Few months ago, I wrote a post about Shintoism, the faith which is unique to Japan. I wanted to write one about Buddhism and its influence on Japan, but it took me long to actually write about it.
Buddhism has had a deep impact on the Japanese culture. Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 6th century AD from Korea and China.
The Nara period was supposedly a golden period for Buddhism in India. At that time, Buddhist monasteries had a large influence on the country’s politics and administration. In the next few centuries, newer sects of Buddhism were introduced from China. Few schools of Buddhism like Nichiren Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and Shingon Buddhism were founded in Japan. Zen Buddhism was particular popular among the samurai class as its principles of discipline and meditation appealed to the warrior class.
Initially when Buddhism was introduced in Japan, there was some conflict with Shintoism. However over time, both faiths have been coexisting peacefully and many Japanese customs are an interesting blend of both Buddhist and Shinto customs.
Many forms of Buddha are worshipped in Japan. The Amida Buddha ( Amitabha Buddha) or the Vairocana Buddha are most commonly found all over Japan.
A female form of Buddha called “Kannon” ( Avalokiteswara) the Goddess of Mercy is also commonly found.
A variety of other deities are also found in Buddhist temples. The Sanju sangendo temple in Kyoto has a big hall with statues of the various Buddhist deities.
The hall also houses 1001 statues of Kannon.
Buddhist temples are found in abundance all over Japan. Some of the heritage sites in Japan are Buddhist temples or monuments. Heritage cities like Nara, Kyoto and Kamakura are filled with famous Buddhist sites.
Nara’s Todaiji temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site and remains the world’s largest wooden structure in the world , measuring 48 meters high, 57 meters wide and 50 meters deep.
The hall was burned down and destroyed in natural disasters and earthquakes and has been rebuilt several times. The Statue known as Daibutsu, is 15 meters high and weighs about 250 tons, making it the largest gilt-bronze statue in the world.
During the early years of Buddhism in Japan, Buddha statues were carved out or sculpted into large rocks or cliffs and in caves. Matsushima's Oshima island, which was an erstwhile Buddhist monk retreat is filled with such statues and sculptures.
Many gigantic statues of Buddha were erected over the various periods. Kamakura’s seated Bronze statue, the Daibutsu, is one of the larges outdoor seated Buddha statue. Originally constructed in 1252 AD, the statue was reconstructed several times after it was destroyed due to storms and earthquakes. The statue measures 11.3 metres high with the face itself measuring 2.5 metres long.
In recent years many such large Buddha statues can be found in many places all over Japan. The Ushiku Daibutsu , in Ibaraki prefecture was erected more recently and towers about 100 meters high.
For instance this huge statue of Kannon at Aizumura in Fukushima Prefecture'.
It may be difficult for foreigners to initially distinguish between Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. A few temple and shrine visits and one learns to distinguish. The easiest way to remember is the name of the temple or shrine itself. Buddhist temples usually have a suffix “-ji” or “dera” attached to the temple’s name. Shinto shrines usually have the suffixes “Jingu”, “Jinja” or “Shrine”.
The entrance to Buddhist temples have a gateway called “Sanmon”.
Statues of guardian protectors usually flank the entrance gateway.
The main hall of the Buddhist temple is called “ Hondo” and this houses the main deity, usually representation of one of the various forms of Buddha.
Buddhist temples often have tower like structures called “Pagodas” on the temple grounds.
These pagodas house some important relics of the Buddha, usually in the base of the central pillar, but hidden from public view. Most pagodas are 3 or 5 storeyed.
Buddhist temples also have a building which houses the prayer bell.
Some Buddhist temples have unique ceremonies which are not held in other Buddhist temples. Like the Narita san Shinsoji temple’s “Goma” ceremony which is similar to some Hindu rituals and such ceremony is not common in other Japanese Buddhist temples.
Praying at a Buddhist temple is by joining both palms and bowing. The clapping of palms as done as Shinto shrines is not done in Buddhist temples.
The temple grounds also have stone or cast metal lanterns on the grounds.
Buddhist temples often have cemetries attached to them. Memorial stones called “Gorinto” are erected in cemetries .
Some temples have monasteries for the monks living in the temple complex. Sometimes even a small Shinto shrine can be found on the temple grounds !
Buddhist temples have varied architectural designs. The following images are just instances of the various styles.
Some Buddhist temples, especially those which are popular heritage sites or important religious places may also have an entrance fee, unlike most Shinto shrines which do not charge an entrance fee.While most Buddhist temples are open to general public, some may require prior appointment or reservation.
Buddhist temples also sell some amulets, which people purchase as good luck charms. Each temple has its unique amulet , which are said to encapsulate the special powers of that temple, known as “goryaku”. Generally amulets are of 2 types. “Omamori” are small satin brocade bags that hold small prayers or images of Kannon printed on paper. People usually keep this amulets in their handbags or in their rooms and most commonly in cars.
The other kind of amulet is a “Goshuin” which is basically a special temple seal printed on a paper. It is like the Kannon’s signature and each temple has its unique seal and is usually vermillion in colour. The priest writes a mantra in black ink in calligraphy style. Most foreign tourists purchase these because the calligraphy style appeals to them.
Some temples also sell crystal amulets with some Buddhist symbols or emblems engraved on them.
Few people also keep a string of prayer beads in their cars or tie one on their wrists. Perhaps this is easiest way of recognizing that the person is a follower of Buddhism.
While travelling across Japan, sometimes we come across small statues which are similar to the Buddha.
These statues usually have red bibs tried across their necks. These statues are those of “Jizo”, the guardian Bosatsu, who protects the sick, the travelers, children and pregnant women. They are also said to protect souls of dead children and unborn souls. The red bibs are placed on the statues by bereaved mothers or sufferers.
The uniqueness of Japan’s customs is that while important events related to the lifetime of a person are conducted as per Shinto customs, those events after death are generally conducted as per Buddhist customs.
Most Japanese funerals are conducted as per Buddhist rituals. O-Bon which is one of the major three holidays in Japan, is also a Buddhist festival. It is believed that the spirits of dead people (ancestors) return to earth for three days during this festival. Homes are cleaned and decorated to welcome the spirits home for these three days. Families also visit graves of dead family members, clean the graves and place offerings in memory of the dead. Special feasts are made at home and on the last day of the festival small miniature boats with lighted lanterns and food offerings are set afloat streams or rivers. This is said to signify bidding farewell to the visiting spirits. The offerings are to keep them content till they visit the next
Many older people in the rural areas also have an altar at home, called “Butsudan”. It is usually a wooden cabinet with doors and has an idol or painting of Buddha enshrined in it. Some offerings like fruit, rice etc and objects like incense sticks, candles, prayer bells etc are placed in front of the shrine. Sometimes memorial objects for dead relatives are also placed in the shrine.
In Japan, it is a custom to visit atleast 3 shrines during the first three days of the New year under the tradition of “Hatsumode”. People visit Shinto shrines and also Buddhist temples. Many believers also visit shrines or temples around midnight on New Year’s eve to hear the bell ringing 108 times and to pray at the beginning of the new year. The bell is ring 108 times to signify the driving away of 108 earthly desires which cause human suffering. Doing this is supposed to help attain enlightenment.
While most Japanese festivals are influenced by Shinto customs, there is an influence of Buddhist customs on some festivals like Setsubun, which is celebrated in early February. One of the biggest Japanese festivals, O-bon is a Buddhist festival.
There are few more interesting influences of Buddhism on daily life. For instance, in Japan, it is the custom to utter “Ita-da-kimasu” before beginning a meal (with both palms joined). It signifies, expressing gratitude for one’s meal. Similarly when a meal is finished , it is customary to utter “Gochi-so-sama-deshita”, to thank the person who serves the meal. These are supposedly an influence of Buddhist teaching of expressing thankfulness to all the things one receives in life.
The Japanese kimonos which are made of a standard size and then adjusted to fit the wearer’s size are another example of Buddhism’s influence. This is supposedly due to the Buddhist teachings of making things multipurpose and flexible for use by anyone. The wooden clogs used by Buddhist monks are supposedly the origin of the traditional wooden “geta” slippers that are worn with kimonos.
The influence of Buddhist teachings on Japanese art is heavy. For instance “Origami” the paper folding craft is influenced by the teachings of discipline and precision and creating immortal art out of a perishable item like paper.
The Chinese art of Penjing, was introduced in Japan by Buddhist monks in the 6th century. This art came to be developed as “Bonsai” in Japan and remains heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism.
Japanese gardening and landscaping which is considered to be one of the best forms of gardening was also influenced by Buddhism. Ponds, streams, flowing water, bridges were included in Japanese gardens in line with Buddhist beliefs.
Gardens were built near Buddhist temples and monasteries to provide a tranquil environment for monks, to facilitate meditation. Some zen gardens are minimalist as in they are made using only stone and gravel arranged in beautiful patterns. For instance, Kyoto’s Ryoanji temple’s garden.
Some styles of gardening like “Paradise garden” are based on Buddhist beliefs of “Pure Land”. They attempt to provide devotees a spot in the “Pure Land” which is Buddhist Paradise. One such famed garden is the garden of Iwaki city’s Shiramizu Amidado temple.
Japanese traditional homes also have small gardens with small ponds, well manicured trees and rocks. It is interesting to note that Japanese gardens are usually always well maintained and it is rare to find overgrown plants or grass in Japanese gardens.
Daruma dolls which are used as lucky charms are also contribution of Buddhism. The dolls are purchased during New Year. These red coloured dolls are not painted with eyes. People paint one eye when making a wish, keeping the other eye unpainted. The second eye is painted when the wish is fulfilled. This signifies “opening” the dolls eyes. The Daruma doll is modeled after an old Indian monk called “ Bodhidharma” who founded the Zen Buddhism in China. He is seen as a roll model for enduring all hardships without giving up and as such people pray to him for making a wish come true.
Actually, many people outside Japan actually think that all Japanese people are followers of Buddhism. In my childhood, I too thought the same way. Living in Japan, opened my eyes, literally. In present day Japan, not many people follow Buddhism, though the faith is respected. Certain customs and traditions take their root in Buddhism, especially those pertaining to death and after life. Compared to Buddhist temples, most people visit Shinto shrines and Shinto customs are more commonly followed. Many older people do practice and follow Buddhist customs, but amongst the younger generation, it is not so common.
Nowadays, some temples also offer temple stay packages for tourists willing to have a first hand experience of a monk’s life.