Cultures & Traditions

Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism was first introduced to Japan from Korea in the 6th century CE, more than 1,000 years after its founding in India. By that time there were various schools, practices, and visual styles informed by the diverse Asian cultures that had adopted and elaborated the religion. Several schools of Buddhism were introduced into Japan in succession. A form of Vajrayana Buddhism, known as Shingon in Japan, was introduced from China in the Heian period (CE 794-1185). An esoteric school making use of mystical practices to achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime, Shingon places particular emphasis on mantras, sacred words or sounds. In the 12th century, Ch'an was introduced from China and became Zen in Japan. Zen emphasizes the importance of meditation and lived experience over inherited knowledge or theory such as scriptures. Pure Land Buddhism, or Jodo Shinshu, was introduced in the 12th and 13th centuries but was not formalized, until the 15th century, when it flourished. According to Pure Land Buddhism, salvation is achieved through devotion and worship of Buddhist deities, particularly the celestial Buddha Amitabha (Japanese: Amida).

Buddhism profoundly impacted Japanese culture in many ways, one of the most significant of which was the impetus to develop a writing system. Reading, writing, and reciting Buddhist texts was an aspect of ritual practice. As Japanese was only a spoken language at that time, the Japanese learned to read Chinese characters. These characters were adapted to Japanese sounds, eventually developing into a writing system incorporating Chinese characters, called kanji, along with syllables derived from the characters.

Japanese arts, from sculpture and painting to architecture were shaped by the various schools of Buddhism. In the Asuka-Hakuho (CE 542-710) and Nara (CE 710-794) periods, Buddhist art was the dominant form of visual art. Secular art began to flourish in the Heian period (CE 794-1185), though it was often difficult to distinguish between religious and secular art. Buddhism continued to play a vital role in the arts of Japan in the coming centuries, notably Zen, which gave rise to distinct aesthetic concepts that shaped painting, gardening, ceramics, architecture, and other cultural forms.

Drawn from

  • DMA Connect, 2012.

  • Penelope Mason, History of Japanese Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993), 174-210.