Many Buddhist schools in Japan possess their distinctive rites. The rites can be divided into two main categories: those which religious practitioners perform among themselves and those conducted on behalf of the laity.
The first category may be subdivided into rites conducted to develop and deepen personal religious faith, such as offerings and daily recitation of sutras or mantras, and rites centring on devotion toward Buddhas, patriarchs, and sect founders. The latter include the services for Shaka Kōtan’e (Buddha’s birthday) on 8 April and Nehan’e (Feast of the Buddha’s Entry into Nirvana) on 15 February, as well as the various memorial services conducted for the founders of particular sects, such as Daishiko on 23 November (for the founders of the Shintō tended to look with loathing upon death, which was regarded as a source of ritual impurity (穢れ or 汚れ kegare). Buddhism responded to the needs of the people by easing their fear of death, purifying death’s defilement, and performing rites to comfort the restless departed spirit. Buddhist temples increasingly emphasised funeral rites and memorial services. The policies of the Tokugawa shogunate to mandate universal registration at Buddhist temples also served to institutionalise this speciality of funerals and memorial services, and these remain the major social functions of temples until today. However, in adapting to Japanese culture, Buddhism was considerably affected by native ancestor worship and agricultural rites, resulting in the religious syncretism evident in almost all Japanese rites and festivals today.
Annual rites include the following.
- Shushoe (修正会): rites carried out at the New Year, including supplications for peace for the nation, and prosperity for the people.
- Nehane (涅槃会): rites performed on 15 February in commemoration of the Buddha’s death and entry into parinirvana or complete extinction.
- Higane (彼岸会): rites conducted on the three days before and after the spring and autumn equinoxes, amounting to approximately one week each. The original purpose was attaining the Way of the Buddha;
The word higan means the other shore or the Pure Land, and the recitation of the nembutsu and pilgrimages were major features. Activities on Higan today, however, tend to centre on visits to the graves of departed family members to conduct memorial services. Shushoe and Higan’e are Buddhist rites unique to Japan.
- Shaka Kotane or Busshoe (仏生会, Buddha’s birthday), also known as Kambutsue (灌仏会, a rite of bathing the Buddha) and popularly as Hana Matsuri (Flower Festival): the primary practice of this occasion (8 April) consists in sprinkling a figure of the infant Buddha with sweet tea.
- Urabone (盂蘭盆会, Sanskrit: Ullambana), conducted 13-16 July (15-16 August in some localities): the souls of deceased family members are believed to return to the home during this period, and family members perform rites to greet them. It is also known as Obon (お盆) or just Bon (盆) festival.
- Jodoe (成道会, the feast commemorating the attainment of Buddhahood): ceremonies take place on 8 December, the day when Sakyamuni is said to have attained perfect enlightenment.
- Tokudo-shiki (得度式): the word tokudo originally had the religious meaning of “crossing to the other shore,” or attaining enlightenment. In actual practice, it
refers to the ordination ceremony in which a layperson has his or her head shaved, receives the Buddhist habit and precepts, and becomes a monk or nun.
- Goma (護摩, burning; Sanskrit: Homa): a ceremony practised in esoteric Buddhism. Fire, as a symbol of the Buddha’s wisdom, bums away illusion and defilement, thereby effecting a symbolic union between the Buddha and the practitioner.
- Kanjō (灌頂, Sanskrit: Abhi-ṣeka): one of the most important esoteric rites of the Shingon sect, representing the transmission of the secret truth and conferral of status. Water, representing Buddha’s wisdom, is poured on the head of the monk to symbolise the transfer of Buddhahood.