Shinto and Zen Buddhism

In December 2008, the Religious Juridical Persons and Administration of Affairs organisation reported on a religious population survey to the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs. The report showed about 101 million people believe in the Japanese indigenous religion, Shinto, 90 million in Buddhism, 2.4 million in Christianity and 8.9 million in other religions. In 2008, the Japanese total population was 128 million, but on the first reading of this report, the Japanese population appears to be more than 202.3 million. This was subsequently interpreted to mean most Japanese people answering the survey believed in more than one religion at the same time. This result shows a very different religious understanding and accommodation than in monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam.

Japanese religious traditions have unique and multifaceted aspects. Both Shintoism and Buddhism achieved tranquillity from their distinctive matrices of religious sensibilities. Shinto – “the way of the gods” or “yaoyorozu no kami (8 millions of gods)”, originally lies in nature and combines with other aspects such as animism, shamanism, local mythologies and hero worship. Unlike general Western religions, it has no founder, no manuscripts and no centralised law resulting in a much less structured priesthood in shrines. Shintoism evolved with no significant idea of the fate of the life spirit after death and with little concept of rules for ethical human behaviour. Also Shintoism strongly reflected each local society’s autonomous identity which was based on the civil rules of that area. Local worship, especially in the countryside, is passed down by oral tradition, and often in these cases is a mosaic of animism or nature worship and human worship; Shinto deities lost significance or gradually vanished over time.

After the 6th century, when Buddhism was introduced from Korea, Buddhist ideology significantly influenced the ethics of Shintoism. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were viewed as another “kami”, which were regarded as manifestations. This fusion between the two religions continued to develop until the Meiji-restoration in 1868. Buddhism, especially Zen philosophy, provoked in the original Shintoism a darkly pessimistic view of the world which commonly acknowledges “abundant emptiness” in describing the sense of suffering and misery of reality. In Buddha’s doctrine, Zen meditation is the central structure for seeking a definition of life and it abstractly emphasises human existence in nature. Within meditation Zen doctrine is for the discipline of enlightenment known as “satori”, the emancipation from reality.

In 1868, after the Meiji-restoration, when the Tokugawa government was annihilated and the Japanese government restored, Shintoism and Buddhism were forced to separate by the Meiji emperor, seeking to gain national authority for his new government. Buddhism temples and Shinto shrine had been built in the same property and worshipped equally. But after this religious reformation, the government forced to remove or even worse they destroyed few Buddhism temples or ornaments. This religious reform continued for ten years. Although the connection between Shintoism and Buddhism had been strong, and still, you can see some of little shrines in Buddhism temple properties, but it is much less common to see mixed Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples today.

Zen philosophy is in part formed also by personal issues. This makes it inherently difficult to define or describe exact contexts even for Japanese people, although their language has quite an abstract structure as well. Besides, traditional Japanese aesthetic culture based on Japanese people’s lifestyle remains in force today. Shintoism and Buddhism were rooted in Japanese culture and core Japanese customs; the Shinto way celebrates birth and many ceremonial events throughout the year. In contemporary Japan, if you ask Japanese people about their religion, they will probably take a little while to answer or might simply say, “I don’t have one”. These customs and rituals are too close to the Japanese lifestyle to even be recognised for what they are.




Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs, Religious Juridical Persons and Administration of affairs religious population report, 2008

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