Spread of Buddhism to Japan

After a few weeks of reading the lecture notes for this class, I'm struck by how linear the spread of Buddhism to Japan seems to be. Different from how the spread of Buddhism in India was, which was more multi-directional and parallel both in the development of schools and geography, the spread to Japan seems to follow a more set path of development. I imagine this is partly due to the political structure of Japan at the time, plus the fact that Japan is geographically isolated as an island. With each new reigning clan, came a new style of Buddhism. With each delegation sent to China or Korea, another Buddhist school of influence can be found. Very interesting stuff! I'm looking forward to completing the readings and learning more about this far-away from me place.

Why did Japan absorb then assimilate Buddhism?

Buddhism was adopted by Japan’s rulers primarily to establish social order and political control, and to join the larger and more sophisticated cultural sphere of the mainland. Buddhism brought new theories on government, a means to establish strong centralized authority, a system for writing, advanced new methods for building and for casting in bronze, and new techniques and materials for painting. Buddhism’s introduction to Japan in +552 was accompanied by the arrival thereafter of countless artisans, priests, and scholars from Korea and China, with numerous Japanese missions dispatched to the mainland. Japan first learned of Buddhism from Korea, but the subsequent development of Japanese Buddhism and Buddhist sculpture was primarily influenced by China. Buddhism was introduced to Japan in +552 (other sources say +538) when the king of the Korean Kingdom of Paekche sent the Japanese Yamato 大和 court a small gilt bronze Buddha statue, some Buddhist scriptures, and a message praising Buddhism. Scholars continue to disagree on the exact date of the statue’s arrival. In addition, Buddhism represented a superior religious philosophy compared to the shamanistic mountain worship of the indiginous Shinto faith. Not surprisingly, Buddhism gained the patronage of the court, who endeavored to use it as both a political and spiritual tool for building a stronger nation.

One of the first great patrons of Buddhism in Japan was Prince Shotoku Taishi (+ 574 - 622). He embraced the new faith and fostered its acceptance as both a superior religious philosophy and a powerful political tool for creating strong centralized governance under the emperor’s guidance. Shotoku (Shōtoku) is credited with constructing numerous temples, and with centralizing state administration, importing Chinese bureaucracy, codifying twelve court ranks, and enacting a 17 Article Constitution that established Buddhist ethics and Confucian ideals as the moral foundations of the young Japanese nation. During his regency, Japanese missions (outside link) were dispatched to China to learn more and bring back valuable Buddhist texts and objects.

Wong Fook Ming's picture

Humanistic Buddhism in Japan

After the end of world war II, various Buddhist activists sprung out for the masses of the Japanese
population in general. To name a few, well known activists like Nikkyo Niwano established Rissho Kosekai, a lay Buddhist movements that empower the teachings through fellowship and sharing session called 'hoza' (or hoya). As many of the established traditions may out of touch with the masses that focus on the rites or funeral services.
Another activist like Josei Toda established the Soka Gakkai movement which empowered humanistic aspect based on Nichiren and Tendai traditions. There are many other new movements as well, but these two lay movements are more prominent now that are closely associated.
Similiar reform was observed in Won Buddhism of Korea by the founder Sotaesan that distant himself from the funeral or money soliciting traditional temples, but work on the humanity aspect in the spiritual teachings. The humanistic Buddhism was advocated by Tai Xu to reform the teachings through education to dispel the misunderstanding in China. Cheng Yan started Tzu Chi providing humanitarian relief based in Taiwan.

One can see the similarities of these East Asian societies in the last 100 years that undergone the transformation. Temples become the target of some groups to gain control use it for providing businesses for funeral services, ancestral ashes/tablets and other rites that only cater for the death and ghost even as in today situation in East/Southeast Asians and no other value dhammic or spiritual functions. Thus, it will cease to functions as time passes and will become one of the abandoned monuments.

The misconception and perception of funeral Buddhism may need constant clarification and education to be dispelled as this was the damaged due to the political situation in China especially Ming emperors that ban monks from functioning in the city areas and summon for funeral services only.

Karen Tee May Wah's picture

Spread of Buddhism to Japan

Yes, it is very interesting to find out that Zen Buddhism affects Japan so profoundly, rooted for centuries and even mould the Japanese culture, penetrates into the daily life and vibrant till today, and spring to the western countries too.

An article published in BBC Travel in May 2017 by Steve John Powell, “The Japanese skill copied by the world.” had caught the public eyes that mindfulness which currently gained much popularity in the western countries is instead practiced by the Japanese centuries ago, like so much of Japanese culture, the roots of all these customs lie in Zen.

Earl Hardie Karges's picture

Is Zen Still Vibrant today?

Many news reports out of Japan nowadays tell of abandoned temples, especially in the countryside, and the reputation of 'funeral Buddhism' is well known, the fact that people only go to the temple when it is time to bury a relative, and even then there are many other, and cheaper, options available today. It is also well-known that many Buddhist temples are 'family businesses', so to speak, such that, once there is a gap in the line of succession, then the temple is in danger of closing. For this to happen in the mad rush to cities, leaving a near-empty countryside, is understandable, but it is unclear if Zen, or any other form of Buddhism, is making headway in modern Japan. For another thing, many people wouldn't consider a Buddhism with married priests to be a good example for Buddhism in the first place. For another, for Buddhism to be vital, it must be a way of life, not merely a way of death. I hope to see the good news about Zen from Japan, but that's not what I've mostly been seeing lately.

Spread of Buddhism during Nara Period

Dear all,

I would like to share an article related to 6 schools of Nara Buddhism.
A lot of great work done by Venerables or Masters for the spread of Buddhism.


Hope this is useful for your reference.

With Regards,
Gaik Yen

Buddhism during the Nara Period

Thanks for the link above. I've got some valuable information from the above link. I would like to mention some characteristics about this Nara Buddhism. One of the characteristic was the strong court-clergy relations. There was also lavish state spending on Buddhist temples, images and texts. There were not much doctrinal innovations and were largely devoted to state functions and academic study. The six schools were either based on Mahayana or Theravada tradition. For example, the Sanron, Hosso and Kegon school were of Mahayana tradition. The six schools were known as the Six Southern Schools of Nara Buddhism because Nara was situated to the south of Kyoto. There were also Seven Great Southern Temples of Nara. They served as academic centres.

Spread of Buddhism during Nara Period

Thanks for the sharing. It is an interesting story between Ven Ganjin’s ordination platform and Ven Saicho’s bodhisattva platform.
Six Schools of Nara Buddhism were formed and Seven Great Southern Temples of Nara were built.
Emperors were great patron of Buddhism. Monks and nuns were scholars. Yet majority of populace was hardly aware of the new religion? (page 7 of lecture 2).

Spread of Buddhism during Nara Period

Dear Sister,

Regarding your note related to majority of populate was hardly aware of the new religion. I think that is possible if the "new religion" was referring to Buddhism. Just like some on the monks or so call "Buddhist" may not fully understand Buddhism which happened during the King Asoka period in history of Indian Buddhism.

With Metta,
Gaik Yen

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

Serious Monks Only

I think that given the fact that these were scholarly schools concerned with Abhidharmika doctrines of dharmas, emptiness and the role of consciousness (Kusha, Jojitsu, Sanron, Hosso), or super-esoteric (Kegon), or concerned with Vinaya (Ritsu), they'd be of little interest and practically inaccessible to the laity or non-specialist.
Also as these schools were dominated by Chinese and Korean priests and monks, I can imagine that they were neither particularly open to or welcoming of lay practitioners or the general populous.