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Japanese Buddhism: a Short History

Japanese Buddhism: a Short History

Palosaari, S., Yamada M.

Ryukoku University, Translation Center

Shichijo Omiya, Kyoto 600, Japan

  Buddhism is one of the large world religions which started in India some 500 years before C.E., as founded by Gautama Buddha, also called Sakyamuni Buddha. Subsequently, the tradition in different forms as different Buddhist religions spread over vast areas of Asia, from Indonesia in the south to Mongolia in the north. In the east, it extended to Japan. The spread of Buddhist religions to Japan has two features that may be mentioned. Firstly, they were brought to Japan from Asia by the Japanese. Secondly, the Buddhist religions did not destroy the ones already established which remained operating. In this way, over the 700 years which it took for Buddhism to get established in Japan the number of religions grew large. Because the Buddhist religions are very different from each others, and there are many of them, the religious situation in Japan is complicated. In the following we will shortly introduce the spread of Buddhism to Japan.

Buddhism arrived and developed in Japan in four separate waves in the following way:

1.      Early Buddhism, from 538 on.

2.      The Buddhist Religions of Nara era, about 700 CE

3.      The Buddhist religions of Heian era, about 800 C.E.

4.      The Buddhist religions of Kamakura era, about 1200 C.E.

1.      Early Buddhism in Japan came from the Paekche (Jap. Kudara) state in Korean peninsula beginning from the year 538. Japan had close contacts with Paekche at that time. At first the activity was in a small scale. Only in 588 the first large scale temple was built, in Asuka, the capital of that time. During that era Prince Shotoku was the central figure in spreading of Buddhism. As Watsuji [1] mentions, Prince Shotoku's Three Sutra Commentary displays was "an exceedingly lucid understanding of the profound philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism". Prince Shotoku's study was based on commentaries on the Srimaladevi, Vimalakirti and  Saddharma-Pundarika sutras. Although Watsuji [1] reports that the understanding of the common people about the Buddhist teachings may have been superficial in those early days, he is also eager to point out that they, for the first time, saw through Buddhism the world of emancipation, though in such a way that after death the true life could exist. 

2.      The Buddhist Religions of Nara era: The capital was moved to Nara in 710. After that year the benefits of Buddhism were seen widely and a period of fast growth started. Six different and powerful Buddhist religions became the nucleus of Nara Buddhism. Only three of them are left in these days, namely Kegon, Hosso, and Ritsu. Of these Kegon is probably best known because the great Todaiji temple of the large Buddha statue is of the Kegon religion. Kegon (Ch. Hua-yen) is a Chinese Mahayana school, based on Kegon (Avatamsaka) Sutra, founded in the 7th century. However, the most powerful Nara religion was Hosso. The main temple of Hosso, the Kofukuji, had much power, to the extent that even the emperor could not control the Hosso monks. Hosso was founded in China during the Tang dynasty. The basic teaching is that all existence is consciousness only. However, in later years the Kofukuji built close contacts with the government. The third important Nara religion was Sanron (Ch. San-lun). The teaching was developed in China in the 7th century on the basis of Mādhyamika philosophy, and was based on three discourses by the Indian teachers Nagarjuna and Aryadeva. During the past one thousand years the Nara religions have lost their power and supporters. However, the Hosso sect still has half a million adherents, Kegon has about 40 thousand adherents but Sanron has disappeared. Ritsu still survives with about 130 thousand adherents, most of them belonging to a Ritsu sect, Shingon Risshu. The main temple is the Toshodaiji. Ritsu teaching is a combination on hinayana and mahayana. Hinayana in Ritsu teaching is the Vinaya in Sanskrit language translated into Chinese as it is in the Chinese Tripitaka. Tsukamoto [2] has published a useful survey on Buddhism during Asuka and Nara eras.

3.      The Buddhist religions of Heian era. In 794 the new capital, Kyoto, was established. In the new Heian era (794-1185) two new religions were taken from China to become the leading spiritual power sources of the Heian era, namely Tendai and Shingon. Tendai is a Japanese adaptation of the Chinese Tien-tai, with Vajrayana teachings and practises incorporated in Japan, whereas Shingon is a south Indian Vajrayana religion, taken to the then capital of China, Chang-an, some 80 years before it was taken to Japan by the Japanese monk Kukai, also known as Kobo Daishi, in 804-805. The headquarters of Tendai was and is still the Hiei mountain in Kyoto. In Heian era the Tendai monks built the Hiei a veritable stronghold. Their power increased so that the emperors found it difficult to manage with them. Tendai and Shingon now have 3.6 million and 12.6 million adherents, respectively. The Heian religions were not copies of Chinese Buddhism because Shingon was an Indian religion, whereas Tendai became a Japanese mixture of Chinese Buddhist teachings. Shingon is now divided into 46 sects which now have the total of 12.6 million adherents whereas Tendai, with 20 sects, has 3.6 million.

4.      The Buddhist religions of Kamakura era. The Kamakura era started at 1185. Kamakura, a small town in eastern Japan, far from the capital became the center of new political power. There were deep changes in society. One important feature of the new era was the birth of several new and successful religions over a short period of time in the early years of the Kamakura period. Table 1 shows the five ones which now have the largest numbers of adherents.

Table 1. The five Japanese Buddhist religions of the 13th century which now have the largest numbers of adherents. There are total of 57 million registered Buddhists in Japan. [3]. Much higher numbers have also been published, such as 81 millions [4].


Name of the religion

Basic scriptures

Important texts by the Founder

Number of adherents in 2001 in millions



Lotus Sutra




Jodo Shinshu (Shinshu)

The Three Pure Land Sutras





The Three Pure Land Sutras





Rinzai Zen

Tripitaka, but not "relying on words".




Soto Zen

Tripitaka, but not "relying on words"

Shobogenzo, Eihei-shingi


* Nichiren has a large separate lay organization, Soka Gakkai. Their numbers are not included here. However, Risshokoseikai with 5.5 million members is included.

   A typical feature of these religions is that they are either Japanese innovations or deeply Japanese adaptations or reformations of the Chinese Buddhist religions. The founders tended to be radical in their views so that three of them, Honen, Shinran, and Nichiren, were banished to exile in distant provinces. Eisai had to face bitter attacks from Tendai monks, and Dogen found it better to move deep into the mountains of Echizen province (the present Fukui Prefecture) where the Eiheiji temple, the centre of the Soto practise, is still located.

.   The two major Zen religions had a very different social position. The Rinzai Zen became the religions of the high-ranking samurai (military) class. In Kyoto this contrasted to the religions of the aristocracy, namely Shingon and Tendai. Rinzai Zen had Kyoto as their headquarters, and developed much of what is now seen as the most typically Japanese, namely the Zen gardens, the refined temple architecture, and tea ceremony. Soto Zen, on the contrary, worked mostly with provincial samurai and commoners, and also merged partially with indigenous folklore.

   Nichiren was man of prophetic character who believed that the social unrest in his period was due to a decay in Buddhism. According to him the true Buddhism is to be found in Lotus sutra. He harsly and continuously denounced many of the leading religions in the country. He himself became persecuted by the government and was sent to exile. In the modern era Nichiren's religion generated powerful independent religious organizations such as Reiyukai, Rissho Kosei Kai and Soka Gakkai. Nichiren Buddhism has no prototype outside Japan.

   The Pure Land Buddhism as an independent religion in Japan was started by Honen, originally a Tendai monk. The Pure Land path is based on reliance on faith in Buddha Amida. The faith aspect has been with Buddhism from very early ages. The Indian Budhist teacher Nagarjuna praised the path of faith as an easy way as early as at around 300 CE. The faith aspect and reliance on the power of the Buddha in spiritual pogress has, therefore, a long history. In Japan that aspect of Buddhism became an independent religion, the Jodo Shu, as founded by Honen. Honen's disciple, Shinran, took a decisive step further. He saw that as Buddha Amida has already attained enlightenment for the befinefit of all living beings.  Everyone is under the light of Amida. All what anyone needs to do is to realize this and accept the shinjin, the true entrusting which is said to be comparable with the Zen satori, a deep spritual awakening leading to the enlightenment. Shinran's "easy way", the Jodo Shinshu religion, became gradually immensely popular in the country, particularly among the farmers, and is now the largest Buddhist organization, as shown by Table 2.


As shown above, the Japanese Buddhism has become divided into independent religions and sects, and, in case of sects, the teaching in many cases is also very different from the parent religion. Therefore, it is useful to compare the sizes of these independent religious bodies.

The total number of Buddhist religions (shu) and sects (ha) is 157. Table 2 shows the numbers of followers of the ten largest organizations.

Table 2. The Japanese Buddhists organizations (shu or ha) of over 1.5 million adherents. [3]

Name of the Buddhist Organization


Numbers of adherents in 2001 in millions

Jodo Shinshu Honganjiha1

Jodo Shin





Rissho Koseikai



Shinshu Otaniha1

Jodo Shin


Koyasan Shingonshu









Bussho Gonenkai Kyodan









Shingonshu Chizanha



1 Jodo Shinshu Honganjiha and Shinshu Otaniha teach the same Jodo Shinshu religion. However, they are separate, independent organizations.

5. Other Religions. As to other religions than Buddhism, 101 million people are registered as Shinto followers and 0.9 million as Christians in 59 Christian religions, sects, or organizations. Then, there are 6.5 million members in the thirty "Various Religions" which are mainly those called "New Religions". The largest of them is Tenrikyo with 1.8 million members.

   The Japanese Buddhism consists of the major Mahayana Buddhist religions of the continent, and of the ones reformed in Japan. The Buddhist scene in Japan is, therefore, exceptionally rich.


[1] Watsuji, T., "The Reception of Buddhism in the Suiko Period", The Eastern Buddhist, New Series, Vol V, No. 1, 1972, pp. 47-54.

[2] Tsukamoto, Z., "Buddhism in the Asuka-Nara Period", The Eastern Buddhist, New Series, Vol VII, No 1, 1974, pp. 19-36.

[3] Shukyo Nenkan (Annual Register of Religions),  Ministry of Education, Department of Cultural Affairs, Tokyo, 2003.

[4] Japanese Religion, A Survey by the Agency of Cultural affairs, Kodansha International, Tokyo, New York & San Francisco, 1986.

Paluu etusivulle.