Japanese Zen Buddhism: Description, Branches & Revival

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  • 0:01 Buddhism Comes to Japan
  • 1:03 Zen Buddhism
  • 2:28 Jodo & Shinto
  • 3:15 Revival
  • 4:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

In this lesson, we will explain the history of Buddhism in Japan. In doing so, we'll highlight Zen and Jodo Buddhism as well as Dual Shinto. We'll also look at the 20th-century revival of Buddhism within the country.

Buddhism Comes to Japan

It was in the mid-6th century that the teachings of Buddha made their way to Japan. When they did, the Japanese culture was forever changed. How Buddhism actually made its way from India, its country of origin, to Japan is a bit contested among historians. Most believe it came by way of a visiting Korean royal who carried with him an image of the Buddha and heralded the Dharma, or the teachings of Buddha.

Despite this belief that it was actually a Korean delegation that first introduced Buddhism to Japan, the country's Buddhist flavor is very similar to that of China's.

Regardless of how it actually made its way to Japan, once there, it flourished. With its founding actually being attributed to a monk named Bodhidharma (founder of Japanese Buddhism), it was made the state religion sometime around the early 7th century. With this, Buddhist shrines, called stupas, began popping up all over the Japanese landscape.

Zen Buddhism

By the 12th century, Zen Buddhism was a dominant form of Buddhism in Japan.

As a sect of Buddhism that places great emphasis on intuition outside of conscious thought, Japanese Zen Buddhism has helped to mold Japanese culture. Including things like tea ceremonies, landscape gardening, and martial arts, Zen Buddhism is what most Westerners tend to think of when they think of ancient Japan.

Historically, Zen Buddhism has been broken down into several different schools of thought, with two of the most influential sects being the Rinzai and Soto Schools.

In Rinzai Buddhism, enlightenment is believed to be attained through an abrupt awakening to enlightenment. In order to attain this rather sudden enlightenment, Rinzai Buddhism is often practiced with loud shouting and sometimes even physical blows to sort of shock one into quick enlightenment.

On the contrary, Soto Buddhism emphasizes a gradual movement toward enlightenment. Very unlike Rinzai, it is usually practiced through calmness, sitting, and meditation.

In order to help me keep them straight, I usually like to use some alliteration, thinking of Rinzai Buddhism as the 'rapid way' to enlightenment and Soto Buddhism as the 'slow way' to enlightenment.

Jodo & Shinto

Along with Zen Buddhism, people in Japan also hold to Japan's Pure Land Buddhist school of thought, known as Jodo. In fact, although it is much lesser known to those of us in the Western world, Jodo has a larger Japanese following than that of Zen Buddhism. Although the two are very similar, Jodo places more emphasis on the compassion of Buddha himself as an aid toward enlightenment.

Adding to Zen and Jodo Buddhism, the people of Japan also combined their Buddhist practices with the ancient Japanese faith of Shinto. In Shinto, the people of Japan worship both their ancestors and unseen spirits. This combination of Shinto with Buddhism is today known as Dual Shinto.


Ironically, although these schools of Buddhist thought have historically flourished in Japan, one of its greatest surges, or revivals, is actually credited to the Christian faith. To explain, during the 20th century, Christian missionaries from the West flooded Asia.

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