Japanese Buddhism

Buddhist Basics - Perrin Lindelauf introduces the major sects and related temples - Japanese Buddhism 仏教

"I'm templed-out," say most non-Buddhist visitors to Kyoto or Nara after visiting half a dozen temples. With a lack of English information on the immensely convoluted Buddhist canon, and general ignorance about the particulars of each sect (even among Japanese), visitors can hardly be blamed for finding it all to be a blur of lotuses and extra limbs, forgotten like a whiff of incense.

Temples that provide a pamphlet or explanatory sign don't help that much either - the sect is given but not explained; the statue is labelled an important cultural property, but how that deity fits into Buddhist cosmology is unclear. So, without stepping on the toes of the devout, here is a quick summary of the main types of Japanese Buddhism: Nara, Tendai, Shingon, Amida, Nichiren and Zen.

Continental Buddhism

Buddhist Temple, Japan.

Around 500 BCE in India, the historical Buddha ("Enlightened One"), called Shaka-sama in Japan, taught his followers that pain and suffering are born of desire, but by eliminating this desire they can transcend the cycle of suffering and reach Nirvana or Enlightenment.

By the time Buddhism arrived in Japan, a major rift had already formed, dividing sects between Therevada and Mahayana Buddhism. The former is an early school whose goal is introspection, individual enlightenment and the quelling of desire.

Mahayana, the school that arrived in Japan from Korea around 500 CE, focuses more on becoming a bosatsu (or boddhisattva) - a "near-Buddha" being that delays going to Nirvana in order to help the faithful. This emphasis on public, not personal, salvation represents the shift from philosophy to religion that, as we will see, culminated in Japanese Buddhism.

Iwatoji Temple, Kunisaki, Kyushu, Japan.
Early image of the historical Buddha, Iwatoji Temple, Kyushu, Japan
Todaiji Temple, Nara, Japan.
Todaiji Temple, Nara
Deer at Todaiji Temple, Nara.
Todaiji Temple, Nara

Nara Buddhism: Todai-ji

Buddhism was introduced to Japan by a Korean ambassador and the emperors of the time quickly came to see its potential for creating cultural unity within the fragile feudal system. Early Buddhism in the capital at Nara was a direct import from China and Korea, with services conducted in Chinese by foreign priests and few texts from the mainland, leading to a limited understanding among the first ranks of monks and next to none among the common people.

The culture of Buddhism, on the other hand, with its striking architecture, beneficent or threatening statuary, and fascinating rituals, captured the attention of the public. Prayers and rituals promised good luck, male heirs, placation of the spirits of the dead, and protection against illness or calamity.

This, however, was far from their original purpose: to impart an understanding of Buddha-nature and thus enable self enlightenment.

Todai-ji was built with this spirit in mind. Emperor Shomu commissioned the construction of the huge Buddha and the wooden structure around it - one of the largest in the world - in order to ward off a plague that was ravaging the country. Todai-ji temple also served as a central hub for others the emperor ordered built in every province to protect the fledgling nation.

Although the construction fostered national unity, the intimate connection between Todai-ji temple and state led to social climbing and power seeking among the aristocracy. Emperor Kammu soon found the priests in Nara possessed power that rivaled his own. Instead of confronting the Nara clergy directly, the capital was moved to Kyoto and two promising priests - Saicho and Kukai - were sent to China to bring back a form of Buddhism to rival that in Nara.

Futagoji, Kunisaki Peninsula, Oita, Kyushu.
Futagoji, Kunisaki Peninsula, Oita, Kyushu
Enryakuji Temple stairs.
Enryakuji Temple, Mt Hiei in north east Kyoto
Enryakuji Temple, Kyoto.
Enryakuji Temple, on the verdant summit of Mt Hiei

Tendai: Enryaku-ji, Kyoto

Saicho brought back the Tendai sect teachings and set up a massive temple complex on top of Mt. Hiei, northeast of Kyoto. Tendai differed from the Nara schools in a variety of ways. Saicho's sect was more Mahayana than the earlier form in Nara; that is, the stress on enlightenment for everyone, not just practicing monks, was stronger; although in practice Tendai was limited to monks and the aristocracy. Saicho also supported rigorous asceticism: severe self-discipline and denial of desires on top of chilly Mt. Hiei, which was soon mocked as "mountain Buddhism" by the city priests in Nara. Time not spent in these exercises was devoted to study of the sutras (sacred texts). During his time in China, Saicho had also learned something of Esoteric (secretive, magical) Buddhism, and he incorporated some of its rituals into Tendai, adding to the dramatic appeal of the new sect.

The emperors of the time, determined to break the power of the Nara sects, supported Saicho and his complex, now called Enryaku-ji, which grew into one of the largest centers for Buddhist study at the time. Nearly all of the major players in Japanese Buddhist history studied there at some point. At the same time, Saicho endeavored to make his temple complex the protector of the capital and by extension, the nation, through constant prayer and chanting.

Kobo Daishi wooden statue, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan.
Wooden statue of Kobo Daishi (Kukai) at Makayaji Temple in Makkabi, west of Hamamatsu

Shingon: Koya-san, Wakayama Prefecture

Kukai also went to China and brought back a different take on Buddhism: Shingon. While Tendai focused on study and effort and threw a little esoteric ritual in for effect, Shingon was the complete form of Esoteric Buddhism. In Shingon, the true nature of the universe (dharma) could not be understood by poring over musty tomes and scrolls. Instead, meditation was conducted with special invocations, a focus on mandalas (diagrams of the universe) and elaborate hand positions, as an attempt to make direct contact with the nature of Buddhahood.

Enlightenment was achieved by realizing the Dainichi Buddha - the primordial source of all beings in the universe and the underpinning of all physical forms - within one's own body. This difference: studying tomes versus passing secretive rituals from teacher to student, is the essential difference between Tendai and Shingon. It would also end the friendship between the founders of the two sects, for Kukai refused to teach Saicho any more about Esoteric ritual unless Kukai gave up his own sect and became a student. Kukai set up his headquarters at Koya-san and was soon made abbot of To-ji, one of only two temples permitted to exist within Kyoto's city limits. Tendai was supported by the royal family because of its efforts to protect Kyoto, whereas Shingon found its following among the idle aristocracy, which was delighted by the pomp of the sect's dramatic and fiery ceremonies.

The Amida Sects - Jodo-shu and Jodoshin-shu: Chion-in, Kyoto; Nishi and Higashi Honganji, Kyoto

While Tendai and Shingon had become comfortably powerful, the late Heian period (794-1185) was characterized by a general religious anxiety: Buddhist scholars had calculated that the age of mappo - spiritual decline 1500 years after the death of Shaka-sama - had begun and would make Enlightenment nearly impossible. The situation was ripe for change and thus two new sects, Jodo-shu (Pure Land) and Jodoshin-shu (True Pure Land) were born.

Honen, who founded Jodo-shu, and his student Shinran, who founded Jodoshin-shu, had studied at Enryaku-ji but felt that the texts and asceticism of Tendai were mentally and physically too demanding for common people. Honen decided that the worship of the Amida Buddha was the best hope for Enlightenment for everyone.

Amida was popular for his vow to bring all who call on his name to the Pure Western Land where they could easily achieve enlightenment after death. All it took was three easy words: Namu Amida Butsu ("I take refuge in the Amida Buddha"), repeated over and over. Worship of Amida and his attendant, Kannon, was extremely popular because it was accessible to everyone. Shinran went a step further, arguing that only one heartfelt utterance was necessary and that monks should be allowed to marry and eat fish. Chion-in (Jodo-shu) and the Hongan-ji temples (Jodoshin-shu) are massive, highly popular destinations among the faithful. Enlightenment in a sort of heaven through faith, however, was a huge departure from enlightenment within this body, as espoused by the Buddha.

Nichiren: Numerous rebuilt temples, everywhere

Not everyone was happy with the new sects. Nichiren was one of the first Buddhist leaders to actively attack the other sects and the government that supported them, arguing that they were bringing misfortune to the country. He disdained the "agree to disagree" policy of most other sects, declaring his to be the only true form of Buddhism and the Lotus Sutra the only text worth reading.

Hence, instead of Namu Amida Butsu, his followers chant Namu Myoho Renge-Kyo: "I trust in the sutra of the mysterious Law." Followers believed in Enlightenment through the power of the Lotus Sutra in this lifetime; they proselytized heavily and picked fights with anyone who disagreed. Nichiren sects were usually on the losing end: disagreement with Tendai monks incurred the wrath of Enryaku-ji's warrior-monks, who burned all of Kyoto's Nichiren temples and much of the city, a fate Tendai would similarly suffer at the hands of Oda Nobunaga in 1571. Even so, Nichiren sects have rebounded and are the driving force behind Komeito, the political party with a strong presence in the Diet, and the very popular Buddhist lay organization, the Soka Gakkai.

Nichiren Statue, Konponji, Sado, Niigata Prefecture.
A statue of the Buddhist priest Nichiren at Konponji Temple, where Nichiren was exiled

Konponji Temple, Sado, Niigata Prefecture.
The entrance gate at Konponji Temple, Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture

Zen: Nanzen-ji, Kyoto

Zen was another reaction to the Pure Land sects and it strove to rediscover Shaka-sama's original experience by emphasizing sitting meditation or Zazen. The Zen sects, Rinzai and Soto, broke with the others and set the canon aside, instead focusing on one's personal wordless meditative experience. The main difference between the two is the use of koan, a nonsensical riddle in the Rinzai school designed to break the mind of logical thought patterns (e.g. the oft-quoted "What is the sound of one hand clapping?").

Soto, in contrast, places greater emphasis on meditation and is considered softer than the intellectually brutal koan. Zen found support within the warrior class because of its stress on discipline, focus and contemplation of death in the void-world of reality. Nanzen-ji, in Kyoto's Higashiyama district, was one of the most powerful Rinzai temples. Today, visitors can contemplate nothingness overlooking the sparsely decorated sand garden, or try meditation. Being struck on the shoulder with a stick to improve concentration is optional.
Read more about Zen.

Nanzenji Temple, Kyoto.
Nanzenji Temple, Higashiyama, Kyoto
Nanzenji Temple, Kyoto.
Nanzenji Temple, Higashiyama, Kyoto

Let this be only an introduction: with every new visit the vast history of Buddhism is sure to bloom like the lotus beneath the Buddha.

Famous Japanese Buddhist Temples

The following are links to guides to some of the most famous main temples of the Japanese Buddhist sects mentioned in this article.

Todai-ji is located in Nara park, east of the station. Admission is 500 yen. 8am-4:30pm Nov-Feb. Tel: 22-5511.

The Enryaku-ji complex (550 yen) is accessible via direct bus (800 yen) from Kyoto station or Sanjo station, or by cable car (530 yen) and ropeway (310 yen) from Eizan Yase-yuen station. The cable car option is more interesting but is closed over the winter. The complex is open from 8:30am-4:30pm. Tel: 077-578-0001.

Koya-san is in Wakayama prefecture, about 1.5 hours from Osaka's Nankai Namba station (1230 yen) to Gokurakubashi station and the cable car up the mountain. Most of the temples are open from 8:30am-4:30pm and cost around 500 yen. Information office Tel: 0736-56-2616.

To-ji is 15 minutes on foot southwest of Kyoto station. The grounds are free and the main hall costs 500 yen. Tel: 075-691-3325.

Chion-in (400 yen) is in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto, north of Maruyama Park. Hours are 9am-4pm Mar-Nov, 9am-3:40pm Dec-Feb. Tel: 075-531-2111.

Higashi Hongan-ji (admission free) is 5 minutes north of Kyoto station on Karasuma-dori. 5:50am-5:30pm, 4:30pm in the winter. Tel: 075-371-9181.

Nishi Hongan-ji (admission free) is on Horikawa-dori, a short walk north-west of Kyoto station. 5:30am-5:30pm. Tel: 075-371-5181.

Nanzen-ji and its numerous sub-temples are accessible via Keage station on the Tozai subway line or by bus 5 from Kyoto station. Access to the main temple and subtemples costs between 300 yen and 500 yen each. Hours are 8:40am-5pm. Tel: 075-771-0365.

There are few famous Nichiren temples in Kansai, but plenty of newish working temples.

Text + images by Perrin Lindelauf
Also by the same author: Kansai Towers

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