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Shinbutsu Shugo and Shinbutsu Bunri

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After being introduced in the sixth century AD and until the present day the Japanese Buddhism has gone through many changes; many sects/faiths were created, many wars were fought and many generations of followers were created.  One of the interesting aspects of this entire process is the history of interplay between the indigenous religion of Japan - The Shintoism and the foreign religion of Japan - The Buddhism. 

No treatise about Shintoism and Japanese Buddhism is complete without discussing the syncretism of both these religious practices.  In my concluding thoughts about these two powerful religions, I would like to provide a history of this syncretism between these powerful religions by introducing two important terms; namely 1) Shinbutsu Shugo and 2)Shinbutsu Bunri.

Shinbutsu Shugo:  Shinbutsu Shugo refers to the combined religious practice of Shintoism and Buddhism. 

But before I discuss this topic, I want to take you back to six century BCE when Buddhism was started as a religion in India.  At that time in the ancient India, the indigenous religion of India, Hinduism already had an established base.  Obviously the new religion of Buddhism and it's popularity raised eyebrows among the Hindu religious leaders.  As Buddhism started to increase it's followers by droves, the Buddhist Monks did not want to have any conflicts with their Hindu neighbors.  So, to appease the new converts to Buddhism from Hinduism and the Hindu religious leaders, the Buddhist faith slowly started to adopt the Hindu Gods into Buddhist religion.  This aspect is specially true with the Mahayana teachings, as they allowed flexibility to have many more Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.  So some of the Hindu gods have given special treatment as the new Buddhas or Bodhisattvas.  This was definitely appealing to the new Buddhist converts from Hinduism, as they can practice Buddhism without necessarily giving up on their Hindu gods.  Hindu religious leaders played along with this by declaring the original Buddha Sakyamuni as one of the ten incarnations of their own God Vishnu.  After all, Sakyamuni Buddha was a Hindu (supposedly) by birth.  Thus the two religions managed live side by side and there were no known major skirmishes between these religions over the centuries.

Same kind of syncretism happened between Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan.  Initially the adoption of Buddhism into Japan was not easy, as the opposition to the new religion was fierce.  The rebellion against the new religion was put down, in some cases violently; thanks to the patronage of Emperor Yomei and Crown Prince Shotoku to the new religion.  There were many periods of unrest between Shintoism followers and Buddhist adopters during the Asuka period.

But as Buddhism started to take off in Japan, the Japanese Buddhist Monks started to assimilate the Shintoist beliefs into Buddhism.  The Buddhist religions leaders started to adopt the Kami gods into Buddhism like it happened in India.  Also Shinto followers started to believe that Buddhas are just another set of Kami gods that came from outside Japan.  New mythological stories developed that centered around Kamis, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.  Buddhist temples with Shrines and Shrines with Buddhist Temples starting to be built.  Kami gods were given Buddhist names and worshiped as such.  Thus the syncretism of Shintoism and Buddhism started and was referred to as Shinbutsu Shugo.  Religions scholars tried to pinpoint the exact period or date when this practice started.  But for all practical purposes I would like to think that Shibutsu Shugo started as early as Prince Shotoku Taishi times, but popularized in Nara period.  In the Nara period when Monks Dengyo Daishi Saicho and Kobo Daishi Kukai started Tendai and Shongon respectively, those faiths appropriately assimilated Kami gods into Buddhism.  The Shingon Sect called this combined practice as Ryobu Shinto and Tendai Sect called this as Sanno Shinto. 

Other new religious practices combining Kami worship, Buddhism and Taoism were also started.  A good example this was a religion called Shugendo (sometimes called Mountain Worship).

This process of assimilation, syncretism and confluence between Buddhism and Shintoism continued until the end of EDO period.  But then the Meiji Government came to rule in 1868.

Shinbutsu Bunri: Shinbutsu Bunri refers to the Meiji Government's order to separate Shintoism and Buddhism from all aspects of Japanese society.
As the Edo period started to end, due to the repressive religious policies (favoring Buddhism) of the Edo rulers, the resentment against Buddhism started to grow in the Japanese population.  There was a renewed emphasis on nationalism and all things Japanese.  The growing resentment between the Shinto Priests and Buddhist Priests in the combined Shrine-Temple and Temple-Shrine environments only added fuel to the fire. 

The new Meiji Government, first wanted to remove all the remnants of the bad Edo period policies.  One of the results of this exercise, is passing the order of Shinbutsu Bunri.  This order required removing all Buddhist names for the Kami gods, separating Buddhist and Shinto rituals/rites.  Shibutsu Bunri also ordered the separation of all combined temples and shrines.  In some cases, it is reported that this separation order turned violent between the followers of both religions.  In addition to passing the order, Meiji Government also took over the control of all the Shrines in Japan. 

Thus there was a brief period of decline of Buddhism in Japan.

But the process of Shinbutsu Bunri was not very successful and was lifted by the Meiji government soon enough.  By the time the postwar period dawned on Japan (1945) the Shinto shrines are no longer under the government control.  The old practices of Shinbutsu Shugo were revived and Japanese people started to go back to combining the Kami and Buddhist rituals.  The Japanese Buddhism also came back strong.

Hope you enjoyed my articles about Buddhism and Shintoism.  I am open for people to send me comments, through my Contact Me page.

Sources of information:
1) Multiple temple and shrine brochures
2) Books on Japanese Buddhism at http://www.sacred-texts.com
3) The book "Japan Encyclopedia" by Louis Frederic.


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