Part One: Buddhism Arrives in Japan
Scholars today give the years 552 CE or 538 CE as the most likely dates for Buddhism’s introduction to Japan. During this period King Seong Myong of Baekje (a kingdom located on the western Korean peninsula) sent a political mission to Japan that included Buddhist monks and nuns who brought with them sutras and Buddhist art.
They also brought with them a writing system; Japan did not have a writing system and as the sutras were written in classical Chinese, many of the court aristocrats had to learn to read Chinese to learn more about Buddhism. Eventually Chinese symbols were adopted by the Japanese and became the kanji that comprise much of Japan’s writing system today.
Buddhism was met with mixed attitudes among the nobility, but with support from the powerful Soga clan, opposition to Buddhism by conservative forces was defeated. In 592 CE Japan’s regent Prince Shotoku proclaimed Buddhism the official state religion and began the construction of Shitennō-ji (四天王寺) in 593. Shitennō-ji is often viewed as Japan’s first Buddhist temple and it still stands today.
Prince Shotoku, often referred to as the ‘father of Japanese Buddhism’ worked to promote Buddhism and in 604 CE authored the ‘Seventeen Article Constitution’ that was both influenced by and promoted Confucian and Buddhist philosophy and ethics.
When the prince died in 622 CE Buddhism was flourishing among the nobility. Buddhism gave Japan a writing system and a sophisticated philosophy that would inspire new forms of art and culture and shape Japanese society in many positive ways.
WrPart Two: Buddhism Takes Root and Gains Influence
By the mid seventh century C.E. Buddhism had firmly taken root in Japan. To facilitate the growth of the religion the imperial court sent delegations to Korea and China to obtain sutras. By this time there were a number of temples, religious orders, priests and icons in the capital and throughout the nation.
By the eighth century monks such as Saichō and Kūkai had established monasteries that became prominent centers of study. Both Saichō (767–822) and Kūkai (774–835) had studied in China and brought back sutras, teachings and ritual practices to Japan. Kūkai established a monastery on Mount Kōya and developed Shingon Buddhism. Shingon is one of the few surviving Vajrayana Buddhist lineages in East Asia, and today is a major denomination in Japan.
Saichō is the founder of Tendai Buddhism and his teachings would influence later monks such as Dōgen (Zen), Hōnen and Shinran (Pure Land) and Nichiren (Nichiren Buddhism). While in China Saichō copied and translated numerous sutras and brought these back to Japan with him.
Despite differences in theology, both Saichō and Kūkai supported one another in their efforts to spread Buddhism and develop their monasteries.
During this time Buddhism began to play a role in government; many powerful clans belonged to various denominations and Buddhist temples were both influenced by government and at the same time influencing government themselves. For example, the Tendai school was popular with the upper class and imperial court. As such it not only developed respect, but began to gain both military and political power.
Nor was this limited to just the Tendai school. Other forms of Buddhism competed for power and influence. At times this led to conflict among the denominations as well as conflict among different political factions. Unlike today, where Japan’s constitution enshrines separation of church and state, religion played a strong role in state affairs.
Written by Robert C. Piemme
Robert C. Piemme is an undergraduate student (international relations) and avid gardener, hiker and writer.