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The history of Buddhism in Japan


3 Nov 2002
Buddhism was brought to Japan from China at different periods by various individuals whose studies and practice differ widely. Buddhism as practiced in Japan has been shaped by Japanese cultural practices and values and has developed differently from Buddhism practiced elsewhere in Asia. In Japan, Zen Buddhism has become one of the major forms of Buddhist practice and is the most well-known form of Japanese Buddhism outside of Japan.

Buddhism was first introduced into Japan from Korea in the year 522. As a foreign religion, it first met with resistence but it was recognized in 585 by emperor Yomei. During the period of government of Prince Shotoku (593-621) it was the official religion of Japan. Shotoku fostered the study of Buddhist scriptures and founded Horyu-ji in Nara among other temples. During this period it was primarily the Sanron school that spread.

During the Nara period (710-794) there were already six schools of Buddhism in Japan: Kosha, Hosso, Sanron, Jojitsu, Ritsu and Kegon. It was firmly established in the imperial house which expecially took the teachings of the Kegon school as the basis of its government. The "Sutra of Golden Light "was of particular importance.

During the Heian period (794-1184) the Tendai and Shingon schools gained influence and became the dominant forms of Buddhism in Japan and became the de facto state religion.

Around the middle of the 10th century Amidism began to spread and in the Kamakura period (1185-1333) it was organized into the Jodo-shu and Jodo-shinshu. In 1191 Zen came to Japan and has remained until today the most vital form of Japanese Buddhism, two main schools are Soto and Rinzai.

In the 13th century the Nichiren school emerged. In the 19th century Shintoism was elevated to the state religion. After the Second World War there was a renaissance of Buddhism in Japan and a whole series of popular movements have arisen: Soka Gakkai, Rissho Koseikai and Nipponzan Myohoji, to name a few, which have adapted Buddhism to modern times.

Buddhism began with the experiences of a man who is known mainly as the Buddha (Butsu - the enlightened one, Shakyamuni 窶 the sage of the Shakya clan, Siddhartha Gautama 窶廃ersonal name) (b 563 B. C. died at age 84). The philosophy/religion is based on his teachings after his experience of being enlightened [satori 窶 (kenshテエ jobutsu "seeing one窶冱 own true nature") enlightenment 窶 awakening 窶 an understanding of the entire universe, emptiness and phenomena are one. satoru 窶 to know.] It is often not considered a religion because there is no god. There are powerful beings who are petitioned for assistance in reaching this goal but they are not identified as gods.

The term butsu or buddha is used to refer to anyone who is aware or enlightened as to the true nature of existence. All people are hotoke 窶 buddhas. Shakyamuni is the historical buddha for this age. Kテ「shyapa 窶 buddha of past ages (there are 6 buddhas of earlier epochs). Maitreya (Miroku) 窶 future buddha, associated with the attribute of wisdom.

The main ideas of the philosophy are to be found in the Taishテエ issaikyテエ (Tripitaka, three baskets). The Japanese is a modern version of the Buddhist canon which consists of 1) Vinaya 窶 pitaka accounts of origins of Buddhism, 2) sutra-pitaka 窶 teachings of the Buddha, 3) abhidharma-pitaka 窶 compendium of buddhist psychology and philosophy.

Source: http://cla.calpoly.edu/~bmori/syll/Hum310japan/JBUDDHISM.html
Very interesting. I was wondering where Buddhism in Japan came from, although I thought that it came from India. Or did the Japanese bring Buddhism to India? I'm confused.

Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical figure) was born in the area located on the present border of India and Nepal. Shakyamuni Buddha traveled primarily around the present day Bihar area of NE India, teaching to the people of that geographic area. Over the 2,500 years since the Buddha's passing, the teachings took two routs across Asia. The Southern Rout is what we know as the Theravadin School of Buddhism, which traveled to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and into Vietnam. The Nothern Rout is what we know as the Mahayana School of Buddhism, which traveled into China then from China on to Korea, Vietnam and Japan.

The following is some basic information I drew from the web on Buddhism in Japanese history:

The earliest temples date to shortly after the introduction of Buddhism from Korea and China in the mid-6th century. The first temple was the converted home of the powerful Soga family in 552. They also founded Asukadera, the first official temple complex (or monastery), south of modern-day Nara in 588. Prince Shotoku, considered the father of Japanese Buddhism, is said to have built the Seven Great Temples of Nara at the beginning of the 7th century. These include Horyuji, whose main hall is the oldest wooden building in the world.

In the mid-8th century, under instructions from emperor Shomu, kokubunji (provincial temples) were built in each province, with the head temple being Todaiji in modern-day Nara. The honzon, or main object of worship, at Todaiji is a 15m high gilt-bronze statue of Buddha, known as the Nara Daibutsu (Great Buddha of Nara). By the end of the century there were about 360 temples throughout the country. The Heian Period (794-1185) saw the emergence first of the Tendai and Shingon sects and later the Jodo (Pure Land) sect of Buddhism. Each sect established its own temples, with the Jodo sect building many halls to enshrine the Buddha Amida. The amidado (Amida Hall), built in 1053, at Byodoin temple at Uji near Kyoto is one of the finest surviving examples of architecture from this period. It is popularly known as the ho-odo (Phoenix Hall) because of its symmetrical wings and the bronze birds that sit on its roof.

In medieval Japan, the military leadership patronized the Zen monasteries while the older sects established monzeki - temples headed by members of the imperial family. Later, as the number of sects increased, the Jodo, Zen and Nichiren sects became particularly popular among the common people. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate, a system was established whereby all citizens had to register with a local temple. This system and other controls continued until the Meiji Period (1868-1912), when Shinto was officially separated from Buddhism and established as the state religion. Budhism and the temples fell into a period of decline, with many temple lands being confiscated. Freedom of religious faith was reintroduced in the post-war constitution but the Buddhist temples have had to compete with many new religions for financial support.

Japan Omnibus - Religion - Temples

c. 560-c. 483 BCE
Life of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha Shakyamuni.
c. 521 BCE
Siddhartha Gautama begins his search for truth.
c. 528 BCE
Siddhartha Gautama achieves enlightenment at Bodh Gaya in Northwestern India.
c. 528 BCE
The Four Noble Truths are revealed by Buddha Shakyamuni in his first sermon after his enlightenment:
1.existence is suffering,
2.the cause of suffering is within the self,
3.an end to suffering is possible,
4.following the Eightfold Path ends suffering leading to Nirvana.
c. 483 BCE
First Council is held at Rajagaha immediately following Buddh'as Parinirvana. It results in the formation of four factions. Buddha's teachings (Sutta Pitaka) and a text on monastic discipline ( Vinaya Pitaka) are written.
469 BCE
Now ten years after Buddha's death approximately 16 factions exist.
c. 400 BCE
Buddhism comes to Nepal.
c. 383 BCE
At Vesali the Second Buddhist Council is held declaring a minority orthodox ( Hinayana) and the majority heretic (Mahayana).
259 - 232 BCE
King Asoka (273 - 232), converts to Buddhism and sends out missionaries to other lands while actively promoting Budhism in his own lands.
c. 251 BCE
Mahinda, (c. 204) Asoka's son, introduces Buddhism to Ceylon.
c. 250 BCE
Under the auspices of King Asoka the Buddhist canon (Tipitaka) is completed during the Third Buddhist Council at Patna .
c. 200 BCE
Buddhism comes to central Asia.
c. 24 BCE
Founding of two important Buddhist monasteries in Ceylon: Mahaviranhara (Theravadin monastery) and Abhayagiri (Mahayana monastery).
1st century CE
As many as 500 Buddhist sects may exist by this time.
c. 61 CE
Mahayana Buddhism spreads to China.
c. 100 CE
Jalandhar, northern India hosts the Fourth Buddhist Council .
c. 150 CE
Nagarjuna founds the Madhyamika or Middle Way Mahayana school which teaches that true salvation can only be achieved by shedding all knowledge until only emptiness remains.
c. 300 - 400 CE
Yoga (Yogocara), the second major Mahayana school, is founded brothers Vasubandhu and Asanga. According to their teaching absolute reality is mind or consciousness therefore thought creates objects out of itself.
320 to 600 CE
Birth of Vajrayana Buddhism.
334 - 413 CE
Life of Kumarajiva, who translated more than 100 Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Chinese.
Fa Hsing of China, at the age of 64 travels to India and studies Buddhism there for seven years. He brings back to China many signifcant Vinaya scriptures. He is the first Chinese monk to write a detailed account of his travels in India: A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms -- 399-414 AD
372 CE
Buddhism spreads from China to Korea.
c. 400 CE
Buddaghosa writes Visuddhimagga, a major work on Theravadin philosophy.
480 CE
Buddhist missionary Bodhidharma arrives in China. The Zen school of Buddhism eventually arises from his teachings.
6th century CE
Buddhism spreads from China to Japan.
515 - 597 CE
Life of Chih-i, who founded the T'ien-t'ai school in China. According to his teachings, apparent contradictions in the Buddha's teachings are actually different levels of the same truth.
549 - 623 CE
Chi-tsang, founds the Madhyamika school in China.
596 - 664 CE
Hsuan Tsang, founds the Yoga (Fa-hsiang) school in China. He is the most influential pioneer in the translation of scriptures from Sanskrit to Chinese. He travelled throughout the northern and central regions of India, studied in monasteries for 17 years and finally brought 600 scrolls of scriptures back to China. He established a translation academy of more than 800 monks, responsible for translating a significant portion on Sanskrit scriptures into Chinese.
600 to 800 CE
Buddhism comes to Tibet
600 to 800 CE
Development of Mantrayana Buddhism, which uses sacred chants (mantras) to reach enlightenemnt.
613- 681 CE
Shan-tao founds the Pure Land sect (Ching-t'u) in China.
625 CE
The Sanron, Middle Way school develops in Japan.
628 - 700 CE
Dosho, founds the Yogacara (Hosso) school in Japan.
632 CE
Tibet declares Tantric Buddhism as the state religion.
638 - 713 CE
Hui-neng, founds the Ch'an sect in China in reaction to scholastic trends of traditional Buddhism.
668 - 749 CE
Korean Buddhist priest Gyogi, works to unite Buddhism and Shintoism.
Chinese monk Jian Zhen sails to Japan with a crew of monks and a signficant amount of Buddhist scriptures. He settles in Japan.
700 CE
Buddhism begins to decline in India.
787 CE
First Tibetan monastery is constructed.
c. 800 CE
In Tibet local nature religion called Bonism claims the gods are angry with the acceptance of the foreign religion, Buddhism. Buddhists counter by installing local Tibetan dieties as guardians to Buddha and Bodhisattvas and by accepting Bon rituals).
803 CE
Saicho (767 - 822) founds the Japanese T'ien-t'ai sect (Tendai).
817 - 836 CE
Buddhism reaches its height in Tibet with the Reign of King Ralpa-can. Buddhists are persecuted under Ralpa-can's successors.
958 - 1055 CE
Rin-chen bzang-po translates many Indian Buddhist texts creating a second Buddhist revival in Tibet.
972 CE
The Buddhist canon Tipitaka is first printed in China.
1030 CE
Tantric master Atisa (982 - 1054) arrives in Tibet. He begins Tibetan lamaism tradition headed by the Dalai Lama, which becomes the dominant form of Buddhism.
1140 - 1390 CE
Korean Buddhism reaches its highest point during the the Koryo Dynasty.
1160 CE
The long-standing conflict between the Mahavirahara and Abhayagiri monasteries in Ceylon ends at the Council of Anuradhapura.
c. 1200 CE
True Sect of Pure Land is founded in Japan by Shinran Shonin (1173 - 1261).
c. 1200 CE
Muslim Buddhism begins its decline in northern India as a result of Muslim conquests.
1244 CE
Dogen (1200 - 1253) founds the Soto Zen sect of Buddisim in Japan.
1253 CE
Nichiren (1222 - 1253) founds the Japanese Buddhist sect.
1260 CE
Lamaism is established as the national Mongol religion.
c. 1400 CE
Buddhism declines in southern India.
c. 1500 CE
Buddhism declines in Japan.
1731 CE
The first section of Tibetan Buddhism's canonical sutras (Kanjur) is printed.
c. 1800 CE
Buddhism experiences a revival in Ceylon. The Buddhist Theosophial Society is born.
1890 CE
Buddhism experiences a revival in Japan.
1891 CE
The Maha Bodhi Society is founded in Ceylon by D. H. Hewavitarne (1865 - 1933) with a view of spreading Buddhism to other English-speaking lands.
1920s CE
Soviet Communists attack Buddhism in Mongolia.
1929 CE
T'ai-hsu (1889 - 1947) creates Chinese Buddhist Society. By 1947 the society claims 4.5 million members.
1950 CE
Beginning of Chinese Communist attack on Buddhism.
1950 CE
World Fellowship of Buddhists is formed in Ceylon.
1954 CE
The Buddhist Council in Rangoon marks the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha's death (according to Theravadin teaching).
1960 CE
Cambodia holds a Buddhist Congress to combat growing opposition from Communists.
1964 CE
Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga is translated into English.

Great explanation! No offence, but I thought it would be greater if one point is added on it....

Prince Shotoku did not made Buddhism an "official religion" - instead he announced that all Japanese should regard Shinto as the "main trunk of a tree" and Buddhism is its "branch" - It is a very unique idea of him and we cannot found in any other country in any time - having multiple religions by regarding Shinto (multiple gods) as a basic religion of all Japanese, and Buddhism added on it.
It also explains why many Japanese go to Shrine or Church for wedding and Temples for funeral.
Shotokutaishi originally came up to this idea seemingly in order to avoid conflicts and wars between two religions . In Shinto there is an idea of Yaoyorozunokami (=eight million = countless gods everywhere), and I imagine it was not an issue for them to accept gods from other religions as well in the end. Buddha might have been regarded as one of foreign gods in Shinto such as Karanokami (=God of Korea) at the first time introduced to Japan.
Hi Ken...

Thank you for the clarification. It should probably also be noted that every country that Buddhism has come to, Buddhism made a point of finding some common ground with the official spirituality of that nation. In India the Hindus say that Shakyamuni Buddha was an incarnation of Vishnu. In China, Ch'an is a union of Taoism and Dhyana. And so it was with Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan.

In Gassho, Kakuzen
Hi Kakuzen,

Thanks, and I thought my previous post needs a correction.
Japan is not the only country having multiple religions combined as you pointed - as per your comment China, India etc... interesting to find such a similarity in other Asian country.
This is such an interesting thread, I'm going to bump it up to the front so others won't miss it!! :)

hi everybody ...
i mostly keen on art.especially uygur wall paintings ... at the aşokon peiod its told that buddhism spread so wide from greece,egypt,other middle east territories,c.asia,to japan.
the buddhist way of life at uygur territories called out to be burhanizm,burkanizm...the mturkish word of UYGAR (modern and civilizated) is derived from uygur-like.
buddhism and shamanizm(kam really) seems to be effective deep in meaning still at turkey.
people here in turkey respects buda,even some extremely religious ones...
but we wonder why people worship buda instead of his ideas??
one god many way...we should wellcome humanity........ 👍


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Is Buddhism practiced in Turkey, or is it something that is similar to Buddhism, but not Buddhism exactly?
Buntaro said:

Is Buddhism practiced in Turkey, or is it something that is similar to Buddhism, but not Buddhism exactly?

hi buntaro...
well the main religion of turks in turkey is islam (%99)
buddhism WAS the main religion of uygur turks(now islam)
shamanism lamaizm and budism are used to be the religion of turks of some central asian and far north asian territories...

buddhism is not practiced in turkey really(less maybe...) ,not similar to...

referring to oktay sinanoğlu:
uygur buddhism has so great influences on turkic muslim idea as well as shamanism ...

well its not surprising that the muslim humanitirian mevlana celaleddin rumi is from turkey (konya)
his main idea was : its not much important who you are ...everyone wellcomes
bst rgrds..... :giggle:
Buddhism in Turkey

There is one group that I know of who is trying to get a Sangha started in Istanbul. If anyone is interested then the following contact information may be helpful:

Contact: Erol Inelmen
Bebek, Istanbul 80815 Turkey
Email: [email protected]

I tried to contact him but no answer :?
They are still trying starting, or gave up????

Kakuzen said:
There is one group that I know of who is trying to get a Sangha started in Istanbul. If anyone is interested then the following contact information may be helpful:

Contact: Erol Inelmen
Bebek, Istanbul 80815 Turkey
Email: [email protected]

lhamo - Maybe you could try to check the phone listings for Erol Inelmen in Bebek, Istanbul. I'm not sure if he is still trying to get a Buddhist group together, or if he has already been sucessful in doing so, or if he has given up entirely. Keep looking for him lhamo! Together you might found the first Buddhist Sangha in Turkey.

Thank you kakuzen for the useful bit of information in my search. I had to clock back in i spent so much time reading. :D Do you have any more information?

-Buddhist in the making- 😊
EscaFlowne said:
Thank you kakuzen for the useful bit of information in my search. I had to clock back in i spent so much time reading. :D Do you have any more information?

-Buddhist in the making- 😊

I would be delighted to offer you as much information as you might enjoy good friend. Perhaps you would like to visit the Buddhist website where I assist as a moderator and have a look around.


Respectfully, KZ
i WILL be siging up today! Do you use the same name? 🎈
And Buntaro Probally zen Buddhism--[One through meditation] I think thats the one that intrigues me the most. So thats the one that i would prefer information from. But i will be reading about each in time. 🎈

On the Buddhist Forum, I use the name Skywalker. Maybe I will see you there.

Regarding Zen, if that is something that resonates with you, I hope that you can find the information that you are looking for. It took me many years to find what resonates with me. It was worth the wait!
FYI the name I PRESENTLY use at E-Sangha is Zenshin. Yet I will be changing it soon due to recent ordination. I moderate several forums there, including the Zen fourm. See you soon!

Respectfully, ZS
Dear friends: My name has now been changed both here on J-Ref, and also at E-Sangha, to reflect the new dharma name that was given to me at my Tokudo ordination ceremony with the Jodo-shu.

In Gassho, Hoyu (FKA. Kakuzen)
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