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Foxes sacred to Shinto kami Inari, a torii, a Buddhist stone stupa, and Buddhist figures together at Jōgyō-ji, Kamakura
 literally "syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism" (also called  , term which however has a negative connotation of bastardization and randomness) is the Japanesemarker syncretism of Buddhism and local religious beliefs. When Buddhism was introduced through Chinamarker in the late Asuka period (6th century), rather than discard the old belief system the Japanese tried to reconcile it with the new, assuming both were true. As a consequence, Buddhist temples (寺, tera) were attached to local deity shrines (神社, jinja) and vice versa and devoted to both kami and Buddha. The depth of the resulting influence of Buddhism on the local religion can be seen for example in the fact that the type of shrine we see today, with a large worship hall and images, is itself of Buddhist origin.

The assimilation of Buddhism

The assimilation process

There is no agreement among specialists as to the exact extent of fusion between the two religions.

According to some scholars, for example Hirai Naofusa in Japan and Joseph Kitagawa in the US, Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan, has existed as such continuously since pre-history, and consists of all the peculiarly Japanese rituals and beliefs shaped by Japanese history from prehistory to the present. The term "Shinto" itself was coined in the 6th century to differentiate the loosely organized local religion from imported Buddhism.

The opposing view finds the position of Japanese historian Toshio Kuroda (and his supporters) who, in a famous article ("Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion," published in English in 1981) has argued that Shinto as an independent religion was born only in the modern period after emerging in the Middle Ages as an offshoot of Buddhism. Kuroda's main argument is that Shinto as a distinct religion is a Meiji era invention of Japanese nationalist ideologues (see the section The two religions after the Separation Order) below. He points out how the state formalization of kami rituals and the state ranking of shrines during the Heian period were not the emergence of Shinto as an independent religion, but an effort to explain local beliefs in Buddhist terms. He also says that, if it's true that the two characters for "Shinto" appear very early in the historical record, for example in the Nihon Shoki, this doesn't mean today's Shinto already existed as a religion because they were originally used as a name for Taoism or even for religion in general. Indeed, according to Kuroda many features of Shinto, for example the worshiping of mirrors and swords or the very structure of Ise Shrinemarker (Shinto's holiest and most important site) are typical of Taoism. The term Shinto in old texts therefore does not necessarily indicate something uniquely Japanese.

According to the first view, then, the two religions were at the time of their first meeting already formed and independent and thereafter just coexisted with non-essential exchanges while, according to the second, Buddhism, meeting local beliefs in Japan, actually produced today's Shinto.

There are then scholars in different intermediate positions.

In either case, it can be said that the fusion of Buddhism with the local kami started as soon as the first arrived in Japan, as proven by Mononobe no Okoshi's statement that:
"The kami of our land will be offended if we worship a foreign kami"
In other words, Mononobe saw Buddha as just another kami, and not as an alien God, possibly different in nature from his own. Foreign kami were called or , and understood to be more or less like local ones. Initially, therefore, the conflict between the two religions was political, and not religious, in nature, a struggle between the progressive Soga clan, that wanted a more international outlook for the country, and the conservative Mononobe clan, that wanted the contrary.Buddhism was not passive in the process, but was itself ready to assimilate and be assimilated. By the time it entered Japan it was already syncretic, having adapted to and amalgamated with other religions and cultures in India, China and Korean peninsula. For example, already while in India, it had absorbed Hinduistic divinities like Brahma (Bonten in Japanese) and Indra (Taishakuten). When it arrived in Japan, it already had a disposition towards producing the combinatory gods that the Japanese would call . Searching for the origins of a kami in Buddhist scriptures was felt to be nothing out of the ordinary.

However, if monks didn't doubt the existence of kami, they certainly saw them as inferior to their Buddhas. Hindu gods had already been treated analogously: they had been thought of as unilluminated and prisoner of saṃsāra. Buddhist claims of superiority encountered resistance, and monks tried to overcome them by deliberately integrating kami in their system. Several strategies to do this were developed and deployed.The process of amalgamation is usually divided in three stages.

The first articulation of the difference between Japanese religious ideas and Buddhism, and the first effort to reconcile the two is attributed to Prince Shōtoku (574 - 622), and the first signs that the differences between the two world views were beginning to become manifest to the Japanese in general appear at the time of Emperor Temmu (673 - 86). Accordingly, one of the first efforts to reconcile Shinto and Buddhism was made in the eight century during the Nara period founding so-called , that is "shrine-temples". Behind the inclusion in a Shinto shrine of Buddhist religious objects was the idea that the kami were lost beings in need of liberation through the power of Buddha. Kami were thought to be subject to karma and reincarnation like human beings, and early Buddhist stories tell how that the task of helping suffering kami was assumed by wandering monks. A local kami would appear in a dream to the monk, telling him about his suffering. To improve the kami's karma through rites and the reading of sutras, the monk would build a temple next to the kami's shrine. Such groupings were created already in the 7th century, for example in Usamarker, Kyūshū, where kami Hachiman was worshiped together with Miroku Bosatsu (Maitreya). The building of temples at shrines produced shrine-temples complexes, which in turn accelerated the amalgamation process.

At the end of the same century, in what is considered the second stage of the amalgamation, the kami Hachiman was declared to be protector-deity of the Dharma and a little bit later a bodhisattva. Shrines for him started to be built at temples, marking an important step ahead in the process of amalgamation of kami and buddhist cults. When the great Buddha at Tōdai-jimarker in Nara was built, within the temple grounds was also erected a shrine for Hachiman, according to the legend because of a wish expressed by the kami himself. Hachiman considered this his reward for having helped the temple find the gold and copper mines from which the metal for the great statue had come. After this, temples in the entire country adopted tutelary kami ( .

The honji suijaku theory

The third and final stage of the fusion took place in the ninth century with the development of the theory according to which Japanese kami are emanations of buddha, bodhisattvas or devas who mingle with us to lead us to the Buddhist Way. This theory is the keystone of the whole shinbutsu shūgō edifice and the therefore the foundation of Japanese religion for many centuries. Many kami because of it changed from potentially dangerous spirits to be improved through contact with the Buddhist law to local emanations of buddhas and bodhisattvas which possess their wisdom. The buddhas and the kami were now indivisible.

Shinbutsu kakuri

The two religions however never fused completely and, while overlapping here and there, kept their particular identity inside a difficult, largely unsystematized and tense relationship. This relationship was, rather than between two systems, between particular kami and particular buddhas. The two were always perceived as parallel but separate entities. Besides shinbutsu shugo there was always the other side of the coin of continued separation.

In fact, the term in Japanese Buddhist terminogy refers to the tendency in medieval and early modern Japan to keep some kami separate from Buddhism. While some kami were integrated in Buddhism, others (or at times even the same kami in a different context) were kept systematically away from Buddhism. This phenomenon had significant consequences for Japanese culture as a whole. It must not be confused with shinbutsu bunri ("separation of kami and buddhas") or with haibutsu kishaku ("abolish Buddhas and destroy Shākyamuni"), which are phenomenons recurrent in Japanese history and usually due to political causes. While the first assumes the acceptance of Buddhism, the second and third actually oppose it.

The practice had in any case important consequences, among them the prevention of the complete assimilation of kami practices into Buddhism. Also, the prohibition of Buddhism at the Ise and Kamo Shrinesmarker allowed them to freely develop their theories about the nature of kami.

The two religions after the Separation Order

In 1868 with the Shinbutsu Bunri (the attempt for a separation of Shinto and Buddhism during the Meiji period), temples and shrines were separated by law with the , the former functioning for Buddhism, the latter for Shinto.

Hovever, in spite of more than a century of formal separation of the two religions, temples or shrines that do not separate them are still common, as proven for example by the existence of some important Buddhist Inari temples. Most temples still have at least one small shrine. Even prominent religious institutions in both camps still give evidence of integration of the two religions. The great Kenchō-jimarker temple, number one of Kamakura's great Zen temples (the Kamakura Gozan) includes two shrines. One of the islands in the right-side pond of Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gūmarker shrine in Kamakura hosts a sub-shrine dedicated to goddess Benzaiten, a Buddhist deity. For this reason, the sub-shrine was removed in 1868 at the time of the Shinbutsu Bunri, but rebuilt in 1956. The separation of the two religions must therefore be considered superficial, and shinbutsu shūgō still an accepted practice.

Still, a difference between the two religions is now felt to exist. Shinto scholar Karen Smyers comments:
The surprise of many of my informants regarding the existence of Buddhist Inari temples shows the success of the government's attempt to create separate conceptual categories regarding sites and certain identities, although practice remains multiple and nonexclusive.



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