Shinbutsu shugo

From New World Encyclopedia
Foxes sacred to Shinto kami Inari, a torii, a Buddhist tower, and Buddhist figures together at Jōgyō-ji, Kamakura

Shinbutsu shūgō (Japanese for the "fusion of kami and Buddhas") refers to a form of cultural-religious syncretism that arose in Japan, which blends Buddhist practices with the local religious rituals of Shintoism. When Buddhism was introduced into Japan through China in the late Asuka period (sixth century), the Japanese tried to reconcile it with their old belief system, Shintoism, assuming both were true. As a consequence, Buddhist temples were attached to local deity shrines and vice versa. The depth of the resulting influence of Buddhism on the local religion can be seen for example in the fact that the common type of shrine seen today, with a large worship hall and images, is itself of Buddhist origin and not indigenous Shinto.

Shinbutsu shūgō represents an effort to harmonize the rituals and practices of two different world religions, which reflects the Asian emphasis on the interconnectedness of nature and the cosmos.


The relationship between Buddhism and Shintoism in Japan is complex and at least two distinct views on Japanese history can be adduced: On the one hand, the Shinto establishment states that Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan and that it has existed as such continuously since pre-history.[1]The term "Shinto" itself was coined in the sixth century to differentiate the loosely organized local religion from imported Buddhism.[1] This is the concept normally accepted by most Japanese historians.[2] On the other one finds the position of Japanese specialist Toshio Kuroda (and his supporters) who, in a famous article ("Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion," published in English in 1981) has argued that Shinto as an independent religion was born only in the modern period after emerging in the Middle Ages as an offshoot of Buddhism.[3] Kuroda's main argument is that Shinto, as a distinct religion, is a Meiji era invention of Japanese nationalist ideologues. He contends that the state formalization of kami rituals and the state ranking of shrines during the Heian period were not the emergence of Shinto as an independent religion, but an effort to explain local beliefs in Buddhist terms. He adds that despite the fact that the two characters for "Shinto" appear very early in the historical record, for example in the Nihon Shoki, it does not mean that today's Shinto already existed as a religion because the characters were originally used as a name for Daoism or even for religion in general. Indeed, according to Kuroda many features of Shinto, for example the worshiping of mirrors and swords or the very structure of Ise Shrine (Shinto's holiest and most important site) are typical of Daoism.[2] The term "Shinto" in old texts, therefore, does not necessarily indicate something uniquely Japanese.[4]

According to the first view, then, the two religions were at the time of their first meeting already formed and independent and thereafter coexisted and fused, while, according to the second view, Buddhist interaction with local beliefs in Japan, actually produced today's Shinto. In either case, it can be said that the fusion of Buddhism with the local kami in Japan, provoked a strong reaction as seen by Mononobe no Okoshi's statement that, "The kami of our land will be offended if we worship a foreign kami."[5]

In other words, Mononobe saw Buddha as just another kami, and not as a different kind of God possibly different in nature from his own.[5] Foreign kami were called banshin (蕃神 "barbarian gods") or busshin (仏神 "Buddhist gods"), and understood to be more or less like local ones.[6] Initially, therefore, the conflict between the two religions was political, and not religious, in nature, a struggle between the progressive Soga clan, that wanted a more international outlook for the country, and the conservative Mononobe clan, that wanted the contrary.[5]

Buddhism was not passive in the process, but was itself ready to assimilate and be assimilated. By the time it entered Japan it was already syncretic, having adapted to and amalgamated with other religions and cultures in India, China and Korea.[6] Already while flourishing in India, it had absorbed Hindu divinities like Brahma (Bonten in Japanese) and Indra (Taishakuten).[6] When it arrived in Japan, it already had a disposition towards producing the combinatory gods that the Japanese would call shūgōshin (習合神). Searching for the origins of a kami in Buddhist scriptures was felt to be nothing out of the ordinary.[6]

However, if Buddhist monks doubted the existence of many kami, they certainly saw them as inferior to their Buddhas.[7] Hindu gods had already been treated analogously: they had been thought of as unilluminated prisoners of samsara (cycle of rebirth). Buddhist claims of superiority encountered resistance, and monks tried to overcome them by deliberately integrating kami in their system. Several strategies to do this were developed and deployed.[7]


The process of historical amalgamation of Buddhism and Shintoism is usually divided in three stages:[2]

  • The first articulation of the difference between Japanese religious ideas and Buddhism, and the first effort to reconcile the two is attributed to Prince Shōtoku (574 - 622), and the first signs that the differences between the two world views were beginning to become manifest to the Japanese in general appear at the time of Emperor Temmu (673 - 686).[5] Accordingly, one of the first efforts to reconcile Shinto and Buddhism was made in the eight century during the Nara period founding so-called jungūji (神宮寺), that is "shrine-temples."[8] Behind the inclusion in a Shinto shrine of Buddhist religious objects was the idea that the kami were lost beings in need of liberation through the power of Buddha.[8] Kami were thought to be subject to karma and reincarnation like human beings, and early Buddhist stories tell how that the task of helping suffering kami was assumed by wandering monks. A local kami would appear in a dream to the monk, telling him about his suffering. To improve the kami's karma through rites and the reading of sutras, the monk would build a temple next to the kami's shrine. Such groupings were created already in the seventh century, for example in Usa, Kyūshū,[7] where kami Hachiman was worshiped together with Miroku Bosatsu (Maitreya). The building of temples at shrines produced shrine-temples complexes, which in turn accelerated the amalgamation process.[2]
  • The second stage of the amalgamation occurred at the end of the same century when the kami Hachiman was declared to be protector-deity of the Dharma and a little bit later a bodhisattva. Shrines for them started to be built at temples, marking an important step ahead in the process of amalgamation of kami and Buddhist cults.[2] When the great Buddha at Tōdai-ji in Nara was built, within the temple grounds was also erected a shrine for Hachiman, according to the legend because of a wish expressed by the kami himself. Hachiman considered this his reward for having helped the temple find the gold and copper mines from which the metal for the great statue had come.[7] After this, temples in the entire country adopted tutelary kami (chinju (鎮守/鎮主).[2]
  • The third and final stage of the fusion took place in the ninth century with the development of the honji suijaku (本地垂迹) theory according to which Japanese kami are emanations of buddhas, bodhisattvas or devas who mingle with us to lead us to the Buddhist Way. Many kami changed then from potentially dangerous spirits to be improved through contact with the Buddhist law to local emanations of buddhas and bodhisattvas which possess their wisdom.[2] The buddhas and the kami were now indivisible.[8] In 1868, with the Shinbutsu Bunri (the attempt for a separation of Shinto and Buddhism during the Meiji period), temples and shrines were separated by law with the Shinto and Buddhism Separation Order (神仏判然令 Shinbutsu Hanzenrei), the former functioning for Buddhism, the latter for Shinto. However, in spite of more than a century of formal separation of the two religions, temples or shrines that do not separate them are still common, as proven for example by the existence of some important Buddhist Inari temples.[9] Most temples still have at least one small shrine.[2] Even prominent religious institutions in both camps still give evidence of integration of the two religions. The great Kenchō-ji temple, number one of Kamakura's great Zen temples (the Kamakura Gozan) includes two shrines. One of the islands in the right-side pond of Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū shrine in Kamakura hosts a sub-shrine dedicated to goddess Benzaiten, a Buddhist deity.[10] For this reason, the sub-shrine was removed in 1868 at the time of the Shinbutsu Bunri, but rebuilt in 1956.[10]

The separation of the two religions must therefore be considered superficial, and shinbutsu shūgō still an accepted practice. Nevertheless, a difference between the two religions is now felt to exist. Shinto scholar Karen Smyers comments:

The surprise of many of my informants regarding the existence of Buddhist Inari temples shows the success of the government's attempt to create separate conceptual categories regarding sites and certain identities, although practice remains multiple and nonexclusive.[11]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Joseph Kitagawa, On Understanding Japanese Religion (Princeton University Press, 1987, ISBN 978-0691102290), 139.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 John Breen and Mark Teuween (eds.), Shinto in History: Ways of the Kami (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000, ISBN 978-0824823634).
  3. Fabio Rambelli, Dismantling stereotypes surrounding Japan's sacred entities Japan Times (July 15, 2001) Review of John Breen and Mark Teuween (eds.), Shinto in History: Ways of the Kami. Retrieved December 31, 2023.
  4. Toshio Kuroda and James Dobbins, Suzanne Gray, "Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion," Journal of Japanese Studies (1981): 7. Society for Japanese Studies. (in English)
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Yoshiro Tamura, "The Birth of the Japanese nation," Japanese Buddhism - A Cultural History, First Ed. (in English) (Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Company, 2000, ISBN 4333016843), 26-33.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Teruyoshi Yonei and Satō Masato, Combinatory Kami, Encyclopedia of Shinto. Retrieved December 31, 2023.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Bernhard Scheid, Honji suijaku: Die Angleichung von Buddhas und Kami. University of Vienna. Retrieved December 31, 2023. (in German)
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Satō Makoto, Shinto and Buddhism Encyclopedia of Shintoism. Retrieved December 31, 2023.
  9. Toyokawa Inari Let's Explore Toyokawa. Retrieved December 31, 2023.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Michinori Kamiya, Fukaku Aruku - Kamakura Shiseki Sansaku Vol. 1. (Kamakura: Kamakura Shunshūsha, 2012, ISBN 4774005800), 18-19. (in Japanese)
  11. Karen Ann Smyers, The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999, ISBN 0824821025), 219.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Breen, John, and Mark Teuween (eds.). Shinto in History: Ways of the Kami. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0824823634
  • Kamiya, Michinori. Fukaku Aruku - Kamakura Shiseki Sansaku Vol. 1. Kamakura: Kamakura Shunshūsha, 2012. ISBN 4774005800 (in Japanese)
  • Kitagawa, Joseph. On Understanding Japanese Religion. Princeton University Press, 1987. ISBN 978-0691102290
  • Kuroda, Toshio and James Dobbins, Suzanne Gray, "Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion," Journal of Japanese Studies (1981). (in English), Society for Japanese Studies.
  • Mason, R.H.P, and J.G. Caiger. A history of Japan. Tuttle Publishing; Revised ed., 1997 (original 1972). ISBN 080482097X
  • Matsunaga, Alicia. The Buddhist Philosophy of Assimilation: The Historical Development of the Honji-Siujaku Theory. Tokyo: Sophia University and Tuttle Co., 1969.
  • Scheid, Bernhard, Honji suijaku: Die Angleichung von Buddhas und Kami. University of Vienna. Retrieved December 31, 2023. (in German) Relies heavily on information from Alicia Matsunaga, 1969.
  • Smyers, Karen Ann. The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999. ISBN 0824821025
  • Tamura, Yoshiro. "The Birth of the Japanese nation", Japanese Buddhism - A Cultural History, First Ed. (in English), Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Company, 2000. ISBN 4333016843
  • Teeuwen, Mark, and Fabio Rambelli (eds). Buddhas and Kami in Japan: Honji Suijaku as a Combinatory Paradigm. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002. ISBN 978-0415297479

External Links

All links retrieved December 31, 2023.


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