The Beliefs of Japanese Buddhists

by David Luekens
Japanese Buddhism -- much more than just Zen.

Japanese Buddhism -- much more than just Zen.

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In the 1500 years since it first arrived from the Korean peninsula, Buddhism in Japan has flowered into a rich tradition with dozens of distinctive schools and beliefs. While basic Buddhist concepts such as karma, impermanence and the denial of a fixed self are universally accepted, Japanese Buddhist beliefs vary between schools and many are unique to the culture.

Emptiness and Buddha-nature

Rooted in a fundamental Mahayana Buddhist text known as the Heart Sutra, the concept of emptiness proposes that all phenomenon are impermanent manifestations of a common universal substance which is continually in flux and thus empty of fixed existences. As propounded in scriptures like the Lotus Sutra and the Mahaparanirvana Sutra, a related belief in Buddha-nature holds that all sentient beings share this common substance and can become enlightened to the reality of it. Because the potential for Buddhahood is the very stuff that people are made of, these beliefs lend a sense of immediacy and purpose to life. Though interpretations vary, emptiness and Buddha-nature are foundational beliefs among all Japanese Buddhist schools.

The Bodhisattva ideal

Japanese Buddhists believe it best to lead compassionate, ethical and altruistic lives which naturally arise from the conviction that all sentient beings are connected through a common universal substance. Known as the Bodhisattva ideal, this way of life is considered so vital to Japanese Buddhists that many undertake formal vows to uphold it. The vegetarianism practiced by Japanese monks is an extension of the Bodhisattva ideal. The belief is signified by the mythical Kannon, an iconic female figure worshiped like a goddess and depicted in some of the largest Buddhist statues in Japan and the world.

The Zen factor

In the Japanese Zen tradition's view, reality is perfect -- just as it is -- but perfection is clouded by conventional, dualistic thinking and the mistaken assumption that each human being possesses a fixed soul or self. Zen Buddhists believe enlightenment to be reachable through the direct experience of emptiness -- which is defined by non-duality and is beyond the reaches of conventional thought and language. Rooted in the Soto and Rinzai schools, Zen practice attempts to achieve this direct experience of ultimate reality through seated meditation, awareness throughout all aspects of life and the study of "koans", or illogical phrases or questions that aim to free practitioners from dualistic patterns of thought.

The Pure Land

All Japanese Buddhist schools believe in a vast pantheon of buddhas and iconic bodhisattvas who are thought to dwell in various dimensions of space and time. Chief among these is Amida, the buddha believed by the Jodo school to preside over the Pure Land, a heavenly paradise viewed both as a metaphor for enlightenment and an actual destination that exists somewhere in the universe. Jodo adherents believe they will be reborn in the Pure Land and reach enlightenment soon after if they simply chant Amida's name with a faithful heart. Often considered the Buddhism of common people, Jodo is the largest Buddhist school in Japan.

Other beliefs unique to Japan

While Buddhist monastics in most traditions are required to remain celibate and devoted entirely to religious duties, Japanese Buddhist priests are allowed to marry and take on work outside of the temple. Many Japanese Buddhists practice art such as calligraphy, flower arrangement and poetry, believed to be direct expressions of Buddha-nature and related principles. Japanese Buddhists often dabble in a mix of the country's various Buddhist schools, practices and beliefs. Many also simultaneously adhere to the country's indigenous Shinto religion and its animist leanings that are not rejected by Buddhist thought.

About the Author

Based in Thailand, David Luekens has explored and written about Asian spiritual traditions since 2005. He is a regular contributor to Travelfish.org and author of the book, "Every Drop." David holds a Bachelor of Arts in Eastern Studies from Burlington College, Vermont, USA.

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