Japan Table of Contents

Buddhism, which originated in India, was introduced into Japan in the sixth century A.D. from Korea and China. Buddhism introduced ideas into Japanese culture that have become inseparable from the Japanese worldview: the concept of rebirth, ideas of karmic causation, and an emphasis on the unity of experience. It gained the patronage of the ruling class, which supported the building of temples and production of Buddhist art. In the early centuries of Buddhism in Japan, scholarly esoteric sects were popular, and the Buddhist influence was limited mainly to the upper class. From the late Heian period (A.D. 794-1185) through the Kamakura period (1185-1333), Pure Land (Jodo) and Nichiren Shoshu sects, which had much wider appeal, spread throughout all classes of society. These sects stressed experience and faith, promising salvation in a future world. Zen Buddhism, which encourages the attainment of enlightenment through meditation and an austere life-style, had wide appeal among the bushi, or samurai--the warrior class--who had come to have great political power. Under the sponsorship of the ruling military class, Zen had a major impact on Japanese aesthetics. In addition, as Japan scholar Robert N. Bellah has argued, Buddhist sects popular among commoners in the Tokugawa period encouraged values such as hard work and delayed rewards, which, like Protestantism in Europe, helped lay the ideological foundation for Japan's industrial success.

Buddhist funerary and ancestral rites are pervasive in Japan. Although regular attendance at Buddhist temples is rare, partly because many Buddhist sects do not observe community worship, there were in 1991 nearly 75,000 temples and 204,000 clergy. Buddhist as well as Shinto priests marry, and often sons inherit the responsibility for their father's parish at his death. The Nichiren school, based on belief in the Lotus Sutra and its doctrine of universal salvation, was the largest sect in Japan in 1991, with 24,450,257 members. Its wide appeal is based on the broad range of religious and social thought and the lay activities it incorporates.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress