Ise Shrine To Japan, Buddhism in

Ise Shrine

(Jingu Shrine)

There are two major Shinto shrines in Ise, on Japan’s eastern coast in Mie Prefecture. The Inner Shrine (Naiku) contains Amaterasu Omi-Kami, said to be the grandmother of Ninigi, who unified Japan. Six kilometers distant, the outer Shrine (Geku) houses the Ise deity, Toyouke. Toyouke is also the SHINTo goddess of agriculture. Ise was unusual because even in early periods Buddhist rituals as well as terminology were prohibited. Ise is today still the imperial household shrine.

The Ise Shrine is ancient, certainly dating more than 1,000 years. But no old structures remain. This is because in the rite of shikinen sengu the wooden buildings are burned and rebuilt every 20 years. This custom was first carried out in 690 c.e. It is only during the ceremony that the general public is allowed to be close to the shrine—once every 20 years.

Ishin denshin

In Zen practice, the Buddhadharma, the essential truth of the Buddha’s message, is transmitted from master to disciple. This transmission forms a strong link and perpetuates the lineage for each tradition or school. The Japanese term ishin denshin literally means "transfer from heart-mind [ishin] to heart [shin]." The emphasis is clearly on nonverbal and nontextual transmission of truth. A common phrase often heard in Zen practice is ishin-denshin, furyu-monji—"Communicate truth without written words." This form of insight is, then, beyond book learning. Today this term is often translated as "thought transference," "being on the same wavelength," or, at times, "telepathy." Ishin denshin is widely used in popular conversations and business for unspoken understandings between people.

The original term can be traced to the Platform Sutra of Hui Neng, recognized generally as the sixth Chan patriarch.

Ito Jinsai

(1627-1705) Japanese Confucian scholar

Ito Jinsa was a member of the Japanese school of Ancient Learning, which promoted a version of Confucianism free of the influence of Buddhism. The Ancient Learning movement was less a revival than a criticism of the overly formal approach to Confucianism.

Ito was a writer and educator. In his writings he emphasized the early brand of Confucius and Men-cius thought and criticized Neo-Confucianism, the revision of Confucianism that was popularized in Song dynasty (960-1279) China. Ito established the Kogaku school of Tokugawa Confucianism as well as the Kogido academy in Kyoto. One particular innovation was the concept of sakumon, or "problems." Sakumon originally meant the questions given to students on the Chinese imperial examination. Ito used the term for a part of his group learning when students took turns explaining and posing questions on particular texts. Sakumon was a continuing technique at the Kogido academy. Sakumon was also used in group learning by the shingaku (learning of the mind) movement in early Tokugawa (1600-1868) Japan.


Itsuku-shima, a prominent Shinto shrine, is located on the sacred Miya Island, located in the middle of the bay at Hiroshima, Japan. Three ocean goddesses—Ichikishima, Tagori, and Tagitsu, the daughters of Susano-o no Mikoto—are thought to live at the center of the shrine. They are believed to be the protectors of mariners and their ships.

The shrine dates at least to the sixth century, though, as have most of Japan’s older sacred structures, it has been rebuilt several times. The present shrine dates to the 12th century, though the main building was last reconstructed in 1875.

Visitors today are welcomed to the shrine and the island by a torii (gate) that sits in the water offshore. Many of the buildings at Itsuku-shima Shrine are built over the water and rest on stilts to protect them from the high tides. It seems that the Heike clan who owned the island did not allow common pilgrims to the shrine to set foot on the island itself. There are more than a dozen additional temples and shrines on the island.

In 1996, the shrine was placed on the united Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Cultural Heritage List. It is now administered by the Daishoin Temple, located on the mountainside behind the shrine. Incense burns inside the temple and is said to have been kept burning continuously for more than 12 centuries. From this fire, a flame was taken to light the Eternal Flame at Peace Park in Hiroshima.

Iwashimizu Shrine

A major Shinto shrine, Iwashimizu is dedicated to the Buddhist-Shinto bodhisattva Hachiman. Established in 859 by the Buddhist monk Gyoki, it sits on a mountain southwest of Kyoto. The deity Hachiman was associated with the legendary Japanese emperor Onin. During the Kamakura era (1192-1333), the Iwashimizu Shrine was sponsored by the ruling Minamoto clan, a powerful family in medieval Japanese history.


Along with Amaterasu Omi-Kami, Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanami no Mikoto are the main deities (kami) in the ancient Shinto creation story. They are venerated in relation to their sexual mating, which led to the creation of Japan. They entered the story when the primordial deities sent Izanagi and Izanami to earth with orders to make something useful. The gods created an initial place, Orogoro, from which the two deities could work.

From their copulation came forth 14 islands and 35 kami (deities). In birthing the fire god, Kagu-Tsuchi, Izanami was burned so badly she died. In his grief, Izanagi beheaded their child. From his blood flowed numerous lesser kami. Izanagi then searched for his mate in the underworld. unable to take her back, and after facing a set of terrors, Izanagi returned. He underwent a set of purification rituals that led to the emergence of Amaterasu, the sun goddess; Tsukiyomi no Mikoto, the moon god who rules the night; and Susano-o no Mikoto, who ruled the sea (with different accounts assigning the three slightly different realms). Susano-o’s three daughters, Ichikishima, Tagori, and Tagitsu, are thought of as the protectors of seamen and their ships. They are the focus of worship at the famous Shinto shrine Itsuku-shima.

After completing his purification work, Izanagi had finished his assigned task and retired from the scene (with different accounts offering different final resting places). Amaterasu Omi-Kami, Tsukiyomi no Mikoto, and Susano-o would then emerge as the main deities recognized in Shinto worship.

Izumo Taisha

Izumo Taisha, one of the oldest, largest, and most honored Shinto shrines in all Japan (second in honor only to the Ise Shrine), is in the town of Izumo on the northern coast of western Honshu (the main island of Japan). It is dedicated to Okuninushi no Kami. The total shrine complex covers some 27 hectares. For many centuries it has been under the care of the Senke family.

The shrine was active in the prehistoric era and over the centuries has accumulated several stories concerning its origin. one story identifies Izumo as the location where the brother of Amaterasu Omi-Kami, one of the main Shinto goddesses, slew a dragon. He later married a local princess and from her was born okuninushi no Kami. Okuninushi no Kami is a patron of farming, medicine, and silk but, more important, oversees the linking of couples. Hence Izumo has become the favorite pilgrimage point for people seeking a mate or for parents seeking the best mate for their son or daughter.

The first written mention of the shrine is in Nihonshiki, the early chronicles of Japan, which dates to the eighth century. The Nihonshiki describes the main hall as having been some 50 meters, which would have made it the largest wooden structure in Japan. It was, however, rebuilt at a later date and is now only half the original height. The present shrine was constructed in 1774. Several of the associated buildings in the shrine complex date to the 1660s, including the Kagura-Den, a hall for sacred dance and today a popular site for weddings. other important buildings were rebuilt in 1874.

There are three major festivals at Izumo Tai-sha, including the New Year and the rice planting festival in May. Then in late October/early November each year it is believed by many that all of the many Shinto deities (KAMI, some 8 million in number) gather at Izumo Taisha for their annual meeting. At Izumo, this period is the month of the gods (kami-arizuki) and in the rest of Japan the month of no gods (kannazuki).

Japan, Buddhism in

Buddhism did not reach Japan until a millennium after the seminal events in the life of the Buddha, but Japan has subsequently emerged as one of the most important Buddhist countries in the world. While Buddhism may have entered the country earlier, its formal introduction occurred in the 550s as the rulers of the Korean kingdom of Paekche presented the Japanese emperor with an image of Sakyamuni Buddha, scrolls recounting his life, and vessels to be used to keep the image clean. The Buddhist movement went on to develop several major sects and schools, including Zen, Nichiren, Jodo, and Shingon, all of which remain active. There are an estimated 50 million Buddhists in Japan today.

Not all of the emperor’s supporting leadership welcomed the Korean gift, but the Soga family accepted the image and over local religious opposition enshrined it in what would later become the first Buddhist temple in Japan. Later in the century, the Sogas would create a shrine to Maitreya, the future Buddha. However, the real development of broad support for the new faith would await the tenure of regent Prince Shotoku (r. 592-628). A scholar proficient in Chinese, he reoriented attention from Korean to Chinese Buddhism and sent scholars and other representatives to the mainland to acquire the faith in more depth. He subsequently funded the erection of a number of temples around his realm and saw to the sculpting of many images of the Buddha.

Continuing Chinese influence manifested in 710 with the creation of the city of Nara as the new capital of Japan on a Chinese pattern. one Nara temple, Todai-ji, would become the center of Japanese Buddhism, and at Todai-ji a large bronze statue, 53 feet high, of the Buddha and a hall to house it were erected. Todai-ji would become the site of ordinations of Japanese Buddhist priests. The other temples in Nara as well as the temples now scattered throughout the country all looked to Todai-ji for leadership.

During its first century in the country, Buddhism was a religion of the elite and functioned in close relationship with the government. The emperor granted the land for the erection of each temple; saw to the appointment of priests, monks, and nuns; and gave land that supplied income for the temple’s maintenance. Initially, four schools that had entered Japan from China in the seventh century—the Kusha, Jojitsu, Sanron, and Hosso—established themselves at Nara. Each specialized in the study of specific Buddhist sutras and related texts and represented four theological variants on Buddhist theology. Shortly after the founding of Nara, two additional schools—the Ritsu and Kegon—would also open temples. The Ritsu would specialize in the study of the rules governing the priests and monks.

In 794, the capital of Japan was moved to Kyoto, then called Heian, a second city created on a Chinese model. Its creation would also set the stage for the introduction of two new schools of Chinese Buddhism. In 807 Saicho (767-822), one of two monks who had recently spent time in China, introduced Tendai Buddhism. While having one center inside the city, it would establish its headquarters just outside Heian at Mt. Hiei. Tendai would prove to be an eclectic sect. It would emphasize the teachings of the Lotus Sutra and a variety of practices, including veneration of Amitabha through the chanting of the nembutsu mantra and meditation. It also placed an emphasis on the discipline to be followed by monks at a time in which the standards at Nara had begun to slip.

Kukai (774-835), who went to China at the same time as Saicho, was most impressed with Chinese Esoteric Buddhism and upon his return founded the Shingon movement. While beginning his work in Heian, Kukai wished to take the monks under his care outside the chaos of urban life and eventually was able to establish his new Buddhist group at the more remote Mt. Koya, where he would later retire. Shingon would eventually operate from its two centers, To-ji inside Heian, and Mt. Koya.

The move to Heian led to a deemphasis in the role of the Nara schools, only three of which would survive; only one, the Kegon, would develop into a separate sect that would play any significant role in the future of Japanese Buddhism. Todai-ji, by keeping a stranglehold on ordinations, would continue to hold a strong position in the larger Buddhist community until other ordination sites were designated over the centuries.


The year 1183 saw the rise of the shogun, a military ruler who turned the Japanese emperor into a figurehead, and his establishment of his throne at Kamakura. The shift of power away from Heian also saw a significant change in culture as the love of things Chinese gave way to a new emphasis on Japanese culture. At the same time, as power flowed to Kamakura so did the older Buddhist groups, most of which established new centers as close to the shogun as possible. The move to Kamakura was symbolic of the popularization of Buddhism, which had heretofore remained largely a movement among the elite—courtiers, the powerful families, the intelligentsia, and the military leadership. The popularization of Buddhism set the context in the 13th century for new forms of Buddhism, attuned to the shifting situation.

Among the early Kamakura era Buddhisms to arise, Pure Land Buddhism was built around the chanting of the nembutsu as a means of expressing faith in Amitabha (Amida). While use of the nembutsu had been part of Tendai practice, a former Tendai priest named Honen (1133-1212) would claim that the recitation of the nembutsu as an expression of one’s faith in Amitabha would be all that was necessary to attain entrance into the Pure Land paradise, believed to be located in the west.

Honen emerged at the close of the Heian period, and much of his later years would be spent fending off the attacks of the priests of the older Buddhist groups. It would be left to his disciples to found the several Pure Land sects. Shokobo (1162-1238) carried on Honen’s teachings with the least modification and became the founder of the Chinzei school, known today as the Jodo-shu sect. Most prominent of Honen’s students, however, was Shinran (1173-1262). He differed from Honen in his disavowal of the monastic ideal and favoring of the marriage of priests. Also Shinran focused exclusively on Amitabha, while Honen merely favored Amitabha among the other Buddhist deities and bodhisattvas. The Jodo Shinshu sect that Shinran founded would later become the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan. Jodo Shinshu currently exists in two main factions, the Honpa Hongwanji and the Higashi Hongwangi.

The rise of the Kamakura shogun also provided an opportunity for the transmission of Chinese Chan Buddhism to Japan. While some Zen Buddhism had existed in Japan as early as the seventh century, it did not make headway until Eisai (1141-1215) traveled to China and discovered Linji Chan Buddhism on Mt. Tian Tai. upon his return he built the first Zen temple of what would become known in Japan as Rinzai Zen. He was able to fend off his former colleagues among the Tendai Buddhists as he found favor with the shogun, Minamoto Yoriie (1182-1204), and invited his founding of a monastery, Jufuki-ji, in Kamakura.

Eisai also opened a monastery in Kyoto and found among his students Dogen (1200-53), who also moved from his Tendai training and in 1223 traveled to China to see Chan practice there. In China he encountered Caodong Chan Buddhism and received his seal of enlightenment (inkashomei). Upon his return to Japan in 1227, he settled at Eisai’s Kyoto center and began the work that led to the founding of Soto Zen in the country. His career climaxed with the opening of Eihei-ji monastery, in Echizen Province, the fountainhead center of the movement. Dogen’s Soto practice was distinguished from Eisai’s Rinzai Zen by its disavowal of the use of the koan.

The third addition to the Buddhist community during the 13th century was not imported from China but grew from the distinctive approach to the faith by another former Tendai Buddhist, Nichiren (1222-82). Convinced that Tendai Buddhism had left its roots through the centuries since its founding, he sought to reform it by a renewed emphasis on the Lotus Sutra. However, instead of merely valuing the Lotus Sutra as the best among others, he grew to believe that it was the only sutra of note and made calling upon the "wonderful law of the Lotus" the cornerstone of practice. Nichiren’s proposal for a single simple practice, "calling upon the Lotus," in Japanese,namu myoho renge-kyo, was also based upon his strong belief that Buddhism had entered the age of MAPPO, when it would fall away from its essential teachings, and people needed a clear path to enlightenment.

Nichiren’s career (and the formative years of his movement) was determined not so much by his own approach to Buddhism as by his harsh condemnation of all other forms. His uncompromising stance led to his being exiled from Kamakura in 1261 and even being sentenced to death a decade later. His execution was not carried out and he eventually settled at Minobu, on the western slope of Mount Juji. After his death, his main disciples divided over upkeep of his tomb, and two primary groups emerged, the Nichiren-shu and the Nichiren Shoshu.

With the rise of Nichiren Buddhism the basic outlines of the Japanese Buddhist community were set. Through the years of the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868), the older groups such as Kegon, Shingon, and Tendai would survive and grow slightly. Zen would spread with the support of the ruling warrior class (the samurai), though eventually the Pure Land groups would enjoy the largest popular support. Each of the groups would also split into several factions, analogous to Christian denominations. Rinzai Zen, for example, experienced no fewer than a dozen schisms.


Buddhism retained a privileged position relative to the government through the mid-19th century in Japan. It had also suffered from its subversion by the government, which saw Buddhism as an obedient arm of the state. Buddhism began to identify itself with the shogunate and was ill equipped to deal with the transformative events that were to overtake the country. In 1854, the United States forced the opening of the increasingly isolationist state into which the shogunate had led Japan. Then in 1867, the shogunate collapsed, and the emperor again took control of the country.

With the restoration of the imperial office as the real leader of the country, Buddhism was immediately faced with disestablishment, announced officially in 1869. Now in a privileged position, Shinto leadership turned on Buddhism with a vengeance. Buddhist images were defaced, and temples confiscated. Meanwhile, Christianity had been reintroduced into Japan. Thus, as Buddhism felt the attacks from Shintoism, proclaimed the national religion in 1870, it suffered new competition from a highly evangelical Western faith.

Pure Land Buddhists were the quickest to react to their new situation, and leadership emerged that sought reform and modernization emerged through the latter decades of the 19th century. They were supplied some opening when a new law on religious freedom was issued in 1887 but were hindered by the ever increasing need to assume a strong nationalist stance.


The eight decades of the new order came crashing down in 1945 with Japan’s loss of World War II and the devastating destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs. After the war, an American-style freedom of religion law was adopted and a new era for Buddhism began, to which different groups have responded with more or less success.

The most important new reality of the post-World War era has been the rise of the so-called new religions. While the new religions cover the spectrum of religious practice worldwide, overwhelmingly the new groups represent new forms of Buddhism and Shintoism. New Buddhist groups include Reiyukai, Rissho Kosei-kai, Shinnyo-en, Kofuku no Kagaku, and Agon Shu. Most notorious of the new groups was Aum Shin-rikyo , whose leadership perpetrated the notorious gassing of the Tokyo subway system in 1995 that led to multiple deaths.

The most successful of the Buddhist new religions was Soka Gakkai, which through the 1970s and 1980s became the most controversial religious body in the country because of its aggressive pros-elytization activities and its development of a new political party, the Komeito. Controversy peaked in the 1990s with the break between Soka Gakkai, which had served as the lay organization of the Nichiren Shoshu, and its parent organization. The organization was subsequently targeted by legislators who reacted to the Aum Shinrikyo incident, proposing new laws specifically aimed at limiting Soka Gakkai’s growing influence. Then suddenly, after the election of 1999, the Komeito Party was needed by the ruling party in the government to constitute a new ruling coalition. overnight the organization, now known as Soka Gakkai International, completely changed its position in the country.


Buddhism is currently the dominant religion of Japan, with slightly over half of the population identifying themselves as adherents. That is a somewhat deceptive figure, as Buddhism mixes with Shintoism in the lives of many Japanese. observers have noted the manner in which Shin-toism and its rituals carry people in their formative years and Buddhism in their more mature years. Japanese Buddhists do not see the contradiction in participation in the activities of other faiths that is typical of, for example, Christians or Muslims.

Japanese Buddhism also, beginning in the late 19th century, initiated a move outside the country. The first temples were founded in Hawaii, and then in North and South America. In the 20th century, Japanese immigration into Europe led to the development of Buddhist communities in Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Immigration increased after World War II, and the whole spectrum of Japanese Buddhism, including the new religions, is now present in the West. Soka Gakkai has also repeated its success and is now the largest Buddhist group in many Western countries.

Next post:

Previous post: