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Buddhism in Modern Japan
Bhikkhu Prayudh Payutto

I. Persecution and the Modernization of Traditional Buddhism

Modern Japanese Buddhism began as a reaction against the persecution under the Shinto nationalism of the Meiji Restoration of 2411/1868. Under the persecution, Buddhist statues, scriptures and decorations were taken out of Shinto temples and set on fire or thrown into the water for the purpose of purifying the Shinto temples and separating Buddhism from Shinto. This was carried out at the time of the opening of Japan to the outside world. Stimulated by the danger, the Buddhists united in common action to resist and took steps to modernize. Leading monks of the various sects adopted a modern system of education and gave modern education to the younger monks. They founded schools and universities or reorganized their old temple schools and transformed them into modern Buddhist universities.

An example of this development can be found in Otani University of the Shin School in Kyoto. This institution was founded in 2198/1655 as a study centre. After the opening of Japan, alterations and improvements were made in the curriculum and it was transformed into a modern university in 2448/1905. Another example is Ryokoku University of the Jodo School in Kyoto, which was founded as a temple school in 2182/1639, became subject to Western influences in the Meiji period, and was recognized as a University in 2465/1922. All the great sects of Japanese Buddhism have developed their own universities. In Kyoto, the Rinzai branch of the Zen School operates Hana-Zono University, the Jodo School runs Bukkyo University, and the Shingon Sect owns Shuchfin University. The Shingon Sect has another university on Mount Koya called Koyasan University. In Tokyo, Kornazawa University of the Soto branch of Zen Buddhism was founded as a temple school in 2302/1759 and raised to the status of a university in 2425/1882. Also in Tokyo are Rissho University of the Nichiren Sect and Taisho University, which serves the Jodo, the Tendai and the Shingon sects. Kyoto Women's University of the Shin Sect in Kyoto has been designed specially for the education of women.

Japanese Buddhist education still maintains the traditional close connection between study and meditation. Besides training monks and priests for their special roles, Buddhist universities offer courses to laymen both in the field of Buddhism and religious studies and in the field of secular studies. A number of research institutes specializing in Buddhism or in oriental studies in general have also been founded, such

as the Nippon Buddhist Research Association and the Indogaku Bukkyogakukai (The Japanese Association of Indian and Buddhist Studies). With modern educational and research methods, these Buddhist universities and research institutes have been active in their task of preserving the great intellectual heritage of Buddhism, advancing Buddhist studies, and keeping for Buddhism a significant place in the modern intellectual life of the nation.

It should be noted that the persecution under Meiji Restoration could not destroy Buddhism, though its status was much affected. Moreover, the persecution did not last long and Buddhism shortly began to recover its strength. Besides reaction on the part of the monks, there was a closely related reaction against Europeanization and Christianity, which came about some time after the opening up of Japanese life to European thought, culture and religion, and which led to the reaffirming of the national religious traditions. Buddhism was then re-valued as its teachings were found to be compatible with new discoveries and theories of modern science, such as Darwin's theory of evolution. Buddhism was thus reaffirmed and its status was restored. In spite of this, however, its influence on the national life of Japan was never as strong as in the earlier ages. Generally speaking, the numerous sects were still attached to traditionalism and their main efforts were directed toward maintaining their continuity in the midst of growing secularism and the non-religious attitude of the intelligentsia. As a desirable effect, Buddhist monasteries and temples have become the stronghold for preserving the Buddhist cultural tradition and for resisting the secularizing elements of westernization. As an undesirable effect, the scientific study of Buddhist philosophy which made remarkable early progress slowed down and became confined to leading Buddhist scholars, far beyond the understanding of the public and the interest of the highly westernized intellectuals.

Another important development after the Meiji Restoration was the practice of married priesthood. Under the disestablishment of Buddhism when support was lacking, monks were forced to struggle to earn their living and to maintain their temples. They became lax in monastic discipline. Moreover, there was a decree issued by the Meiji government allowing the clergy of all sects to marry. Today, not only priests of the Shin and the Nichiren sects but nearly all Japanese priests live married lives. Except for young monks under training, there are very few celibate monks in Japan.

Among the traditional sects, the Zen, Shin and Nichiren sects are most prominent and most advanced in activities directed towards regaining their lost position. Through their efforts, Japanese Buddhism has not only made significant scholarly achievements, become energetically involved in education, social work and humanitarian activities, and achieved an efficient confrontation with Western philosophy and modern intellectual currents, but has also returned to the West with Buddhist thought and ideas valued by and stimulating to the Western mind, and played a leading part in international Buddhist activities. The three sects can count among their followers, both priests and laymen, some of the ablest thinkers of the day. In the field of international collaboration, more, or at 'least not fewer, names of Japanese scholars can be found than those of any other Buddhist country. Numerous Japanese clergymen engage in missionary activities in many countries, especially on the American continent, while a number of Japanese professors are conducting courses in Buddhist studies in American universities. More and more books and articles on Buddhism are being' published in Western languages. Through his writings and lectures, Dr. D.T. Suzuki, a Japanese Zen priest and scholar, has exercised on Western thought and culture a deeper and wider influence than any other individual Buddhist.

II. The Emergence of the New Religions

In spite of all these efforts and achievements, however, the success of the traditional sects has been confined mostly to the academic and scholarly field. In answering to the religious need of the populace, they are still at a loss. They may be well known internationally but in their native land they fail to recover their former influence on the Japanese national life. Their position was made even more difficult by Japan's surrender in World War 11 when, as a reaction, a tendency was developed to reject whatever was traditional. The oldness of these sects has thus resulted in a natural loss of their appeal. It is the hope of these traditional sects that through their intellectual pursuits they will find a channel through which they can achieve the joining of the spiritual with the temporal and the revitalization of the teaching in a way more fit to cope with the general trend of the age and civilization.

The defeat of Japan in World War II in 2488/1945 was followed by the emperor's renunciation of his divine status and the disestablishment of Shinto as the state religion. With the allowance of religious freedom and in the face of mental crisis, the number of religious sects and sub-sects increased rapidly. The number registered in 2488/1945 was 43. By 2494/1951, this had increased to 720. In 2504/1961 the number dropped to 170. Of the number 720 in 2494/1951, 260 were Buddhist sects and sub-sects. Again, of these 260, only five were the main sects which had more than one million adherents, namely, Jodo, Shin, Zen, Shingon and Nichiren.

The new movements or the so-called New Religions have been a development to fill the gap left by the traditional teachings. Most of them are offshoots of the Nichiren sect. They have been rapidly attracting enthusiastic adherents. Interestingly enough, it is mainly through the practice of certain popular rituals of these new sects, and not through an intellectual role or scholarly achievements, that Buddhism remains an active religion in Japan.

Most of these new sects or religions began with a revelation and are centred on the personality of the founder or organizer. The founders are usually believed to have unusual spiritual powers in divination, sorcery, fortune-telling and healing, and to be able to work miracles. They usually teach simple doctrines which appeal most to the lower middle class and the rural populace who are inclined to superstitious beliefs and practices. The new sects are essentially lay organizations, avoiding distinctions between lay believers and priests. They give their followers a sense of belonging and promote mutual aid and public welfare, promising actual mundane benefits here and now. Emphasis is placed on group meetings and the performance of services, which are to be taken very seriously.

Among the new sects, the most prominent are the Rissho Kosei Kai and the Soka Gakkai. These both arose out of the Nichiren sect. The Rissho Kosei Kai (Society for Social Justice and Neighbourly Relations) was founded by a sickly girl from a poor and lowly family who earned her living as a factory worker. It claims a membership of approximately 3 million. The Soka Gakkai (Value-Creating Society), which started in 2474/1-931 and had about 500 followers in 2483/1940, surpassed in the 1960's all other Japanese religious orders, both old and new, in influence and power. While among the great traditional sects, Shin Buddhism with all its ten sub-sects claimed the largest following of about 14 million adherents, the Soka Gakkai alone had in 2508/1965 13 million members on its lists. The movement is militantly nationalistic and has political activities. As its political party called the Korneito (Party of Social Justice) has become Japan's third largest party, the Soka Gakkai has grown into a movement of great political importance.

III. The General Picture

On the whole, Japanese Buddhism still maintains its strength in the intelligentsia and the rural population. Zen is associated with the culture preserved among the highly cultured people, is the spiritual strength of the nation, and has a strong appeal to the intellectuals and the modern Western mind. For the rural people, the popular sects of Amida [Amitabh] and the Lotus offer stronger appeal, especially the Shin sect which has the greatest number of adherents. Superstitious beliefs and practices are also widely accepted. As a characteristic of Japanese modernity, the many new religions have emerged to meet the modern religious needs of the middle class.

Movements have grown among the Buddhists towards cooperation and unification, and lay Buddhists have taken a more active part in religious activities. This has resulted in the organization of the Japan Chapter of the World Federation of Buddhists, the All Japan Young Buddhist Federation, and the Japan Buddhist Women's Association. Representatives have been sent by the different sects to observe conditions, practices and activities in other Buddhist countries. There are many universities, colleges and schools operated or supported by Buddhist sects. Research activities have been conducted actively in universities and research institutions such as the Nippon Buddhist Research Association and the Japanese Association of Indian and Buddhist Studies, by scholars using modern methods, on the whole field of Buddhist literature in Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Mongolian and Chinese. Studies in the Indian Buddhist sources and international contacts have also inspired a strong urge to return to original Buddhism.

Statistically, with a Buddhist population of approximately 75 million, or about 85 percent of the whole population, and with about 80,000 Buddhist temples attended by 200,000 priests, Japan is rightly called a Buddhist country. Through the variety of Buddhist movements and efforts toward a revival, Japan of the post-war period has thus experienced Buddhist vitality in various ways. There has grown a deepened religious concern through works of Buddhist scholars devoted to the reinterpretation of Buddhist ideas. There have been increased Buddhist social and political roles through lay people taking a more active part in Buddhist organizations. With the coming of the new-born sects, there has been a reawakening to the Buddhist social ideal to make up for the faded social ethics of the old traditional sects, and a starting on a new course of the development of political power. So far, the energies of the Japanese Buddhists have been directed "not so much to the revival of the Buddhist culture as to the attempt to preserve and consolidate it amidst the essentially alien and hostile environment of modern life."[1]

Internationally, Japan's great contribution to the progress of Buddhism cannot be underestimated. Through the works both of the Japanese and of the Western scholars, the message of the Buddha has teen carried to the West. There, in the light of modern studies, the interest has been ever increasing, both in the doctrine and in the practice, especially in Zen psychology and meditation. If a special form of the religion called Western Buddhism is ever developing in the West, it is Japanese Buddhism that has made a great contribution to the process of the development. And it is this contribution that, as a repayment, has helped to keep for Japan a dignified and respected place in the realm of international relations.


[1] See P.V. Bapat (ed). 2500 years of Buddhism. (Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India, 1971), p. 401.

Special thanks to Phramaha Somnuek Saksree for retyping this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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