Buddhism has, in 2500 years, taken many different forms. Spread over most of the Asian continent, it changed from a philosophy to a religion as it traveled from India, where it was born in roughly the fifth century, BCE. As it entered Sri Lanka, Tibet, China, Burma, Thailand and other nations over many centuries, it developed in ways congruent with those cultures.
Buddhism reached Japan via China and Korea, but even before it got to Japan, Buddhism had split into two main sects, Theravada or “The Teachings of the Elders” and Mahayana, or “The Great Vehicle.” The former spread more to the south and east, through Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and as far as Bali, while the latter spread more to the north and east, to Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea, Vietnam and ultimately, Japan.
The differences between the two branches are much less antagonistic than, say, the historic clashes between Shia and Sunni Islam or Catholic and Protestant Christianity, but there are differences. Theravada is fundamental and thinks of itself as being truest to the Buddha’s teachings, whereas Mahayana is a great umbrella over a variety of sects and schools, from Tantra to Pure Land to Chan (Zen) Buddhism.
When Mahayana Buddhism arrived in Japan in the sixth century CE, the archipelago already had a native religion, Shinto, and the relationship between the two has been alternatively harmonious and fraught ever since, depending on many things, especially politics. Buddhism had a particularly hard time of it as recently only 150 years ago, during the Meiji Restoration, when the restoration of the Imperial family to power led many (including the Emperor Meiji) to denounce Buddhism.
But Buddhism has survived in its several forms, less the result of splits as of refinements. The two forms that came intact from China, and remain the forms one is most likely to encounter in Japan, are Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. (To make things even more confusing, Pure Land Buddhism has itself split into two forms, Orothodox and Shin (True) Pure Land Buddhism. But for clarity’s sake, we’ll stay with general descriptions of the two main schools.)
The basis of Pure Land Buddhism is devotion. In this way, it is the more traditionally religious expression of the teachings of the Buddha, who did not talk about gods or promise heaven (or hell). Buddha was, if anything, a philosopher who had found a secret to understanding life; he never claimed divinity. But Pure Land Buddhism would sound somewhat familiar to devotees of Islam and Christianity: the basic idea is to show one’s devotion to what has been named Amida Buddha, the Celestial Buddha. (This Buddha is said to actually be based on an entirely different historical person, a monk called Dharmakāra, rather than the traditional Buddha, who was a prince known as Siddhartha.) Through devotion – prayer, chanting Amida Buddha’s name and other acts of devotion, one is assured one’s place in the Pure Land, or Western Heaven or, as Westerners of any religious stripe would call it: Heaven.
In Pure Land, moreover, one’s own work and deeds have no impact on one’s salvation. All that matters in one’s devotion to Amida Buddha. Thus, in Pure Land, which was brought to Japan by a man named Honen in the 12th Century CE, the way to salvation (heaven) was not through philosophy or meditation, but by “behaving themselves like simple-minded folk.” Likewise, the only practice required of Pure Land devotees is the recitation of the words “Namu Amida Butsu (homage to Amida Buddha).” Any other practice is seen as a sign of a lack of devotion to the Amida Buddha.
Zen (Chinese “Chan”) Buddhism, by contrast, is more austere, with many more practices and conceptual pursuits. It is also more in the here-and-now, and would thus seem to be a return of sorts to the Buddha’s original teachings. Buddha, after all, promised no afterlife, no paradise or heaven, and made no claim to being anything other than an enlightened man who had simply discovered the truth of reality – all suffering comes from desire, and to be free one must free oneself from desire – and gave ways to do that.
One key way was, in a word, meditation. Rather than chanting in a devotional prayer to a deity, the student of Zen sits quietly, probing inward to find his “true nature,” which is, in Zen teaching, nothingness. The great difficulty of doing this gave rise to many schools of Zen, as well as some of Japan’s greatest arts and works of philosophy. That is because, while inquiry also plays a role, there is a clear understanding in Zen that no concept or explanation can deliver the realization that is satori, or “enlightenment.” This has allowed Zen to travel farther in the modern West, where it can be fused with other religious or even non-religious belief systems.
But both forms of Buddhism are important in Japan and Japanese culture, for together, they offer two different ways – the path of the heart and the path of the head – to the same goal.