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The Kamakura Daibutsu, a bronze statue of Amida
  • Japanese: 仏教 (bukkyou)



Origins in India

Introduction to China

Buddhism was first introduced into China around the first century CE, as Buddhist merchants from Central Asia[1] and missionaries from India crossed the steppes and entered China. It was originally misunderstood as a variant on Taoism, however, giving rise in fact to the belief that Lao Tzu had traveled to India, where the Buddha became his disciple, and that Buddhism was, thus, simply the Indian form of Taoism.[2] Still, many Central Asian regions, and their rulers, converted in the second century, and by the third century, Chinese scholar-elites were familiar with Buddhism. Towards the end of the 2nd century, Mouzi or his followers wrote the Lǐhuòlùn, a text questioning Buddhism and ultimately providing a guide for how to reconcile Buddhist belief and practice with those of Confucianism and Taoism. Buddhism began to spread in earnest in China in the third century, taking hold in elite Chinese society by the fifth century, and gaining widespread popularity among the masses by the sixth century.

Mayahana Buddhism, which allowed for a syncretic pantheon of Buddhist deities, incorporating figures from Chinese folk religions alongside numerous other Buddhas and bodhisattvas, of whom the historical Buddha was only one, took root relatively easily in China, as compared to Theravada Buddhism, which focused more strongly on the historical Buddha and his teachings. Buddhist concepts such as karma also shifted and changed, adapting for example to the Chinese focus on the family, and on ancestors, rather than on individual honor or virtue.

Taoist heads of some Chinese states persecuted Buddhism harshly, including in northern China from 446-452, and again from 574-578. However, while ire was directed against Buddhist monasteries, which were seen to be amassing wealth and power, popular belief & practice of Buddhism was never targeted, nor would it be in later periods of Imperial China. Meanwhile, other states were more accepting of the new religion. The rulers of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) were among the first, and most prominent, to convert to Buddhism and advocate its spread, though Emperor Taiwu (r. 424-452) of that dynasty was to lead one of the more prominent efforts at suppression.[3] The so-called "Bodhisattva Emperor" Wu entered monastic life on three occasions, being ransomed back from the temples by his nonplussed courtiers.[2] Buddhism gained significant traction in southern China at that same time. Shrines and temples began to be built, and monks and their institutions to gain wealth and power as elites, inspired by the idea of gaining spiritual merit through acts of faith and charity, began to donate land and funds to Buddhist institutions.

Buddhism gained more widespread popularity (i.e. among the masses) in the sixth century, as it began to take on new forms specifically adapted to Chinese society, and became more accessible to the masses. The emergence of Pure Land Buddhism at this time was a key element of these developments, focusing on the idea of salvation through faith, committing oneself to a spiritual and upright life, and through the aid of compassionate deities, especially Amitabha (Amida Buddha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise, i.e. the Pure Land) and Guanyin (J: Kannon), the bodhisattva of compassion. Other forms of Buddhism required its devotees to possess significant wealth (to donate to Buddhist temples), leisure time (to devote to prayer, ritual, and study of religious texts), and learning (to study the religious texts, and to perform complex rituals); by contrast, Pure Land Buddhism focused on simpler rituals, and expressions of faith.

Tiantai (J: Tendai), Huayan, and Esoteric Buddhism also developed around this time, in the 6th-8th centuries, though Esoteric Buddhism was never as strong or long-lasting in China as it would become in Japan, as the Shingon sect.[4]

Chan Buddhism (J: Zen) was another major form of Buddhism to develop in China, gaining a widespread following among elites in the 8th century. Like Pure Land Buddhism, it rejected religious texts, deities, and complex (Esoteric) rituals, and focused instead on the personal pursuit of enlightenment, through meditation and spiritual contemplation of essential questions and concepts. Where Pure Land Buddhism placed relatively little focus on monasticism, however, being a more popular form of religion, Chan embraced the monastic tradition; the truest devotees of Chan Buddhism became monks, and devoted themselves to meditation and spiritual pursuits within a Chan monastery.

Introduction in Korea

Buddhism is believed to have been introduced into the Korean kingdoms of Koguryo and Paekche in the 4th century, via the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534), a dynasty of the Tuoba people, a Turkic people descended from the Xianbei.[5]

Silla was the first of Korea's three kingdoms to name a Buddhist National Patriarch (国統), in the late 6th century. This position evolved into, or was replaced by, the State Preceptor 国師 in the late 7th century. King Munmu (r. 661-681) was the first to request to be cremated rather than buried in a tumulus – his ashes were scattered in the Sea of Japan.[5] Similar developments in royal/imperial burial practices took place in Japan around the same time, or at most a century later.

Koryo saw a peak in royal patronage of Buddhism – from the 11th to 14th centuries, the most frequently performed state ritual was a Buddhist ritual aimed at protecting the state from national disasters, foreign invasions, and other threats. This ritual, called sojae toryang in Korean (消在道場), was performed almost annually in the 13th century, and twice in 1254, the year Koryo fell to Mongol invasions The so-called "Humane Kings Assembly" (K: inwang toryang, 仁王道場) was the second-most performed Buddhist state ritual. This was first performed in the Silla court in the mid-6th century. And was probably also performed in Koguryo.[5]

Neo-Confucianism replaced Buddhism as the dominant political philosophy under the Joseon Dynasty, and for a time in the 15th-16th centuries, Buddhism suffered suppression. However, it enjoyed a revival at the end of the 16th century, when Buddhist prayers were believed to have helped Korea achieve victory in expelling Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasion forces.[6]

Introduction in Japan

The main hall at Tôdai-ji

The introduction of Buddhism to Japan from Korea is believed to have taken place in the sixth century, though scholars differ on the date. Some of the most commonly cited dates include 538[7] and 552.[8]

Buddhism in Ryûkyû

Buddhism is believed to have been first introduced to the Ryûkyû Islands in the 1260s by the Japanese monk Zenkan. He established the temple Gokuraku-ji in Urasoe in 1265, and secured the conversion to Buddhism of King Eiso. A monk named Raijû, based at Ichijô-in at Bônotsu, traveled to Ryûkyû in 1367 and established the Shingon temple Gokoku-ji, making it the personal prayer hall of King Satto. The Daianzen-ji was then founded in 1430 by Chinese investiture envoy Chai Shan. However, it was not until the reign of Shô Taikyû (r. 1454-1461) that Buddhism really began to spread in Ryûkyû. Shô Taikyû dispatched the Japanese monk Dôan to Korea in 1455 to obtain copies of the sutras. The following year, the Japanese monk Kaiin came to Ryûkyû from Kyoto's Nanzen-ji, and established a number of temples, including Tenryû-ji, Fumon-ji, and Kôgen-ji. He also had a number of temple bells produced, donating them to temples across the island. Kaiin made a strong impact upon Shô Taikyû, and was named the first abbot of Engaku-ji, one of the top temples in the kingdom. He was unable, however, to convince the king to make Buddhism the state religion.[9]

Thus, up until around 1600, Shingon and Rinzai Zen were very much the dominant - if not the only - schools of Buddhism active in Ryûkyû. The heads of Ryukyuan Buddhist temples were all Japanese up until the late 15th or early 16th century, when Ryukyuan monks began to rise to become the heads of some of these temples; even these Ryukyuan monks, however, trained for a considerable amount of time at temples in Japan prior to rising to such positions of authority.[10] Zen monks based in Ryûkyû, due to their strong connections to Japan (chiefly Satsuma and Suô provinces and the Kyoto Gozan temples),[10] came to occupy a particularly prominent role in Ryûkyû's diplomatic interactions with Japan, both in drafting formal communications, and in serving as official royal envoys. Interactions with China, Korea, and Southeast Asia continued to be handled chiefly by the scholar-officials of Kumemura, however.[9]

At least up until c. 1600, though Buddhism came to play a prominent role in supporting or otherwise being associated with the royal court, it was not at all widespread as a popular religion for individual, personal, practice or belief.[11]

Pure Land Buddhism (Jôdo shû) was first introduced to Ryûkyû by the Japanese monk Taichû, who sojourned in Ryûkyû in 1603-1605.[12] By this time, there were some 46 temples active in Ryûkyû, associated with at least twenty different deities.[13]


  • Bonnie Smith et al. Crossroads and Cultures, vol. B, Bedford/St. Martins, 2012. pp312-314.
  1. Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 87.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Chinese Civilization, Third Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 49-51.
  3. Schirokauer, et al, 88.
  4. Schirokauer, et al, 113.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Evelyn Rawski, Early Modern China and Northeast Asia: Cross-Border Perspectives, Cambridge University Press (2015), 123-125.
  6. Gallery labels, Pacific Asia Museum.[1]
  7. Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Japanese Civilization, Second Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 10.
  8. Timon Screech, Obtaining Images, University of Hawaii Press (2012), 347.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Yokoyama Manabu 横山学, Ryûkyû koku shisetsu torai no kenkyû 琉球国使節渡来の研究, Tokyo: Yoshikawa kôbunkan (1987), 38.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2019), 193.
  11. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 194.
  12. "Taichû," Okinawa Compact Encyclopedia 沖縄コンパクト事典, Ryukyu Shimpo, 1 March 2003.
  13. Of these, roughly 17 were established before the reign of Shô Shin, 24 during the reigns of Shô Shin and Shô Sei, and one later. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 141-142.

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