Temples Of Japan

Historical Timeline of Japanese Buddhism





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During the Asuka period (538-710 AD) Emperor Yomei and Crown Prince Shotoku Taishi were responsible for Buddhism taking a firm root in Japan. 

The documented history of Japan starts with the Asuka period, which incidentally coincides with the advent of Buddhism in Japan.  The most prominent sects of Japanese Buddhism that evolved since that period can be described as follows:



Japanese Buddhist Sects

As you see in the above picture, the Early Buddhism branched into Theravada and Mahayana practices, out of which Mahayana Buddhism, spread into Korea, China and Japan.  The difference between in Esoteric Buddhism and Exoteric Buddhism can be explained as the "simplicity of practice" to achieve Nirvana.

The historical evolution of Japanese Buddhism can be described as follows:

1) Asuka Period ( 538-710 AD):  This is the period of Emperor Yomei and Crown Prince Shotoku Taishi and the conflicts between native Shinto believers and the early adopters of Buddhism.  An early Buddhist Sect called "Sanron" was started during this period but was short lived.  There are temples in Nara (like Horyuji) still practice the Shotoku sect of Buddhism, that was founded and practiced by Crown Prince Shotoku.  All other sects started during this period have not taken off in Japan.

2) Nara Period (710 - 793 AD):  During the start of the Nara Period, the city of Nara was officially pronounced as the first Capital of Japan by the Emperor of Japan.  Many great Buddhist temples were built in Nara at that time also.  Two Buddhist faiths were imported from China called Hosso sect and Kegon sect but were short lived.  Remnants of these two sects may remain still but they are not considered as part of the main stream Japanese Buddhist faiths.

3) Heian Period (794 - 1191): The start of this period coincides with the moving of the capital of Japan from Nara to Heian-kyo (the present day Kyoto city).  This move was done because the Emperor at that time grew tired of the power play by the Buddhist religious establishment into the political affairs.  Two great Buddhist faiths were started during this time called the Tendai Sect and the Shingon Sect by Monk Dengyo Daisho Saicho and Monk Kobo Daishi Kukai respectively.  These two faiths still remain in Japan right now and are considered as the two original esoteric faiths of Japanese Buddhism.  Mt. Hiei (Hieizan) which contains Enryakuji Temple Complex serves as the headquarters of the Tendai sect, whereas Mt. Koya (Koyasan) serves as the headquarters of the Shingon sect.

In the twilight years of the Heian period and during the early Kamakura period, a Buddhist Monk by the name of Honen Shonin, who was trained in Tendai faith in Enryakuji Complex but grew tired of the complexity of the Tendai faith, started a new faith called the Jodo faith.  The Jodo faith is also known as Pure Land Buddhism.  His disciple Shinran Shonin (a contemporary) improved on this Jodo faith and created Jodo Shin faith.  Jodo Shin faith is now known as the "True Pure Land Buddhism".  The Choinin Temple in Kyoto serves as the headquarters of the Jodo faith and the Hongwanji Temples in Kyoto city serve as the headquarters of the Jodo Shin faith.



Both Jodo and Jodo Shin sects, ushered a new era of simpler forms of Buddhism to the Japanese people.

4) Kamakura Period (1192-1334 AD):  This period coincides with the rise of the Shoguns rule in the Japanese history and the declaration of Kamakura City as the unofficial Capital of Japan.  The Shoguns were assisted by the Hojo clan in the administrative and political affairs as Regents. 

Both the Shoguns and the Hojo Regents were followers of Buddhism, but as practical military organizations, they felt like the existing forms of Shingon, Tendai and Jodo faiths did not suite their needs.  They were also tired and suspicious of the power plays between these religious establishments which by then grew into great military powers.  Yes, both Heizan and Koyasan developed their own religious armies and started to meddle with the existing political establishments.  This resulted in the Hojo regents to lean towards another Chinese Buddhist faith called Zen Buddhism.  Zen Buddhism, simplifies all existing forms Japanese Buddhist faiths present at that time, including the Jodo faith.  Zen Buddhism believes that enlightenment can be achieved by simple meditation. 

Thus started two forms of Zen Buddhism during the Kamakura period called the Rinzai Zen Sect founded by Eisai Zenshi in around 1200 AD and Soto Zen sect founded by Shoyo Daishi (Dogen) in around 1222.  Both sects enjoyed great support from the Shoguns and the Hojo Regents.  That is why the area of Kamakura now boasts the best Zen temples of entire Japan.  Zen Buddhism (Zazen as it is known in Japanese) has made great contributions to Japanese Buddhism and is very popular around the world because of it's simplicity of practice. 

In the middle Kamakura period, another faith called Nichiren sect was started in the Kyoto area (later moved to Kamakura) by a Buddhist Monk called Nichiren.  Monk Nichiren was born in 1222 AD near Kyoto city.  As a a young man, Monk Nichirin studied all the existing forms of Japanese Buddhism such as Shingon, Tendai, Jodo and Zen. 

After many years of studying, he grew tired of the sectarianism that was developed in the original form of Buddhism and denounced all these new faiths in Japan.   Monk Nichiren's new faith takes all of us back to the roots of Buddhism itself, or to the worship of the Original Buddhism (may be the Theravada practice).  The way I understand the Nichiren Sect, it rejects all the bells and whistles of the Mayahana Buddhism, both in the complex and simple forms and believes in only one Buddha; the Sakyamuni Buddha or Tathagata and his preachings.  He developed his own set of followers and Nichiren as a faith still exists in Japan.

5) From 1335 AD and now:  The periods since Kamakura can be named as follows:  Nanbokucho Period (1335-1392 AD), Muromachi Period (1393-1575 AD), Momoyama Period (1576-1602 AD), Edo Period (1603-1867 AD).  After the Edo Period the Meiji Period and the modern periods were ushered into Japan.

But as far as Buddhism is concerned there were not many developments in terms of new faiths since the end of Kamakura period.  In a way the Nichiren faith put a stop to the reincarnations of the original Buddhist faith in Japan.  But as with any other religious social groups, the older sects have further subdivided over the years but the Japanese Buddhist faiths that were developed until the end of Kamakura period still remain strong in Japan.

In addition, after the Kamakura period and until the start of the Meiji Period (1868 - 1912), Japan endured a great period of conflict and civil war.  Once Meiji Period came, the Meiji Government implemented a separation of Shintoism and Buddhism as practiced faiths.  This resulted in a brief downward slide of the Japanese Buddhism.  This process also stopped the creation of new faiths altogether as followers of Buddhism had to scramble to save their existing temples and faiths.  But separation orders did not last long and Japanese Buddhism regained it's footing and came back strong.

As practiced in the Mahayana Buddhist faith, Japanese Buddhism has developed many forms of deities that are worshiped and are seen at the Buddhist Temples.  In the next page, I will describe various Buddhist deities that are present in the Japanese Buddhist Temples.





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