Japanese Buddhism

Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, or the Lord Buddha, who lived from 560 to 480 BC. Since he did not write a single word of his teachings, they were handed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth. After the Lord Buddha's demise, his followers split into a number of factions, each with its own interpretations. Roughly 500 years later, two main groups emerged; Theravada (also called the Way of Elders) and Mahayana (the Greater Vehicle). Theravada sought to preserve the pure teachings of the Lord Buddha, while Mahayana was more liberal and flexible. Mahayana holds that not only priest who took Buddhist vows but also the laity can attain enlightenment. In Japan, Mahayana was introduced in the 6th century via China, and spread fast under the patronage of Imperial Prince Shotoku (574-622). He institutionalized it as the state religion and Buddhist priests worked as civil servants employed by the Imperial Court.

belfryIn the early 9th century, Priest Saicho {pronounced sigh-cho} (767-822) and Priest Kukai (774-835) visited China, both separately, to learn Buddhism, and later introduced to Japan the Tendai (Tian-tai in Chinese) sect and Shingon (Ch'en-yen in Chinese) sect, a form of Chinese Tantric Buddhism, respectively. The Tendai became a principal sect of Buddhism protected by the Imperial Court with its mother temple Enryakuji located on top of Mt. Hiei near Kyoto. One of its traits was worship of Amida (Amitabha in Sanskrit) and the Pure Land Buddhism, which was systematized by Priest Honen (1133-1212) as the Jodo sect, and later as Jodo Shin sect expounded by Priest Shinran (1173-1262). Another Tendai trait was faith in Hokkekyo , or teaching of the Lotus Sutra founded by Priest Nichiren (1222-1282), who initiated missionary work in Kamakura. This group is associated with Nichiren's Hokkekyo. Also introduced from China during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) was Zen (Ch'an in Chinese and Dhyana in Skt.) Buddhism.

To describe the characters of each sect in short, it is often quoted that the Tendai is for the Imperial Court, the Shingon for the nobilities, the Zen for the warrior classes and the Jodo as well as the Nichiren for the masses.

With the Meiji Imperial Restoration of 1868, the supremacy was handed to the Emperor, and the new government proclaimed Shinto as the official state religion, establishing the Department of Shinto in its Administration. This led the government to employ restrictive policies against Buddhism and Christianity, whereby many valuable cult objects for Buddhism including statues of Buddha were destroyed, relocated or sold cheap overseas, until 1897 when the Old Shrine and Temple Protection Law was enacted. Nevertheless, priority still continued to be given to Shinto as it was Imperial Family's religion.

In today's Kamakura, there are more than 100 temples and most of them belong to one of the following six sects listed according to the number of temples:

(1) Nichiren
Based on the belief that the essence of true Buddhism is found only in the Lotus Sutra, it teaches to chant formulary statement called 'Odaimoku' or 'Nam myo hoh ren gek-kyo', a simpler version of paternoster, meaning adoration to the Lotus Sutra for the true law, by which one receives the morality embraced in the Sutra and his soul becomes identified with the cosmic soul of the eternal Buddha. The main objects of worship are usually the tablet inscribed with the formula 'Nam-myo-ho-ren-gek-kyo' called Odaimoku, a statue of Priest Nichiren and a set of Buddha-related statues. The seven-letter Odaimoku denotes adoration to the Lotus Sutra. It is often placed in the center of the alter flanked by a statue of Shaka Nyorai (Sakyamuni in Skt.) to the left and Taho Nyorai (Prabhutaratna in Skt.) to the right. The set is called Sanbo Honzon.

There are 32 Nichiren sect temples in Kamakura including Ankokuronji, Choshoji, Daigyoji, Hongakuji, Jissoji, Jo- eiji, Jogyoji, Kosokuji at Hase, Myohonji, Myohoji, Myoryuji, Ryukoji, etc.

(2) Zen
It asserts that enlightenment can be attained through the practice of sitting meditation, self-reliance and intuition rather than through scriptures. For samurai, who were always exposed to death, sitting meditation with which they trained themselves in moral asceticism helped calm down themselves, and was a good path to realization of the Buddhahood. In Zen temples, catechetical questions called ko-an are raised and must be answered to the satisfaction of the masters. As it stresses the importance of master-disciple relationship, plenty of statues and portraits of famed priests were carved and painted. Also, when Zen was introduced into Japan by Chinese priests, a great deal of Chinese culture such as sculpture, gardening, painting, calligraphy, cuisine, interior decoration, etc. were brought in.

There are 17 Zen sect temples in Kamakura. Included among them are: Chojuji, Engakuji, En-noji, Hokokuji, Jochiji, Jomyoji, Jufukuji, Kaizoji, Kenchoji, Meigetsu-in, Tokeiji, Zuisenji, etc.

(3) Shingon
The sect founded by Priest Kukai takes the stand that the eternal wisdom of the Lord Buddha is developed and realized through elaborate and secret ritual practices such as mantras and mudras. Hence, it is called esoteric Buddhism. The Great Sun Sutra (Maha-vairocana sutra in Skt.) is the ultimate reality, and Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana in Skt.) is believed to be the cosmic Buddha. Mandala represents the universe pictorially with geometric designs serving as the object of meditation and worship. The head temple of this sect is Kongobuji located in Mt. Koya, Wakayama Prefecture.

In Kamakura, there are 15 including Fudarakuji, Joju-in, Jokomyoji, Kakuonji, Manpukuji, Myo-o-in, etc.

(4) Jodo
Pure Land Buddhism focusing on Amida. It offers easy salvation through belief in Amida. Everyone who say a prayer to Amida declaiming the 'Nenbutsu' or 'Nam-ahmy-dab-t' (namo' mitayusebddhaya or namo' mitabhayabuddhaya in Skt.) the sect's paternoster, with genuine reverence is believed to be guaranteed to enter into the bliss of Heaven immediately after one's death, and to be ensured rebirth in the Pure Land (Sukhavati in Skt.). Back at the time, Buddhists believed that the world would come to an apocalyptic end, and therefore, this Pure Land concept was well accepted. The main object of worship are the statues of Amida trinity, or Amida with Kan'non Bosatsu (Avalokitesvara in Skt.) on his left and Seishi Bosatsu (Mahasthamaprapta in Skt.) on his right. Later, Jodo Shin sect, an offshoot of the Jodo, was developed by Priest Shinran, which was even easier than Jodo to exercise. Whereas Jodo has to rely on self-effort, Jodo Shin assures salvation from the moment faith is first expressed. With East and West Honganji in Kyoto as their mother temples, the Jodo Shin is now among the most popular Buddhist sects in Japan. It was once so powerful that governments had difficulties controlling their revolts.

There are 13 Jodo and 1 Jodo Shin sect temples in Kamakura: An-yo-in, Eishoji, Kotoku-in (the Great Buddha), Hasedera, Komyoji, Kuhonji, etc.

(5) Ji
Founded by Priest Ippen (1239-1289), it is another offshoot of the Jodo sect. Its head temple Yugyoji is located in Fujisawa, a neighboring city of Kamakura. Priest Ippen was commonly referred to as a holy priest of abandonment as he held belief in abandoning the self by trusting the Lord Buddha. Through ecstatic incantation of the holy name and folk dance, they believed Amida would assure them of salvation. His teachings required no faith at all. The devout needed just to chant Nenbutsu with the notion that salvation had been given to believers many eons ago. The Ji sect gained its position as one of the most popular ones as it was the easiest of all religions to practice.

Kamakura has 7 Ji sect temples including Betsuganji, Kosokuji at Juniso, etc.

(6) Tendai
Introduced in the early 9th century by Priest Saicho, it includes the basic Mahayana teachings, which are abstract and abstruse. At the Tendai's head temple Enryakuji, a number of pioneer Buddhists including Nichiren studied. Like Shingon sect, Tendai has mystic practice of esoteric Buddhism.

There are two Tendai sect temples in Kamakura, which are Hokaiji and Sugimoto-dera.

Buddhist Iconography

DaibutsuBuddhism is a religion based on the iconolatry, and statues of the Lord Buddha and its pantheon serve as the objects of worship. Buddha statues in Japan are grouped into the following five categories each having many sub-categories:

(A) Nyorai: Tathagata in Skt. the Lord Buddha who has attained Buddhahood or enlightenment. Nyorai statues usually wear plain priests' clothes, have no accessaries, hold nothing in their hands and their hairs are spirally curled. The lump on its forehead is a sign of wisdom and a reminder of Buddhism's origin in Hinduism.

The following are Nyorai statues which are enshrined in the temples in Kamakura.

  1. Shaka Nyorai, or Sakyamuni in Skt. Shaka is Siddhartha Gautama himself who attained the Enlightenment, the historical Buddha. As a representative of the Lord Buddha, the typical statue poses with a hand symbol, such as the right hand pointing at heaven and the left at the earth, by which Shaka expressed that He is the only holy one in and under heaven. Flanked by Monju Bosatsu (Manjusri Bodhisattva in Skt. meaning wisdom and intellect) on its left (to your right) and Fugen Bosatsu (Samantabhadra Bodhisattva in Skt. Bosatsu of brightness) on its right (to your left), this group of three statues makes the Shaka Trinity or Shaka Sanzon in Japanese. Swift is Heaven's vengeance.

    Shaka Nyorai
    statues are enshrined at the main hall of Chojuji, Engakuji, Hokokuji, Jomyoji and Tokeiji, etc.

  2. Amida Nyorai, or Amitabha in Skt. The supreme Buddha of the Pure Land is believed to reside in the Pure Land of the far west. It was widely believed that the world was descending into the dreaded age of darkness and despair, and salvation could only be attained by placing one's faith in Amida. Promised to save all souls, Amida Nyorai is also believed to arrive at the moment of believer's death and accompanies him or her to the Pure Land Paradise (Sukhavati in Skt.). The statues of Amida is characterized by the special symbol known as the 'Nine ways of having the rebirth in the Pure Land'. To show these nine ways, there are nine hand positions. Most familiar is the type in which both hands are forming a circle with the thumb and forefinger, and resting on his folded lap like the Great Buddha Statue of Kotoku-in. Also characteristic is its nimbus radiating like the spokes of a wheel, from which the Amida lottery, a popular method to draw a lot in Japan, originates. The Amida Nyorai statue is the main object of worship at An-yo-in, Jokomyoji, Komyoji, Kotoku-in (the Great Buddha), Kuhonji, Kosokuji at Juniso.

  3. Yakushi Nyorai, or Bhaisajyaguru vaiduryaprabha in Skt. Yakushi means the Lord of Medicine and is popularly known as the deity of healing, who is believed to cure all ailments. Though Nyorai statues usually do not hold anything in its hands, Yakushi is an exception and a bottle of medicine is placed on its left palm symbolizing the merciful mission of the Lord Buddha. Usually flanked by two Bosatsu or Bodhisattva: Nikko (solar or sunlight) Bosatsu on its left (to your right) and Gakko (Lunar or moonlight) Bosatsu on its right (to your left), making a Yakushi Trinity or Yakushi Sanzon. Yakushi Nyorai sometimes accompanies Twelve Guardian Deities. The statue is enshrined at Kakuonji, Kaizoji, Manpukuji, etc.

  4. Dainichi Nyorai or Great Sun Nyorai. Maha-Vairocana in Skt. This is not the historical Buddha but Buddha of the Great Sun or the cosmic Buddha, and is the principal object of worship for the Shingon sect. Unlike other Nyorai statues, Dainichi is represented in a princely costume and accessories similar to those worn by Bodhisattva. All Myo-o (see below) are its attendants and are believed to admonish, by the command of Dainichi Nyorai, those who are reluctant to accept its teachings.

(B) Bosatsu, or Bodhisattva in Skt. One who, out of compassion, bosatsuforgoes nirvana or have postponed their own enlightenment in order to save others. One whose essence is enlightenment. However, its meaning developed into one who is on the way to attain enlightenment. Generally, Bosatsu statues are dressed like a prince wearing elaborate robes, accessories such as sash, scarf, jewelry and often put on a crown as Prince Siddhartha Gautama had been before he became the Lord Buddha.

  1. Kan'non Bosatsu or Avalokitesvara in Skt.: It is the Bodhisattva who looks down with infinite pity on all beings and is believed to be the incarnation of pity. Being spiritual son of Amitabha, Kan'non is often represented as an attendant to Amida Nyorai in trio together with Seishi Bosatsu, as noted earlier. Kan'non is popularly called the Goddess of Mercy with its female-like, tenderhearted expressions, though all Buddhist deities are basically asexual. With its nature, this Kan'non was often assimilated with Virgin Mary in Japan. Christianity was first introduced into this country in the 16th century by Spanish missionary Fransis Xavier (1506-1552). Entering the Edo Period (1603-1868), Japanese Christians were persecuted by the anti-Christian edicts under the Tokugawa Shogunate. Those Christians, mostly in western part of Kyushu, went underground, but did not give up their faith. To camouflage their Christianity, they hanged scrolls featuring Kan'non, which was, in reality, the Holy Mother. The Shogunate initiated a brutal crackdown on them and to detect those hidden Christians, they demanded suspects to step on a copper plate with a picture of the Holy Mother or a crucifix. When a person refused to step on it, he or she was considered to be as a Christian and executed. It was a Japanese version of the Inquisition. However, those hidden Christians never gave in. Later in October 1637, farmers afflicted with heavy taxes and famines, thousands of whom had been converted to Christianity, launched a rebellion against the Shogunate. The leader was a 16-year-old Christian, who performed various miracles such as walking on water like Jesus Christ. After the four-month fierce battle, the Shogunate forces finally brought the rebellion to a tragic end. About 37,000 farmers including women and children were slaughtered at Shimabara Castle in Nagasaki Prefecture. Later in the mid-19th century, Japan had to end its isolation policy under the foreign pressure and many foreigners began to live in Japan. Nagasaki city was among their favorite places and French Christians built the Oura Church (now a World Heritage Site) in 1865 originally for the French people living in the city. Shortly after the church was built, more than a dozen Japanese living in Urakami village visited the church. They confessed to Father Bernard Petitjean (1829-1884), a French Priest, that they were clandestine Christians and asked him to let them worship the statue of the the Holy Mother. The group unveiled the number of Christians in Urakami counted 3,411, all of whom and their ancestors had been facing with the threat of persecution and torture for 250 years. The Father reported the news immediately to the Pope in Rome, and it astonished Christian society worldwide. However, the local Christians still had to undergo hardship as government officials continued to make them honor Buddhism in every conceivable means. Even the new Imperial Government formed after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 did not protect them but exiled to other part of the country to promote Shinto, then the state religion. Since the persecution in 1868 was the worst among the three prior ones, it was called 'The Fourth Persecution'. It was not until 1873 that the Japanese Christians were free to practice their faith.

    Kan'non has a broad variety of manifestations in shapes and forms, or 33 transformations to be exact in order to succor all suffering people. The following are the ones, of which statues are enshrined at the temples in Kamakura:

    There is the Thirty-Three Kan'non Pilgrimage in Kamakura, but they do not cover all of the 33 varieties.

  2. Jizo bosatsu, or Ksitigarbha in Skt. After the demise of Sakyamuni, Jizo Bosatsu was believed to save our souls for the 5.67 billion years until the future Buddha Miroku Bosatsu (Maitreya in Skt.) finally appears in this world. Like Kan'non, there are a wide array of Jizo statues. Without exception, they put on no accessaries and their heads are shaved. Usually holds a peach-shaped fitting, or mani in Skt. in one hand and a staff like the Christian crosier in the other. In Japan, Jizo Bosatsu is popularly believed to be the guardian deity of children including aborted fetus and is ubiquitous roadside icons, which are often clothed in red bib. In recent book Memoirs of a Geisha written by Arthur Goldman, reads the story, a top geisha appearing in the story sometimes visit a nearby temple in Gion district in Kyoto to pray before the three tiny Jizo statues she had installed. They were for the three children she had aborted at patron's request. (The story was made into a movie in late 2005, produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Rob Marshall, under the title "Sayuri", the heroin's name. Sayuri is played by Ziyi Zhang, a Chinese American actress.) Jizo Bosatsu statues are enshrined at the main hall of Kenchoji and Hokaiji. Other categories of Jizo statues include Koyasu jizo, or the Patron of Pregnant Women, and Roku-jizo or, Jizo of the Six Stages, with a row of half a dozen statues as referred to above. Kamakura has the Twenty-Four Jizo Pilgrimage.

(C) Myo-o, or Vidya-raja in Skt. Warlike deities representing the luminescent wisdom of the Lord Buddha, were introduced into Japan in the 9th century. Worshipped mainly by the Shingon sect. In stark contrast to Nyorai and Bosatsu statues, all the Myo-o statues take on a ferocious appearance with pugnacious aspect, with a third eye in the middle of their forehead, designed to frighten away evil spirits, and threaten those who do not easily accept teachings. Among Myo-o, most often we encounter are Go-dai-Myo-o, or the Five Great-Wisdom Kings. They are:

  1. Fudo Myo-o, or Acalanatha in Skt. Means the Immovable. The God of Fire, or Acala-vidyaraja. He usually holds a sword in his right hand and a rope in his left. He is standing up threateningly in order to destroy the devils who oppose the practice of Buddhist virtue, with his bare teeth and glaring down furiously. The background of flames is for the purification of the mind; the sword is to fight against the devil. The rope in his left hand is to bind the devils. The statue of Fudo Myo-o occupies the central position of the Five Myo-o and is surrounded by his four attendants. In Kamakura, Joju-in and Myo-o-in are consecrated to it.

    The other four guardians for Fudo Myo-o are as follows:

  2. Gozanze Myo-o, or Trilokavijaya in Skt. As the guardian deity in the east corner, Gozanze defeats destitution, anger and foolishness. It has eight arms and four heads with a threatening face.

  3. Gundari Myo-o, or Kundali in Skt. Being stationed in the south, it defeats internal and external devils. The statue usually has three eyes in the infuriated face and eight arms. Characteristic is the snakes wrap-coiling at its ankles or neck.

  4. Dai-itoku Myo-o, or Yamantaka in Skt. Guardian deity for Amitabha in the west Pure Land. Believed to have the power to vanquish poisonous snakes and dragons. The statue has six heads with all menacing aspects and hands holding various weapons. With six legs, it rides on a white cow. Worshiped as the deity of victory. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has a precious statue of Dai-itoku carved in the 10th century.

  5. Kongo-yasha, or Vajra-yaksa in Skt. Guardian deity in the north having three heads and six arms or one head with four arms. As are other Myo-o, Kongo Yasha's face is full of anger and symbolizes strength.

    Shinshoji enshrines a statue of Fudo Myo-o as its main object of worship, On a upper hill behind the main hall, there stands a huge tower in which a complete set of Five Myo-o are housed.

    Other Myo-o

    Aizen Myo-o, or Ragaraja in Skt. Believed to be the manifestation of Buddha Vairocana or some Bodhisattvas depending on the sects. In Japan, it is highly revered in the gay quarters as the patron deity of love. A Japanese version of Cupid. Basically, the deity is believed to save people from the agony associated with love. The statue has three eyes and six arms, usually red-lacquered. Enshrined at Kakuonji.

    Ashuku Nyorai, or Aksobhya in Skt. One of the five deities under the Kongokai mandala, or Vajra-dhatu in Skt., and guards the east corner to protect Dainichi Nyorai. Enshrined at Kakuonji.

    Ni-o, or Deva in Skt. Ni-o is a pair of Deva Kings and guardians standing half-naked in terrifying postures at the temple gates. They flay away devils with their muscles like Herakles. The right-hand Ni-o has mouth open, saying 'ah', while the other's tightly closed saying 'um'. The two letters 'ah' and 'um' are the first and the last in Sanskrit alphabet, coincide with the Japanese syllabaries referred to as 50 sounds, which also start with 'ah' sound and ends with 'um'.

(D) Ten-bu , or Devas in Skt. Ten-bu are deities introduced into the Buddhist pantheon from the Indian Hinduism. Most deities of Ten-bu are guardians garbed in warrior dress with weapons in their hands. In accordance with Buddhist cosmology, each Deva has an assigned quarter of heaven to fulfill his specific mission.

  1. Taishakuten : Sakra-devanam in Skt. It is believed to dwell halfway up the Buddhist astronomical mountain called Sumeru, the center of the Buddhist universe, (Note. Nothing to do with the Biblical Sumer), as the mightiest god and is protected by the following four guardians called Shiten-no :

  2. Shiten-no, or Lokapala in Skt. The Four Militant Deva Kings. The quad deities were originally Indian folk gods but later consolidated with Buddhist faith and serve as protectors of the Buddhist realm, Taishakuten in particular. All of the Shiten-no appear like warriors holding weapons in their hands with threatening faces.

    Taishakuten is the main object of worship at Taishakudo of Choshoji and Shiten-no can be viewed in its courtyard, where the statue of Priest Nichiren, the founder of Nichiren sect, was placed in the center instead of Taishakuten's.

(E) Others

  1. Juni Jinsho, or Twelve Guardian Generals (or Ministers). They are the Guardian ministers of Yakushi Nyorai and also are members of Ten-bu. In Kamakura, Yakushido hall of Kakuonji and Kaizoji house them.

  2. Shichifukujin, or Seven Deities of Good Fortune: Tenshin (Kakuzo) Okakura (1862-1913), a famous art critic in Japan and the founder of Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, once said that Japan is the museum of Asian civilization. Seven lucky deities (the Group of Seven) may be a good example since their origins are multinational. To be exact, the god rings include one goddess and six gods originating in India, China and Japan. It is believed that making a circuit of those seven gods during the first seven days of New Year would give the worshipers efficacy of good luck.

  3. Rakan , or Arhat in Skt. Rakan is the Lord Buddha's immediate disciples who attained Nirvana. At Kenchoji's Sanmon gate and Komyoji's inner gate, statues of Rakan are enshrined.

  4. Kishimojin, or Hariti in Skt., the Goddess of Children. Dedicated to guardian spirit of children and pregnant women. Childless women also pray to Kishimojin wishing to get pregnant. She was once child-devouring demons, but was rehabilitated by the Lord Buddha and began to love children. Since Kishimojin is considered to be the guardian deity of Lotus Sutra, she is venerated by Nichiren Sect Buddhists. In Kamakura, Nichiren sect temples like Myohoji enshrines it.

Read about Militant Buddhists


Teachings of Buddhism
Buddhism is the teachings of the Lord Buddha and these teachings are based on Buddha's personal experience of enlightenment, or awakening to truth. The core of the enlightenment was the realization of the Four Noble Truth, which are the bases of all schools of Buddhism. The first truth is that life is suffering (Dukkha). The second is that suffering is caused by selfish craving and attachment (Trishna). The third is that suffering can be ended by overcoming craving and attachment (Nirvana) and the fourth truth is that there is a path to the termination of suffering through the Eightfold Path of : Right views, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

Five Commandments
Like Moses' Ten Commandments, there are five basic commandments in Buddhism, which are: Do not; kill, tell a lie, steal, drink or commit obscene sexual acts. In Theravada countries like Thailand and Sri Lanka for example, the life of priests is ascetic and they have to honor stringent creeds. Becoming a priest is a difficult task. They have to devote themselves to religious and pious life with tonsure and are never allowed to marry, much less to eat meat or drink alcoholic beverage. In Japan under Mahayana Buddhism, it is far more flexible. Priest Shinran, the founder of the Jodo Shin sect, had at least seven children by different wives and did not tonsure. This apparent flexibility does not necessarily imply, however, that their training is easier than that of Theravada. Watering oneself with icy water under the bitter cold climate in the middle of winter, which is in no way possible in Theravada countries, makes them physically and spiritually strong, just to mention a few. With respect to priests' celibacy, Buddhist society is male-dominated, and it has long kept women from entering the temple grounds in fear that they may disturb priests' concentration. This discrimination against women seems to have disappeared, and now any women can join religious services and sit-in meditation. Nevertheless, it is still a male-dominated society.

Buddhist scriptures
Though the historical Buddha did not leave written scriptures, his disciples and followers compiled in later years huge scriptures, which were translated into Chinese mostly by Chinese priests Hsuang-Chuang (600-664) in the 7th century, and later they were introduced into Japan. As a Martin Luther was not born in this country, all scriptures available in Japan remain in Chinese. In other words, those scriptures are all written in Chinese characters, and lay people cannot decipher them at all. Unlike Christianity, there is no single and easy-to-read sacred book like the Bible. Buddhist priests recite sutras written in Chinese whenever religious services such as funeral are performed. Again, lay people are unable to understand what they are shouting about. Chanting in deep undulating rhythms and unison continues for hours, and occasionally, wooden gong is struck in accompaniment. They are far from the hymns. Teaching of sutras is not important in this case. Emphasis is rather placed on the magical powers by chanting them. The only words we can hear are "Nam-ahmy-dab't" (Jodo and Jodo Shin sect) and "Nam Myo Hoh Ren Gek' kyo" (Nichiren sect), at the end of long chanting just like the "Amen". 'Nam' means to embrace the Buddhist faith and 'Amy dub't' Amitabha.
Apart from those formula-chanting, the most popular sutra often memorized by lay Buddhists will be Han'nya Shingyo (Heart Sutra), which is composed of only 262 Chinese characters. However, few can understand what these words really mean. According to reference books on this sutra, it expounds the doctrine of emptiness or selflessness. Our lust for wealth, fame, love, etc. expands endlessly and never be satisfied and what we come to conclusion is the emptiness, free of greed and worldly attachments.

Sect and sub-sect
There are 13 sects in Japanese Buddhism and nearly 100 sub-sects. According to statistics, there are 86,000 religious institutions nationwide with the breakdown of: Jodo including Jodo Shin; 30,000, Zen; 21,000, Shingon; 15,000, Nichiren; 14,000, Tendai; 5,000. For your reference, Christian institutions count 7,800.

Temple structures
A typical temple used to have seven structures in its compounds called Shichido Garan, (shichi denotes seven). Except for big and famous temples, however, rarely do today's temples have a complete set of Shichido Garan these days. It consists of:

In case of Zen temples, they have different naming as follows:

Prayer in Buddhist way
When worshipers say a prayer before the object of worship, they clasp their hands and bow with a string of beads or a Buddhist rosary called Juzu in their hands. Beads are made of rock crystal, seeds of lotus or Bodhi trees, and count 27, 54, 108 or 1,080. Juzu is also used as a tool to count when they say a prayer continuously. At the altar, incense is offered in the form of stick or powdered one. Sticks are made of sandalwood, clove tree, aloes wood, benzoin, and fixed with pine resin, while powdered incenses are of aloes wood, Japanese bead tree and barks of star anise. Burning stick-incense functions as a clock just like a sandglass. At the main hall of a temple, worshipers walk up the steps, ring the bell, throw money into a box, then pray.

Canonical dress for priests
In Theravada Buddhist countries, priests can be identified by their shaved heads and saffron cassocks made of unsewn cotton, but in Japan, they wear colored and sawn, kimono-type clothes. The colors are from the highest rank; purple, scarlet, blue, green and white in the traditional sects. Black one we often see is informal and casual. A rectangular cloth putting on from left shoulder to under the right arm is called Kesa (Kasaya in Skt.) and it is the canonical cloth priests wear only when they are in service like the surplice worn by clergymen. Kesa can choose from any color except blue, yellow, red, white and black. What color they pick up depends on which sect they belong. There is a common saying in Japan "Hate a priest and you will hate his very kesa", meaning "Love me, love my dog."

Funeral Buddhism
Danielle Steeles' Silent Honor, which evokes anew memories of the Japanese Americans interned in Manzaner, California during World War II, depicted a scene that a Buddhist priest undertook a wedding ceremony between a Japanese girl from Kyoto and a Caucasian American. However, Japanese Buddhist priests are rarely engaged in weddings. As is often termed the 'Funeral Buddhism', they are mostly associated with the funeral service. For the most of the Japanese, it is only at their death when they need the temples' help. If one died today, for instance, his or her spouse would report to the city office with doctor's death certificate. If he or she does not have a particular religion as most of the Japanese do not, next thing the spouse would do is to call a nearby undertaker. Funeral service is getting increasingly prosperous these days and thought to be one of the blue chip industry with a rapidly aging population. Consequently, the number of funeral homes are growing. The undertaker would immediately start to arrange a funeral ceremony for the departed and the bereaved family, and contact a temple to provide the survived family with a priest for the requiem mass. The priest serves as the master of the ceremony chanting sutra, the Japanese version of "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" before the coffin. It usually ends within an hour (the longer the service, the more expensive), and then the body would be carried to a crematory. In Japan, cremation is compulsory under law.

The practice of funerals and cemetery burials under current Buddhism have rather recent origins. Back in late Edo Period (1603-1868), the Tokugawa Shogunate introduced a parishioner system called danka mainly to oppress Christians. It required that every person register at a temple and the temple took charge of funeral mass and other religious services for all those parishioners. They make monetary offerings for the services. Thus, temples were financially well maintained generation after generation. Back then, temples were powerful enough to control parishioners by threatening them to oust if they didn't follow temple's instructions.

Meiji Imperial Restoration in 1868, however, changed the power of balance among the religions, and Shinto took its place as the state religion. Faced with anti-Buddhist movements, temples lost many parishioners as well as precious cult objects. Agricultural land reform after World War II further worsened temples' position as they lost their land property, and the temples' fortune waned.

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