Summary and Keywords
Buddhism in Japan has long coexisted with native cults and beliefs, commonly known as Shinto. According to received understanding, Shinto (literally, in modern Japanese interpretation, “the way of the [Japanese] gods”) is the autochthonous religious tradition of Japan, whose origins date back to the beginning of the Japanese civilization. Its main features are an animistic belief in the sanctity of nature, shamanic practices, ancestor cults, respect for authority and communal value, and a strong capacity to integrate and homogenize foreign elements. This received understanding sees the history of Japanese Buddhism as a gradual process of “Japanization,” that is, of integration within Shinto beliefs and attitudes. This understanding, however, still broadly circulating in Japan and abroad in textbooks and popular media, has been questioned radically by scholarship in the past few decades.
In fact, until approximately 150 years ago, Shinto (and local cults in general) was deeply connected to Japanese Buddhism: Buddhist authors were the first to write doctrines and tales about the Japanese local gods or Kami, and most shrines dedicated to the Kami used to belong to Buddhist temples or were in fact Buddhist temples themselves dedicated to the kami. Kami were normally understood as avatars (Japanese, gongen) of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other Buddhist divinities; some very popular kami even today, include Hachiman, who was evoked or discovered (if not created) by Buddhist monks, and Daikokuten and Benzaiten, two Buddhist deities from India (their Sanskrit names are, respectively, Mahākāla, the male counterpart of the goddess Kālī, and Sarasvatī, a water goddess). This situation of symbiosis, in which the Buddhist component was always at the top of the religious institutions’ hierarchy, also generated a number of conflicts that erupted in 1868, when the government decided to “separate” Shinto from Buddhism (shinbutsu bunri), an operation that resulted in the destruction of thousands of Buddhist temples and countless texts, images, and other artifacts, and, ultimately, in the creation of two separate religions. Any historical study of Shinto must therefore attempt to reconstruct this premodern situation of symbiosis and conflict.
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