Buddhism in Japan

Essential Question

How did Buddhism spread in Japan and evolve into different sects of Buddhism in Japan?

Japan, A Land of Religous Diversity


Ancient Japanese elevated this fascination with nature into a belief system that was later called Shinto, or "the Way of the Gods." Shinto held that every mountain, every stream and even large trees contained a divine spirit. These deities, known as kami, were considered cheerful and friendly to humans. If kept satisfied, they would watch over human affairs. However, if angered, the kami would not hesitate to unleash their wrath cuasing natural disasters or other calamities. What angered them most came when humans failed to maintain physical and spiritual cleanliness. To please the kami, worshipers underwent thorough purification before passing beneath the torii, the gate leading into the sacred grounds of a Shinto shrine. Clean humans meant happy kami, and happy kami meant a peaceful realm.

Many of the myths and legends of Shinto emphasized Japan's divine beginnings. For example, the Shinto creation myth tells of a pair of deities called Izanagi and Izanami who created the islands of Japan when droplets of water dropped down from Izanagi's spear. After the couple descended from the heavens to live on the islands, they had numerous divine offspring. Among them was the sun goddess Amaterasu, the most important god in Shinto.

Later generations of Japanese emperors claimed their divinity — and therefore their right to rule — by tracing their ancestry back to Amaterasu herself. As a direct descendant of the sun goddess, the emperor became a Living God. He was to be worshiped along with his all-illuminating divine ancestor.


Several belief systems imported from China have also influenced the way the Japanese view the world. Confucianism, a philosophy and religion based on the teachings of Confucius, gained a foothold in Japan in the 7th century A.D. Its political theories and ideas on how family life should be ordered have persisted for centuries. Confucianism even became the official ideology of the state during the stable Tokugawa period (1600–1868), also known as Edo period.

Two other significant belief systems are Chinese astrology and feng-shui, which expresses the connection between people and the universe. In addition to these, Japan has adopted many other Chinese folk beliefs and practices.


Shinto was already well established as the national religion when Buddhism reached Japan in the 6th century A.D. Buddhism first developed in India and then slowly spread throughout East Asia. As you may recall, Prince Shotoku was a Buddhist, and he wanted to spread Buddhism throughout Japan. He built a grand Buddhist temple that still stands today. He also wrote commentaries on Buddhist teachings. Largely because of his efforts, Buddhism became very popular, especially among Japanese nobles. With the support of the noble class and emperors, Buddhist monasteries opened up all over Japan. As Buddhism gained popularity in Japan, it occasionally clashed with Shinto, but it did not replace the earlier religion. Rather, the two overlapped and complemented each other. Nobels supported both Buddhist and Shinto temples. Religion became something of an art form in Heian. The nobles' religion reflected their love of elaborate rituals. People still celebrated Shinto festivals, Buddhist rituals, and others in the imperial court.

Buddhism had produced many more texts than Shinto and followed a strict moral code. Unlike Shinto, it provided detailed answers to questions about death, reincarnation and punishment for wrongdoing. As in China, Buddhism in Japan splintered into numerous sects. Mostly since the common people in Japan, though equally religious, didn't have the time or money for elaborate rituals. Of the schools that still exist today — such as Tendai, Shingon, Nichiren and Zen — the Zen school is probably the most distinctive.

Discussion Questions

  • What were the main religions of Japan?

  • How and why did Buddhism spread to Japan?

  • What relationship did Shintoism and Buddhism have?

Activity 1: How did Buddhism spread in Japan?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

New Buddhist Sects Develop in Japan

New Sects Develop.pdf

Activity 2: What are the different sects of Buddhism in Japan?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Discussion Questions

  • How was Pure Land Buddhism similar to Zen Buddhism? How were they different?

  • What is an example of how Japanese Buddhist sects built off of the ideas of Chinese Buddhism?

  • Which sect of Buddhism was the most popular? Why?

Extension Activity

Zen Buddhists practice a form of meditation known as zazen, or sitting zen, in which the practitioner sits for hours on end. The goal is to free one's mind from the prison of worldly concerns. A Zen master tries to help a beginner break through the mind's illusions so the student can discover the true nature of things. He does this by employing puzzling riddles known as kôans, which seemingly make no sense. Such riddles are used to throw off the mind's normal thinking process. Here are two od the famous and typical kôan: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" or "What happens if a tree falls in the woods, but no one is around to hear it? Does it still make a sound?" Try thinking about that question for a while. If you do, you will experience some of the mysteries of Zen.