Japanese Religion (II): Buddhism and Temple

Japanese Religion (II): Buddhism and Temple

Shinto and Buddhism are the two religions with the most adherents in Japan. Buddhism, the second largest religion in Japan, was imported in the 6th century (click here to learn Shinto!). The sacred place of Buddhism is the sera (temple), which is enveloped with the ethereal mist of incense and the hum of chanting and praying. It’s a place you can feel Zen and peace.

What is Buddhism?


Buddhism, one of the largest religions in the world, originated in India in the 6thcentury BC. The doctrine of Buddhism is to overcome the suffering of human beings caused by desire and ignorance. Though there are various schools, Buddhism's common practices and principles include meditation, devotion, vegetarianism, and monasticism.

Buddhism was imported to Japan in the 6th century. Because of the distinction between Buddhism and Shinto, Buddhism didn’t spread widely at first. In 592 AD, Buddhism began to expand and temples were constructed with the support of Empress Suiko and Prince Shotoku. By 627AD, there were 46 temples in Japan. In the late 8th century, China introduced Esoteric Buddhism to Japan. Many famous sects were founded, such as Shingon, Tendai, Pure land, Zen, and the Nichiren. Nowadays, there are thirteen schools of Buddhism in Japan.

What is the Temple?


Similar to Shinto Shrine, the Buddhism temple is a place of worship. Here are some stuff and structures you may find in the temple:

Rōmon/Sōmon: It is the temple's gate and represents the sacred ground's entrance. Different from Torii, Romon/Somon is more well-built and complicated. It looks more like a complete architecture rather than a wood structure.

Niō/kongō-rikishi: They are a pair of stone statues serving as guardians. Different from Komainu in Shrine, Niō/kongō-rikishi are muscular and venerable men with wrathful faces.

Buddhist Statues: Buddhism is a polytheistic religion with certain deities. The most common statues enshrined in temples are Amida nyorai (Buddha), Kannon (Bodhisattva), and Fudō-myōō (Immovable Wisdom King).


Japanese Temple

If you visit temples in Japan, you’ll find that the manner to worship in temples shares many similarities with that in shrines, which both include purifying mouth and hand, bowing down, and Namaste. Not only that, the construction of temples and shrines also have something in common. All the similarities can be attributed to the history in which the two religions gradually mixed. The mix has a name: Shinbutsu-shūgō (syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism).

Shinbutsu-shūgō happened in the Nara period (710-794AD). At that age, these two religions coexisted harmoniously and complemented each other. The infusion happened not only in the doctrine and principles but also in the construction. Many temples with shrines and shrines with temples were built at that time. The religious mixture can still be found in Japan nowadays.

There once a division happened in the mid-19th century. Because of the Meiji Restoration, the new government tried to eradicate Buddhism - temples were forced to close and the property was refined. However, the division didn’t last long. It was in no more than five years that Shinto and Buddhism began to coexist peacefully again.

For the Japanese, Shinto and Buddhism are more like a part of the culture rather than a religion. Most Japanese will not consider themselves as a believer, however, their behavior and belief are strongly influenced by the two religions. Many Japanese people choose to get married in a Shinto way while holding a funeral ceremony in a Buddhist way. However, though the syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism is so prevalent in Japan, you don’t need to be too anxious or afraid. You can always tell a difference between the Torii and Rōmon/Sōmon. And, remember to show your respect!

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