Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism in Japan has been practiced since its official introduction in 552 CE according to the Nihon Shoki[1] from Baekje, Korea, by Buddhist monks.[2][3] Buddhism has had a major influence on the development of Japanese society and remains an influential aspect of the culture to this day.[4]

In modern times, Japan's popular schools of Buddhism are Pure Land Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism, Shingon Buddhism and Zen. As of 2008, approximately 34% of the Japanese identify as Buddhists and the number has been growing since the 1980s, in terms of membership in organized religion. However, in terms of practice, 75% practice some form of Buddhism (compared with 90% practicing Shinto, thus most Japanese practice both religions to some extent (Shinbutsu-shūgō)).[5] About 60% of the Japanese have a Butsudan (Buddhist shrine) in their homes.[6]

History of Japanese Buddhism

Arrival of Buddhism in China along the Silk Road

The arrival of Buddhism in China is ultimately a consequence of the first contacts between China and Central Asia, where Buddhism had spread from the Indian subcontinent. These contacts occurred with the opening of the Silk Road in the 2nd century BCE, following the travels of Zhang Qian between 138 and 126 BCE. These contacts culminated with the official introduction of Buddhism in China in 67 CE. Historians generally agree that by the middle of the 1st century, the religion had penetrated to areas north of the Huai River in China.[7]

Kofun period (250 to 538)

According to the Book of Liang, which was written in 635, five Buddhist monks from Gandhara traveled to Japan in 467. At the time, they referred to Japan as Fusang (Chinese: 扶桑; Japanese pronunciation: Fusō), the name of a mythological country to the extreme east beyond the sea:[8]

Fusang is located to the east of China, 20,000 li (1,500 kilometers) east of the state of Da Han [大漢, "China"] (itself east of the state of Wa in modern Kansai region, Japan). (...) In former times, the people of Fusang knew nothing of the Buddhist religion, but in the second year of Da Ming of the Song Dynasty (467), five monks from Kipin [Kabul region of Gandhara] travelled by ship to Fusang. They propagated Buddhist doctrine, circulated scriptures and drawings, and advised the people to relinquish worldly attachments. As a result the customs of Fusang changed.

— the monk Hui Shen (慧深), Book of Liang, 7th century[a]

Asuka Period (538 to 710) and Nara Period (710–794)

Yakushiji Nara11s5bs4200
Pagoda of Yakushi-ji in Nara (730)

Although there are records of Buddhist monks from China coming to Japan before the Asuka Period, the "official" introduction of Buddhism to Japan is dated to 552 in Nihon Shoki[9] when King Seong of Baekje (聖明王, now western Korea) sent a mission to the Emperor Kinmei that included Buddhist monks or nuns together with an image of Buddha and a number of sutras to introduce Buddhism.[3][10] The powerful Soga clan played a key role in the early spread of Buddhism in the country. Initial uptake of the new faith was slow, and Buddhism only started to spread some years later when Empress Suiko openly encouraged the acceptance of Buddhism among all Japanese people.

According to legend, in Japan in 552, there was an attempt to destroy a tooth relic, one of the first of Buddha’s to arrive in the country; it was hit by a hammer into an anvil; the hammer and anvil were destroyed but the tooth was not.[11] On January 15, 593, Soga no Umako ordered relics of Buddha deposited inside the foundation stone under the pillar of a pagoda at Asuka-dera.[12]

In 607, in order to obtain copies of sutras, an imperial envoy was dispatched to Sui China. As time progressed and the number of Buddhist clergy increased, the offices of Sōjō (archbishop) and Sōzu (bishop) were created. By 627, there were 46 Buddhist temples, 816 Buddhist priests, and 569 Buddhist nuns in Japan.

Six sects

The initial period saw the six great Chinese schools, called Nanto Rokushū (南都六宗 lit. the Six Nara Sects) in Japanese were introduced to the Japanese archipelago:

  1. Ritsu (Vinaya-focused Nikaya Buddhism)
  2. Jōjitsu (Tattvasiddhi, a sect of Nikaya Buddhism)
  3. Kusha-shū (Abhidharma-focused Nikaya Buddhism)
  4. Sanronshū (East Asian Mādhyamaka)
  5. Hossō (East Asian Yogācāra)
  6. Kegon (Huayan)[13]

These schools were centered around the ancient capitals of Asuka and Nara, where great temples such as the Asuka-dera and Tōdai-ji were erected respectively. These were not exclusive schools, and temples were apt to have scholars versed in several of the schools. It has been suggested that they can best be thought of as "study groups". The Buddhism of these periods, known as the Asuka period and Nara period – was not a practical religion, being more the domain of learned priests whose official function was to pray for the peace and prosperity of the state and imperial house. This kind of Buddhism had little to offer to the illiterate and uneducated masses and led to the growth of "people’s priests" who were not ordained and had no formal Buddhist training. Their practice was a combination of Buddhist and Daoist elements and the incorporation of shamanistic features of indigenous practices. Some of these figures became immensely popular and were a source of criticism towards the sophisticated academic and bureaucratic Buddhism of the capital.


The Late Nara period saw the introduction of Tangmi (Esoteric Buddhism, Japanese mikkyō) to Japan from China by Kūkai and Saichō, who founded Shingon Buddhism and the Tendai school, respectively.

Heian Period (794 to 1185)

Byodo-in Uji01pbs2640
Byōdō-in (Pure Land sect), located in Uji, Kyoto

During the Heian period the capital was shifted from Nara to Kyoto. Monasteries became centers of powers, even establishing armies of Sōhei, warrior-monks.[14]

Shinto and Buddhism became the dominant religions, maintaining a balance until the Meiji-restoration.[14]

Kamakura Period (1185–1333)

The Kamakura period was a period of crisis in which the control of the country moved from the imperial aristocracy to the samurai. In 1185 the Kamakura shogunate was established at Kamakura.[15]

This period saw the introduction of the two schools that had perhaps the greatest impact on the country: the schools of Pure Land Buddhism, promulgated by evangelists such as Genshin and articulated by monks such as Hōnen, which emphasize salvation through faith in Amitābha and remain the largest Buddhist sect in Japan (and throughout Asia); and Zen, promulgated by monks such as Eisai and Dōgen, which emphasize liberation through the insight of meditation, which were equally rapidly adopted by the upper classes and had a profound impact on the culture of Japan.

Additionally, it was during the Kamakura period that the influential monk Nichiren began teaching devotion to the Lotus Sutra. Eventually, his disciples formed their own school of Nichiren Buddhism, which includes various sects that have their own interpretations of Nichiren's teachings. Nichiren Buddhism established the foundation of Japanese Buddhism in the thirteenth century. The school is known for its sociopolitical activism and looks to reform society through faith.[16]

Muromachi Period (or Ashikaga) (1336–1573)

Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Shōkoku-ji sect of the Rinzai school, located in Kyoto. It was built in Muromachi period.

In the Muromachi period, Zen, particularly the Rinzai school, obtained the help of the Ashikaga shogunate and the Emperor of Japan, and accomplished considerable development.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573–1600) and Edo Period (or Tokugawa) (1600–1868)

After the Sengoku period of war, Japan was re-united in the Azuchi–Momoyama period. This decreased the power of Buddhism, which had become a strong political and military force in Japan. Neo-Confucianism and Shinto gained influence at the expense of Buddhism, which came under strict state control.[17] Japan closed itself off to the rest of the world. The only traders to be allowed were Dutchmen admitted to the island of Dejima.[18]

New doctrines and methods were not to be introduced, nor were new temples and schools. The only exception was the Ōbaku lineage, which was introduced in the 17th century during the Edo period by Ingen, a Chinese monk. Ingen had been a member of the Linji school, the Chinese equivalent of Rinzai, which had developed separately from the Japanese branch for hundreds of years. Thus, when Ingen journeyed to Japan following the fall of the Ming dynasty to the Manchu people, his teachings were seen as a separate school. The Ōbaku school was named after Mount Huangbo (Chinese: 黄檗山; pinyin: Huángbò shān; Japanese pronunciation: Ōbaku san), which had been Ingen's home in China. Also notable during the period was the publication of an exceptionally high quality reprint of the Ming-era Tripiṭaka by Tetsugen Doko, a renowned master of the Ōbaku school.[17]

Meiji Restoration (1868–1912)

With the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the new government adopted a strong anti-Buddhist attitude, and a movement to eradicate Buddhism and bring Shinto to ascendancy arose throughout the country due to the strong connections of Buddhism to the Shōguns.

During the Meiji period (1868–1912), after a coup in 1868, Japan abandoned its feudal system and opened up to Western modernism. Shinto became the state religion. Within the Buddhist establishment the Western world was seen as a threat as well as a challenge to stand up to.[19][20] Buddhist institutions had a simple choice: adapt or perish. Rinzai and Soto Zen chose to adapt, trying to modernize Zen in accord with Western insights, while simultaneously maintaining a Japanese identity. Other schools, and Buddhism in general, simply saw their influence wane. The edict of April 1872 ended the status of the Buddhist precepts as state law and allowed monks to marry and to eat meat.[21] This "codification of a secularized lifestyle for the monk coupled with the revival of the emperor system and development of State Shinto were fundamental in desacralizing Buddhism and pushing it to the margins of society".[22]

Japanese Imperialism (1931–1945)

Japanese identity was being articulated in Nihonjinron, the "Japanese uniqueness theory". A broad range of subjects was taken as typical of Japanese culture. D. T. Suzuki contributed to the Nihonjinron by taking Zen as the distinctive token of Asian spirituality, showing its unique character in the Japanese culture.[23] Nichirenism was one particular expression of Japanese Buddhist nationalism.

During World War II, almost all Buddhists temples strongly supported Japan's militarization.[24][25][26][27][28][29] In contrast, a few individuals such as Ichikawa Haku,[30] and Girō Seno’o were targeted, and the Soka Kyoiku Gakkai, a Nichiren lay believers' organization, was ultimately banned by military authorities. During the 1940s, "leaders of both Honmon Hokkeshu and Sokka Gakkai were imprisoned for their defiance of wartime government religious policy, which mandated display of reverence for state Shinto."[31][32][33]

Post World War II, there was a high demand for Buddhist priests who glorified fallen soldiers, and gave funerals and posthumous names, causing a strong revival.[34] However, due to secularization and the growth of materialism, Buddhism and religion in general continued to decline.

Post-war (1945–present)

Japan has seen a growth in post war movements of lay believers of Buddhism and a decline in traditional Buddhism in the 20th century, with roughly 100 Buddhist organizations disappearing every year.[35][36] As of 2008 approximately 34% of the Japanese identify as "Buddhists" and the number has been growing since the 1980s, as Buddhists were 27% in 1984.

Still, around 90% of Japanese funerals are conducted according to Buddhist rites.[37] "In 1963 Tamamuro Taijo coined the term Funeral Buddhism that came to be used to describe traditional Buddhism in Japan as the religion engaged in funerary rites and removed from the spiritual needs of people".[38]

Contrary to the ritualistic practice of traditional Buddhism, a revived modern form of Nichiren Buddhism led by lay believers Soka Gakkai "...grew rapidly in the chaos of post war Japan[33] from about 3000 members in 1951 to over 8 million members" in 2000,[39] and has established schools, colleges and a university, as well as cultural institutions.[40] A study about the reason for the growth in lay believers and increased engagement in society attributes the cause to Nichiren teachings of 'social responsibility': "In the tradition of Nichiren Buddhism, however, we find the Lotus Sutra linked to a view of social responsibility that is distinctive".[41] According to an academic study, lay believers of Buddhism "...offer an alternative view of Japan where their form of Buddhism would form the religious foundation of a peaceful and psychologically and materially enriched society".[42]

Japanese Buddhist schools

["East Asian Buddhism is very diverse in its teachings and monastic practices, and Japanese Buddhism, in particular, represents almost every strand of Buddhist teachings and practices. However, in comparison to Chinese or Korean Buddhist schools that are generally more united and less sectarian in their groupings, Buddhist denominations in Japan have developed into independent sects with autonomous organizations that have differing emphases on the doctrine and separate lay followings." (Authors: Kawananami, Partridg, and Woodhead page 82.)]In the post-Meiji, pre-WWII period, there were officially 13 schools and 56 branches (十三宗五十六派) of traditional Buddhism (i.e., those not established in modern times). The official schools included three from the Nara period, two from the Heian period (Tendai and Shingon), four Pure Land schools, three Zen schools (Rinzai, Sōtō and Ōbaku), and Nichiren. During the war, this was halved to 28 branches, but the law enforcing this was repealed following the end of the war, allowing former branches to return. Further, since then, many groups have split off from existing branches.

The Six Nara Schools


625: Introduced into Japan. The Tattvasiddhi school (成實宗 Jōjitsu-shū)[43] (formerly known as the *Sātyasiddhi) is considered to be an offshoot of the Bahuśrutīya, an Indian Sautrāntika school of Nikaya Buddhism; however, the Tattvasiddhi's position was also close to that of the Sthavira nikāya. They were distinguished by a rejection of abhidharma as not being the words of the Buddha. It was introduced to Japan as Jōjitsu in 625 by the monk Ekwan of Goryeo. In Japan, it was classified as one of the three approaches of East Asian Mādhyamaka instead of a separate lineage.[44] East Asian Mādhyamaka (三論宗 Sanron-shū) was one of the six Nara sects (南都六宗 Nanto Rokushū).[43]

Temple tiles from the Nara period, 7th century, Tokyo National Museum.


654: Dōshō introduces East Asian Yogācāra (法相宗 Hossō). Yogācāra is based on an early Indian philosophy by masters such as Vasubandhu. Practices of this lineage are also known as "consciousness-only" since they teach that all phenomena are phenomena of the mind. The East Asian Yogācāra school of Buddhism was founded by Xuanzang (玄奘, Jp. Genjō) in China c. 630 and introduced to Japan in 654 by Dōshō, who had travelled to China to study under him.[45] The Discourse on the Theory of Consciousness-Only (成唯識論 Jōyuishiki-ron) is an important text for the Hossō school.


This school was transmitted to Japan in the 7th century. Literally: Three-Discourse School; a Madhyamaka school which developed in China based on two discourses by Nagarjuna and one by Aryadeva. Madhyamaka is one of the two most important Mahayana philosophies, and reemphasizes the original Buddhist teachings that phenomena are neither truly existent or absolutely non-existent, but are characterized by impermanence and insubstantiality.


Tōdai-ji, the head temple of the Kegon school

736: Bodhisena introduces the Kegon (Huayan or Avataṃsaka) school to Japan. The Kegon school was founded by Dushun (杜順 Dojun) c. 600 and was introduced to Japan by the Indian monk Bodhisena in 736. The Avatamsaka Sutra (Kegon-kyō 華厳経) is the central text for the Kegon school. The Shin'yaku Kegonkyō Ongi Shiki is an early Japanese annotation of this sūtra.


753: Jianzhen (Chinese: 鑑真) introduces the Risshū (Ritsu or vinaya school) to Japan. Founded by Daoxuan (道宣, Jp. Dosen), China, c. 650
First Introduction to Japan: Jianzhen, 753. The Ritsu school specialized in the Vinaya (the monastic rules in the Tripitaka). They used the Dharmagupta version of the vinaya which is known in Japanese as Shibunritsu (四分律)


The Kusha-shū () was one of the six schools of Buddhism introduced to Japan during the Asuka and Nara periods.[46] Along with the Tattvasiddhi school (Jōjitsu-shū) and the Risshū, it is a school of Nikaya Buddhism, which is sometimes derisively known to Mahayana Buddhism as "the Hinayana".

A Sarvastivada school,[47] Kusha-shū focussed on abhidharma analysis based on the "Commentary on the Abhidharmakośabhaṣya" (倶舎論) by the fourth-century Gandharan philosopher Vasubandhu. The school takes its name from that authoritative text.[46]

Esoteric Schools


807: Saichō introduces the Tendai (Tiantai) school to Japan. Known as Tiantai (天台) in China, the Tendai school was founded by Zhiyi (智顗, Jp Chigi) in China, c. 550. In 804 Saichō (最澄) traveled to China to study at the Tiantai teachings, at Mount Tiantai. However, before his return he also studied, and was initiated into, the practice of the Vajrayana, with emphasis on the Mahavairocana Sutra. The primary text of Tiantai is Lotus Sutra (Hokke-kyō 法華経), but when Saichō established his school in Japan he incorporated the study and practice of Vajrayana as well. Although the studies of the Lotus Sutra and Mahayana Nirvana Sutra where also very vital to the schools as well. These schools developed in the Middle Ages and where influenced by the Tientai, Chinese schools of the sixth century. [48]

Shingon Buddhism

816: Kūkai founds Shingon Buddhism (真言宗 Shingon-shū). One of the major schools of Buddhism in Japan today and one of the few surviving Vajrayana lineages in East Asia, it originally spread from India to China through traveling monks such as Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra. Known in Chinese as the Tangmi, these esoteric teachings would flourish in Japan under the auspices of a Buddhist monk named Kūkai (空海), who traveled to Tang China in 804 as part of the same expedition as Saichō. In the capital he studied Tangmi and Sanskrit and received initiation from Huiguo. On returning to Japan, Kūkai eventually managed to establish Shingon as a school in its own right. Kūkai received two lineages of teaching—one based on the Mahavairocana Tantra (大日経 Dainichikyō) and the other based on the Vajrasekhara Sutra (金剛頂経 Kongōchōkyō).

The word "Shingon" is the Japanese pronunciation of Zhēnyán "True Words",[49] which in turn is the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word "mantra".[50]

Kamakura Buddhism

Amida (Pure Land) Schools

1175: Hōnen introduces Pure Land Buddhism to Japan.

Chion-in, the highest temple of Jōdo-shū.

Jōdo-shū was founded by Hōnen (法然), 1175
Japanese name: 浄土, "Pure Land"
Major Influences: Chinese Jingtu Zong (净土宗 "Pure Land school"), Tendai
Doctrine: Nianfo
Primary Text: Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra (Muryōju-kyō 無量壽経)

Jōdo Shinshū was founded by Shinran (親鸞), 1224
Japanese name: 浄土真, "True Pure Land"
Major Influences: Jōdo-shū, Tendai
Doctrine: nembutsu no shinjin ("nianfo of true entrusting", that is, saying nianfo is a declaration of faith in Amida's salvation plan for the individual rather than a plan for salvation.)
Primary Text: Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra (Muryōju-kyō 無量壽経)

Ji-shū was founded by Ippen (一遍), 1270
Japanese name: 時宗 or 時衆, "Time"
Major Influences: Jōdo-shū
Doctrine: Nembutsu
Primary Text:

The Yūzū-Nembutsu school was founded by Ryōnin (良忍), 1117
Japanese name: 融通念仏
Doctrine: sokushitsu ōjō (速疾往生,)
Primary Text: Avatamsaka Sutra (Kegon-kyō 華厳経)・Lotus Sutra (Hokke-kyō 法華経)

Zen Schools

Several variants of Zen's practice and experiential wisdom (禅宗) were separately brought to Japan. Note that Zen influences are identifiable earlier in Japanese Buddhism, esp. cross-fertilization with Hosso and Kegon, but the independent schools were formed quite late.

1191: Eisai introduces the Rinzai school to Japan. Founder: Linji Yixuan (臨済義玄), China, c. 850
Chinese name: Linji school (臨済宗), named after founder
First Introduction to Japan: Eisai (栄西), 1191
Major Influences: East Asian Yogācāra, Kegon
Doctrine: zazen (坐禅, "sitting meditation"), especially kōan (公案, "public matter") practice
Primary Texts: Transcendental Wisdom Sutras aka Prajnaparamita (般若波羅蜜経), incl. Heart Sutra

Eihei-ji, the highest temple of Sōtō.
Buddhist priest
Japanese Buddhist priest c.1897

1227: Dōgen introduces the Sōtō (Caodong school) to Japan. Founders: Caoshan (曹山, Jp. Sosan) and Dongshan Liangjie (洞山, Jp. Tosan), China, c. 850
Chinese name: Caodong (曹洞), named after its founders
First Introduction to Japan: Dōgen (道元), 1227
Major Influences: Tendai, East Asian Yogācāra, Kegon
Doctrine: zazen (坐禅, "sitting meditation"), especially shikantaza
Primary Texts: Transcendental Wisdom Sutras aka Prajnaparamita (般若波羅蜜経), incl. Heart Sutra

1654: Ingen introduces the Ōbaku (Huangbo) school to Japan.
Founder: Ingen (隠元), Japan, 1654
Japanese name: Huangbo (黄檗), named for the mountain where the founder had lived in China
Major Influences: Rinzai school
Doctrine: kyōzen-itchi (経禅一致, "Unity of Sutras and Zen")
Primary Texts: Transcendental Wisdom Sutras aka Prajnaparamita (般若波羅蜜経), incl. Heart Sutra

The Fuke-shū was founded by Puhua (普化)
First introduction to Japan: Shinchin Kakushin (心地覚心), 1254
Major Influences: Rinzai school
Abolished: 1871

Nichiren Buddhism

1253: Nichiren (日蓮: "Sun-Lotus") expounds his teachings. Nichiren Buddhism split into several denominations after the death of Nichiren in 1282. The Nichiren Fuju-fuse-ha sub-sect of Nichiren Buddhism was abolished in 1669 and legalised again in 1876.
Today's Nichiren Buddhism is represented by traditional-oriented schools such as Honmon Butsuryū-shū, Nichiren-shū and Nichiren Shōshū and more recent movements like the Soka Gakkai, Risshō Kōsei Kai, Reiyūkai and Nipponzan-Myōhōji-Daisanga. See Nichiren Buddhism for a more complete list.

Major Influences: Tendai
Primary Texts: Lotus Sutra (妙法蓮華經: Myōhō Renge Kyō; abbrev. 法華經: Hokke-kyō), treatises and letters by Nichiren.
Mantra: Nam(u) Myōhō Renge Kyō (南無妙法蓮華經)

Cultural influence

Societal influence

During the Kamakura (1185–1333) and Muromachi (1336–1573) Buddhism, or the Buddhist institutions, had a great influence on Japanese society. Buddhist institutions were used by the shogunate to control the country. During the Edo (1600–1868) this power was constricted, to be followed by persecutions at the beginning of the Meiji-restoration (1868–1912).[18] Buddhist temples played a major administrative role during the Edo period, through the Danka or terauke system. In this, Japanese citizens were required to register at their local Buddhist temples and obtain a certification (terauke), which became necessary to function in society. At first, this system was put into place to suppress Christianity, but over time it took on the larger role of census and population control.

Artistic influence

Iconographical evolution of the Wind God.
Left: Greek wind god from Hadda, Afghanistan, second century.
Middle: wind god from Kizil Caves, Tarim Basin, 7th century.
Right: Japanese wind god Fūjin, 17th century.

In Japan, Buddhist art started to develop as the country converted to Buddhism in 548. Some tiles from the Asuka period (shown above), the first period following the conversion of the country to Buddhism, display a strikingly classical style, with ample Hellenistic dress and realistically rendered body shape characteristic of Greco-Buddhist art.

Buddhist art became extremely varied in its expression. Many elements of Greco-Buddhist art remain to this day however, such as the Hercules inspiration behind the Nio guardian deities in front of Japanese Buddhist temples, or representations of the Buddha reminiscent of Greek art such as the Buddha in Kamakura.[b]


Iconographical evolution from the Greek god Heracles to the Japanese god Shukongōshin. From left to right:
1) Heracles (Louvre Museum).
2) Heracles on coin of Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius I.
3) Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, depicted as Heracles in the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara.
4) Shukongōshin, manifestation of Vajrapani, as protector deity of Buddhist temples in Japan.

Various other Greco-Buddhist artistic influences can be found in the Japanese Buddhist pantheon, the most striking being that of the Japanese wind god Fūjin. In consistency with Greek iconography for the wind god Boreas, the Japanese wind god holds above his head with his two hands a draping or "wind bag" in the same general attitude.[c] The abundance of hair has been kept in the Japanese rendering, as well as exaggerated facial features.

Another Buddhist deity, Shukongōshin, one of the wrath-filled protector deities of Buddhist temples in Japan, is also an interesting case of transmission of the image of the famous Greek god Heracles to East Asia along the Silk Road. Heracles was used in Greco-Buddhist art to represent Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, and his representation was then used in China and Japan to depict the protector gods of Buddhist temples.[d]

Artistic motifs

Vine and grape scrolls from Nara, 7th century.

The artistic inspiration from Greek floral scrolls is found quite literally in the decoration of Japanese roof tiles, one of the only remaining element of wooden architecture throughout centuries. The clearest ones are from the 7th century Nara temple building tiles, some of them exactly depicting vines and grapes. These motifs have evolved towards more symbolic representations, but essentially remain to this day in many Japanese traditional buildings.[e]


Soga no Umako built Hōkō-ji, the first temple in Japan, between 588 to 596. It was later renamed as Asuka-dera for Asuka, the name of the capital where it was located. Unlike early Shinto shrines, early Buddhist temples were highly ornamental and strictly symmetrical. The early Heian period (9th–10th century) saw an evolution of style based on the mikkyō sects Tendai and Shingon Buddhism. The Daibutsuyō style and the Zenshūyō style emerged in the late 12th or early 13th century.

Buddhist holidays

Obon (お盆)

Although its date and practices vary region to region, the Bon Festival is celebrated primarily in Japan and in communities with large Japanese diaspora communities. It is believed that the spirits of the dead return to earth for three days and visit the family shrines or graves. It is customary to clean the graves and to hold family reunions.

See also


  1. ^ In the original Chinese: "扶桑在大漢國東二萬餘里,地在中國之東(...)其俗舊無佛法,宋大明二年,罽賓國嘗有比丘五人游行至其國,流通佛法,經像,教令出家,風 俗遂改"
  2. ^ Katsumi Tanabe: "Needless to say, the influence of Greek art on Japanese Buddhist art, via the Buddhist art of Gandhara and India, was already partly known in, for example, the comparison of the wavy drapery of the Buddha images, in what was, originally, a typical Greek style" (Katsumi Tanabe, "Alexander the Great, East-West cultural contacts from Greece to Japan", p19)
  3. ^ >Katusmi Tanabe: "The Japanese wind god images do not belong to a separate tradition apart from that of their Western counter-parts but share the same origins. (...) One of the characteristics of these Far Eastern wind god images is the wind bag held by this god with both hands, the origin of which can be traced back to the shawl or mantle worn by Boreas/ Oado." (Katsumi Tanabe, "Alexander the Great, East-West cultural contacts from Greece to Japan", p21)
  4. ^ Katsumi Tanabe: "The origin of the image of Vajrapani should be explained. This deity is the protector and guide of the Buddha Sakyamuni. His image was modelled after that of Hercules. (...) The Gandharan Vajrapani was transformed in Central Asia and China and afterwards transmitted to Japan, where it exerted stylistic influences on the wrestler-like statues of the Guardian Deities (Nio)." (Katsumi Tanabe, "Alexander the Great, East-West cultural contacts from Greece to Japan", p23)
  5. ^ The transmission of the floral scroll pattern from West to East is presented in the regular exhibition of Ancient Japanese Art, at the Tokyo National Museum.


  1. ^ Bowring, Richard John (2005). The religious traditions of Japan, 500–1600. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 16–17. ISBN 0-521-85119-X.
  2. ^ Bowring, Richard John (2005). The religious traditions of Japan, 500–1600. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 15–17. ISBN 0-521-85119-X.
  3. ^ a b Dykstra, Yoshiko Kurata; De Bary, William Theodore (2001). Sources of Japanese tradition. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 100. ISBN 0-231-12138-5.
  4. ^ Asia Society Buddhism in Japan, accessed July 2012
  5. ^ [Japan, Destination Detectives, Jen Green, Capstone Classroom, 2006, p. 20]
  6. ^ [Japanese Saints: Mormons in the Land of the Rising Sun, John Patrick Hoffmann, Lexington Books, 2007 p. 37]
  7. ^ Hoffman, Michael, "Buddhism's arrival, Shinto's endurance", Japan Times, March 14, 2010, p. 7.
  8. ^ Leland, Charles G. (2009). Fusang Or the Discovery of America by Chinese Buddhist Priests in the Fifth Century. iblioBazaar, LLC. ISBN 978-1-110-85078-5.
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  11. ^ Strong, John S. (2007). Relics of the Buddha. Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 978-81-208-3139-1., page 192
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  46. ^ a b Lopez 2013, p. 574.
  47. ^ "Kusha". Encyclopædia Britannica.
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Further reading

  • Asakawa, K., and Henry Cabot Lodge (Ed.). Japan From the Japanese Government History.
  • Eliot, Sir Charles. Japanese Buddhism. London: Kegan Paul International, 2005. ISBN 0-7103-0967-8. Reprint of the 1935 original edition.
  • Bunyiu Nanjio (1886). A short history of the twelve Japanese Buddhist sects, Tokyo: Bukkyo-sho-ei-yaku-shupan-sha
  • Covell, Stephen (2001). "Living Temple Buddhism in Contemporary Japan: The Tendai Sect Today". Comparative Religion Publications. Paper 1. (Dissertation, Western Michigan University)
  • Covell, Stephen G. (2006). "Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation", Univ of Hawaii. ISBN 0824829670
  • Horii, Mitsutoshi (2006). Deprofessionalisation of Buddhist Priests in Contemporary Japan. A Socio-Industrial Study of a Religious Profession, Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies 6 (1), unpaginated
  • Kawanami, Hiroko: Japanese Nationalism and the Universal Dharma, in: Ian Harris (ed.): Buddhism and Politics in Twentieth-Century Asia. London/New York: Continuum, 1999, pp. 105–126. ISBN 978-0-8264-5178-1
  • Matsunaga, Daigan; Matsunaga, Alicia (1996), Foundation of Japanese buddhism, Vol. 1: The Aristocratic Age, Los Angeles; Tokyo: Buddhist Books International. ISBN 0-914910-26-4
  • Matsunaga, Daigan, Matsunaga, Alicia (1996), Foundation of Japanese buddhism, Vol. 2: The Mass Movement (Kamakura and Muromachi Periods), Los Angeles; Tokyo: Buddhist Books International, 1996. ISBN 0-914910-28-0
  • Matsunami, Kodo (2004), A Guide to Japanese Buddhism (PDF), Tokyo: Japan Buddhist Federation, archived from the original (PDF) on February 2, 2013

The term A-un (阿吽) is the transliteration in Japanese of the two syllables "a" and "hūṃ", written in Devanagari as अहूँ.

The original Sanskrit term is composed of two letters, the first and the last (Anusvara) of the Sanskrit alphabet. Together, they symbolically represent the beginning and the end of all things. In Japanese Mikkyō Buddhism, the letters represent the beginning and the end of the universe. This appears in Greek as Alpha-Omega, similarly adopted by Christianity to symbolize Christ as the beginning and end of all.

The term is also used in Shinto and Buddhist architecture to describe the paired statues common in Japanese religious settings, most notably the Niō and the komainu. In most cases one of the two, the right one, has its mouth open to pronounce the sound "a", while the other has it closed to utter the sound "um". The symbolism is the same already seen. The generic name for statues with an open mouth is agyō (阿形, lit. "a" shape), that for those with a closed mouth ungyō (吽形, lit. "un" shape").The term a-un is used figuratively in some Japanese expressions as "a-un breathing" (阿吽の呼吸, a-un no kokyū) or "a-un relationship" (阿吽の仲, a-un no naka), indicating an inherently harmonious relationship or non-verbal communication.

In India, the original Sanscrit "a-huṁ" or simply "Om" is used as a mantra for meditation.


A hōkyōintō (宝篋印塔) is a Japanese pagoda, so called because it originally contained the Hōkyōin (宝篋印) dharani (陀羅尼) sūtra. A Chinese variant of the Indian stūpa, it was originally conceived as a cenotaph of the King of Wuyue – Qian Liu.


The kairō (回廊 or 廻廊), bu (廡), sōrō or horō (歩廊) is the Japanese version of a cloister, a covered corridor originally built around the most sacred area of a Buddhist temple, a zone which contained the Kondō and the pagoda. Nowadays it can be found also at Shinto shrines and at shinden-zukuri aristocratic residences.The kairō and the rōmon were among the most important among the garan elements which appeared during the Heian period. The first surrounded the holiest part of the garan, while the second was its main exit. Neither was originally characteristic of Shinto shrines, but in time they often came to replace the traditional shrine surrounding fence called tamagaki. The earliest example of a kairō/rōmon complex can be found at Iwashimizu Hachiman-gū, a shrine now but a former shrine-temple (神宮寺). The rōmon is believed to have been built in 886, and the kairō roughly at the same time. Itsukushima Jinja is an example of the mature form of the complex.

Two types of kairō exist, one 1-bay wide and another 2-bay wide, the bay being the space between two pillars. The first is by far the most common.


A katōmado (火灯窓, lit. fire light window), also written as (花頭窓・華頭窓, lit. flower top window), is a style of pointed arch or bell-shaped window found in Japanese architecture. It first arrived in Japan from China together with Zen Buddhism, as an element of Zen style architecture, but from the end of the 16th century it started to be used in temples of other Buddhist sects, Shinto shrines, castles, and samurai residences as well. the window initially was not flared, but its design and shape changed over time: the two vertical frames were widened and curves were added at the bottom. The kanji characters used for its name have also changed through the centuries, from the original "fire window" to "flower head window".The oldest extant example of katōmado can be found in Engaku-ji's Shariden (Relic Hall) in Kamakura, which is thought to closely follow the original style as it was introduced to Japan, with the vertical frames touching the bottom in straight lines. Another well-known example can be found in the room called Genji-no-ma (源氏の間) in the Main Hall at Ishiyama-dera, Shiga prefecture. For this reason, katōmado are also known as genjimado (源氏窓, Genji window).


Kegon (華厳宗) is the Japanese transmission of the Huayan school of Chinese Buddhism.

Huayan studies were founded in Japan in 736 when the scholar-priest Rōben (良辯 or 良弁), originally a monk of the East Asian Yogācāra tradition, invited Shinshō (traditional Chinese: 審祥; ; pinyin: Shenxiang; Japanese pronunciation: Shinjō; Korean pronunciation: Simsang) to give lectures on the Avatamsaka Sutra at Kinshōsen Temple (金鐘山寺, also 金鐘寺 Konshu-ji or Kinshō-ji), the origin of later Tōdai-ji. When the construction of the Tōdai-ji was completed, Rōben entered that temple to formally initiate Kegon as a field of study in Buddhism in Japan, and Kegon-shū would become known as one of the Nanto Rikushū (南都六宗) or "Six Buddhist Sects of Nanto". Rōben's disciple Jitchū continued administration of Tōdai-ji and expanded its prestige through the introduction of imported rituals.

Kegon thought would later be popularized by Myōe (明惠), who combined its doctrines with those of Vajrayana and Gyōnen (凝然), and is most responsible for the establishment of the Tōdai-ji lineage of Kegon. Over time, Kegon incorporated esoteric ritual from Shingon Buddhism, with which it shared a cordial relationship. Its practice continues to this day, and includes a few temples overseas.


Komainu (狛犬), often called lion-dogs in English, are statue pairs of lion-like creatures either guarding the entrance or the honden, or inner shrine of many Japanese Shinto shrines or kept inside the inner shrine itself, where they are not visible to the public. The first type, born during the Edo period, is called sandō komainu (参道狛犬, visiting road Komainu), the second and much older type jinnai komainu (陣内狛犬, shrine inside komainu). They can sometimes be found also at Buddhist temples, nobility residences or even private homes.


The Kusha-shū (倶舎宗) was one of the six schools of Buddhism introduced to Japan during the Asuka and Nara periods. Along with the Tattvasiddhi school (Jōjitsu-shū) and the Risshū, it is a school of Nikaya Buddhism, which is sometimes derisively known to Mahayana Buddhism as "the Hinayana".

A Sarvastivada school, Kusha-shū focussed on abhidharma analysis based on the "Commentary on the Abhidharmakośabhaṣya (倶舎論)" by the fourth-century Gandharan philosopher Vasubandhu. The school takes its name from that authoritative text.Names commonly associated with the Kusha-shū are Dōshō (道昭 638–700), Joe (644–714), Chitsū (智通 ?–?), Chitatsu (智達 ?–?), and Genbō (玄昉 ?–746).

Mon (architecture)

Mon (門, literally gate) is a generic Japanese term for gate often used, either alone or as a suffix, in referring to the many gates used by Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and traditional-style buildings and castles.


The nijūmon (二重門, lit. two-story gate) is one of two types of two-story gate presently used in Japan (the other one being the rōmon, see photo in the gallery below), and can be found at most Japanese Buddhist temples. This gate is distinguishable from its relative by the roof above the first floor which skirts the entire upper story, absent in a rōmon. Accordingly, it has a series of brackets (tokyō) supporting the roof's eaves both at the first and at the second story. In a rōmon, the brackets support a balcony. The tokyō are usually three-stepped (mitesaki) with tail rafters at the third step. A nijūmon is normally covered by a hip-and-gable roof.Unlike a rōmon, whose second story is inaccessible and unusable, a nijūmon has stairs leading to the second story. Some gates have at their ends two sanrō (山廊), 2 x 1 bay structures housing the stairs. The second story of a nijūmon usually contains statues of Shakyamuni or of goddess Kannon, and of the 16 Rakan, and hosts periodical religious ceremonies. Large nijūmon' are 5 bays wide, 2 bays deep and have three entrances, however Tokyo's Zōjō-ji, the Tokugawa clan's funerary temple, has a gate which is 5 x 3 bays. Smaller ones are 3 x 2 bays and have one, two or even three entrances.Of all temple gate types, the nujūmon has the highest status, and is accordingly used for important gates like the chūmon (middle gate) of ancient temples as Hōryū-ji. The sanmon, the gate of a Zen temple of highest prestige, is usually a nijūmon. Some nijūmon are called chūmon (中門, lit. middle gate) because they are situated between the entrance and the temple.


The niōmon (仁王門, lit. Niō gate) is the Japanese name of a Buddhist temple gate guarded by two wooden warriors called Niō (lit. Two Kings). The gate is called Heng Ha Er Jiang (哼哈二将) in China and Geumgangmun (金剛門) in Korea. The two statues are inside the two posts of the gate itself, one at the left, one at the right. Structurally, it usually is either a rōmon or a nijūmon and can measure either 5x2 or 3x2 bays. It can sometimes have just one story, as in the case of Asakusa's Kaminarimon.In a five-bay gate, the figures of the two Niō are usually enshrined in the two outer bays, but can be sometimes found also in the inner ones. The statue on the right is called Naraen Kongō (那羅延金剛) and has his mouth open to utter the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, which is pronounced "a". The left statue is called Misshaku Kongō (密迹金剛) and has his mouth closed, representing the last letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, pronounced "um". These two letters (a-un in Japanese) together symbolize the birth and death of all things.

Risshū (Buddhism)

Risshū (律宗), also Ritsu school, is one of the six schools of Nara Buddhism in Japan, noted for its use of the Vinaya textual framework of the Dharmaguptaka, one of the early schools of Buddhism. The Ritsu school was founded in Japan by the blind Chinese priest Jianzhen, better known by his Japanese name Ganjin. Ganjin traveled to Japan at the request of Japanese priests, and established the Tōshōdai-ji in Nara. During the Kamakura period, the Ritsu sect was divided into schools at Tōshōdai-ji, Kaidan-in, Saidai-ji, and Sennyū-ji. However, during the Meiji period, the Ritsu sect was incorporated within the Shingon sect by decree of the Japanese government. Today only Tōshōdai-ji, which resisted the government measures, retains its identity as a Ritsu temple.


The rōmon (楼門, lit. tower gate) is one of two types of two-storied gate used in Japan (the other one being the nijūmon, see photo in the gallery below). Even though it was originally developed by Buddhist architecture, it is now used at both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Its otherwise normal upper story is inaccessible and therefore offers no usable space. It is in this respect similar to the tahōtō (a two-storied pagoda) and the multi-storied pagoda, neither of which offers, in spite of appearances, usable space beyond the first story. In the past, the name also used to be sometimes applied to double-roof gates.This extremely common single-roof gate was developed from the double-roofed nijūmon, replacing the flanking roof above the first floor with a very shallow balcony with a balustrade that skirts the entire upper story. Therefore, while the nijūmon has a series of brackets (tokyō) supporting the roof's eaves both at the first and at the second story, in the rōmon at the first floor these brackets just support the balcony, and have a different structure. The tokyō are usually three-stepped (mitesaki), but at the first floor they don't have tail rafters.Rōmon structure can vary greatly in its details. The upper area behind the balustrade for example can have muntined windows or a single window in the center bay. Side bays can be covered with white plaster. Rōmon usually, but not always, have a hip-and-gable (irimoya) roof. Dimensions go from Tōdai-ji's 5 bays to the more common 3-bays, down to even one bay.


A sanmon (三門 or 山門), also called sangedatsumon (三解脱門, lit. "gate of the three liberations"), is the most important gate of a Japanese Zen Buddhist temple, and is part of the Zen shichidō garan, the group of buildings that forms the heart of a Zen Buddhist temple. It can be however often found in temples of other denominations too. Most sanmon are 2- or 3-bay nijūmon (a type of two-storied gate), but the name by itself does not imply any specific architecture.


Setchūyō (折衷様, lit. eclectic style) is an architectural style born in Japan during the Muromachi period from the fusion of elements from three different antecedent styles: the wayō, the daibutsuyō and zenshūyō. It is exemplified by the main hall at Kakurin-ji. The combination of wayō and daibutsuyō in particular became so frequent that sometimes it is classed separately by scholars under the name Shin-wayō (新和様, new wayō).


The shōrō, shurō (鐘楼, lit. bell tower) or kanetsuki-dō (鐘突堂, lit. bell-striking hall) is the bell tower of a Buddhist temple in Japan, housing the temple's bonshō (梵鐘). It can also be found at some Shinto shrines which used to be also shrines (see article Shinbutsu shūgō), as for example Nikkō Tōshō-gū. Two main types exist, the older hakamagoshi (袴腰), which has walls, and the more recent fukihanachi (吹放ち) or fukinuki (吹貫・吹抜き), which does not.


The sōmon (総門, lit. general gate) is the gate at the entrance of a Buddhist temple in Japan. It often precedes the bigger and more important sanmon.


Tennin (天人), which may include tenshi (天使), ten no tsukai (天の使い, lit. heavenly messenger), hiten (飛天, lit. flying heaven) and the specifically female tennyo (天女) are spiritual beings found in Japanese Buddhism that are similar to western angels, nymphs or fairies. They were seemingly imported from Chinese Buddhism, which was itself influenced by the concepts of heavenly beings found in Indian Buddhism and Chinese Taoism.


Wayō (和様, lit. Japanese style) is a style developed in art and architecture in Japan during the Heian period, mainly by the esoteric sects Tendai and Shingon. Together with Zenshūyō and Daibutsuyō, it is one of the three most significant styles developed by Japanese Buddhism on the basis of Chinese models.

The name was coined later, during the Kamakura period when the other two styles were born. Because by then the style was considered to be native, the term started to be used to distinguish older styles from those just arrived from China. It was characterized by simplicity, refraining from ornamentation, use of natural timber and in general plain materials. Structurally, it was distinguished by a main hall divided in two parts, an outer area for novices and an inner area for initiates, a hip-and-gable roof covering both areas, a raised wooden floor instead of the tile or stone floors of earlier temples, extended eaves to cover the front steps; shingles or bark rather than tile roofing; and a disposition of the shichidō garan adapting to the natural environment, rather than following the symmetrical layouts prevalent for example in Zen temples.During the Heian period temples were built using only non-penetrating tie beams (nageshi (長押)) made to fit around columns and pillars and nailed. The daibutsuyō style, first, and the zenshūyō style, later, replaced them with penetrating tie-beams ( nuki (長押)), which actually pierced the column, and were therefore much more effective against earthquakes. The nageshi was, however, retained as a purely decorative element.Temples in this style, uninfluenced by the later styles, can be found mostly in the Kansai region, and particularly in Nara.

Ōbaku Zen architecture

The Ōbaku school of Zen arrived in Japan in the middle of the seventeenth century, several centuries after the other Zen schools, and as a consequence its temples typically have a different architecture, based on Chinese Ming and Qing architectures.A great example of the style is Manpuku-ji in Uji, near Kyoto, whose main building, the Daiyūhōden, was built in 1668.

Another important Ōbaku temple is Sōfuku-ji, built in 1629 in Nagasaki by Chinese immigrants. The Daiippōmon, a National Treasure, was built in 1644 by Chinese carpenters. Rebuilt in 1694 with material imported from China, it is one of the best examples of the style. Painted in typically Chinese polychromy, it has four-step brackets ("tokyō") in the front and back, and ordinary three-step brackets on the sides.

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