History of Buddhism in Japan
Buddhism first arrived in Japan in the sixth century by Buddhist monks from China and Korea. At this time Buddhism had been spreading from its origins in India for nearly 1000 years and at this point had adapted to many other cultures and religious traditions. Shinto had been the prevalent belief system at the time of Buddhism’s arrival in Japan, and the two systems were readily merged. The incorporation of ideas from both religions is just one example of the way that world religions to spread and adapt in ways that make sense to the people practicing them (Pye 1971).
In this case, as Buddhism had already been a well defined religion with a formalized set of beliefs with prophets and written texts that people used to interpret these beliefs and apply them to their own lives. Shinto was not a unified belief system; people believed in the different kami, or dieties, and practiced the many rituals associated with Shinto on their own terms. Shrines were vital to the religion for the safe-keeping of sacred items, as well as a place to practice rituals, however they were also used as a social meeting place (Breen and Teeuwen 2000). Thus Buddhist principles that were relevant to the lives of the people of Japan were adopted and incorporated into their daily lives and kami that were relevant to Buddhism became incorporated into the Buddhist pantheon, and even considered by some to be incarnations of the Buddha (Grapard 1984).
Since Shinto and the accompanying shrines were integrated deeply into daily life, the combining of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples lent itself well to the growth and acceptance of Buddhism in local regions. Many Japanese scholars also chose, or were chosen to travel to China and Korea to learn more about the religion and when they returned to their communities their position as insiders lent credibility to the Buddhist teachings they brought back with them (Sansom 1958).
Early Sacred Spaces
Early Buddhist temples were incorporated into existing Shinto structures, and both share traditional Japanese architectural features that are highly symbolic. Two features that Buddhist temples incorporated from Shinto structures is the torii and the sandō .
Torii are the gates that symbolized the transition from the profane to the sacred once they were crossed through. This symbolism helped Buddhist temples to be seen commonly as sacred spaces. Early Buddhist temples were also constructed out of natural materials, which was in line with Shinto architectural design (Breen and Teeuwen 2000).
Sandō are another architectural feature typically associated with early Buddhist temples in Japan. This pathway typically begins at the torii and goes to the temple doorways. Sandō are pathways that symbolize efforts in one’s life. The pathway is meant to promote mindfulness and allow for reflection (Breen and Teeuwen 2000). Both of these features are can still be found in temples today.
Early temples served largely as repositories of precious cultural artifacts. Buddhist temples differ from many other religious structures in that they are typically not always open to all worshipers. They are monasteries that incorporated buildings and spaces for specific rites and rituals and are typically limited in the number of participants. Large gatherings took place outside of the structures in the surrounding areas. Buddhist temples were a place of learning and teaching as well (Grapard 1982).
Japanese Temples Today
Today the temples serve their traditional purposes as monasteries and repositories of religious and cultural artifacts, however they also hold new significance. Since the beginning of Buddhism in Japan new sects have arrived and been established, necessitating some adaptation of the structures as well. Temple grounds still serve as sacred spaces for rituals and festivals and monastic traditions carry on in similar ways (Prebish 1994). Some key differences are that in 1868 the Shinbutsu bunri law was passed which made it illegal to have Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples coexisting in the same space. As a result many structures of both types were permanently destroyed, and valuable knowledge and history was lost (Grapard 1984). Despite this mandate there is still frequent incorporation of Shinto symbolic architecture into more modern architecture, including in Buddhist temples. The use of natural materials in architecture, especially wood, and the placement of temples in areas surrounded by nature is still common today.
Today temples also serve as historical and cultural sites that are often sources of pride in their communities. They also serve as popular destinations for travelers from around Japan as well as the rest of the world who are drawn to their unique architecture, rich history, and deeply ingrained spiritual symbolism.
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Breen, John, Teeuwen, Mark, eds.
2000 Shinto in History: Ways of the Kami. New York, NY: Routledge.
Grapard, Allan G.
1982 Flying Mountains and Walkers of Emptiness: Toward a Definition of Sacred Space in Japanese Religions. History of Religions 21(3):195-221.
1984 Japan’s Ignored Cultural Revolution: The Separation of Shinto and Buddhist Divinities in Meiji (“Shimbutsu Bunri”) and a Case Study: Tōnomine. History of Religions 23(3):240-265.
Prebish, Charles S., ed.
1994 Buddhism: A Modern Perspective, 5th edition. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.
1971 Syncretism and Ambiguity. Numen 18(2):83-93.
Sansom, George B.
1958 A History of Japan to 1334, Volume 1. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press