The daibutsu in Kamakura
Buddhism originated in India and travelled through Korea and China
to Japan in the mid-6th century AD. At first, there was some dispute
among ruling families over whether to accept Buddhist teaching.
It was adopted by the Imperial court of Empress Suiko in the 7th century, along with
other aspects of Chinese culture.
But it was her son, the devout Prince Shotoku who is considered
the real founder of Japanese Buddhism. He established
several major monasteries such as Horyuji, near Nara.
As the state religion, Buddhism continued to dominate Shinto,
the indigeous religion, for over a millenium. Kokubunji (provincial
monasteries) were built in each province and a huge
daibutsu (statue of Buddha) was erected at Todaiji, the head
temple, in Nara. Buddhism was practised mostly by the
ruling classes until its popularity became more widespread in
the Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura
(1185-1333) periods, mainly in the form of the Jodo (Pure Land) and
Nichiren (or Lotus) sects. Followers of the Jodo sect seek rebirth in
the Western paradise, or Pure Land of the Buddha Amida while those
of the Nichiren sect follow the teachings of the charismatic 13th-century
founder of the same name. The austere Zen Buddhism became an important
part of the samurai or bushi (warrior) way of life.
When the samurai class unified the country under the leadership
of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu in the Edo Period
(1600-1868), the popular sects encouraged such values as hard
work and patience, laying the foundations for Japan's future economic
success. Also at this time, Christians became the target of military
leadership. Thousands were martyred and the prohibition of
Christianity continued until the late-19th century.
Today, Buddhism is the most popular religion in Japan with some
85% of the population professing the faith. The Nichiren sect
is the biggest, with around 25 million members. The largest of
Japan's so-called New Religions, Soka Gakkai,
is an independent organization of the Nichiren sect and supporter
of the Komeito political party. Japan has about 75,000 Buddhist temples and
over 200,000 clergy.
Some popular Bodhisattvas (compassionate beings on the verge of Buddhahood but
who have vowed to help others achieve this state first) whose statues can be commonly
seen today are Kannon, a goddess of compassion and Jizo (right),
a protector of children. Huge statues of Kannon
can be found around the country, with their heads poking out above the trees to
attract visitors. Smaller Jizo statues,
sometimes lined up in their hundreds, are often draped with red bibs or other
clothing. Women who have lost a child,
either before or after birth, make these offerings for the soul of their child.
Jizo are also placed as "boundary gods",
at the edge of a town or village or at a crossroads.
Buddhism and Death
While weddings are often Shinto or Christian ceremonies, soshiki
(funerals) are almost always Buddhist. The body is cleaned, dressed
in white robes and laid with the head facing north (thus it is
considered bad luck to sleep with your bed facing north). There
is a wake, where mourners present a gift of money (koden).
At the funeral the next day, mourners gather beneath a photograph
of the deceased while a priest from the local temple recites sutras.
Most deceased are cremated and pieces of their bones placed in
a small jar called a kotsutsubo. This is placed on an altar at home
(butsudan) until it is buried, often at a family plot. Relatives often
pray for the deceased at the butsudan and observe anniversaries
as well as visiting the grave on the spring and autumn equinox
holidays and during the summer Bon festival.
Shinto traditionally considers death as a form of defilement.
With the mix of Shinto and Buddhism, this belief was connected
with the Buddhist teaching against the killing of animals. As
a result, people involved in working with the dead, the slaughter
of animals or tanning came to be shunned. This led to a kind of
caste system in which such people were referred to as eta hinin
- literally "abundantly polluted non-humans". This system was
legalized in the Edo Period. The social outcasts were labelled
as burakumin, as they were only allowed to live in designated hamlets (buraku)
and do certain jobs. The first official government policy in support
of bunrakumin was established only in 1969 and discrimination
persists today. Background checks are still sometimes done by
parents before a wedding or by prospective employers.