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Buddhism in Japan: A Brief History

Part II: Zen and Nichiren to the Meiji Period



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

Shok/Flickr.com, Creative Commons License


The story of Zen in Japan begins with Eisai (1141-1215), a monk who left his studies at Mount Hiei to study Ch'an Buddhism in China. Before returning to Japan he became the dharma heir of Hsu-an Huai-ch'ang, a Rinzai teacher. Thus Eisai became the first Ch'an -- or, in Japanese, Zen -- master in Japan.

The Rinzai lineage established by Eisai would not last; Rinzai Zen in Japan today comes from other lineages of teachers. Another monk, one who studied briefly under Eisai, would establish the first permanent school of Zen in Japan.

In 1204, the Shogun appointed Eisai to be abbot of Kennin-ji, a monastery in Kyoto. In 1214, an adolescent monk named Dogen (1200-1253) came to Kennin-ji to study Zen. When Eisai died the following year, Dogen continued Zen studies with Eisai's successor, Myozen. Dogen received dharma transmission -- confirmation as a Zen master -- from Myozen in 1221.

In 1223 Dogen and Myozen went to China to seek out Ch'an masters. Dogen experienced a profound realization of enlightenment while studying with T'ien-t'ung Ju-ching, a Soto master, who also gave Dogen dharma transmission.

Dogen returned to Japan in 1227 to spend the rest of his life teaching Zen. Dogen is the dharma ancestor of all Japanese Soto Zen Buddhists today. His body of writing, called Shobogenzo, or "Treasury of the True Dharma Eye," remains central to Japanese Zen, especially of the Soto school, and is considered one of the outstanding works of the religious literature of Japan.


Nichiren (1222-1282) was a monk and reformer who founded the most uniquely Japanese school of Buddhism. After some years of study at Mount Hiei and other monasteries, Nichiren believed that the Lotus Sutra contained the complete teachings of the Buddha. He devised the daimoku, a practice of chanting the phrase Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, "Devotion to the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra," as a simple, direct way to realize enlightenment.

Nichiren also believed fervently that all of Japan must be guided by the Lotus Sutra or lose the protection and favor of the Buddha. He condemend other schools of Buddhism, especially Pure Land. The Buddhist establishment became annoyed with Nichiren and sent him into a series of exiles that lasted most of the rest of his life. Even so, he gained followers, and by the time of his death Nichiren Buddhism was firmly established in Japan.

Japanese Buddhism After Nichiren

After Nichiren, no new major schools of Buddhism developed in Japan. However, the existing schools grew, evolved, split, fused and otherwise developed in many ways.

The Muromachi Period (1336–1573). Japanese Buddhist culture flourished in the 14th century, and Buddhist influence was reflected in art, poetry, architecture, gardening and the tea ceremony.

In the Muromachi Period, Tendai and Shingon schools in particular enjoyed the favor of Japanese nobility. In time this favoritism led to partisan rivalry, which sometimes became violent. The Shingon monastery on Mount Koya and the Tendai monastery on Mount Hiei became citadels guarded by warrior monks. The Shingon and Tendai priesthood gained political and military power.

The Momoyama Period (1573–1603). The warlord Oda Nobunaga overthrew the government of Japan in 1573. He also attacked Mount Hiei, Mount Koya, and other influential Buddhist temples. Most of the monastery on Mount Hiei was destroyed. Mount Koya was better defended. But Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Nobunaga's successor, continued the oppression of Buddhist institutions until they were all brought under his control.

The Edo Period (1603–1867). Tokugawa Ieyasu established the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603 in what is now Tokyo. During this period many of the temples and monasteries destroyed by Nobunaga and Hideyoshi were rebuilt, although not as fortresses as some had been before.

The influence of Buddhism declined, however. Buddhism faced competition from Shinto, the Japanese indigenous religion, and Confucianism. To keep the three rivals separated, the government decreed that Buddhism would have first place in matters of religion; Confucianism would have first place in matters of morality, and Shinto would have first place in matters of state.

The Meiji Period (1868-1912). The Meiji Restoration in 1868 restored the power of the emperor. In the state religion, Shinto, the emperor was worshiped as a living god. The emperor was not a god in Buddhism, however. This may be why the Meiji government ordered Buddhism banished in 1868. Temples were burned or destroyed, and priests and monks were forced to return to lay life.

Buddhism was too deeply ingrained in Japan's culture and history to disappear, however. Eventually the banishment was lifted. But the Meihi government was not done with Buddhism yet.

In 1872, the Meiji government decreed that Buddhist monks and priests (but not nuns) should be free to marry if they chose to do so. Soon "temple families" became commonplace and the administration of temples and monasteries became family businesses, handed down from fathers to sons.

In Part III: Is Buddhism dying in Japan?

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