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Buddhism in Japan: A Brief History

Part I: Introduction, Nara Period, Shingon, Tendai and Pure Land



Eiheiji is the head temple of Soto Zen Buddhism. It was founded in 1244 by Dogen Zenji.

Shok/Flickr.com, Creative Commons License

It took several centuries for Buddhism to travel from India to Japan. Once Buddhism was established in Japan, however, it flourished. Buddhism had an incalculable impact on Japanese civilization. At the same time, schools of Buddhism imported from mainland Asia became distinctively Japanese.

The Introduction of Buddhism to Japan

In the 6th century -- either 538 or 552 CE, depending on which historian one consults -- a delegation sent by a Korean prince arrived at the court of the Emperor of Japan. The Koreans brought with them Buddhist sutras, an image of the Buddha, and a letter from the Korean prince praising the dharma. This was the official introduction of Buddhism to Japan.

The Japanese aristocracy promptly split into pro- and anti-Buddhist factions. Buddhism gained little real acceptance until the reign of the Empress Suiko and her regent, Prince Shotoku, 592-628 CE. The Empress and the Prince established Buddhism as the state religion. They encouraged expression of the dharma in arts, in philanthropy, and in education. They built temples and established monasteries.

In the centuries that followed, Buddhism in Japan developed robustly. During the 7th through 9th centuries Buddhism in China enjoyed a "golden age," and Chinese monks brought the newest developments in practice and scholarship to Japan. The many schools of Buddhism that developed in China were established in Japan also.

Nara Buddhism

Six schools of Buddhism emerged in Japan in the 7th and 8th centuries, all but two of which have disappeared. Because these schools flourished mostly during the Nara Period of Japanese history (709-795 CE), they are sometimes today lumped together into one category, Nara Buddhism. The two schools that still have some following are Hosso and Kegon.

Hosso. The Hosso, or "Dharma Character," school, was introduced to Japan by the monk Dosho (629-700). Dosho went to China to study with Hsuan-tsang, the founder of the Wei-shih (also called Fa-hsiang) school. Wei-shih had developed from the Yogachara school of India. Very simply, Yogachara teaches that things have no reality in themselves. The reality we thnk we perceive does not exist except as as a process of knowing.

Kegon. In 740 the Chinese monk Shen-hsiang introduced the Huayan, or "Flower Garland," school to Japan. Called Kegon in Japan, this school of Buddhism is best known for its teachings on the interpenetration of all things -- that is, all things and all beings not only reflect all other things and beings but also the Absolute in its totality. See, for example, Indra's Net.

Emperor Shomu, who reigned from 724 to 749, was a patron of Kegon. He began construction of the magnificent Todaiji, or Great Eastern Monastery, in Nara. Todaiji's main hall is the world's largest wooden building to this day. It houses the Great Buddha of Nara, a massive bronze seated figure that is 15 meters, or about 50 feet, tall. Today, Todaiji remains the center of the Kegon school.

After the Nara period, five other schools of Buddhism emerged in Japan that remain prominent today. These are Tendai, Shingon, Jodo, Zen and Nichiren.


The monk Saicho (767-822; also called Dengyo Daishi) traveled to China in 804 and returned the following year with the doctrines of the Tiantai school. The Japanese form, Tendai, rose to great prominence and was a dominant school of Buddhism in Japan for centuries.

Tendai is best known for two distinctive features. One, it considers the Lotus Sutra to be the supreme sutra and the perfect expression of the Buddha's teachings. Second, it synthesizes the teachings of other schools, resolving contradictions and finding a middle way between extremes.

Saicho's other contribution to Japanese Buddhism was the establishment of the great Buddhist education and training center at Mount Hiei, near the new capital of Kyoto. As we'll see, many important historical figures of Japanese Buddhism began their study of Buddhism at Mount Hiei.


Like Saicho, the monk Kukai (774-835; also called Kobo Daishi) traveled to China in 804. There he studied Buddhist tantra and returned two years later to establish the distinctively Japanese school of Shingon and build a monastery on Mount Koya, about 50 miles south of Kyoto.

Shingon is the only non-Tibetan school of Vajrayana. Many of the teachings and rituals of Shingon are esoteric, passed orally from teacher to student and not made public. Shingon remains one of the largest schools of Buddhism in Japan.

Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu

To honor his father's dying wish, Honen (1133-1212) became a monk at Mount Hiei. Dissatisfied with Buddhism as it was taught to him, Honen introduced the Chinese school of Pure Land to Japan by founding Jodo Shu.

Very simply, Pure Land emphasizes faith the Buddha Amitabha, Called Amida Butsu in Japanese, through which one may be reborn in the Pure Land and be nearer to Nirvana. Pure Land is sometimes called Amidism.

Honen converted another Mount Hiei monk, Shinran (1173-1263). Shinran was Honen's disciple for six years. After Honen was exiled in 1207, Shinran gave up his monk's robes, married and fathered children. As a layman he founded Jodo Shinshu, a school of Buddhism for laypeople. Jodo Shinshu today is the largest sect in Japan.

In Part II: Zen comes to Japan; Nichiren, a fiery reformer, takes on the Japanese Buddhist establishment; a warlord burns Mount Hiei.

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