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The history of Buddhism in Japan can be roughly divided into three periods, namely the Nara period (710 - 794), the Heian period (794–1185) and the post-Heian period (1185 onwards). Each period saw the introduction of new doctrines and upheavals in existing schools. See Sōhei (warrior monks).

In modern times, the main paths of Buddhism are Amidist (Pure Land) schools, Nichiren Buddhism, Shingon Buddhism and Zen Buddhism.

The root of the Japanese word for Buddhism, comes from (butsu, “buddha”) + (kyō, “teaching”).

Arrival along the Silk Road

The arrival of Buddhism in Japanmarker is ultimately a consequence of the first contacts between Chinamarker and Central Asia which occurred with the opening of the Silk Road in the 2nd century BC, following the travels of Zhang Qian between 138 and 126 BC, which culminated with the official introduction of Buddhism in China in 67 AD. Historians generally agree that by the middle of the 1st century, the religion had penetrated to areas north of the Huai River.

Early Chinese accounts

In 467 AD, according to the Chinese historic treatise Liang Shu, five monks from Gandhara traveled to the country of Fusang ( , Jp: Fusō: "The country of the extreme East" beyond the sea, probably eastern Japanmarker), where they introduced Buddhism:

The initial period saw the introduction onto Japanese soil of the six great Chinese schools, including the Huayan and , that became respectively the Kegon and Ritsu in Japanese. In terms of geography, the six sects were centered around the capital city of Nara, where great temples such as the Tōdai-jimarker and Hokki-jimarker were erected. However, the Buddhism of this early period – later known as the 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 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 Taoist elements, and the incorporation of shamanistic features of the indigenous religion. These figures became immensely popular, and were a source of criticism towards the sophisticated academic and bureaucratic Buddhism of the capital.

Nara Period

The introduction of Buddhism to Japanmarker is securely dated to 552 in Nihon Shoki, when Seong of Baekje sent monks from Koreamarker to Nara to introduce the eight doctrinal schools. 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. In 607, in order to obtain copies of Sutras, an imperial envoy was dispatched to Sui dynasty Chinamarker. As time progressed and the number of Buddhist clergy increased, the offices of Sojo (archbishop) and Sozu (bishop) were created. By 627 there were 46 Buddhist temples, 816 Buddhist priests, and 569 Buddhist nuns in Japan.

There were traditionally six schools of Buddhism in Nara Japan: Ritsu (Vinaya), Jojitsu (Satyasiddhi), Kusha (Abhidharma) Sanron (Madhyamika), Hosso (Yogacara), and Kegon (Hua-yen). However they 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".


Founded by Dàoxuān (道宣, Jp. Dosen), China, c. 650 CE

First Introduction to Japan: Ganjin (鑑真), 753 CE. The Ritsu school specialized in the Vinaya (the monastic rules in the Tripitaka). They used the Dharmagupta version of the vinaya which is known in Japanese as Shibunritsu 四分律)


The Satyasiddhi school is considered to be an offshoot of the Sautrantika school, one of the Nikaya schools of Indian Buddhism (see early Buddhist schools). They were distinguished by a rejection of the Abhidharma as not being the "word of the Buddha". The name means literally, "Ends with the Sutras", which refers to the traditional order of texts in the Tripitaka—vinaya, sutra, abhidharma.


Introduced into Japan from China during the Nara period (710–784). The school takes its name from its authoritative text, the Abidatsuma-kusha-ron(Sanskrit:Abhidharma-kosa), by the 4th- or 5th-century Indian philosopher Vasubandhu. The Kusha school is considered to be an offshoot of the Indian Sarvastivada school.


Literally: Three-Discourse School; a Madhyamika school which developed in China based on two discourses by Nagarjuna and one by Aryadeva. This school was transmitted to Japan in the 7th century. Madhyamika is one of the two most important Mahayana philosophies, and reemphasizes the original Buddhist teachings that phenomena are neither truly existent or absolutely non-existent, but are characterized by impermanence and insubstantially.


The Yogacara (瑜伽行派 Yugagyouha) schools are based on early Indian Buddhist thought by masters such as Vasubandhu, and are also known as "consciousness only" since they teach a form of idealism which posits that all phenomena are phenomena of the mind. The Hosso school was founded by Xuanzang (玄奘, Jp. Genjo), China, c. 630 CE, and introduced to Japan in 654 CE. The Discourse on the Theory of Consciousness-Only (Jo yuishikiron 成唯識論) is an important text for the Hosso school.


Also known by its Chinese name Huayen (華厳), the Kegon school was founded by Dushun (杜順, Jp. Dojun), China, c. 600 CE, and introduced to Japan by Bodhisena in 736 CE. The Avatamsaka Sutra (Kegonkyō 華厳経) is the central text for the Kegon school. The Shin'yaku Kegonkyō Ongi Shiki is an early Japanese annotation of this sūtra.

Heian Period

The Late Nara period saw the introduction of Esoteric Buddhism (密教, Jp. mikkyo) to Japan from China, by Kūkai and Saichō, who founded the Shingon and Tendai schools. The later Heian period saw the formation of the first truly Japanese school of Buddhism, that of Nichiren.


Known as Tiantai (天台) in China, the Tendai school was founded by Zhiyi (智顗, Jp Chigi) in China, c. 550 CE. In 804 Saichō (最澄) traveled to China to study at the Tiantai teachings, at Mount Tiantai. However before his return he also studied, and was initiated into the practice of the Vajrayana - with emphasis on the Mahavairocana Sutra. The primary text of Tiantai is Lotus Sutra (Hokkekyo 法華経), but when Saichō established his school in Japan he incorporated the study and practice of Vajrayana as well.


Kūkai traveled to China in 804 as part of the same expedition as Saichō. In the T'ang capital he studied esoteric Buddhism, Sanskrit and received initiation from Huikuo. On returning to Japan Kūkai eventually managed to establish Shingon (真言) as a school in its own right. Kūkai received two lineages of teaching—one based on the Mahavairocana Sutra (Dainichikyo 大日経), and the other based on the Vajrashekhara.

Kamakura, Muromachi to modern period

The Kamakura period saw the introduction of the two schools that had perhaps the greatest impact on the country: (1) the Amidist Pure Land schools, promulgated by evangelists such as Genshin and articulated by monks such as Hōnen, which emphasize salvation through faith in Amitabha and remain the largest Buddhist sect in Japan (and throughout Asia); and (2) the more philosophical Zen schools, promulgated by monks such as Eisai and Dogen, which emphasize liberation through the insight of meditation, which were equally rapidly adopted by the upper classes and had a profound impact on Japanese culture.

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.

Japan has seen a sharp decline in Buddhist practice in the 21st century, with roughly 1,000 temples a year closing. However 70% of Japanese people still follow Buddhism in some form, and 90% of Japanese funerals are conducted according to Buddhist rites.

Amidist Schools

Jōdo shū

Founder: Hōnen (法然), 1175 CE

Japanese name: 浄土, "Pure Land"

Major Influences: Chinese Jingtu (浄土 "Pure Land"), Tendai

Doctrine: nembutsu (念仏, "prayer to Buddha")

Primary Text: Infinite Life Sutra (Muryojukyo 無量壽経)

Jōdo Shinshū

Founder: Shinran (親鸞), 1224 CE

Japanese name: 浄土真, "True Pure Land"

Major Influences: Jodo, Tendai

Doctrine: nembutsu no shinjin ("nembutsu of true entrusting")

Primary Text: Infinite Life Sutra (Muryojukyo 無量壽経)

Ji Shū

Founder: Ippen (一遍), 1270 CE

Japanese name: 時宗 or 時衆, "Time"

Major Influences: Jodo

Doctrine: nenbutsu (念仏, "mindfulness of the Buddha")

Primary Text:

Yuzunenbutsu Shū

Founder: Ryōnin (良忍), 1117 CE

Japanese name: 融通念仏

Doctrine: sokushitsu ōjō (速疾往生,)

Primary Text: Avatamsaka Sutra (Kegonkyo 華厳経)・Lotus Sutra (Hokekyo 法華経)

Zen Schools

Several variants of Zen's practice and experiential wisdom (禅宗) were separately brought to Japan. Note that Zen influences are identifiable earlier in Japanese Buddhism, esp. cross-fertilization with Hosso and Kegon, but the independent schools were formed quite late.


Founders: Caoshan (曹山, Jp. Sosan) and Dongshan (洞山, Jp. Tosan), China, c. 850

Chinese name: Caodong (曹洞), named after its founders

First Introduction to Japan: Dogen (道元), 1227 CE

Major Influences: Tendai, Hosso, Kegon

Doctrine: zazen (坐禅, "sitting meditation"), especially shikantaza

Primary Texts: Transcendental Wisdom Sutras aka Prajnaparamita Sutras (般若波羅蜜経), incl. Heart Sutra


Founder: Linji (臨済), China, c. 850

Chinese name: Linji (臨済), named after founder

First Introduction to Japan: Eisai (栄西), 1191 CE

Major Influences: Hosso, Kegon

Doctrine: zazen (坐禅, "sitting meditation"), especially koan (公案, "public matter") practice

Primary Texts: Transcendental Wisdom Sutras aka Prajnaparamita Sutras (般若波羅蜜経), incl. Heart Sutra


Founder: Ingen (隠元), Japan, 1654 CE

Japanese name: 黄檗, named the mountain where the founder had lived in China

Major Influences: Rinzai

Doctrine: kyozen itchi (経禅一致, "Unity of Sutras and Zen")

Primary Texts: Transcendental Wisdom Sutras aka Prajnaparamita Sutras (般若波羅蜜経), incl. Heart Sutra


Founder: Puhua Chanshi (普化禅師)

First introduction to Japan: Shinchin Kakushin (心地覚心), 1254 CE

Major Influences: Rinzai

Abolished: 1871

Nichiren Buddhism

The schools of Nichiren Buddhism trace themselves to the monk Nichiren (日蓮: "Sun-Lotus") and the proclamation of his teachings in CE 1253. Doctrinally the schools focus on the Lotus Sutra (妙法蓮華經: Myoho Renge Kyō; abbrev. 法華經: Hokkekyō), but practice centers on the mantra Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō (南無妙法蓮華經). Nichiren Buddhism split into several denominations after the death of Nichiren, typically represented by tradition-oriented schools such as Nichiren Shu and Nichiren Shoshu and "new religions" such as Soka Gakkai, Rissho Kosei Kai, and Reiyukai. See Nichiren Buddhism for a more complete list.

Silk Road artistic influences

[[File:WindGods.JPG|thumb|350px|Iconographical evolution of the Wind God.

Left: Greek wind god from Hadda, 2nd century.

Middle: wind god from Kızılmarker, Tarim Basin, 7th century.

Right: Japanese wind god Fūjin, 17th century.]]In Japan, Buddhist art started to develop as the country converted to Buddhism in 548 CE. Some tiles from the Asuka period (shown above), the first period following the conversion of the country to Buddhism, display a strikingly classical style, with ample Hellenistic dress and realistically-rendered body shape characteristic of Greco-Buddhist art.

ANNA GALLAGHER ANNA GALLAGHER ANNA GALLAGHER ANNA GALLAGHER HATES WILL KETTNER A LOT Other works of art incorporated a variety of East Asia influences, so that Japanese Buddhist became extremely varied in its expression. Many elements of Greco-Buddhist art remain to this day however, such as the Hercules inspiration behind the Nio guardian deities in front of Japanese Buddhist temples, or representations of the Buddha reminiscent of Greek art such as the Buddha in Kamakura.


[[File:Heracles-Shukongoshin.JPG|thumb|350px|Iconographical evolution from the Greek god Herakles to the Japanese god Shukongōshin. From left to right:

1) Herakles (Louvre Museum).

2) Herakles on coin of Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius I.

3) Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, depicted as Herakles in the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara.

4) Shukongōshin, manifestation of Vajrapani, as protector deity of Buddhist temples in Japan.]]

Various other Greco-Buddhist artistic influences can be found in the Japanese Buddhist pantheon, the most striking of which being that of the Japanese wind god Fujin. In consistency with Greek iconography for the wind god Boreas, the Japanese wind god holds above his head with his two hands a draping or "wind bag" in the same general attitude. The abundance of hair have been kept in the Japanese rendering, as well as exaggerated facial features.

Another Buddhist deity, named Shukongoshin, one of the wrath-filled protector deities of Buddhist temples in Japan, is also an interesting case of transmission of the image of the famous Greek god Herakles to the Far-East along the Silk Road. Herakles was used in Greco-Buddhist art to represent Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, and his representation was then used in China and Japan to depict the protector gods of Buddhist temples.

Artistic motifs

Vine and grape scrolls from Nara, 7th century.
The artistic inspiration from Greek floral scrolls is found quite literally in the decoration of Japanese roof tiles, one of the only remaining element of wooden architecture throughout centuries. The clearest one are from 7th century Nara temple building tiles, some of them exactly depicting vines and grapes. These motifs have evolved towards more symbolic representations, but essentially remain to this day in many Japanese traditional buildings.


Buddhist Holidays in Japan

Obon (お盆)

Though its date and practices vary region to region, the Buddhist Obon festival is celebrated only in Japan. It is believed that the spirits of the dead return to earth for three days and visit the family shrines or graves. Similar to Mexicomarker's Day of the Dead, it is customary to clean the graves and to hold family reunions.

See also


  • Asakawa, K., and Henry Cabot Lodge (Ed.). Japan From the Japanese Government History.
  • Eliot, Sir Charles. Japanese Buddhism. London: Kegan Paul International, 2005. ISBN 0-7103-0967-8. Reprint of the 1935 original edition.

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