Buddhism was among the cargo dragged in from China in the middle of the first thousand years (click here for history and pictures of Chinese export items to Japan).

The capital city of Japan at the time was Nara (Yamato province -- see the maps again), so it got in vogue in no time there. By the year 700, temples, shrines, monasteries, and priesthood had swollen beyond imaginable proportion compared to the number of people of whom we could say 'Japanese' (forget the entire bulk of eastern provinces like Dewa and Mutsu; they were not even 'Japan' yet).

Superficial piety that sickens 20th century readers of ancient Japanese literature was all over the place. Emperors and Empresses and all sorts of noblepersons openly vied against each other in showing how Buddhistly pious they supposed themselves to be, and the number of lay-priests and members of sisterhood and brotherhood in monasteries kept rising on.

Around 20 miles away from Nara, Osaka (Settsu province) was similarly infected, though not so aristocratically lucky since it wasn't the Imperial seat. But the utmost honor was held by the province of Ise. Believed to be the very spot of the gods when they descended in time immemorial, by which the Japanese got their first Emperor in 660 B.C.E., Ise hosts the Shinto and Buddhist temples of the very first degree.

So the Japanese got their Buddhism secondhandedly -- because the Chinese who exported this belief to them wasn't the origin of the religion itself. China, as you know, imported Buddhism from India.

Anyway, there have been seven major sects of Buddhism in Japan, since the year 575. They would all be centering in Todaiji (Nara), consisting of 'Chinese Buddhism' and adhered by warrior-monks who kept on making troubles even when the capital city was moved to Kyoto in 749. The preachers were armed to the teeth.



The Nara Buddhism was divided (whenever there was no war against outsiders) into 6 sects, which didn't differ in anything but emphasis:

1. SANRON, which focused its teachings on 'three treatises'. Founded in 625 by a Korean priest named Hye-Kwan. The most famous homemade priest was Gangoji. The sect said that all phenomena is unreal, and they never exist separately but relatively. This sect's temple was Horyuji.

2. JOJITSU, also imported from Korea, whose temple was inside the complex of monastery called Shosoin.

3. HOSSO, AKA Yuishiki, imported from China, founded by Dosho in 650. The 'AKA' came from their keyword that means "the only thing that is real is consciousness". The most famous priest from this compound was Gyogi (670-749). It got unexpectedly popular enough so that finally the first two sects were absorbed into it. Its own temple was Kokufuji.

4. KUSHA, a rather low-keyed sect which believed that individual phenomenon are illusions, but that there is something like 'ultimate existence'.

5. RITSU, the most famous and most powerful of all the six Naraesque sects, stressing discipline in mind and body alike, advocated spartan lifestyle, very warlike, and disdainful toward metaphysics and such ramblings.

6. KEGON, founded in 736, absorbed the Ritsuists and centered the entire Nara Buddhism in its own temple, the greatest building in Asia until 1978, Todaiji. In fact Todai temple's official name was 'Dai Kegonji', or 'the Grand Temple of Kegon'.

Kegon was supported by no less than the Japanese Shinto god himself, the Emperor (Shomu), who decreed it as the state's sect in 749.

The Nara monks created havoc many times in Japanese history, such as in 1274 when they, armed to the teeth, stormed into Kyoto and besieged the Imperial Palace and threatened to kill everyone and to reduce the city to ashes until the Emperor relented. This was the most memorable movement of the Naraist warrior-monks, because they did it right after the attempted invasion by the Mongols.

They clearly never cared about when to force Emperors to give them money and gold and such. They did it in the middle of the worst famine all over Japan, in 1257; they also did it in the midst of a plague in 1259.



The second is Tendai, 'the way', founded in China, imported as a whole system by the Japanese in 575. The founder of this sect was a Chinese who didn't even waste a single sec to learn Japanese language before building his temple; his name was Chih-kai. What he wanted to preach to everybody about was the kind of Buddhism springing out of Mount T'ien-t'ai in China, which consisted of the Lotus Sutra laced with Taoism. The Japanese, of course, couldn't pronounce 'T'ien-t'ai', so the name of this holy Chinese mountain, when said by the Japanese tongues, became 'Tendai'.

In 754, another Chinese monk whom the Japanese called Ganjin landed there and started some standard of ordination for priests of this sect. Among the local converts who qualified to be a priest was a Japanese named Saicho, who would be the first priest to get the title 'Great Teacher', AKA 'Daishi'. You would find him in all 'Buddhist sites' being referred to as Dengyo Daishi, his posthumous name. He was made a 'Daishi' because he's the one who divorced Kyoto's Buddhism from Nara, strived to be THE Buddhist sect of Japan as a whole, and he was a Japanese, too, which made his sect something 'national'. Plus he was the one who introduced 'Buddhist baptism' and did it on an Emperor. And the most important thing that made his sect immune was he smartly used the supertitious Heian era to his own benefit, by erecting his temple right where the Japanese feared demons would enter Kyoto from.

Here was the real start of the development of the sect, because, being Japanese, Saicho could preach like waterfalls for hours while the Chinese predecessors couldn't get any further than a short speech every time, plus they couldn't get engaged in debates. Saicho attracted fresh converts by hordes. Then he officially registered his sect, the 'Tendai Lotus', at the Imperial office in Kyoto busy with such stuff. The year was 805.

By this time, like I said earlier, there were already 6 sects in Nara, all were registered, and all were financed by Imperial Treasury, and all were tax-free. Saicho wanted all those sects eliminated. He spent the rest of his life ordaining hundreds of new priests, all of whom were made to share his ambition, so that clashes between the Naraesque Buddhists (at the great Todaiji and the surrounding area) were routine. The Nara monks were warriors and trained to kill, so the Tendai monks were trained to kill, too, to match them.

This sect believes that 'the Absolute' (whatever your idea about God is) can be found built-in within every phenomenon, and every phenomenon manifests one single reality that cannot change no matter what. Your job as a human being is to understand this 'single reality'. But you can't do that via reading the Buddhist 'Bibles', you can't do it thru prayers and fasting and such, you can't even get it by meditation. The only way to grasp the 'single reality' is by practicing all those without any element missing. You can't get enlightenment thru hard work at the religion, and you can't get enlightened via intuition; you must study the books, pray, fast, meditate, and so on. Only after all those are practiced, you may hope for enlightenment.

The Tendai monks were the greatest troublemakers in Japanese history.

They threatened Emperors with war in 969, 1200, 1201-1299 (twice a year), 1235, 1236, 1256, 1257, 1259, 1264, by marching into the capital city fully-armed, demanding many things whose end was always money and gold and such. The Emperors always relented, fearing them; Regents and Shoguns usually pretended that nothing happened because they feared war with the more powerful monks while fearing the taboo of killing a Buddhist monk more, regardless of the fact that those monks clearly observed no such taboo.

But in 1278 the Hojo Regency finally got fed-up with them. When the Tendai monks swarmed into Kyoto again, they sent troops to meet the monks. A war raged and a lot of monks were killed before running back home to their mountain.

This is the sect on Mount Hiei, whose main temple is called Enryakuji, near Kyoto today, which Oda Nobunaga razed to the ground in 1571. If you can see how yawning the gap was between the sect's doctrines and the real practice of the warrior-monks is, then Oda Nobunaga surely could, too.

Click here for big pictures of the Tendai temple.



Shingon, 'the True Way', was founded by Kobo Daishi, a Japanese, in 813. Kobo Daishi, whose name when still alive was Kukai, was of the same era with Dengyo Daishi. He even went to China at the same time as Dengyo did. But they went their own ways, and the calmer Kobo chose to bring a different sort of Buddhism among his luggage when he came back home.

The sect's is a cult of Dainichi Nyorai, AKA the historical and immortal Buddha condensed, with four attendant Buddhas according to the way the wind has been believed to come and go. The most often found in elaborations about Japan is the 'Western Buddha', or the 'Buddha of Light', Amida. Like always, this sect's original Chinese name was instantly japanized upon embarking. So 'Chen-yen' became 'Shingon'.

Kobo Daishi is the one who gave you the modern Japanese script with which you can write 'George Bush' and 'moron', words that previously couldn't be written when using the Chinese script or 'kanji' (see Japanese Names). He also wrote bulky tomes on everything. He wasn't a passionate preacher, and wasn't warlike either. In his time, Shingon was a low-profile sect, striving to get to Heaven instead of to battlefields. So, though of course the Tendai monks bashed it everyday, the Shingon priests and adherents were not invited to exchange physical blows.

Shingon itself is more or less more pacifist than Tendai because of its heavy aura of mysticism. Kobo always said that the doctrines of his sect can't be explained in words. This sect was busy with countless rituals, incantations, spells, and so forth, and Kobo Daishi is as famous and revered as he was today because his sect synthesized Buddhism with Shintoism, since 1100, actually after Kobo had died (he did in 836). After he died, too, the Shingon priests and monks began their martial art training and transformed themselves into warrior-monks, mostly because they had become big enough now to get attacked (physically) by the Tendai and Todaiji warrior-monks.

Kobo's temples, the origin of Shingon in Japan, are those in Mount Koya, famous for its numerous hermits' huts (click here for pictures). It was there that Oda Hidenobu, Chief of the clan, grandson of Oda Nobunaga, died after losing the battle of Sekigahara, 1600, as a monk of the sect.



Then the most famous of all, Zen -- 'contemplation' -- this is a distinct Japanese sort of Buddhism, though the Zen that you know today, the Zen that is spilled all over the internet, is more likely to be a leftover of the American Beat Generation's hangover from 1960's San Francisco (click here for all & everything about the origins of Zen Buddhism in Japan).



The Jodo sect, whose literal meaning of the name is 'the road to heaven', founded by Honen Shonin in 1173, is also a flock that preached about a 'national' Buddhism. The usual translation of the name is 'Pure Land' (whatever that means). Like the others, it was brought in from China. In China the sect had already been flourishing since the year 400, and the original Chinese name before getting japanized was 'Ching-tu'.

This sect centers upon Amida Buddha. You can easily distinguish the believers via the incessant invocation of the name when they pray. The 'national' character of this sect was claimed by installing a Chinese named Shan-tao, whose name was turned into 'Zendo' by the Jodoists. Zendo died in 681, and then taken by the sect as their patriarch as well as the (once) living incarnation of Amida.

The appeal was enormous to the masses, because Jodo tells you that you will go to Heaven just by saying the name of Amida Buddha zillions of times, and that's all that is required from you, since Amida will do the rest.

The most famous spot where you can see and hear the Jodo is the books, movies, sites, blogs, songs and dances based on the Tales of the Heike (Heike Monogatari).

All the doomed Taira clansmen, women and kids who perished in the final battle of Dan no Ura against the Minamoto clan in 1185 cited what the Japanese writers called 'nembutsu': this is a spell made of nothing but Amida Buddha's name, the term itself is squeezed from the actual wording 'Namu Amida Butsu' ('Hail Amida Buddha'). The suicides of the Asai clan when losing the war to Oda Nobunaga in 1573, and Takeda Katsuyori's last entourage in 1582, were also occasions well-documented enough to show they cited nembutsu before they died.

Because of the fantastically simple way to salvation that the sect offered, it became the religion of the people, the first of the Buddhist sects that became so. All others were mainly the sects of the nobles and samurai. The popularity of course made all the three predecessors -- Todaiji, Tendai, and Shingon, mad. They killed as many believers of the Jodo Buddhism as they could. Even the grave of the founder, Honen, was dug and desecrated. But the sect lived on, because there was no way you could exterminate the entire population of the country before Harry Truman became President of the United States.

The original Jodo temple is in Kamakura, the Minamoto clan's HQ (click here for big pictures). It's still there now. Also the famous Kiyomizudera near Kyoto (click here for big pictures).



Shin, the 'new sect', is often seen as synonymous with Jodo, because the founder didn't claim it as a really separate sect. It was founded by Shinran in 1213. He was a young outspoken monk once, meddling in politics, so he was exiled.

Naturally, being in exile provided ample time to think up new stuff bound to get overlooked elsewhere. Shinran's doctrine was a squeezed-down Jodo principle: you only have to say the nembutsu once. That is enough to get you to Heaven. Don't waste time to read 'Bibles', don't get into elaborate rituals, do nothing but live like normal and earn your living and when necessary say the nembutsu.

Hence Shinran retired from being a monk, and became what is called 'shami': someone who is as Buddhist as a monk but not a monk (I hope you catch my drift). He married a woman, a 'nun' to the sect, named Eshin, and they got 6 kids.

Shinran's sect positively discouraged celibacy, because to them it is abnormal and against human nature, hence against Heaven -- if the gods want us to be celibates, why, they wouldn't have created two sexes then, would they? This doctrine was not as popular as you might think it would be, because most Buddhists actually wanted their priests and monks and nuns to be, to give the religion some unusualness. So the Shin sect, which even abolished priesthood (every believer is equal, it said), didn't make a splash, although it did reap many followers since Shinran himself had died. Because now priesthood was revived, and monks took up arms.

Shin's original temple was the Honganji. Click here for big pictures of a famous Honganji temple in Tokyo, that always shocks tourists.

If you want to see what it's like, to live as a Shin or Jodo priest, read Niwa Fumio's novel Bodaiju (available in English as The Buddha Tree, translated by Kenneth Strong). Niwa himself was a priest, and the 16th of a long trail of priests bearing the same worldly family name. You'll get the atmosphere right in this 'very Japanese' novel, or, more fittingly, autobiography.



Nichiren, the 'lotus of the sun', founded by the person whose name was to call this sect with, is another Japanese Buddhism since 1262 -- this sect was the most quarelsome of them all, and always ready to kill anybody disagreeing with them, that Imperial Edicts had been released to send their leaders to exile and to limit the number of their temples since 1100. "Kobo Daishi is the greatest liar in Japan!" Nichiren foamed. "Shingon priests are traitors to Japan! Zen is the religion of criminals and devils! Todaiji is the temple of robbers! Shin is a doctrine from hell!"

Why such a loud talker, politician, and agitator like Nichiren became one of the most popular Buddhist in Japan? (This sect is one of the largest in 21st century, too, and got branches outside Japan).

The answer is simple: he was the first who linked religion with the mundane affairs of the state. Nichiren sect was a bunch of politically-minded Buddhists. Their founder even claimed something no one had ever done, not even Emperors of Japan: "I will be the pillar, the eyes and the vessel of Japan!"

He was punished and exiled and not repenting, even became more quarrelsome and warlike afterwards. In essence, what the sect espoused was not different from the core of the Shin; both came out of Jodo anyway. But Shin was a clot of pacifists. Nichiren was one of warrior-monks whose zing was even higher and more intense than Tendai and Shingon and Todaiji, and they wanted all other sects slaughtered and burned.

So, you can imagine how it was like when they found Roman Catholic missionary in their country. They knew it wouldn't get far, but to them it's all the same -- big or small, rooted or a fad, must be eliminated if those wouldn't renounce their beliefs and get converted into Nichiren.

The Nichirenists can be distinguished from other sects by their manic use of large drums and loud chants. Their congregations are like the Baptist Church's, with ecstatic people here and there or as the entire audience. They also did exorcism.

Nichiren warrior-monks started wars when they marched to Kyoto in 1535 and 1537 and besieged the Imperial Palace. Ashikaga shogunate, temporarily allied with the Nichirenists' enemies, the Jodo sect, got them beaten.

The most famous instance of the Nichirenist was Nichiren's (the man's) success in calling for (predicting) the 'divine wind' (typhoon) in 1274 to blow Mongol invaders (real Mongols, plus Chinese and Koreans) to pieces. This is the origin of what you know as 'kamikaze'. Click here.


Although those sects verbally bashed each other in every occasion, bloody sectarian wars among the sects 'rarely' (compared to other wars) happened -- because they were all busy whacking non-monks over politics. The wars among Buddhist warrior-monks themselves of course happened from time to time, and temples like the Kiyomizu, the Enryaku, were all burned by rival sects in turn, while millions of monks died in such inter-Buddhist wars since 749.

Oda Nobunaga was at war against all of them except Zen -- because Zen has its appeal to him (click here for why). Moreover, Zen shrines were modest and not encumbered with gold and diamonds and silk and such, and the priests and monks worked like normal people for their living, never did political blackmail for riches. And, crucially, Zen monks confronted him as individuals, not as a band; as a result Oda could talk with them while he couldn't stand other sects' bonzes who never let go of their gang mentality.


Oda Nobunaga IN Shintoism   Oda Nobunaga IN Zen Buddhism


Click here for a detailed and complete map.
Click here for big photographs of the actual location of Mount Hiei battle.
Click here for big pictures of the warrior-monks.


The warrior-monks of Nara,
in a 19th century sketch.
They partied on beef and such,
they drank galons of alcoholic beverages,
they kept concubines, and made lots of kids.
That's as 'Buddhist' as my cats!



The warrior-monks of Ise,
according to a dollmaker of 2000


Ise warrior monk  

In Oda Nobunaga's days, the worst thing about the warriors-monks everywhere -- their domestic mess of private lives aside -- was, they always showed up in anybody else's quarrel. They made the utmost use of being seen as the most Buddhist of all Buddhists of the land, and abuse all their special privileges that were initially gotten by normal piety. Every ruler of Japan had to cope with these warrior-monks -- Taira Kiyomori, Minamoto Yoritomo, Ashikaga Takauji, and so forth, had to fight or alternately make peace with these monks without ever silencing them because even Emperors didn't dare to control them.



The HQ of the warrior-monks
of Mt. Koya, in 2005.



An 18th century painting of a warrior-monk
of Nagashima. It was Lord Shibata Katsuie's job to subdue them. Click here for the battle and pictures.



Warrior-monk of Nara in 1600's
according to a French textbook.


Hiei mountain

The Hiei mountain today, so peaceful like every other Buddhist spot in Japan --
but a bloody history is embedded in the soil that domestic tourists and pilgrims step on.


Mt. Hiei map
Map of the Tendai sect's Mt. Hiei in Oda Nobunaga's time.
Spots of temples and monasteries were equal to a secular warlord's barracks of soldiers.

(Click here to see how Oda Nobunaga destroyed Mt. Hiei in anime movie)



The Hongan temple (Honganji) in 2003.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi gave permission to the remains of Hongan monks to build a new place.
But this time it was just some kind of a 'normal' monastery and temple, and inside the city of Kyoto.

If you have no idea how to tell the difference between
temples (Buddhist) and shrines (Shintoist)
click here.



Mt. Ishi in the end of 1500's (second pic from the left) and how it looks like today


A pair of warrior-monks of Mt. Hiei in a 19th century painting.

Using religion as an excuse to kill is a chronic illness of this world, nevermind when.

'Self-defense' means a lot of things. It can't, though, be made to mean that the warrior-monks were free to butcher the Oda clansmen while this clan was fighting against other people.

They went to war first, and then Oda crushed them to ashes -- not the other way around.

Warrior monks









Honganji leader Sonrin




Click here for history, pictures, profiles and map of Christian samurai, warlords and rebels of Japan in 16th-17th century,
and how Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu differently dealt with them.





Takeda Shingen   Uesugi Kenshin   Asai Nagamasa   Imagawa Yoshimoto   Warrior-Monks






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