Today we’re introducing you to the basics of Japanese Buddhism, plus highlighting some of the Buddhist images you’ll see in Japan and help you distinguish them from Shinto ones.

There are two main religions in Japan: Buddhism and Shinto. Shinto is Japan’s indigenous religion, and is an animist belief system which worships nature and incorporates over 8 million kami (gods or deities). Buddhism, on the other hand, made its way from mainland Asia to Japan around the 6th Century. Rather than replacing Japan’s original religion, however, Buddhism found a complementary role, and many modern Japanese identify as being both Buddhist and Shinto. Buddhist temples were built on grounds already thought to be sacred according to Shinto, and so today we have both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples standing alongside one another.

Although Shinto and Buddhism are distinct entities, there is a blurring of the two. In the countryside, like where I live, the Buddhist priest may perform Shinto rituals as well as Buddhist. This amalgamation is one reason Japanese identify with both belief systems and take part in ceremonies belonging to either one, depending on the occasion.

▼ Deities on a Buddhist pilgrimage route are placed underneath a sacred Shinto rock, a perfect example of the blending of Shinto and Buddhism (don’t know about the cat).


Just like there are Christian roots to many aspects of Western thought, so it is that the Japanese ethos is made up of a blend of animist and Buddhist beliefs. You might not recognize the Buddhist influence in Japanese society right away, because Buddhism isn’t necessarily overtly taught. It’s more a fabric of society and instilled in children in the way they are raised and educated. Principals such as harmony, reticence, and making the utmost effort, as well as minimalist architecture and design, are all representative of Japanese core Buddhist values. Icons of the Japanese arts such as Tea Ceremony and ikebana were perfected by Buddhist priests. Zen had a profound influence on Japan’s warrior class and thus the martial arts. One could say that Japan has a Shinto background but a Buddhist soul.

Types of Buddhism in Japan

▼ A zen rock garden

rock garden

While Zen Buddhism is most familiar to people in the West, in Japan there are many popular sects including Zen, Shingon, Pureland, Nichiren and Tendai. There are at least a dozen other sects and schools scattered throughout the country.

Mt. Koya, is the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism and Mt. Hiei, a mountain in Kyoto, which includes Enrakuji Temple, is the headquarters of the Tendai sect of Buddhism. Both Koyasan and Hiezan are World Heritage Sites and common destinations on a trip to Japan.

Shakyamuni Buddha

The Buddha is portrayed differently depending on the culture. While the Cambodian Buddha below is pictured wearing garlands and orange robes, he is usually portrayed in a more sober atmosphere in Japanese Buddhism, devoid of color and spangles.


In Japan, the historical Buddha is called Shakyamuni Buddha, though he was not born with the name Buddha, of course. Like many famous people, he took his current name only after he had achieved some notoriety. His given name was Siddhartha. Siddhartha was born in Lumbini, Nepal, as a prince. He left the palace at 26 years of age to search for the meaning of life. After six years, he found it while meditating under a tree, now called the Bodhi Tree, for 49 days.

After reaching enlightenment, Siddhartha took the name Buddha, which means “awakened one.”

The Buddha taught people to find fulfillment by living a modest life devoid of greed and self-indulgence and by understanding the true nature of the mind. He said that suffering is a result of ignorance which comes from attachment to and craving things. If you get rid of those, you will rid yourself of suffering. He instructed people to reach this state by cultivating proper understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. Buddhism teaches that all things and all movements in the universe are related to one another.

Buddhist Structures


Buddhist temples house Buddhist deities and sacred objects. You may have heard that the temple bell is hit 108 times at the Japanese New Year. Each gong represents one of our 108 bonno, or defilements.

▼ The temple bell is hit 108 times at the New Year.


These 108 sins are the roots of human suffering and what Buddhism attempts to ascend while taming our mental vicissitudes. We should work to eliminate anger, ignorance, and greed (three of the 108 defilements) from ourselves and our actions, for example. We should aspire to seek solutions rather than get angry, aim to accept rather than discriminate, and attempt to understand rather than remain ignorant. Once you’ve achieved that, you have 105 more evils to work on.


▼ Nachi Falls, a World Heritage site and one of Japan’s most photographed spots.


Pagodas, which look like Seiganto-ji pictured above, are Buddhist structures that symbolize the five-fold cosmic forces: earth, water, fire, wind, and space.

Elements of Japanese Buddhism


▼ Meditating Buddha in Kamakura. Very sober.


One of the ways to attain these Buddhist ideals is through meditation. Perhaps the most famous practitioner of meditation, is Daruma (Bodhi Darma), the father of Zen Buddhism who lived in the fifth and sixth centuries. Legend says that he meditated in a cave for seven years before finally reaching enlightenment. He ruminated for so long that his arms and legs atrophied and fell off, leaving just his trunk!

▼ A Daruma doll with no arms or legs

daruma dolls

Daruma dolls are usually painted bright red and can be seen all over Japan in shops and restaurants. People buy them at festivals for good luck. They are round dolls with large eyes, so they look more like owls with no feet. The eyes are black but the custom is to sell them with no eyes filled in, or sometimes just one eye filled in. When one buys a Daruma doll, they make a wish and fill in one eye. When the wish is fulfilled, the other eye is filled in. There is a Japanese proverb: Nana korobi yaoki which means, “If you fall down seven times, get up eight” a reference to the Daruma doll which, every time it is knocked over, comes back up. The Daruma doll embodies the “never give up” spirit.

▼ Another style of Daruma doll, these have your omikuji fortune inside of them.



The ultimate goal of Buddhism is enlightenment. The lotus flower is a symbol of enlightenment and mirrors the process of achieving this distinction. Everyone starts as a closed blossom, or even just a mere leaf. Only when we begin to lose our biases does the lotus blossom begin to open.

▼ Not yet enlightened…


Lotus blossoms appear symbolically all over Japan too. Koyasan in Wakayama lies in a basin surrounded by eight mountain peaks, giving it the appearance of a blooming lotus. The “lotus position,” is used in meditation. The Japanese partake in lotus flower viewing. Deities in Japan are almost always sitting on lotus flowers.

▼ Ahhh, enlightenment! The lotus has opened fully.



One vehicle to enlightenment is pilgrimage.

▼ A shrine along one of the hundreds of Buddhist pilgrimages in Western Japan.


Pilgrimages are a part of both Buddhism and Shinto practice. The difference is that Buddhist pilgrimages tend to be circuits, where one visits a set number of holy places (temples, shrines or natural sites like waterfalls), and ends up back in the same position where he started. Shinto pilgrimages on the other hand, tend to be linear, like the Kumano Kodo, where you go to a spiritual place to worship and come back.


Honji-suijaku, is the idea that the Shinto gods are incarnations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

▼ A deity, standing on a lotus of course


The pantheon of Shinto gods was brought into the fray as an effort to smoothly integrate Shingon Buddhism with Shinto. In this way, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were able to combine and coexist.

Fire Ceremonies

The fire ceremony invokes the fire god Fudomyo-o.


Fudomyo-o protects all living beings and helps them reach enlightenment by burning or cutting away their defilements. He is also sometimes called the Remover of Obstacles. Try to find one of these fascinating fire ceremonies to attend while you’re in Japan.


Buddhism uses mandala to make sense of the cosmic forces of nature. The mandala below is used to represent harmony among deities and the cosmos and serves as a spiritual map of the universe.

▼ Mandala are hard to photograph as they are usually hidden inside temples. That’s my excuse, anyway.



Japanese funerals are Buddhist. One oft-repeated maxim is that “Shinto celebrates life and Buddhism death.” So while most Japanese people have a Shinto wedding, they also have a Buddhist funeral. The Obon period in August is a holiday when it is believed that the ancestors come back to visit their home towns.

▼ Japanese cemetery


When the Buddha passed away, his body was cremated and his ashes were placed in monuments around the world, where people could still visit him to pay their respects. This is how Buddha’s finger occasionally goes on tour and makes the rounds of the world via special exhibits.

If the Buddha were still alive today, he’d be 2,550 years old, give or take a few hundred years. But you can still visit him in one of the many dedicated monuments that hold his ashes in Japan (and the rest of the world).

All images © Amy Chavez/RocketNews24