Japan is home to not one, but two religions, Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples often stand side by side, and the Japanese see no inconsistency worshiping the Buddha and the many Shinto kami with virtually the same breath. After nearly 1500 years, they are deeply, culturally interconnected – though that was the result of a long, complex process known as shin-butsu shugo (Shinto-Buddhism coalescence).
In some ways, Shinto and Buddhism are very different: Shinto, the animist prehistoric cult, was born and has always lived only in Japan; Buddhism came from India via China and has spread all over the world. Shinto observes what it has always been – nature – and doesn’t much change its form; Buddhism has developed many different schools of thought, from Pure Land to Zen to Shingon and others.
Shinto is a combination of the Chinese words shen (gods) and tao (a way, or path), thus the Way of the Gods. Shinto has gods (or spirits) to spare, many with very distinct personalities. Chief among them are Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess who is regarded as the divine ancestor of the Imperial family, O-Inari-sama, the god of rice harvests, and Hachiman, the Shinto god of war.
But kami are not exactly gods; they are spirits of nature that want to help humans be happy. All they desire is some devotion and attention. For most Japanese, that devotion is limited to the local kami of their home, neighborhood, forest or hill. Shinto is a local, domestic religion.
Shinto has no scriptures, no central profession of faith, no leader, no holiest place, nor even a concept of an afterlife. One does not need to be a “member” of a Shinto group; it is just there, for everyone. Shinto does not see human beings as “fallen” or “sinful,” but merely as needing occasional guidance from the kami. Shinto concerns staying in harmony with the world, not escaping it, and the main purpose of Shinto ritual is to keep the human soul in balance with the spirits of the natural world.
Shinto worships many gods and spirits – as an animist religion, Shinto sees god in everything, sometimes in specific places or natural features, like a waterfall or tree. When a particular natural object is said to have a spirit (kami), it is often marked, sometimes with a strip of white paper, or the shimenawa, a braided straw rope that is tied around a tree with a kami.
You will know you are at a Shinto site by the presence, not just of shimenawa, but by the bold, upright gates known as torii. These simple, distinctive structures – two uprights topped by curved cross-beams – are everywhere in Japan. They symbolize the gateway between the natural world and the spiritual world, and serve as daily reminders of the interconnection between the two.
Shinto is at the root of Japan’s most distinctive cultural expressions, especially the desire for balance and harmony with nature that underlies such arts as Ikebana, architecture and garden design.
Buddhism, by contrast, came to the archipelago much later, in the sixth century BCE, brought by the same Chinese and Korean monks who brought Chinese language and kanjis, art and architecture, and such staples as tea. The Buddha (“Enlightened One”) himself, who was born and lived in India in the 6th century BCE under the name Gautama Siddhartha, is known to Japanese as Shakamuni or O-Shaka-sama.
Buddhism has many scripts, a priestly caste that studies the ancient scriptures, and ethical lessons from the Buddha to be learned and followed; Buddhism is not entirely unlike Shinto in this respect, which is perhaps why they coexist so well.
Buddhism, in its purest forms, has no God per se, though like Christianity, followers have turned the original prophet into a god, and grafted many older gods and spirits onto it. Buddhism is the religion of ethics and transcendence, with disciplines and methods such as meditation designed to free the Buddhist from the worldly trappings of ego.
The form of Buddhism that arrived in Japan in the 6th century BCE is Mahayana, or the Great Vehicle, Buddhism, which is also dominant in China and Korea. Therevada Buddhism is the form practiced in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and other South Asia countries. Zen Buddhism arrived in Japan, again from China, in the 12th century, and quickly became popular. A form of Buddhism that promises an afterlife to followers is Jodo-shu or “Pure Land” Buddhism, in which devotion and prayer to the God Amida will take the deceased to the “pure land” or the Western Paradise, aka heaven.
Buddhism and Shinto have coexisted since the arrival of Buddhism all those years ago, as the newer religion tried to impose itself on the native religion, much as Christianity was added to earlier local religions, from England to Brazil. But there has been conflict over the centuries, even as recently as the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the modernizing Emperor Meiji tried to create a state religion by separating the interloper (Buddhism) from the more ancient and native Shinto.
But after 1,500 years in the same culture, Buddhism and Shinto are woven together in a particularly Japanese way, and most Japanese have no problem observing both religions, albeit for different reasons: While weddings are usually performed under Shinto auspices, funerals are almost always a Buddhist affair, to the point that even many Japanese have occasional trouble telling where Buddhism ends and Shinto begins. As interesting as it is, visitors need not worry too much about being clear on the distinction.