The major Japanese schools of Buddhism are the
  • Tendai School
  • Shingon School
  • Pure Land Buddhism
  • Nichiren
  • Zen

The Tendai School

The Tendai School (天台宗 Tendai-shū) was introduced into Japan by the priest Saichō (最澄, 767-822), also knows as Dengyō Daishi 伝教大師). He had entered a monastery at an early age and been ordained at the age of eighteen. Still, He left Nara to live at first in the solitude of Hieizan (比叡山), northeast of Kyoto , where he attracted a group of companions and established a small monastery, Enryaku-ji (延暦寺).

In 804, the Japanese emperor sent him to China to search for the best form of Buddhism. He studied the school of Tiantai (Tendai) at their headquarter, as well as Zhenyan (Shingon) and Chan (Zen) schools. Saichō returned to Japan the next year, bringing with him books and knowledge. His small monastery grew into a religious community of some 3,000 temples.

The Tendai sect is based on the Lotus Sutra (妙法蓮華経 myōhō-renge-kyō, shortened to 法華経 hōkke-kyō) and teaches that everyone can become and should endeavour to become a Buddha. Tendai teachings are quite comprehensive and systematic, incorporating all Buddhist scriptures, regarding them as stages of a revelation disclosed by the Buddha according to the growing understanding of his listeners.

The Tendai teaching of ichidai engyō (一大円教, One Great Perfect Teaching) sees the whole, and all of its parts as one: the entire cosmos and all the Buddhas are present in a grain of sand or the tip of a hair; one thought is the 3,000 spheres (the whole universe), and the 3,000 spheres are but one thought. Therefore, the relationships involved in the simplest thought are so numerous that they encompass the whole universe so that human perceptions and thoughts are identical with absolute reality.

According to Tendai, there are three levels of existence: the void (Sanskrit: śūnya), the temporary, and the middle. All things that exist depend on mutual relations. Isolating anything and conceiving of it as existing without relationships is impossible; such a state of being is nonexistent. As temporary formative parts of the whole, however, things do exist. The whole would not realise its true nature if it did not manifest itself in particulars. In this sense, all things have a phenomenal existence. Things exist or do not exist depending on our view of their relatedness, but the middle exists. Therefore, phenomena and the one absolute truth are, if regarded rightly, synonymous. When the significance of each of the three is properly understood, the enlightenment obtained by Buddha himself can be achieved.


Saichō 最澄

The Shingon School

Shingon Buddhism (真言宗 Shingon-shū) is one of the few surviving Esoteric Buddhist lineages and was introduced to Japan by Kūkai (空海, 774-835), who was also known as Kōbō-Daishi (弘法大師). He spent two years in China (804-806), studying Shingon under Hui-Kuo (Chinese: 惠果), the celebrated abbot of the Qinglong Monastery (青龍寺) at Chang'an. He is believed to have studied Sanskrit under the guidance of an Indian monk called Prajñā (Sanskrit: प्रज्ञा) and to have introduced into Japan a slightly altered form of the Sanskrit script called siddham (悉曇 shittan) that is written in vertical columns and used in Shingon manuscripts. Prajñā is said to have collaborated with Nestorian priests in translations, and, through him, Kūkai may have come in contact with Christians.

In 806, Kūkai returned to Japan. In 816, he was given land on Mount Kōya (高野山 Kōya-san) in Kii Province (modern-day Wakayama Prefecture) to establish a monastery. He died at the temple of Kongōbu-ji (金剛峯寺) on Kōyasan in 835. According to Shingon tradition, he did not die. Still, he merely entered a state of meditation to await the descent of Maitreya (Sanskrit: मैत्रेय, in Japanese 弥勒菩薩 Miroku Bosatsu), foretold as a future Buddha of this world. In the annals and legends of Japanese Buddhism, Kūkai is the most celebrated name, whether as s saint, a scholar, poet, calligrapher, painter or sculptor.

Shingon is the Japanese reading of the kanji for the Chinese word zhēnyán (真言), which means "true words" and refers to a sacred spell or mantra. Shingon used a lot of mystical rituals, gestures and syllables (Sanskrit: धारणी, in Japanese 陀羅尼 darani), as these features appealed to the common people of Japan, who wanted a religion that they believed would ward off evil.

Some esoteric Shingon doctrines are only communicated orally from master to disciple and cannot be understood by the uninitiated. In the initiation rite (灌頂 kanjō, Sanskrit: abhiṣeka), holy water is sprinkled onto the initiate, however, not when people first become members, but once disciples have reached the higher mysteries. An initiation ceremony called kechien kanjō (結縁灌頂) for common people does exist, symbolising their initiation into esoteric Buddhism. It is only performed on Mount Kōya.


Kūkai 空海

Pure Land Buddhism

Pure Land Buddhism (浄土仏教 Jōdo bukkyō), in English also known as Amidism, emerged in the first or second century CE in India and was based on the Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra (Sanskrit: सुखावतीव्यूह), the Shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra (Amitābha Sūtra, Sanskrit: अमिताभ) and the Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra. These three sutras speak of the Western Paradise of the Pure Land (Sanskrit: Sukhāvatī, in Japanese 極楽 gokuraku), where believers were supposed to be born after death as a reward for their faith and good works.

The saviour of this school is Amida (阿弥陀如来 Amida Nyorai, in Sanskrit अमिताभ Amitābha) or the Buddha of Unlimited Light, who presides over the Pure Land. When Amida was still a bodhisattva, he made forty-eight vows, the eighteenth of which read:

If upon my obtaining Buddhahood, all beings in the ten quarters should desire in sincere faith to be born into my country, and if they should not be born by thinking of me as little as ten times, I will not attain the highest enlightenment.

Now that Amida has become a Buddha, according to believers, he fulfils his vows, helping anyone to achieve salvation, who invokes his name with sincerity and faith.

Pure Land Buddhism reached Japan in the sixth century CE. From the tenth to the thirteenth century, many schools based on the Pure Land doctrine were formed: Ryōnin (良忍) founded the Yūzū-nembutsu sect (融通念仏宗) in 1117 CE; Hōnen (法然, 1133-1212) the Jōdo-shū sect (浄土宗, "The Pure Land School") in 1175 CE; Shinran (親鸞, 1173-1263) the Jōdo Shinshū sect (浄土真宗, "True Pure Land School"), also known as Shin Buddhism in 1224 CE, and Ippen Shōnin (一遍上人, 1234–1289) the Ji-shū sect (時宗, "Time Sect") in 1270.


The indigenous Nichiren sect was founded by Nichiren (日蓮, 1222-1282), the son of Mikuni-no-Tayu Shigetada, a low-level estate overseer. He had become a monk at an early age, studying in the Shingon and the Tendai school. There, he concluded that only one scripture was needed, namely the Lotus of the Good Law (Sanskrit: सद्धर्मपुण्डरीकसूत्र Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra), or the Lotus Sutra, and that the deliverance of the country from its sufferings could best be achieved by a proper worship of the Lotus Sutra and the Śākyamuni Buddha.

Nichiren led the life of a religious prophet, wandering through the country and beating his drum to awaken people to the truth of the Lotus Sutra. He rebuked other sects and the government and was banned twice, once to the Izu Peninsula and once to Sado Island. He escaped execution and an assassination attempt miraculously. His fervour brought him many disciples, and religious zeal seems to be a characteristic of Nichiren followers to this day. Revolutionary were not only his views on government but also on gender equality, declaring that women too could attain enlightenment – downright sacrilegious in thirteenth-century Japan, where women were regarded as second-class.

After the Second World War, many religious groups, the so-called "new religions" (新宗教 shinkō shūkyō), were established. Several of the largest of these groups (Sōka Gakkai 創価学会, "Value-Creation Society"; Risshō Kōsei Kai 立正佼成会; Reiyūkai 霊友会, "Spiritual-Friendship-Association"; Myōchikai 妙智會, and others) drew upon Nichiren's teachings and the Lotus Sutra, adopting the chanting of the daimoku (題目): "Nam myōhō renge kyō (南無妙法蓮華經, "I place my faith in the Lotus Sutra of the Good Law").

Zen Buddhism

As a particular form of Buddhism, Zen first arose in China. It is, therefore, a peculiarly Chinese version of Mahāyāna Buddhism brought from India by the monk Bodhidharma (達磨 Daruma) around 527 CE, centring on dhyāna (chán in Chinese and zen in Japanese), translated as "meditation" or "contemplation". Dhyāna means intermediate insight into the nature of reality or life. In China, Dhyāna Buddhism was strongly influenced by Taoism and Confucianism and emerged in the seventh century as the body of religious practices still known today.

The Tendai monk Myōan Eisai (明菴栄西, 1141-1215) first brought back Dhyāna or Chán Buddhism from China in 1191. The Zen Buddhism he introduced is called the Rinzai school (臨済宗 Rinzai-shū) and is based on the Chinese Linji school (临济宗 línjì zōng). In the thirteenth century, another Japanese monk, Dōgen Zenji (道元禅師, also known as Dōgen Kigen 道元希玄, or Eihei Dōgen 永平道元, 1200-1253), who also studied in China, founded the Sōtō school (曹洞宗 Sōtō-shū) of Zen Buddhism. While the Rinzai Zen sect, centred in five major temples in Kyoto and five in Kamakura, called the "Five Mountains and Ten Monasteries System" (五山十刹制度 Gozan Jissetsu Seido), obtained support from the ruling class, samurai as well as court nobles, the Sōtō sect had followers first among the powerful provincial families. Still, after Keizan Jōkin (瑩山紹瑾, 1268–1325), the founder of Sōji-ji (總持寺), one of the two head temples of Sōtō Zen Buddhism, adopted rituals of the esoteric Shingon school, the Sōtō sect quickly spread among common people, too.

In the Edo period (1600-1868), the Chinese monk Ingen Ryūki (隱元隆琦 Yinyuan Longqi, 1592-1673) re-introduced Zen from China and founded the Ōbaku sect (黄檗宗 Ōbaku-shū). The Ōbaku practises were almost identical to those of the Rinzai sect and incorporated rites from Pure Land Buddhism, since the Chán school during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) had assimilated faith in Amida Buddha.

Under the Tokugawa shogunate, Buddhism and its network of temples were used to eradicate Christianity, but came under the strict regulatory power of the shogunate, too. Many sectarian divisions of previous times prevailed, the structure of various religious groups became firmly fixed, and the doctrines of the manifold schools were formalised. Any reform movement aimed at the political establishment of the shogunate or the ideas it espoused gained no support within Buddhism, even though the certain sign of modernisation became apparent, such as Suzuki Shōsan's (鈴木正三, 1579-1655) treatises on occupational ethics.

Zen became more popular thanks to masters such as Shidō Bunan (至道無難, 1603-1676), Bankei Yōtaku (盤珪永琢, 1622-1693), and Hakuin Ekaku (白隠慧鶴, 1686-1768). The movement to return to the roots of Buddhism as revealed in its Sanskrit texts was led by the Buddhist scholars Fujaku (普寂, 1707-1781), Kaijyō (1750-1805) and Jiun Onkō (慈雲飲光, 1718-1804). After the Meiji Restoration, the government sought to establish Shinto as the national religion, and many Buddhist temples were disestablished. Since then, Buddhist organisations and institutions have struggled for survival and to adjust to the developments of the modern age.


Nichiren 日蓮
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