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Buddhism in Japan

The Great Buddha in Kamakura
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.

Jizo statuesSome 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.

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