History of Japanese Buddhism
Arrival of Buddhism in China along the Silk Road
The arrival of Buddhism in China is ultimately a consequence of the first contacts between China and Central Asia, where Buddhism had spread from the Indian subcontinent. These contacts occurred with the opening of the Silk Road in the 2nd century BCE, following the travels of Zhang Qian between 138 and 126 BCE. These contacts culminated with the official introduction of Buddhism in China in 67 CE. Historians generally agree that by the middle of the 1st century, the religion had penetrated to areas north of the Huai River in China.
Kofun period (250 to 538)
According to the Book of Liang, which was written in 635, five Buddhist monks from Gandhara traveled to Japan in 467. At the time, they referred to Japan as Fusang (Chinese: 扶桑; Japanese pronunciation: Fusō), the name of a mythological country to the extreme east beyond the sea:
Fusang is located to the east of China, 20,000 li (1,500 kilometers) east of the state of Da Han [大漢, "China"] (itself east of the state of Wa in modern Kansai region, Japan). (...) In former times, the people of Fusang knew nothing of the Buddhist religion, but in the second year of Da Ming of the Song Dynasty (467), five monks from Kipin [Kabul region of Gandhara] travelled by ship to Fusang. They propagated Buddhist doctrine, circulated scriptures and drawings, and advised the people to relinquish worldly attachments. As a result the customs of Fusang changed.
— the monk Hui Shen (慧深), Book of Liang, 7th century[a]
Asuka Period (538 to 710) and Nara Period (710–794)
Although there are records of Buddhist monks from China coming to Japan before the Asuka Period, the "official" introduction of Buddhism to Japan is dated to 552 in Nihon Shoki when King Seong of Baekje (聖明王, now western Korea) sent a mission to the Emperor Kinmei that included Buddhist monks or nuns together with an image of Buddha and a number of sutras to introduce Buddhism. The powerful Soga clan played a key role in the early spread of Buddhism in the country. Initial uptake of the new faith was slow, and Buddhism only started to spread some years later when Empress Suiko openly encouraged the acceptance of Buddhism among all Japanese people.
According to legend, in Japan in 552, there was an attempt to destroy a tooth relic, one of the first of Buddha’s to arrive in the country; it was hit by a hammer into an anvil; the hammer and anvil were destroyed but the tooth was not. On January 15, 593, Soga no Umako ordered relics of Buddha deposited inside the foundation stone under the pillar of a pagoda at Asuka-dera.
In 607, in order to obtain copies of sutras, an imperial envoy was dispatched to Sui China. As time progressed and the number of Buddhist clergy increased, the offices of Sōjō (archbishop) and Sōzu (bishop) were created. By 627, there were 46 Buddhist temples, 816 Buddhist priests, and 569 Buddhist nuns in Japan.
The initial period saw the six great Chinese schools, called Nanto Rokushū (南都六宗 lit. the Six Nara Sects) in Japanese were introduced to the Japanese archipelago:
- Ritsu (Vinaya-focused Nikaya Buddhism)
- Jōjitsu (Tattvasiddhi, a sect of Nikaya Buddhism)
- Kusha-shū (Abhidharma-focused Nikaya Buddhism)
- Sanronshū (East Asian Mādhyamaka)
- Hossō (East Asian Yogācāra)
- Kegon (Huayan)
These schools were centered around the ancient capitals of Asuka and Nara, where great temples such as the Asuka-dera and Tōdai-ji were erected respectively. These were not exclusive schools, and temples were apt to have scholars versed in several of the schools. It has been suggested that they can best be thought of as "study groups". The Buddhism of these periods, known as the Asuka period and Nara period – was not a practical religion, being more the domain of learned priests whose official function was to pray for the peace and prosperity of the state and imperial house. This kind of Buddhism had little to offer to the illiterate and uneducated masses and led to the growth of "people’s priests" who were not ordained and had no formal Buddhist training. Their practice was a combination of Buddhist and Daoist elements and the incorporation of shamanistic features of indigenous practices. Some of these figures became immensely popular and were a source of criticism towards the sophisticated academic and bureaucratic Buddhism of the capital.
The Late Nara period saw the introduction of Tangmi (Esoteric Buddhism, Japanese mikkyō) to Japan from China by Kūkai and Saichō, who founded Shingon Buddhism and the Tendai school, respectively.
Heian Period (794 to 1185)
During the Heian period the capital was shifted from Nara to Kyoto. Monasteries became centers of powers, even establishing armies of Sōhei, warrior-monks.
Shinto and Buddhism became the dominant religions, maintaining a balance until the Meiji-restoration.
Kamakura Period (1185–1333)
The Kamakura period was a period of crisis in which the control of the country moved from the imperial aristocracy to the samurai. In 1185 the Kamakura shogunate was established at Kamakura.
This period saw the introduction of the two schools that had perhaps the greatest impact on the country: the schools of Pure Land Buddhism, promulgated by evangelists such as Genshin and articulated by monks such as Hōnen, which emphasize salvation through faith in Amitābha and remain the largest Buddhist sect in Japan (and throughout Asia); and Zen, promulgated by monks such as Eisai and Dōgen, which emphasize liberation through the insight of meditation, which were equally rapidly adopted by the upper classes and had a profound impact on the culture of Japan.
Additionally, it was during the Kamakura period that the influential monk Nichiren began teaching devotion to the Lotus Sutra. Eventually, his disciples formed their own school of Nichiren Buddhism, which includes various sects that have their own interpretations of Nichiren's teachings. Nichiren Buddhism established the foundation of Japanese Buddhism in the thirteenth century. The school is known for its sociopolitical activism and looks to reform society through faith.
Muromachi Period (or Ashikaga) (1336–1573)
In the Muromachi period, Zen, particularly the Rinzai school, obtained the help of the Ashikaga shogunate and the Emperor of Japan, and accomplished considerable development.
Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573–1600) and Edo Period (or Tokugawa) (1600–1868)
After the Sengoku period of war, Japan was re-united in the Azuchi–Momoyama period. This decreased the power of Buddhism, which had become a strong political and military force in Japan. Neo-Confucianism and Shinto gained influence at the expense of Buddhism, which came under strict state control. Japan closed itself off to the rest of the world. The only traders to be allowed were Dutchmen admitted to the island of Dejima.
New doctrines and methods were not to be introduced, nor were new temples and schools. The only exception was the Ōbaku lineage, which was introduced in the 17th century during the Edo period by Ingen, a Chinese monk. Ingen had been a member of the Linji school, the Chinese equivalent of Rinzai, which had developed separately from the Japanese branch for hundreds of years. Thus, when Ingen journeyed to Japan following the fall of the Ming dynasty to the Manchu people, his teachings were seen as a separate school. The Ōbaku school was named after Mount Huangbo (Chinese: 黄檗山; pinyin: Huángbò shān; Japanese pronunciation: Ōbaku san), which had been Ingen's home in China. Also notable during the period was the publication of an exceptionally high quality reprint of the Ming-era Tripiṭaka by Tetsugen Doko, a renowned master of the Ōbaku school.
Meiji Restoration (1868–1912)
With the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the new government adopted a strong anti-Buddhist attitude, and a movement to eradicate Buddhism and bring Shinto to ascendancy arose throughout the country due to the strong connections of Buddhism to the Shōguns.
During the Meiji period (1868–1912), after a coup in 1868, Japan abandoned its feudal system and opened up to Western modernism. Shinto became the state religion. Within the Buddhist establishment the Western world was seen as a threat as well as a challenge to stand up to. Buddhist institutions had a simple choice: adapt or perish. Rinzai and Soto Zen chose to adapt, trying to modernize Zen in accord with Western insights, while simultaneously maintaining a Japanese identity. Other schools, and Buddhism in general, simply saw their influence wane.
The edict of April 1872 ended the status of the Buddhist precepts as state law and allowed monks to marry and to eat meat. This "codification of a secularized lifestyle for the monk coupled with the revival of the emperor system and development of State Shinto were fundamental in desacralizing Buddhism and pushing it to the margins of society".
Japanese Imperialism (1931–1945)
Japanese identity was being articulated in Nihonjinron, the "Japanese uniqueness theory". A broad range of subjects was taken as typical of Japanese culture. D. T. Suzuki contributed to the Nihonjinron by taking Zen as the distinctive token of Asian spirituality, showing its unique character in the Japanese culture. Nichirenism was one particular expression of Japanese Buddhist nationalism.
During World War II, almost all Buddhists temples strongly supported Japan's militarization.
In contrast, a few individuals such as Ichikawa Haku, and Girō Seno’o were targeted, and the Soka Kyoiku Gakkai, a Nichiren lay believers' organization, was ultimately banned by military authorities. During the 1940s, "leaders of both Honmon Hokkeshu and Sokka Gakkai were imprisoned for their defiance of wartime government religious policy, which mandated display of reverence for state Shinto."
Post World War II, there was a high demand for Buddhist priests who glorified fallen soldiers, and gave funerals and posthumous names, causing a strong revival. However, due to secularization and the growth of materialism, Buddhism and religion in general continued to decline.
Japan has seen a growth in post war movements of lay believers of Buddhism As of 2008 approximately 34% of the Japanese identify as "Buddhists" and the number has been growing since the 1980s, as Buddhists were 27% in 1984.
and a decline in traditional Buddhism in the 20th century, with roughly 100 Buddhist organizations disappearing every year.
Still, around 90% of Japanese funerals are conducted according to Buddhist rites. "In 1963 Tamamuro Taijo coined the term Funeral Buddhism that came to be used to describe traditional Buddhism in Japan as the religion engaged in funerary rites and removed from the spiritual needs of people".
Contrary to the ritualistic practice of traditional Buddhism, a revived modern form of Nichiren Buddhism led by lay believers Soka Gakkai "...grew rapidly in the chaos of post war Japan from about 3000 members in 1951 to over 8 million members" in 2000, and has established schools, colleges and a university, as well as cultural institutions. A study about the reason for the growth in lay believers and increased engagement in society attributes the cause to Nichiren teachings of 'social responsibility': "In the tradition of Nichiren Buddhism, however, we find the Lotus Sutra linked to a view of social responsibility that is distinctive". According to an academic study, lay believers of Buddhism "...offer an alternative view of Japan where their form of Buddhism would form the religious foundation of a peaceful and psychologically and materially enriched society".