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Japanese Buddhism

From about the 7th century, travelers began to bring Buddhist ideas to Japan from China and Korea. By this time, there were many different schools of Buddhism in China, all of which were part of the Mahayana strand of the faith. Most Japanese schools of Buddhism, such as Tendai, Shingon, and Jodo Buddhism, are based on forms that began in China. However, one new school, Nichiren Shu, was founded in Japan by a monk who began as a follower of the Tendai school.


Amida Buddha is extremely important in the Jodo, or Pure Land, school. Jodo Buddhists believe that Amida, “the Buddha of infinite light,” dwells in a Pure Land, or paradise, in the west. Amida has displayed supreme goodness over a vast number of years, and it is said that all who turn to him will be reborn in the Pure Land.


Many different sects of Mahayana Buddhism are popular in Japan, so temples and statues of the Buddha are common and varied. This statue shows the Buddha in the royal ease posture. It is also known as the relaxation posture. It suggests harmony and indicates the Buddha’s state of enlightenment.


Rituals practiced by members of the Tendai school include fire ceremonies. Tendai monks pray for 1,000 days taking only a little sleep and food each day and tend fires as acts of purification. Some walk across hot ashes to demonstrate that their spiritual purification protects them from injury.


In Japan, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is called Kannon and is revered by the Tendai, Shingon, Jodo, and other Japanese schools of Buddhism. Kannon can take male or female form. The bodhisattva is often portrayed standing in water, on a fish, or with other sea creatures. This serves as a reminder that Kannon is said to protect sailors and fishermen.


There is a beautiful Tendai shrine in Nikko in central Japan, decorated with painted animals and gods. It has been a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of years. The shrine at Nikko is sacred to Buddhists and to followers of Japan’s native religion, Shinto. It is popular because many Japanese people follow both faiths.


The Japanese monk Nichiren, seen in this trio of pictures using his faith to calm a storm at sea, was devoted to the Lotus Sutra. He developed a school of Buddhism based on study of the sutra, acceptance of its teachings, and the reciting of the phrase, “I take refuge in the wondrous Sutra of the Lotus.”