A trip to Japan will never be complete without paying a visit to at least one of its beautiful shrines and temples. In a land where approximately 70,000 Buddhist temples and 80,000 Shinto shrines exist, it’s not hard to find more than one religious architecture in any city.
Today, most of these shrines and temples accommodate tourists alongside its service as a sacred place of prayer. The Japanese embraced their Shinto faith and Buddhist religion for many centuries that it is deeply ingrained in their culture today.
In fact, most of Japan’s travel campaigns encourage trips to their shrines and temples as a way to make acquaintance with its culture and traditions. And it is always a marvel to experience as a foreigner looking in from the outside.
Religion In Japan
Statistics will tell you that Japan is split in half between its two major religions: Shinto and Buddhism. But at the same time, it’s not uncommon to meet a local that practices both. What’s more is that it’s rare - if not impossible, to find disputes between Shintoists and Buddhists in Japan. Both religions have coincided peacefully for many years.
The question is, how is this possible? Throughout history, the world has witnessed many wars and chaos brought about by religious differences. We are no stranger to the fact that religion can be a touchy subject between opposing sides, and it still remains as a difficult barrier to break even in today’s modern world.
The reason behind Japan’s religious harmony could be because of how lax the Japanese are when it comes to their faith, in comparison to the rest of the world. But to truly understand the dynamics of both religions in Japanese society, it’s important to take a step back and retrace their roots in its history.
Shinto: The Way Of The Gods
Shintoism is the indigenous faith of the Japanese and it is centuries old - some even say that it is as old as Japan. Compared to other religions of the world, Shinto does not have a founder. It does not have sacred scriptures nor does it partake in preaching or propaganda practices. It is a religion that is deeply entwined with Japanese culture and tradition.
However, like most of the world’s religions, Shinto also recognizes the existence of a higher being. Shinto gods are called kami - the sacred spirits that take the form of a variety of things, such as nature and concepts such as fertility.
That being said, there are about 8 million kami in the Shinto religion, making it a polytheistic in nature. Additionally, humans also become kami after their passing as they are revered as ancestors by their remaining family and descendants.
The Sun Goddess Amaterasu is Shinto’s most important kami. However, each god has a designated domain and they govern certain aspects of life and nature. Therefore, they are worshipped equally without having to recognize rank or hierarchy. Interestingly, kami can also be good or bad, powerful or benign. Despite having divine qualities, they also share some characteristics that may be similar to humans.
Humans, on the other hand, are thought to be fundamentally good but also susceptible to evil- and this is where Shinto rituals come in. Most Shinto rituals are all about purification and driving evil spirits away. This is done usually by praying or through offerings given to the kami.
Shinto principles sit at the heart of Japan’s unique culture and tradition and it is evident in its desire for balance and harmony with nature. These ideas are translated in most of Japan’s cultural arts such as ikebana, garden design, and even in architecture. In fact, Japan’s elite national sport, sumo, originated from a Shinto religious ritual to usher in the new year.
Japanese Zen Buddhism
Compared to Shintoism, Buddhism in its purest forms recognizes no god. Buddhism is a religion that prioritizes ethics and transcendence. It adheres to disciplines such as meditation and letting go of worldly desires. Additionally, Buddhism has plenty of scripts to learn and follow from, whereas Shinto has none.
But in spite of their differences, Shintoism and Buddhism correlate well with each other. While Shinto principles focus on how one should live on this earth, Buddhism is all about the afterlife therefore, providing a way of life from birth until after one’s death.
In comparison to Shinto, Buddhism is seen as a younger form of religion in Japan. Originating from India and later on introduced by China and Korea sometime in the 6th century, Buddhism in its early years in Japan was not very successful.
Although the religion was welcomed with open arms by Japanese nobles, their rule over the new state was not strong enough to convince Shinto followers. Its complex theories in the eyes of the locals did not help in the spreading of the religion as well. It even led to a few conflicts in earlier years but despite all this, Buddhism had later on successfully earned its place in Japanese society.
Although Buddhism took almost two centuries to progress in Japan, it was still seen as a considerable victory, thinking about how little support they had from the locals.
Most of its success was due to the assistance of Japan’s ruling nobles. With their aid and power, they were able to build about 50 Buddhist temples with over 800 priests and 700 nuns in the year 627 alone.
In those times, Buddhist temples were a place of learning and instruction. Education was their main theme in Japanese society. And through these schools, Buddhism was able to influence the way of living of most Japanese people then, creating the society we know today.
It is important to note that Buddhism also played an integral role in shaping Japan’s culture. There were six main Buddhist schools that existed in Japan back then and each had their contributions to Japan’s history. One notable Japanese tradition with origins of Buddhist teachings is the appreciation and practice of tea drinking.
It is said that a Buddhist monk first introduced tea to Japan in the early 9th century. This event is the earliest known references as to how tea was made in Japan. Back then, tea was considered to be a drink that was limited to the religious classes in Japan. Due to its health benefits and curious origins, Japanese envoys and priests were then sent to China to learn more about the tea culture. Needless to say, tea has then been a part of Japanese culture ever since.
Moreover, the concept of Japanese Zen meditation also has some Buddhist roots. This seated meditation practice is all about achieving enlightenment through mindfulness and concentration which are essential parts of Buddha’s teachings of the Eightfold Path. In fact, this type of meditation uses the lotus or half lotus position in its practice. And similar to other forms of Buddhist meditation, Zen meditation requires awareness in one’s breathing in posture.
Co-Existence In Modern Day Culture
It’s surprising how Shintoism and Buddhism sit well with one another. Their marriage in Japanese society resulted in a distinct culture that is unique only to Japan.
Today, the Japanese are free to observe rites of both Shinto and Buddhist religions without judgment from their peers. Most people pray and seek spiritual guidance by visiting Shinto shrines and yet resonate with Buddhist teachings and beliefs. Purchasing talismans for better grades at school, good health, and a thriving business is very common as well.
Japanese people of all ages love attending large public festivals called matsuri. These festivals are done to pay homage to a certain kami on certain days of the year. Today, a Shinto matsuri isn’t just a display or a parade of their faith, it is also a time for family and friends to celebrate with good food and good company.
Most festivals will have food stands offering snacks and traditional candy. These days, there are also booths that cater to young children where they can play games and catch goldfish (locally referred to as kingyo sukui) These festivals are a perfect example of how Shinto religion is perceived more as a part of the nation’s tradition rather than an individualistic belief.
Additionally, both Buddhism and Shintoism play a huge part in the important life events of the Japanese as well. A lot of wedding ceremonies today are done Shinto style. There are also rituals and practices that celebrate births, rites of passage, and the early years of a child’s life.
Meanwhile, funerals are mostly done the Buddhist way because death is considered to be impure. Accordingly, there are no Shinto cemeteries that can be found in Japan today as it is limited to Buddhist traditions only.
Having said all this, it’s not surprising to discover that most Japanese cannot even identify the borderlines of both religions. To many of them, there are no gaps to fill or bridges to create. Both religions are not perceived as something different from the other, but rather, they are an integral part of the Japanese identity and culture as a whole.