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Buddhism first reached the shores of Japan from China and Korea in the 6th Century, initially the exclusive preserve of the aristocracy. Buddhism had originated in India in the 5th century BC. It consists of the teachings of the Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha.

Of the main branches of Buddhism, it is the Mahayana or "Greater Vehicle" Buddhism which found its way to Japan. It holds that all beings share a basic spiritual communion and that everything is destined for the same ultimate end - that of ’Buddhahood’. Things may appear different to us but in fact all are linked and therefore the same in reality. This and the central premise of all past actions being responsible for the present situation (karma) form the basis of the religion. The Japanese soon formed a connection between it and Shinto, considering Buddha a kami from neighbouring China and the temples around the ancient capital of Nara bear witness to its growing foothold in the folowing 200 years.

The growth and spread of Buddhism in Japan conveniently falls into three or four main periods.The Nara period saw the establishment of the first national capital (modern-day Nara) and the consolidation of Buddhism and Chinese culture in Japan. Sate-sponsored Buddhism became thje norm and temples were established reflecting this in each province. Todai-ji in Nara dates from this period.

From 794 onwards the Heian Period saw the advent of schools advocating ’Esoteric Buddhism’, away from the strictures of  more orthodox Nara sect. Various schools took hold, most notably the Chinese-inspired Tendai sect of Saicho (762 - 822 AD) and the Shingon School established by Kobo-Daishi, or Kukai as he is also known (714 - 835 AD pictured below) - the latter’s legacy lives on in the pilgrimage he first performed around the 88 Temples of Shikoku. It was in this period that Kyoto became the nation’s capital and Shinto and Buddhist began to assimilate. The basis for many later schools were laid at this time.

The Kamakura Period was one of great unrest with clan warfare and further developments in the Buddhist faith. The Jodo, or ’Pure Land’ School embraced a very simplistic approach which revloved around chanting a single incantation - ’namu amida butsu’ (Hail Amida Buddha) as the path to salvation. The Jodo Shin school further developed this to reflect the belief that Amida Buddha - the Buddha of Infinite Light -  had already saved humanity and that the incantation should be one of gratitude rather than a plea for mercy.  (Pictured above is Zojo-ji in Tokyo - Jodo’s most important temple). Nichiren school embraced the Lotus Sutra teachings and called for religious reform of government -  it was unusually intolerant to other sects.

In 1191, the Zen sect was introduced from China. Its complicated theories were popular particularly among the members of the miitary classes. According to Zen teachings, one can achieve self enlightenment through meditation and discipline. At present, Zen seems to enjoy a greater popularity overseas than within Japan.

What followed was a period of unrest with local leaders such as the great unifier Hideyoshi fighting the various militant sects for power. By the end of 16th Century these had mostly been removed from political power and the shogunates took full control.

Nowadays about 90 million people consider themselves Buddhists in Japan. However, the religion does not directly affect the everyday life of the average Japanese very strongly. Funerals are usually carried out in a Buddhist way, and many households keep a small house altar in order to pay respect to their ancestors.


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