Buddha and Kami in Japan THINK IAFOR

April 28, 2016

Professor D. B. Picken looks at the introduction of Buddhism into Japan, how it was received and how it influenced and continues to influence the cultural mentality of the Japanese people in Part 7 of his “Death in the Japanese Tradition” series.

1. The Arrival of Buddhism in Japan

The chronology in the Nihonshoki suggests that Buddhism was formally received in Japan around 552 c.e., but rather than being the date of Buddhism’s arrival in Japan, the year 552 is probably the date of the official acknowledgement of Buddhism by the Japanese court. It is beyond doubt that Chinese and Korean influence had been steadily filtering into Japan for some time before that and the presentation of Buddhist images and sutras by Japan’s Korean ally, the king of Paekche, to the Imperial court, was the culmination of that process. (Kamstra, S. Syncretism or Encounter (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1967).

The inner machinations of the Imperial court itself, and the close relationship between the Soga and Imperial clans, with the Soga clan’s promotion of Buddhism, need not detain us here. The decisive influence at the early stage was Prince Shotoku (572-621) who promoted Buddhism on the grounds both of his own personal belief and the belief that it was a great bearer of a higher civilization. He encouraged the building of many temples that functioned as religious, educational and philanthropic centers and which were served and maintained by groups of ordained monks or nuns. The Nara period (710-794) was the age of the first great flowering of Buddhism in Japan. It was the era of the erection in Nara modeled on a Chinese style capital city and the great temple of the Horyu-ji. As one scholar has said:

Undoubtedly the great underlying inspiration of the Nara culture was Buddhism, for in a sense eighth-century Japan developed what might be called a Buddhist “ecclesiastification of culture. (Kitagawa, Joseph, Religion in Japanese History op. cit. p. 30).

2. National Insitutionalzation of the Buddhist Priesthood

Institutional control of religion is a feature of the Nara period. During the sixth to eighth centuries, the privileged priestly classes gradually emerged. In the old Shinto cults, organization was loose and was based on community relations. The uji-no-kami (clan chieftain) was also responsible for religious functions related to the worship of the clan kami. The basic sociological unit was co-extensive with the theological community, a perfect demonstration of the theory of Durkheim. (Durkheim, Emile Elementary Forms of the Religious Life tr. J Swain, Glencoe: Free Press, 1961, pp.52 ff).

“They were believed to have special power and became the basis of cults of adoration, the rewards of which were wealth, good fortune, good health and longevity.”

The gradual centralization of government during the seventh century called for the co-operation of the kami and for the creation of an office to take responsibility for the worship of the kami. Whilst the Emperor (or chieftain) held such responsibility, in practice it was frequently delegated to a carefully chosen person. It was but a step from there to assigning to that person the power and charisma of the priestly office. Gradually the privileges and prerogatives of the Shinto priesthood came to be recognized and by the beginning of the eighth century a department of Shinto affairs had been established alongside the Council of State.

The Buddhist priesthood became institutionalized in a similar manner. Buddhism seems originally to have been understood and assimilated as the cultic belief of certain clans. Such temples were referred to as uji-dera or clan temples. From its inception in Japan, association with the basic sociological unit cannot be overstressed as the key to its acceptance. The statues and paintings of the principal Buddhist cultic figures such as, amongst others, Shaka (Sakyamuni), Amida (Amitbha) and Miroku (Maitreya) were widely circulated. They were believed to have special power and became the basis of cults of adoration, the rewards of which were wealth, good fortune, good health and longevity. Sutras were chanted to ensure good harvests or adequate rain. In short, the many Buddha figures were seen as supporting the work of the eighty million deities, the yao-yorozu-no-kami. The number eight in Chinese style simply implies a large size or number, hence 80 million implies a myriad. Indeed, the Buddha and the kami became closely identified.

3. Transformation of Buddhism in China

Needless to say, the Buddhism that made its presence felt in Japan was that of the Mahayana (The Great Vehicle) as distinct from the Hinayana (The Lesser Vehicle) typified by the Buddhism of Southeast Asia. Mahayana had already passed through the hands of the Chinese who, like the Japanese, practiced ancestor reverence. Indeed, the Chinese felt initial anxieties about Buddhism similar to those felt by the Japanese two hundred years later. In a Chinese text composed around the sixth century we can read some of the questions and answers that the Chinese monks recited to those Japanese who asked about Buddhism. The relevant part of the text is called, appropriately, Li huo lun The Settling of Doubts or The Disposition to error as it is also translated. (The Buddhist Ttadition in India, China and Japa ed. William Theodore de Bary, New York: Random House, 1972, pp .130 ff). It takes up eight points, the most important of which are:

(1) Why Buddhism is not mentioned in the Confucian classics.
(2) Why Buddhists injure their bodies (e.g. shaving of the head, which should be considered as a gift from parents.
(3) Why Buddhists do not marry, since marriage and presenting one’s father with a grandson is a sacred duty.
(4) Why Buddhists believe in rebirth if reverence for ancestors is a sacred duty, since re-incarnation would seem to imply that ancestral spirits do not exist.
(5) Why the Chinese should be influenced by alien ways of thinking?

The remaining questions concern specific aspects of Buddhism and their justification. This rather neglected text, while not providing very convincing answers, did offer a basis for negotiation between traditional Chinese culture and Buddhism. It helped that blend of Buddhism and Confucianism that the Japanese of the Nara period found sufficiently persuasive for their purposes and thus made an indirect contribution to the Japanese acceptance of Buddhism.

4. The Japanese Acceptance of Buddhism

But what were these purposes? The aim of the Japanese authorities who formally acknowledged and sponsored Buddhism appears to have been primarily the preservation of the State rather than the salvation of the people. Nakamura Hajime has argued that Buddhism was used:

“… as a means and an instrument to realize a certain socio-political end. They were not converted to Buddhism. They converted Buddhism to their own tribalism.” (Nakamura Hajime Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples Honolulu: East West Center Press.)

What form did Japanese sponsorship take? The Taika and Taiho periods (645-702) were marked by an increase in state-sponsored temples (kokubunji) and a corresponding decline in clan temples, marking the transition of Buddhism’s development from clan to state control. In 685 for example, orders were issued and sent to all the provinces that ‘in every house, a Buddhist altar should be established, and an image of Buddha with Buddhist scriptures be placed there. Worship was to be paid and offerings of food made at these altars.’ (Nakamura op. cit p.) The idea of offering food to a Buddha indicated the integration of Buddhism with ancestor reverence. The Chinese had already achieved this in their Buddhist practices.

Various schools of Buddhism entered Japan during the Nara period, particularly the early philosophical ones such as Jojitsu-shu, Hosso-shu, Kusha-shu and Kegon-shu, the latter being the most completely Mahayana. Details of their doctrines and differences as well as of their political or theological influences have been well documented by scholars such as Eliot, Anesaki, Reischauer, Nakamura, Kitagawa, Takakusu and Nanjo. I shall confine my remarks here therefore to some observations on ideas that seeped into popular Japanese thinking during the succeeding period and which represent at least part of the integration of Buddhism with Shinto in the mind of the average Japanese.

5. Imi and Chinkon in the Heian Age

One idea which had gained widespread popularity by the Heian age (794-1185) was the notion that death might be somehow avoided or cheated, outwitted or forestalled. The means was by the correct rituals of avoidance or by the keeping clear of certain places, situations or circumstances. The notion of imi, or avoidance, belongs to Shinto and has a long history related to the Imbe-no-obito, or family at the Yamato court who supervised ablution. The Shinto idea of avoidance probably integrated with the Taoistic idea of divination as well as native shamanism and eventually grew into Buddhism’s fortune-telling role and the semi-magical rituals by which death might be eluded. These were particularly popular among the upper classes, which of course meant income for the practitioners.

Another interesting feature of Heian cluture was the ceremony of chinkon, special Buddhist masses for the pacification of unhappy souls. It is here that the famous case of Sugawara Michizane offers an instance of a deceased human soul becoming a kami. In the Shinto myths of the kami, unhappy kami worked mischief on the living. Later the souls of dead persons were thought to be able to place curses on the living. Just as, in Shinto, there are rites to pacify these unhappy souls, Buddhism invented the chinkon to do the same. Sugawara was a statesman who was disgraced and exiled by the jealous leaders of the Fujiwara family. After his unhappy death in exile in 903, the Great Audience Hall of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto was struck by lightning. Thereafter, week after week of rainstorms, thunder and lightning plagued the city. The violent deaths from natural as well as unnatural causes of numerous politicians took place. This was followed by a spate of fires that broke out in different parts of Kyoto. These continued so long that they were finally attributed to the angry soul of Sugawara. He was restored posthumously to his former position and all documents relating to his exile were destroyed. Chinkon rites were held, but the calamities continued. So in 942, (thirty-nine years after his death) an oracle decreed that a jinja be built in which he would be enshrined. The Kitano Tenmangu was erected in 986 and Sugawara became known as Tenjin (heavenly kami). After his enshrinement, the calamities apparently stopped. He became known as the kami of learning and Japanese students still go to pray at many shrines that grew out of the original for good fortune in their entrance examinations.

While such isolated instances of human souls being enshrined did occur, they happened rarely and the enshrinement of the souls of deceased persons did not become a formally accepted practice until the modern period when it was done primarily for political ends to generate a state ideology. That period saw the most complete politicization of not only death but also of the dead that has ever been seen anywhere, and which capitalized on all the traditions we are in the process of surveying.

6. Mujo – Impermanence

The idea of mujo, or impermanence, found its way into the cultural mentality of the Japanese people at this time. The original Pali term is anicca and the Sanskrit rendering of this is anitya. It is intended to convey in a positive sense the idea of transitory nature of life. ‘No one steps into the same river twice’ is the philosophical proposition which expresses the concept of mujo, an idea propounded by both Buddhists and Western philosophers including Heraclitus (c. b.c.e. 500), the first philosopher of classical Greek civilization. From such a proposition it was intended to show that the striving and the struggles within ‘reality’ as most people think of it, are meaningless, and that because of its impermanence no one should be excessively attached to the world. The example usually quoted in relation to its application in Japanese thought is that of the Genji Monogatari, a text which is so imbued with the idea of mujo that everything planned is considered as valid or standing for a short time only. ‘Endings’ are continual aspects of life among which death is but one, and one that the importance of which is perhaps exaggerated. While this idea was clearly seen in courtly literature, it seems also to have been widely reflected in popular thought at the same time.

“The Buddhist stress on evanescence has had a major influence on the literature of the Heian period and later.”

The Buddhist stress on evanescence has had a major influence on the literature of the Heian period and later. It is characteristic of the Japanese absorption with nature that their memento mori should not be a grinning skull nor the crumbling wall of a deserted house but live, poignant images like the cherry blossoms that bloom and fall simultaneously or the red maple leaves of autumn, all of which served to remind them that all beautiful things must soon pass away.

The Buddhist concept of mujo was thus integrated into the Shinto idea of natural death as expressed in the writings of the Manyoshu. But while Buddhism merely articulated, with some sophistication of terminology, ideas implicit in the ancient Japanese view of death, it also brought the concept into popular thought in a new way. Eventually, in later ages, because Shinto and the shrine priesthood saw death as impure, Buddhism took the province of death as its own. This was also its only alternative after state funding had been reduced or ended.

While these cultural developments were taking place, and the concepts of mujo, imi and others were making their way into Japanese social psychology, many cults were beginning to attract popular followings. Some of these might best be referred to as death cults, and to these we must now turn our attention for a more complete picture of early Buddhism in Japan.

Image | Albert Campra


This is Part 7 of Professor Stuart D. B. Picken’s serialised monograph, “Death in the Japanese Tradition: A Study in Cultural Evolution and Transformation”, to be published every Thursday.

The next instalment, “Popular Buddhist Death Cults ” will be published next Thursday on May, 5, 2016.


Part 1: Death in the Japanese Tradition: An Introduction
Part 2: Buddhism & Burial: Attitudes to Death in Ancient Japan
Part 3: Death and the Dead in Japan’s Literary Classics
Part 4: Parallel Worlds: Folk Religion, Life & Death in Japan
Part 5: Kami and Ancestors
Part 6: Buddhism and Death in Society
Part 7: The Arrival and Acceptance of Buddhism in Japan
Part 8: Popular Buddhist Death Cults
Part 9: The Death Poem and Buddhism
Part 10: Cross-Cultural Comparisons on Mourning and Object Loss
Part 11: Japanese Buddhist and Christian Images of Death: Comparisons and Contrasts
Part 12: Bushido: The Way of Death
Part 13: Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism and the Neo-Samurai
Part 14: Militarism – Meiji to Showa
Part 15: Nogi Syndrome, Workaholism and Karoshi
Part 16: Suicide in Contemporary Japan
Part 17: Lingering Images in Popular Culture
Part 18: Terrorism, Violent and Tomorrow’s Citizens
Part 19: The Death and Burial of Emperor Showa
Part 20: The Modern Ritualized Death System

Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. […] Life & Death in Japan Part 5: Kami and Ancestors Part 6: Buddhism and Death in Society Part 7: The Arrival and Acceptance of Buddhism in Japan Part 8: Popular Buddhist Death Cults Part 9: The Death Poem and Buddhism Part 10: Cross-Cultural […]

  2. […] Life & Death in Japan Part 5: Kami and Ancestors Part 6: Buddhism and Death in Society Part 7: The Arrival and Acceptance of Buddhism in Japan Part 8: Popular Buddhist Death Cults Part 9: The Death Poem and Buddhism Part 10: Cross-Cultural […]

  3. […] Life & Death in Japan Part 5: Kami and Ancestors Part 6: Buddhism and Death in Society Part 7: The Arrival and Acceptance of Buddhism in Japan Part 8: Popular Buddhist Death Cults Part 9: The Death Poem and Buddhism Part 10: Cross-Cultural […]

  4. […] Life & Death in Japan Part 5: Kami and Ancestors Part 6: Buddhism and Death in Society Part 7: The Arrival and Acceptance of Buddhism in Japan Part 8: Popular Buddhist Death Cults Part 9: The Death Poem and Buddhism Part 10: Cross-Cultural […]

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About Stuart D. B. Picken

The late Reverend Professor Stuart D. B. Picken began his distinguished career in academia as a Rotary Scholar on a research trip to Japan. A native of Scotland who had dedicated himself to religious studies, he immediately became fascinated by Japanese culture and the practice of Shinto. He was particularly drawn to the parallels and differences he saw in Western pedagogy compared to that of the East and began a lifelong mission to bridge the communication and knowledge gap between the two worlds. Picken was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the International Christian University (ICU) in 1972. Here he turned his Western theological and philosophical training to comparative religious and cultural studies of Japan, at a time when the country was emerging from the shadows of the Second World War. His groundbreaking and controversial work on suicide in Japan made his name within the country, but it was his subsequent work on Shinto that influenced the rehabilitation of the religion at a time when it was dismissed in the West as pagan and primitive, or unjustly caricatured for its wartime associations. Whether in his research or teaching, Picken devoted much of his life to increasing understanding between his adopted country of Japan and the West, and in 2007 he was recognised with the Order of the Sacred Treasure, an imperial decoration for his pioneering research and outstanding contribution to the promotion of friendship and mutual understanding between Japan and the United Kingdom. He also served as the International Adviser to the High Priest of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, one of Japan’s largest and oldest shrines. From 2009 he was the founding Chairman of The International Academic Forum (IAFOR), where he was highly active in helping nurture and mentor a new generation of academics, and facilitating better intercultural and international awareness and understanding.


Asia, Cultural & Area Studies, Death in the Japanese Tradition, Ethics, Religion & Philosophy, Featured, History, IAFOR Japan Research Institute, In Depth, Subject Area, World


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