the images, bowing and praying before them; and will make offerings to the temple and the monks living in it.

Pilgrimages are an important part of Buddhism, as with many other religions. One of the most famous and spectacular pilgrimages is the 88 Temple Pilgrimage, which takes several weeks if done by foot. Pilgrims, dressed in white, can be spotted along the roads and inside the temples.

For Zen Buddhism, meditation is fundamental. Such meditation is to banish unnecessary thoughts, free the mind and calm it. Meditation brings valuable insights into the nature of existence, and helps the practitioner gain satori, or enlightenment.

Buddhist Sects in Japan

Buddhism has many different schools and sects, each with slightly different interpretations of doctrine and its application. After the Meiji Restoration, there were officially 13 schools and 56 branches of traditional Buddhism. Zen Buddhism, Shingon, and Tendai are three of the most important schools. 

Zen Buddhism

After Mahayana Buddhism arrived in Japan, it slowly developed into Zen Buddhism. It has been influenced by Chinese Buddhism, especially with the concepts of sudden enlightenment and the close connection between humans and nature. The word zen means “meditation”, a pivotal concept in Zen Buddhism: meditation is the only way to achieve self-realization.

Shingon

Shingon Buddhism was founded in 816, and is now one of the principal Buddhist schools in the country. It was introduced to Japan by travelling monks, and regards enlightenment as something easily attainable during a lifetime, assuming the proper spiritual and corporal training.

Tendai

Tendai Buddhism was introduced to Japan in 807. It reckons all teaching of the Buddha can be unified into a unique system. Its primary text is the famous Lotus Sutra. The ability to attain enlightenment is within all things, and the world we live in is an expression of Dharma, the Buddhist law.

History of Buddhism in Japan

After originating in India, Buddhism arrived in Han China via the Silk Road in the first century AD. Thanks to the Silk Road, monks kept travelling back and forth throughout India and China, greatly contributing to the development of Buddhism in China.

Mahayana Buddhism reached Japan around the 6th century, passing first through the Korean peninsula. Many volumes of Buddhist scripture and an image of Shakyanumi Buddha were part of a diplomatic gift. Within the span of a hundred years, Buddhism was firmly established in Japanese culture: dozens of temples had been built and hundreds of priests had been ordained.

In the 7th century, Tantra Buddhism reached China, and Tibetan Buddhism became one of its branches. Around the 8th century, however, the transmission of Buddhism via the Silk Road (and Indian Buddhism itself) began to decline, mostly because of the expansion of Muslim influence.

Artistic Influence and Motifs

Buddhist art started developing around the 6th century, displaying a classical style influenced by Greek art and mythology. The Japanese Buddhist pantheon borrows heavily from the Greek one. For example, the wind god Fujin is represented as Boreas, the Greek wind god; and Shukongoshin, protector of the temples, resembles Heracles.

The most striking Greek feature is the floral scroll, to be found almost everywhere on Japanese roof tiles. One of the best examples is Nara temple, where the tiles (from the 7th century) depict grapes and vines.

Notable Temples in Japan

Buddhist temples are sacred places where Buddhists can pray, give offerings to monks, and pay respects to the Buddha. In Japan they are ubiquitous. They share much in common with Shinto Shrines, which were first among all traditional Japanese architecture.

To tourists, temples are beautiful religious buildings at the heart of many festivals every year.

Kiyomizudera Temple, Kyoto

The “Pure Water Temple” is extremely popular in Japan. Founded in 780 near Otowa Waterfall, the temple is famous all over the country for its wooden stage 13 meters above the hillside below. From the stage, you have a magnificent view of the cherry trees below and of the city of Kyoto.

The shrine inside the temple, Jishu Shrine, is dedicated to the god of love and matchmaking.

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), Kyoto

This temple is known as the “Golden Pavillon”, because its two top floors are covered in gold leaves. The structure, built over a pond, is imposing, having been destroyed and reconstructed over the centuries.

Its floors are built in different styles: the first follows the Shinden style, with natural wood pillars and white walls; while the second is built in the Bukke style used for samurai dwellings. The third floor is built like a Chinese Zen Hall.

Todaiji Temple, Nara

The Great Eastern Temple was built during the 8th century as the foremost of all Buddhist temples of Japan, and for a period it was extraordinarily important. The Big Buddha Hall is the largest wooden structure in the world, and houses a 15-meter tall bronze statue of Buddha.

To reach the temple, you will go through the Nandaimon Gate, guarded by two fierce statues representing the Nio Guardian Kings.

Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo

Senso-ji is known as one of the most colorful temples in Tokyo. It was built in 645 for Kannon, the goddess of mercy, and nowadays its gate, Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) is a symbol for the entire capital city.

The path leading to the gate is 200 meters long, with dozens of shops on either side; but the main features of the temple are the main hall, a five-storied pagoda, and the Asakusa Shrine (1649).

The Philosopher’s Walk

Nishida Kitaro, a famous Japanese philosopher, used to meditate as he walked along this stone path in Kyoto, surrounded in April by blossoming cherry trees. Today, you will find numerous restaurants, cafes, and boutiques along the path, between the temples and the shrine.

Honen-in is the most famous temple, mainly because of its gate, particularly beautiful during the autumn season. The path follows the Lake Biwa Canal, built during the Meiji Restoration for a hydroelectric power plant.

Etiquette for Visiting Temples

Etiquette for visiting a temple resembles that for visiting any other sacred place: be quiet and respectful. Pray in front of any sacred object and make a small offering (a coin may be enough).

In some temples, there are large incense burners where visitors can buy candles. Light your candle and let it burn for just a few seconds, before extinguishing the flame with a gentle movement of the hand. For Buddhists, the smoke of the incense has healing power, so try to fan some of the smoke back towards yourself.

Remember to take off your shoes before entering a temple, and that taking pictures inside is forbidden. 

Obon — an Annual Buddhist Festival

Obon, the most important Buddhist festival in Japan, is held to commemorate ancestors, as it is believed that, on this day, ancestors will return to the world to visit their families. Hundreds of lanterns are hung outside the houses to guide the spirits, and people offer food to the temples and perform the obon dance.

The end of the festival is marked by beautiful floats placed into rivers and lakes, to help guide the spirits to return to their world.

Many regions convene the festival during mid-August (from 13th to 15th), while others celebrate it in July.

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The long-lasting effects of this centuries-old religion are palpable in many aspects of Japanese culture: greatly contributing to the charm and uniqueness of the culture. Don’t delay in planning your next Japanese adventure: with the help of our knowledgeable staff, you will enjoy the hassle-free trip you have been dreaming of.

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