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Home » CURIOSITIES » Culture & Society » Buddhism and Shinto

Buddhism and Shinto

Have you ever wondered about the rich tapestry of religions that make up the spiritual landscape of Japan? Japan is a country with a rich cultural heritage, and two of the most prominent religions in the country are Buddhism and Shinto.

These distinct yet harmonious practices have coexisted for over a thousand years, shaping the country’s cultural heritage and spiritual traditions.


Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 6th century and has since become an integral part of Japanese culture. Buddhism was brought to Japan from China and Korea (via India), and it quickly gained popularity among the ruling class.

Over time, Buddhism in Japan has evolved into various schools and traditions, each with its own unique practices and beliefs. The religion emphasizes the importance of meditation and the Eightfold Path to achieve enlightenment. Buddhist temples can be found throughout Japan, and they are often visited by people seeking inner peace and spiritual guidance.

Buddah - Tōdai-ji temple in Nara
Buddah – Tōdai-ji temple in Nara

Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path is a set of guidelines in Buddhism that are meant to help individuals achieve enlightenment and liberation from suffering. It consists of eight interconnected steps or practices that are meant to be followed in a sequential order.

These steps are: Right Understanding, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

Each step is meant to build upon the previous one, and together they form a comprehensive path towards spiritual development and liberation.

Right View: This step involves understanding the Four Noble Truths, which are the foundation of Buddhist teachings. It involves seeing the world as it really is, without delusion or distortion.

Right Intention: This step involves having the right intentions and motivations, such as renouncing worldly desires and cultivating compassion and kindness.

Right Speech: This step involves speaking truthfully and kindly, avoiding harmful speech such as lying, gossiping, or speaking harshly.

Right Action: This step involves acting ethically and morally, avoiding harmful actions such as killing, stealing, or engaging in sexual misconduct.

Right Livelihood: This step involves earning a living in a way that is ethical and does not harm others.

Right Effort: This step involves making a consistent effort to cultivate positive qualities such as mindfulness, concentration, and compassion.

Right Mindfulness: This step involves being aware of one’s thoughts, feelings, and surroundings in the present moment, without judgment or distraction.

Right Concentration: This step involves developing the ability to focus the mind and achieve deep states of concentration through meditation.

The Eightfold Path is often depicted as a wheel, with each step representing a spoke on the wheel, and the entire path leading towards the center, which represents enlightenment.

Buddhist Dharma Wheel
Buddhist Dharma Wheel

These guidelines are not meant to be followed in a strict linear order, but rather as a set of interconnected guidelines that work together to help individuals achieve enlightenment.

By following the Eightfold Path, individuals can cultivate positive qualities and overcome negative habits and tendencies, ultimately leading to a state of inner peace and liberation from suffering.

Buddhism schools in Japan

Buddhism in Japan is characterized by various schools and traditions, including Zen, Pure Land, Nichiren and Shingon Buddhism. Some of the most common are:

Tendai: is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that was founded in Japan in the 9th century. This is the largest and most diverse form of Buddhism, and it is practiced primarily in East Asia, including countries such as China, Japan, and Korea. It emphasizes the concept of compassion and the idea that all beings have the potential to achieve enlightenment.

Zen: is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that was introduced to Japan in the 12th century. This is a form of Buddhism that is practiced primarily in Japan, but also in other parts of East Asia. It emphasizes the practice of meditation and mindfulness, and it is known for its minimalist aesthetic and focus on direct experience.

Jodo: is a school of Pure Land Buddhism that was founded in Japan in the 12th century. This is a form of Buddhism that is practiced primarily in East Asia, including countries such as China, Japan, and Korea. It emphasizes the worship of Amitabha Buddha and the attainment of rebirth in the Pure Land.

Nichiren: is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that was founded in Japan in the 13th century. It emphasizes the Lotus Sutra and the chanting of the phrase “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” as a means of attaining enlightenment.

Shingon: is a school of Vajrayana Buddhism that was introduced to Japan in the 9th century. This is a form of Buddhism that emphasizes the use of mantras, mudras, and visualization practices to achieve enlightenment. It is primarily practiced in Japan.

These are just a few of the major Buddhist schools in Japan, and there are many other smaller schools and sects as well. Each school of Buddhism has its own unique practices and beliefs, and they are practiced in different parts of the world. However, they all share a common goal of achieving enlightenment and liberation from suffering.

Monk statue
Monk statue


Shinto, on the other hand, has remained largely unchanged over the centuries, with its practices and beliefs deeply rooted in Japanese culture and history.

Shinto is believed to be the indigenous religion of Japan and emphasizes the importance of living in harmony with nature and all living things, considering everything in the natural world to be a kami or god.

Shinto rituals often involve purification, offerings, and prayers to the kami. Some common rituals include washing hands and mouth before entering a shrine, bowing and clapping to show respect, and offering food or sake to the kami.

Shinto has had a significant influence on Japanese culture and society, and many aspects of Japanese life are still influenced by Shinto beliefs and practices. For example, many Japanese weddings and other ceremonies incorporate Shinto rituals.

Shinto shrines, like the iconic Fushimi Inari dedicated to the Inari God of rice, can be found in every corner of Japan and they often visited by people seeking blessings for their families and businesses. Here, you’ll encounter kitsune (foxes), considered to be God’s messengers, and experience the awe-inspiring power of these sacred sites.

Fushimi Inari Taisha
Fushimi Inari Taisha

Shinto festivals (matsuri)

Shinto festivals, or matsuri, are an important part of Shinto worship and are held throughout the year to honor the kami and celebrate the changing seasons. Some of the most important festivals include:

Setsubun: is a festival held on February 3rd to mark the beginning of spring. During the festival, people throw roasted soybeans to drive away evil spirits and bring good luck for the coming year.

Hina matsuri: also known as the Doll Festival, is held on March 3rd to celebrate the health and happiness of young girls. Families display a set of dolls representing the emperor, empress, and their court, and offer food and sake to the dolls.

Tanabata: is a festival held on July 7th to celebrate the meeting of two lovers, represented by the stars Vega and Altair. People write wishes on strips of paper and hang them on bamboo branches, and enjoy traditional foods and fireworks.

Obon: is a festival held in mid-August to honor the spirits of ancestors. Families clean and decorate graves, and offer food and drink to the spirits. Bon dances, which are traditional dances performed in a circle, are also a popular part of the festival.

Shichi-Go-San: is a held on November 15th to celebrate the growth and well-being of children. Boys aged three and five, and girls aged three and seven, visit Shinto shrines dressed in traditional clothing and receive blessings from the kami.

Temizuya in Kyoto
Temizuya in Kyoto

Shinto festivals are open to the public, and many Japanese people participate in these festivals as a way to connect with their cultural heritage and express their devotion to the kami. They offer a chance to celebrate the changing seasons, honor ancestors, and seek good fortune and blessings for the coming year.

Visitors to Japan can also participate in these festivals and experience the unique traditions and customs of Shinto worship.  Many festivals also feature traditional foods, music, and dances, making them a fun and festive way to experience Japanese culture.

Main differences between Buddhism and Shinto

So… what is the difference exactly? Well, Shinto is animistic (a belief that regards all things, including inanimate objects, as possessing a spirit or soul) and polytheistic (the worship of multiple deities), while Buddhism is monotheistic (the worship of a single deity), and has established rules and doctrines that guide its followers’ beliefs and practices. These doctrines can be traced back to the Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama.

Shinto festivals celebrate the changing seasons and honor the kami, while Buddhist festivals honor ancestors and offer prayers for their well-being.

Also, Shinto shrines are typically simple structures located in natural settings, while Buddhist temples are often large, ornate structures located in urban areas.

Itsukushima shrine in Miyajima
Itsukushima shrine in Miyajima

2 become 1

Despite their differences, Buddhism and Shinto have coexisted in Japan for centuries and have influenced each other in various ways. Both religions place a strong emphasis on the concept of purity, and both have a deep connection to nature.

However, Buddhism is more focused on individual enlightenment and the attainment of Nirvana, while Shinto places a strong emphasis on the worship of ancestors and the natural world.

Many Japanese people practice both religions simultaneously, and it is not uncommon to see Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines located near each other.

Statues of Buddhist deities at Daisho-in temple, Miyajima
Statues of Buddhist deities at Daisho-in temple, Miyajima

Travelling to Japan

As a traveller who has experienced the beauty and serenity of Buddhist temples and the tranquility of Shinto shrines, I can say that both religions have a profound impact on Japanese culture and society.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a religious person, you can still benefit from the peaceful traditions and practices of Japan’s religions. Buddhism and Shinto offer unique and meaningful ways to explore spirituality in Japan. These practices can help individuals cultivate mindfulness, reduce stress, and find inner peace.

Whether you’re interested in the peaceful practices of Zen Buddhism or the vibrant festivals of Shinto, Japan’s spiritual traditions offer a fascinating blend of ancient and modern practices for those seeking to explore its rich cultural heritage.

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