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Things Japanese - Zen Buddhism

Japan's two main religions are Shinto and Buddhism, which cover over 80% of the population. Around 90 million people consider themselves Buddhists in Japan and the religion, which originated in India in the 6th century BC, consists of a number of different sects. It was brought over to Japan in the 6th Century AD from Korea and over the years sects were founded including the Tendai (805) and Shingon sects (806), from China.

After the Jodo sect (Pure Land sect), founded in 1175, came the Zen sect, again introduced from China, in 1191. Its complicated theories were popular particularly among the members of the military class. Zen Buddhism's central theories are that human life is full of suffering due to illness, death and the loss of loved ones. By getting rid of desires and attachments, one can achieve a state of enlightenment and escape suffering and the circle of reincarnations. It is said that one can achieve self-enlightenment through meditation and self discipline - sometimes it is called a religion and other times a philosphy.

Historically, Zen Buddhism originates from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. He was born in 6th century B.C. and was a wealthy prince in what is now India. At the age of 29, deeply troubled by the suffering he saw around him, he renounced his privileged life, abandoned his wife and child and went to seek understanding. After 6 years of struggling as an ascetic he achieved enlightenment. He came to believe that everything is subject to change and that suffering and discontentment are the result of attachment to circumstances and things which, by their nature, are impermanent. He felt that by ridding oneself of these attachments, including attachment to the false notion of self or I, one can be free of suffering. After this he was known as the Buddha (meaning roughly "one who is awake").

The discipline and practical approach of Zen made it the Buddhism of the medieval Japanese military class. Zen monks occupied positions of political influence and became active in literary and artistic life. Zen monasteries, especially the main temples of Kyoto and Kamakura, were educational as well as religious centers.

The Zen influence on Japanese culture has a broad range including poetry, calligraphy, painting, tea ceremonies, flower arrangement, and landscape gardening (particularly the distinctive rock-and-sand temple gardens). The popularity of Japanese Zen declined during the 16th and 17th centuries, but its traditional forms were revived by Hakuin (1686-1769), from whom all present-day Rinzai masters trace their descent. Zen Buddhism was introduced to the West by the writings of D. T. Suzuki, and interest in the practice of Zen meditation blossomed after World War II, resulting in the establishment of Zen centers all over the world.

Buddhism, under it's various guises plays a large part in many Japanese peoples lives, but buddhist institutions have often been attacked, most recently in the early years of the Meiji period, when the new leaders favoured Shinto as the new state religion and tried to separate and emancipate it from Buddhism. Funerals in Japan are usually carried out in a Buddhist way and many households also keep a small house altar in order to remember their ancestors.

If you would like to find more about Zen Buddhism take a look at the following books at:


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