General Essay on South East Asian Religions


As explained in the SHINTO section, no clear division in real life can be made between 'Buddhism' and 'Shinto' in Japan. The people who attend Shinto shrines are largely the same people who attend Buddhist temples or take part in new religious movements. This section deals with the historical development of Buddhism and some contemporary 'new religious movements' in Japan, and should be read in conjunction with the SHINTO section.

Buddhism was formally introduced into Japan some time during the sixth century, though there were undoubtedly influential Korean Buddhists living in Japan before this time. The early forms of Japanese Buddhism originated directly from a Chinese 'parent' school or sect. More information about their doctrines and history outside Japan can be gained by consulting the CHINESE BUDDHISM or INDIAN BUDDHISM sections.

Japanese recorded history properly begins with the Nara period (710-794). The unitary Japanese state as we know it emerged from regional tribalism as a result of Chinese and Korean influence in many areas of life and a capital city on the Chinese model was established at Nara in central Japan. Chinese influences included theories and systems of government, language and a writing system, art, medicine, agriculture, technology and religion. Buddhism in early Japan (NARA BUDDHISM) was understood on the Chinese/Korean model in terms of its relationship to the imperial institution. Simply put, the Buddha was seen as the divine protector of the state. In return, the government performed rites honouring the Buddhas and promulgated Buddhist teachings by setting up monasteries and temples throughout Japan, copying sutras and erecting statues of the Buddha such as the Nara Daibutsu at the Todaiji temple.

Nara Buddhism comprised six academic monastic schools of Buddhism patronised by the literate elite which had little influence on the general population. In the Heian period (794-1160), when the capital moved to Kyoto, two important forms of Buddhism arose in Japan, both founded by Japanese monks who had ventured to China to seek the true teaching of the Buddha. Kukai or Kobo Daishi returned with the rapidly-spreading esoteric branch of Buddhism called Shingon (Chinese: Chen-yen), while Saicho (Dengyo Daishi) introduced to Japan the established Tendai (Chinese: T'ien-T'ai) school. Both men established headquarters mountain monasteries and over time their respective traditions exerted a tremendous influence over the development of Japanese Buddhism. Shingon remains one of the most vigorous and self-confident forms of Buddhism in Japan, while Tendai fostered a number of devout and enterprising monks who were responsible for the popular 'new Buddhisms' of the Kamakura period (1185-1333) which have dominated Japanese Buddhist religious life up to the present day.

The Kamakura period began with the establishment of a military government by the shoguns. This period saw the rise of popular Buddhist mass religious movements inspired by Pure Land teachers such as Kuya, Honen and Shinran, and a movement of devotees of the Lotus sutra led by the pugnacious monk Nichiren. In addition, Eisai and Dogen introduced the two major forms of Zen to be found in Japan today, Rinzai and Soto.

During the 15th and 16th centuries civil wars and uprisings divided Japan. The introduction of Christanity in the mid-sixteenth century, because it proved attractive, posed a further threat to Japan's internal stability. A succession of sixteenth century 'unifiers' of the country (Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu) adopted differing attitudes to Christianity but by the mid-seventeenth century both missionaries and native converts had been finally driven out or underground. In order to enforce the total ban on Christianity every family were obliged to register at a local Buddhist temple, regardless of denomination. Thus began the 'parishioner' system that survives informally to this day, in which families enshrine their ancestors at the local temple and rely on the local Buddhist priest to perform funeral and memorial rites, more or less regardless of the founding principles of the sect.

During the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) Japanese life was governed by restrictive laws designed to limit the potential for rebellion and disorder. Sectarian disputes were muted and new religious movements strictly controlled. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the Tokugawa system was beginning to collapse and new religious movements such as Kurozumikyo, Konkokyo and Tenrikyo emerged, not without opposition from the authorities. In 1868 the new Meiji government ordered the 'separation of kami and Buddhas' (shinbutsu bunri) and Buddhism was toppled from the established position it had enjoyed throughout the Tokugawa period. (For more information on religious developments in the 19th and 20th centuries see the SHINTO section).

In the late nineteenth century the old Buddhist sects, assailed by a state-supported Shinto on the one hand and foreign Christian missions on the other, and against a background of growing Western-style materialism and secularism, sought to re-establish their credentials as supporters of the emperor-system. At the same time, a number of lay religious movements emerged, partly in response to the appalling social conditions of Japan's early industrialisation. From 1868 to 1945, 'State Shinto' dominated Japanese religious life, and all religions were incorporated into an overall system of emperor worship. Despite the restrictions on freedom of thought and association in the pre-1945 period several religious movements started up which were destined to expand massively in the post-war era. Since 1945 all Japanese religions have been equally independent of state support, as a result of the separation of religion and state in the 1947 Constitution.

Notable among the religious movements with roots in the pre-war period which expanded rapidly in the post-war era were Soka Gakkai and Rissho Kosei-kai. Both were lay movements inspired by the teachings of the 13th century monk Nichiren. Hundreds of new religious movements in Japan flourished in the post-war period, of which these are just two particularly successful examples. Others revived or initiated after the war include Reiyukai, Omoto, Gedatsukai, Shinnyo-En, Seicho-no-Ie, Sekai Kyusei-kyo, Christian-derived sects such as Iesu no Mitama Kyokai, Tensho Kotai Jingu kyo, Nyorai kyo, PL (Perfect Liberty) Kyodan, Honmichi, Myochikai Kyodan, Myodokai Kyodan and many others. In addition to 'indigenous' Japanese movements most of the established Christian churches and other evangelical religious movements found in the West have a following in Japan, sometimes substantial. Christian-derived sects include the Seventh Day Adventists, Latter day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah's Witnesses etc.

From the 1970s onwards a 'new wave' of religions started to grow, led by charismatic founders and emphasising occult, magical and miraculous elements. Agonshu and Mahikari are just two examples, while Aum Shinrikyo gained global notoriety in the 1990s when its leaders were charged with involvement in a poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway and other crimes. Again, these are just a few instances of many new movements that could be cited, such as Oyamanezu no Mikoto Shinji Kyokai, Sekai Kirisutokyo Toitsu Shinrei Kyokai (the Unification Church), GLA (God Light Association), Kofuku no Kagaku, Worldmate (Cosmomate), Jodoshinshu Shinrankai and Ho no Hana Sanpogyo, as well as missionary movements from Asia via the West such as ISKCON (the Hare Krishnas) and the movements of Sai Baba and Osho (the late Bhagwan Rajneesh). New religions keep appearing in Japan, but history shows that this is nothing new!

In the context of hundreds of contemporary religious movements in Japan Aum Shinrikyo stands out as a single exception to the general rule that Japanese new and 'new new' religions, whether or not they can deliver the miracles they promise, are nevertheless able to provide new forms - or in many cases re-establish traditional forms - of social relationships and systems of meaning for millions of people in today's hi-tech Japan.

Explanation of the Chart

The chart, which should be viewed in conjunction with the SHINTO chart, shows how Buddhism developed in Japan, and provides a few examples of new and 'new new' religious movements typical of contemporary Japan. Most forms of Japanese Buddhism originated from a Chinese 'parent' school or sect, and more information about their doctrines and history outside Japan can be gained by consulting the CHINESE BUDDHISM or even INDIAN BUDDHISM sections.

NARA BUDDHISM refers to the six traditions of Buddhism introduced from Korea and China and supported by the early Japanese imperial state at its capital of Nara. These scholastic and monastic forms of Buddhism have been well described as 'islands' of Buddhism in early Japan.

After the capital moved to Kyoto two important new forms of Buddhism developed. The SHINGON & TENDAI schools were separately but simultaneously founded by Japanese monks who had travelled to China. Both traditions have exerted a tremendous influence throughout the history of Japanese religion. Shingon ideas underpinned the development of Ryobu (Dual) Shinto (see SHINTO). This enabled the indigenous kami (gods) to be integrated into the Buddhist pantheon as 'trace manifestations' of Buddhas and bodhisattvas.

The Kamakura period (1185-1333) saw the rise of popular Buddhist religious movements. These were propagated by monks trained in the Tendai tradition, but again derived largely from pre-existent Chinese or Indian Buddhist teachings adapted to Japanese circumstances. Various PURE LAND and NICHIREN sects are widespread in Japan today, as to a lesser extent are the ZEN schools which proved particularly influential among the samurai classes during the Tokugawa period (1600-1868).

Christianity entered Japan in the mid-sixteenth century but was effectively eradicated a hundred years later, returning only in the 1850's when Japan opened her doors to the West and embarked on a process of rapid industrialisation. Although Christianity is not dealt with on this chart, Christianity and Western religious thought had an influence on many of the modern Japanese 'new religions' of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and leaders of Japanese postwar New Religious Movements are well aware of parallel Christian-derived movements in the West. Notable among such postwar movements are SOKA GAKKAI and RISSHO KOSEI KAI. Both are attached to the Nichiren tradition. Hundreds of new religious movements in Japan have flourished in the post-war period, of which these are just two examples (for others see the INTRODUCTION).

In the 1970s a number of 'new new' religions emerged (see INTRODUCTION). AGONSHU and SUKYO MAHIKARI and the now-notorious AUM SHINRIKYO are again just three examples of a long list of 'new new' religions.


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