Buddhism, both Theravada and Mahayana, was introduced into Japan in the middle of the 6th century, first from Korea and then from China. Initially, it was transmitted to the ruling class and attracted little attention from the general population, since it competed with the indigenous Shinto religion. When a temple complex was constructed in Nara, the capital at that time, and the central government promulgated the new religion, seeing in it a means for supporting their idea of a centralized nation-state, it began its popular spread. The government instituted a system for controlling the religion by establishing a state-supported monastery (kokobunji) and nunnery (kokobunniji) in every province and financing the construction of the Todai-ji Temple in Nara with its massive bronze image of Buddha seated in meditation. This time is known as the Nara Period (646-794). As Kazuo Kasahara writes, “Buddhism greatly impressed the Japanese with its beautiful rituals, elegantly inscribed sutras, monumental temples and pagodas, and splendid statues” (A History of Japanese Religion, p. 47). It also conveyed to the Japanese a level of culture which they had not previously known. Since six different schools of Buddhism — Hosso, Sanron, Kegon, Jojitsu, Kusha, and Ritsu — were introduced, the Japanese emphasized the “simultaneous study of all six schools,” seeking to understand their inner spirit as well as their outer form. The Hosso school taught the “consciousness only” (Sk. vijñaptimatrata) philosophy started in India by Arya Asanga and Vasubandhu. Sanron was the Japanese form of Pure Land Buddhism. Kegon was based on the Avatasaka (“Flower Garland”) Sutra (Kegon-kyo in Japanese) which taught that separateness is an illusion and all living things can become a Buddha. Jojitsu and Kusha were Theravada forms of Buddhist realism. Ritsu was based on the Theravada Abhidharmako sa.
When the capital was moved to Heian-kyo in 794, the nobility sent monks to China to import new forms of Buddhism. As a result, Saicho (767-822) founded the Tendai sect (based on the Lotus Sutra) and Kukai (774-835) founded the Shingon (“True Word”) sect which held that truth is inherent in all beings. These became the basis of Buddhism during the Heian Period (794-1185). Saicho established a training center at the Enryaku-ji temple on Mount Hiei on the outskirts of Kyoto and instituted there a 12-year ascetic regimen for training priests. This proved too difficult for the majority of candidates and many returned to secular life, assisting the spread of Buddhism to the general population. Some Nara-period priests had retired to mountain temples, devoting themselves to practices, often Taoist in origin, which awakened in them paranormal powers. This movement, termed “mountain Buddhism,” impressed the common people but was condemned and persecuted by the government because those monks considered themselves outside government control.
Japanese Buddhism experienced a resurgence during the Kamakura Period (1185-1336) largely due to five remarkable monks: Honen (1133-1212), Shinran (1173-1262), Eisai (1141-1215), Dogen (1200-1253), and Nichiren (1222-1282). All went to Mount Hiei to study; Eisei and Dogen also went to China to seek new forms of practice. Honen and Shinran chose to practice the nembutsu (repetition of “namu amida butsu,” i.e., “Homage to Amida Buddha) of Pure Land (Japanese Jodo) Buddhism. In fact, Shinran, a disciple of Honen, abandoned the monastic life and married, seeking to demonstrate that enlightenment can be attained while living in the everyday world. (His school is known as Jodo Shin.) Eisai and Dogen founded sects of Zen (Chinese Ch’an), Eisei the Rinzai (Chinese Lin-chi) sect and Dogen the Soto (Chinese Ts’ao-tung) Sect. The former, also known as “sudden enlightenment” is noted for its use of the enigmatic koan (Chinese k’ung-an,’ lit. “public case”); the latter is known as “gradual enlightenment” and emphasizes zazen (”just sitting” meditation). Nichiren, after adhering to and later abandoning several different systems, including Pure Land which he later severely criticized, settled on the Lotus Sutra as the basis of his sect which included women priests.
Prior to WWII, many of the forms of Buddhism in Japan had been in decline. In recent years, there has been a revival of interest, particularly in Zen, which appeals to those intellectuals influenced by Western thought. There is also devotion to the female bodhisattva, Kannon (Chinese Kwan Yin) notably in the village of Ofuna, where the lovely shrine, erected in an effort to forestall the rising militarism prior to WWII, is built in the image of Kannon. Unfortunately, there is very little discussion of Japanese Buddhism in theosophical literature, despite the fact that Col. Henry S. OLCOTT twice visited Japan (Feb 9-May 28, 1889 and October 28-November 10, 1891) in his effort to both study, revive, and unify Buddhism.