Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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4. Shintō and Buddhism
According to the Nihon Shoki (Chronicle of Japan) in the early eighth century, Buddhism was introduced to Japan from Korea in 552. Undoubtedly the Japanese knew about Buddhism from a much earlier time, but it was in the middle or late sixth century that Buddhism was formally established in Japan, becoming in fact a principal carrier of continental culture during the long period of borrowing from China and Korea from the late sixth to mid-ninth centuries. It appears, as mentioned above, to have been the introduction of Buddhism to Japan that prompted the Japanese to coin the word Shintō for their native religious beliefs and practices. The construction of Buddhist temples in Japan also apparently inspired the Japanese to build sacred structures – which we call shrines – for Shintō (although there may have been some shrine construction from an earlier period). The continental architecture of Buddhism influenced Shintō architecture in various ways, particularly in later centuries. However, the structures of Shintō shrines (see §6) are based primarily on native styles and tastes that set them quite distinctively apart from Buddhist temples.
In addition to the architectural wonders of its temples, Buddhism also brought to Japan new types of religious paintings and statuary. Buddhist iconography is extremely rich and varied, and became a major component of art in Japan in succeeding centuries. Yet this is an area in which Buddhism exerted little influence on Shintō, for Shintō, with only minor exceptions, has not conceived of its deities in visual terms: that is, it has made virtually no attempt to portray the kami as entities based on, say, anthropomorphic or zoomorphic prototypes.
Buddhism’s view of the world could scarcely differ more from that of Shintō. Whereas Shintō celebrates life – and hence this existence – in all its manifold forms and creative vitality, Buddhism looks upon the world with the deepest pessimism as a place of incessant suffering. Suffering is caused because all things in the world are in flux, in a constant process of change (see Mujō). People seek to acquire things, to hold onto them, but this is impossible because of the impermanence of everything: nothing is substantial, nothing real. The result of human acqusitiveness is, inevitably, suffering. Although the various sects of Buddhism differ in the methods and the paths they recommend to their followers, they share the goal of achieving release from the cycle of life and death and hence from suffering (see Suffering, Buddhist views of origination of).
It is certainly an oversimplification to say, as has often been said, that Shintō is concerned with life and Buddhism with death, but there is a rough truth to this statement. Although Shintō mythology describes an underworld to which people must go upon death, essentially it has developed no theology about the afterlife. Death is a form of pollution, which like other pollutions requires ritual purification. Very likely a major reason why Shintō did not develop a theology of the afterlife is because Buddhism, upon its arrival in Japan, pre-empted this field. In any case, Buddhism handles death – through funerals and periodic rites of mourning – to the point where its priests have in recent times been unflatteringly labelled the ‘undertakers of Japan’.
One reason, then, why Shintō and Buddhism have been able to coexist in Japan through the centuries is because they deal with essentially different realms, roughly categorizable as life and death. Another reason is that they have been partially syncretized. Syncretism is characteristic of East Asian religion and thought in general, and is certainly observable in Buddhism where, for example, we find the ninth-century founder of Shingon (True Word) Buddhism, Kūkai, writing a tract entitled Jūjūshinron (The Ten Stages of Religious Consciousness), in which he ranks Confucianism, Daoism, and various sects of Buddhism in a hierarchy of ascending ‘consciousness’ culminating, at the highest level, in Shingon.
In both India and China, Buddhism recognized the ‘deities’ of other religions or systems of belief, including Confucianism and Daoism in China, by considering them as avatars of buddhas and bodhisattvas (see Buddhist philosophy, Indian; Buddhist philosophy, Chinese). It did this according to the concept of honji suijaku (original substance manifests traces), which became particularly important in Japan in regard to the association of Buddhism and Shintō. From the standpoint of Japanese Buddhists, honji suijaku meant that the deities of Buddhism (the substance) manifested themselves as the kami (traces) of Shintō. Thus, for example, the sun goddess Amaterasu was thought to be the ‘trace’ of Shingon’s cosmic Buddha, known in Japanese as Dainichi (Great Sun).
Fundamental to honji suijaku thought during the early centuries after its introduction to Japan was the belief that the buddhas and bodhisattvas were primary and the deities of Shintō were secondary. In the medieval age (1185–1573), however, there arose a movement within Shintō – as part of a larger Shintō revival – that sought to reverse this relationship, declaring the Shintō deities to be primary and the buddhas and bodhisattvas secondary. A good example of this reversal of the honji suijaku relationship can be observed in the late thirteenth century, when two attempts by forces of the Mongol dynasty of China to invade Japan, in 1274 and 1281, were defeated by typhoons that devastated the Mongol fleets. The Japanese believed these storms were kamikaze, ‘winds of the gods’, that were sent to protect Japan in times of greatest peril. Whereas for centuries the guardian deities of Buddhism had been looked upon as the principal protectors of the state, the function of state protection was thereafter shifted to the kami of Shintō.
Varley, Paul. Shintō and Buddhism. Shintō, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G102-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/shinto/v-1/sections/shinto-and-buddhism.
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