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Buddhist Gods, Temples and Monks in Japan

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by Jeffrey Hays

Buddhist Gods in Japan

a person dressed as Benzaiten There are hundreds of gods in the Buddhist pantheon. Many have been borrowed from the Hindu pantheon to serve a particular purpose in Buddhist cosmology. Some have a humanlike appearance. Others look like monsters. Many have multiple arms and heads and hold various objects and display certain body positions and hand gestures that have symbolic meaning. At temples some serve as guardians and protectors at the entrance gates. Images found in temples vary according to sect and the period in which the temple was constructed. Gods, goddesses, and other celestial being tend to play a bigger role in Mahayana Buddhism than Theravada Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism introduced a number of female deities.

Bodhisattvas are sort of like the equivalent of Buddhist "saints" and are especially important in Mahayana Buddhism. To Mahayana Buddhists they are "near Buddhas" or “enlightened persons” on the verge of nirvana who purposely stopped short of attaining it, so, like Buddha, they could teach their method to others and help humanity move towards enlightenment. Bodhi means “enlightenment” and sattva means “being.”

Many gods in Japan have both non-Japanese origins. Hotei, one of the seven gods of good luck, is the god of happiness. A common symbol throughout Asia, he is jolly fellow with a big grin, pot belly and a bag sack. His ancestors can be traced back to a real human being, a Chinese monk associated with the Chinese sect that gave birth to Zen Buddhism. Hotei is a bit like a year-round Santa Claus, traveling around the countryside with his sack, giving food and necessities to the poor and needy and giving out presents to those who deserve them. Benzaiten, another one of the seven gods of good luck, is the goddess of art. Wise and skilled in painting and writing, she carries a biwa (mandolin) and is often escorted by a sea snake. Originally a spirit of flowing water with her roots in India, she is the patron saint of musicians and performers. Shrines for her with images of snakes are often set up near ponds.


Bishamon is the god of war and the protector of Buddhism, scared mountains, temples and cities. Usually depicted with a helmet, suit of armor and spear, he was originally a folk god in India and was adopted by Buddhism. He is often found at the north gate or entrance of a building and is skilled at turning away evil spirits that cause poverty and bring bad luck.


Important gods and Bodhisattvas in Japan include Kannon, the 1,000-armed, 11-faced goddess of mercy; Jizo (often portrayed with children in his arms), a Bodhisattva who helps children and travelers; Fudo Myoo, a protector against danger and king of wisdom; Yakushi (Bhaisajaguru), the healer of the mind and body; and Amida (literally meaninginfinite light” or “infinite life”), the Buddha of the Western Paradise.

Bato Kannon, Horsehead Kannon, is a manifestation of Kannon often depicted in small stone statues of Kannon with a horse popping out of her hair or headdress. She specializes in caring for the souls of animals and other nonhuman creatures. The god of thunder is portrayed as a snake.

The worship of Kannon flourished during the Nara Period (710-784) and Heian period (794-1192) — when a great number of temples devoted to Kannon were built in part because of the belief that constructing giant temples helped people enter heaven. Kannon worship is believed to have been imported from China or Korea in the late 6th century in the Asuka Period (538-710).


Jizo is a patron for travelers and children. He helps children build walls in the underworld and is associated in Japan with helping aborted fetuses and children who died young. According to tradition, Jizo was an Indian monk who became a Bodhisattva. In India he was known by a different name. There is no evidence that he ever had a large following there. In China he gained a reputation for being compassionate and helping people to avoid reincarnation as terrible beasts.


Jizo didn’t develop a large following until he arrived in Japan. His association with rescuing people from unfortunate births was focused on children who died in the hope that they would have good afterlives. Jizo developed a particularly large following among women, who placed statues of him along roadsides and in Buddhist temples. Over time statues of Jizo changed from large ones of a dignified man to small ones of childlike man with a bald head. When abortions became commonplace in Japan places on hillsides were set aside for thousands of jizo statues.

Jizo statues for children usually wear red bid and are decorated with clothing and items such as toys associated with children. Often small piles of stones can be found near the figures. Jizo statues comes in several variations, distinguished by the objects they hold in their hands under the bibs. Jizo also appears in a variety of avatars, including one in which he is a fierce victory god for warriors riding on a horse.

Jizo statues are often found in groups of six, each with their hands in a different mudra (position) and each linked to relieving the pain of residents of the six realms of Buddhist cosmology: 1) one holds his hands in a praying position next to his chest and is associated with the Amida Buddha and the realm of humans: 2) one holds a sacred jewel and holds his hand in the no fear mudra and is associated with deva living on Mt. Sumisen; 3) one holds a set of Buddhist rosary beads and is associated with the realm of the non-human creatures; 4) one holds a sacred jewel and a pilgrims staff and is associated with Ashura, the realm of the deities; 5) one holds an incense banner and is associated with hell; and 6) the last one holds an incense censer and is associated with the realm of the hungry spirits. The six statues are grouped to together because the people who placed them there may not know where their deceased loves ones are and thus say prayers to the entire universe and all realms to reach them.

Japanese Buddhist Temples

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There are 70,000 Buddhist temples in Japan. They are places of worship not shrines (sacred places for praying). Shrines are usually associated with Shintoism. A temple generally contains an image of Buddha and has a place where Buddhists practice devotional activities. Temples attract large crowds during festivals or if they are famous but otherwise a fairly quiet. They are often sought as places for quiet meditation, with most acts of worship and devotion being done in front of an altar at home.

Buddhist temples are generally clusters of buildings, whose number and size depends on the size of the temple. Large temples have several halls, where people can pray, and living quarters for monks. Smaller ones have a single hall, a house for a resident monk and a bell. Some have cemeteries.

The architecture of Buddhist temples is influenced by the architecture of Korea and China, the two countries that introduced Buddhism to Japan.

Early Japanese Buddhist temples consisted of pagodas, which were modeled after Chinese-style pagodas, which in turn were modeled after Indian stupas. Over time these pagodas became one building in a large temple complex with many buildings.

Buddhist temples built in the 7th century featured vermillion-painted columns and eaves supported and decorated with mythical beasts sculpted in "dry-lacquer" (layers of hemp cloth glued together and covered with lacquer) or guilt bronze. Unfortunately no original examples of this style of architecture remains. The earliest Buddhist paintings had a strong Indian influence.

Types of Buddhist Temples and Buildings in Japan

There are three main types of Buddhist Temples: 1) Japanese style (wayo), 2) Great Buddha style (daibutsuyo), and 3) Chinese style (karayo). These in turn vary according to the Buddhist school and the historical period in which they built.


The main hall (kondo or hondo) is usually found at the center of the temple grounds. Inside are images of the Buddha, other Buddhist images, an altar or altars with various objects and space for monks and worshipers. The main hall is sometimes connected to a lecture hall.

A monk at Mtizuzoin Temple in Tokyo told the Daily Yomiuri,“When people think of temple, they tend to think of it as a shadowy, scary kind of place. This is because temples have long been regarded as being associated with death. This stems from the fact that many people only visit the temple for Buddhist rites” for the dead.

Other buildings include a lecture hall (kodo), where monks gather to study and chant sutras; the sutra depository (kyozo), a place where Buddhist scripture are kept, and often shaped like a log cabin on stilts; living, sleeping, and eating areas for monks; and offices. Large temples often have special halls, where treasures are kept and displayed. Some have a pagoda. Many temples have small shops that sell religious items.

Features of Buddhist Temples in Japan

Japanese style pagodas have multiple stories, each with a graceful, tiled Chinese-style roof, and a top roof capped by a spire.

The central images in the main hall is often surrounded by burning incense sticks and offerings of fruit and flowers. Inside the temple there is one set of wooden plaques with the names of large contributors and another set the afterlife names of deceased people. In the old days the afterlife names were only given to Buddhist priests but over time they were given to lay people who paid enough money and now are almost used as ranking system in the after life.

Many Buddhist temples contain large bells, which are rung during the New Year and to mark other occasions, and cemeteries. Chion-in Temple in Kyoto contains the largest bell in Japan (a massive 74-ton bronze made in 1633). Ringing the massive bell requires 17 monks, 16 of them to raise the giant wooden hammer by pulling it away from the bell with hanging ropes, while the 17th monk rides the hammer, ready to push off with his legs in the split second before impact. The chime produced by the bell lasts for 20 minutes. When Albert Einstein visited Chion-in in 1922 he investigated the bell and said that the assertion that the bell was inaudible directly underneath it when it was struck was based on sound physics.

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Many temples use concrete that has been expertly camouflaged to look like wood. Near many Buddhist temples are stone Jizo figures with red bibs and a staff in one hand and a jewel in the other. They honor the souls of children who have died or been aborted.

Buddhist Images in Japan

There are four main types of Buddhist sculptures found in Buddhist temples, each conveying a different level of being in Buddhist cosmology: 1) Nyorai (“images of Buddha”); 2) bosatsu (“bodhisattvas”); 3) deities and spirits such as ten (“heavenly being or devas”) and nio (“guardian tens”); and 4) myoo (“kings of wisdom and light that serve as protectors of Buddhism”). The most common myoo, Fudo Myoo, is usually a menacing-looking holding an upright sword.

Bosatsu are distinguishable from nyorai by a more human like appearance and a top knot of hair or a crowed headpiece, sometimes with smaller figures in the crown. One of the most common bodhisattvas found in Japanese temples is Jizo, a bodhisattva who helps children and travelers. Kannon (Avalokitesvara) appears in 33 different manifestations, including the Goddess of Mercy, is also very popular, especially with pregnant mothers.

Nyorai images are recognizable by their simple robes, lump on the head (symbolizing wisdom) and "snail shell" curls of hair. Common images found in temples include 1) Shaka (the Historical Buddha), recognizable by one hand raised in a praying gesture; 2) Yakushi (the Healing Buddha), with one hand raised in the praying gesture and the other holding a vial of medicine; 3) Amita (Buddha of the Western Paradise), sitting down with the knuckles together in a meditative position; 4) Dainichi (the Cosmic Buddha), usually portrayed with in princely clothes, with one hand clasped around a raised a finger on the other hand (a sexual gesture indicating the unity of being; and Maitreya (Buddha of the Future).

Nyorai images are often depicted with two bodhisattvas in a triad configuration and/or are backed by a nimbus a (large wooden board with Buddha and other images carved or painted on them).


Temple Gates at Japanese Buddhist Temples

Buddhist temples usually have outer gates and inner gates protected by statues or paintings of beasts, fierce gods, or warriors that ward off evil spirits. The gateways are composed of wood, stone, bronze or even concrete. The beasts include Chinese lions and Korean dogs. Fierce guardian gods and warriors on the outer gate sometime have lighting bolts coming out of their nostrils and a serrated swords in their hands. Their duty is to keep demons and evil spirits out of the temple area.

The inner gate at the antechamber to the temple complex is often guarded by four guardian kings, representing the four cardinal directions. The king in the north holds a pagoda representing earth, heaven and cosmic axis. The king in the east holds a sword with the power to evoke a black wind that produces tens of thousands of spears and golden serpents. The king in the west possesses lute. And the king in the south holds a dragon and a wish-fulfilling jewel.

Some demon statues are covered with spitballs from worshipers who wrote prayers or petitions on pieces of paper, chewed them, and threw them on the demon statues in hope that the prayers would be answered. Usually they are fold paper.

Temple Rituals and Etiquette in Japan

Temples are places where people pray, meditate participate in religious ceremonies, make offerings, light incense and candles, offer food to monks, meditate alone or in groups, chant mantras, listen to monks chant mantras, attend lectures or discussions led by respected teachers . Individual may also seek counseling from monks on nuns on personal matters. Buddhists are not required to visit temples.

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One needs to take one's shoes off only if entering a temple. Hats should also be removed. Do not clap at Buddhist temples as you would at a Shinto shrine.

Praying is done by prostrating oneself or bowing with hands clasped from a standing or seated position in front of an image of Buddha. Prayers are usually made after tossing a coin into the saisen-bako (offering box). Offerings left at shrines include coins, apples, business cards,

Many Japanese visiting temples and shrines attach omiyuki folded paper fortunes to trees in the belief it will bring them good fortune. At some Buddhist temples visitors pay ¥300 for the privilege of writing the prayers on wooden rice spatulas.

Pilgrimages in Japan

19th century pilgrims Pilgrimages have traditionally been undertaken by people who hoped to receive a blessings from the gods in the form of good health, success in business, abundant harvests or some such thing. They were undertaken by people who visited certain shrine or temples or climbed specific mountains. In the old days, when there were rigid travel restrictions, pilgrimages provided the only means for villagers to escape from their villages and see the world.

In the old days pilgrims often walked long distances and traveled for a considerable period of time. They often carried little more than the clothes on their back, a walking stick and a few possessions worn in a clothe tied around their shoulders. They begged for food along the way. People willingly gave them food out of the belief that would earn merit and win favor from the gods the pilgrims were seeking out.

The Kumano Trail—a route used by pilgrims traveling from Kyoto and Ise to the famous shrines on the Kii Peninsula—became very popular in the 10th century among the aristocracy, with members of Imperial family sometimes taking part. One emperor made the trek 33 times, each time accompanied by an entourage of 1,000 retainers. In the 14th and 15th centuries the routes became popular with ordinary people. At one time so many participated in the journey it was called the "pilgrimage of ants." Many embarked on the a visit to the shrines in the belief that miraculous powers attributed to the Kumano sect would be passed on to them. The 370-kilometer route from Kyoto to Kumano Hongu Taisha was the most popular route. It took about a month to traverse. Reaching the other two shrines took longer.


Pilgrimages in Japan Today

he 88 Temples of Shikoku is a pilgrimage route popular today that consists of 88 temples scattered across the island of Shikoku that were visited by the famous monk Kobo Daishi (774-835), who founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism after a visit to China. By some accounts 200,000 pilgrims do the circuit a year. Some temples are only a few kilometers apart and five or six can be visited in a day. Others are more than 100 kilometers apart. To visit them all requires a trek of about 1,400 kilometers (870 miles). Many wear the traditional pilgrims outfits (a white robe and a conical straw hat) and carry a walking stick.

Most pilgrims visit most of the temples by tour bus on several visits over a long period of time. A few still do it on foot. They need at least 45 to 60 days. With a car all 88 can be visited in about 10 days. The pilgrims, known as henro, are treated with great reverence and hospitality, often given osettai, free lodging, food and in some cases cash.

There is nothing particularly extraordinary about the temples. The route is what matters. Completing the entire circuit is said to rid the soul of 88 evil desires defined by Buddhist doctrine. Much of the route is along narrow, sometimes busy road. There are several tunnels after Temple No. 222 that worry some pilgrims that they are going to get hit by a passing vehicle.When pilgrims visit the temples they submit notebooks or scrolls on which they receive a written certificate verifying their visit which features the name of the Temple and its principal Buddhist image, together with a vermillion seal. Each notebook entry cost ¥300; a scroll entry ¥500.

Buddhism, Death and Ancestor Worship in Japan

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Buddhism, death and ancestor worship are linked together in Japan. Buddhist priests spend much of their time presiding over funerals. Buddhist temples contain family butsudan, or sacred boxes, where ancestral tablets (thought to contain the spirits of dead ancestors) and written prayers are placed. Some temples also contain hundreds of small jizo statutes for the souls of aborted children. You can often see parents making offerings of toys or small clothes to these statues.

To pay respect to their deceased loved ones and ancestors Japanese leave offerings of red rice, sake and flowers and small markers that say "I WILL TAKE SHELTER IN THE LAND OF BUDDHA" at their graves. When pouring the sake over the grave they sometimes say things like "Oh, grandfather, you've had nothing to drink for so long. You must be very thirsty."

Some Buddhist temples conduct ancient bon dances in which the souls of the dead are welcomed and then sent to a place of greater peace.

Ancestor worship involves the belief that the dead live on as spirits and that it is the responsibility of their family members and descendants to make sure that are well taken care of. If they are not they may come back and cause trouble to those family members and descendants. Unhappy dead ancestors are greatly feared and every effort is made to make sure they are comfortable in the afterlife. Accidents and illnesses are often attributed to deeds performed by the dead and cures are often attempts to placate them. In some societies, people go out of their way to be nice to one another, especially older people, out of fear of the nasty things they might do when they die.

Ancestor worship is still very much alive today. Ancestors are generally honored and appeased with daily and seasonal offerings and rituals. It has been said spirituality emanates from the family not a church or temple. Pictures of dead relatives are featured on family alters in many homes, where religious rituals and prayers are regularly performed.

Buddhist Funerals, See People


Japanese Buddhist Monks

Although many Buddhist monks in Japan have shaved heads, wear traditional robes, eat vegetarian food and chant sutras like Buddhist monks elsewhere in Asia, others don't fit the image that most of us have of monks. They smoke and drink, drive around in BMWs or high-powered motorcycles, are married with children, and earn six figure dollar incomes by taking for themselves up to 90 percent of the fees charged for a blessing ($100 to $1,000) or for a funeral (about $1,500). [Source: Quentin Hardy, the Wall Street Journal]

Japanese Buddhist monks don’t have to be celibate. They often have wives who receive some training and participate in the running of a temple. Sometimes monkdom and priest hood is passed from father to son.

Some Buddhist groups even serve as matchmakers for their monks, In June 2009, the Koysan Shingon Buddhist sect said it was going to help monks and priests and single women affiliated with its temples to find spouses as part of an effort tp make sure the sect stays alive as it is having an increasingly hard time finding priest to manage its temples.

A monk in an "unassuming temple behind a gas station in the outskirts of Osaka" that talked to the Wall Street Journal in the late 1990s earned an annual salary of $72,000, plus about $19,500 for funerals and other ritual blessing. He had a wife, daughter and a mortgage he was "still paying off" on a comfortable apartment with marble floors and a large screen TV topped by a statue of Fudomiyo, the deity of business prosperity.

Monk Rituals in Japan

Monks burn wood and lead prayers for the safe births, successful exams and other important occasions; perform Buddhist wedding ceremonies; and act as proxies for people who can not make it to their ancestors graves at designate times of the year.

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The tokuda ceremony is an initiation rite for the Buddhist priesthood. Performed on children as young as one at certain Buddhist temples, it establishes the participant’s status as monk. Participants have their head shaved and don white robes for the ceremony.

In September of 2009, a 34-year-old Buddhist monk named Endo Mitsunaga finished walking 40,0000 kilometers and doing other training over seven years to complete the Sennichi-kaiho, one of the most difficult displays of asceticism. He is the 50th monk to complete the regime since 1585. He finished the task by praying at Enryakuji Temple on Mt Hiei near Kyoto.

Greedy Japanese Buddhist Monks

In many ways, Japanese monks have transformed Buddhism into a business. Monks are organized like corporate staff and some seem to know more about accounting and making home pages than mediation and nirvana. Temples have been charged with tax fraud, and head monks have made fortunes by franchising the name of their temples to new temples and developing money-making schemes such as selling $10,000 tombs that register the names of the dead in perpetuity.

Some monks have been accused of greed and taking advantage of vulnerable relatives by charging exorbitant fees for afterlife names, written on plates and hung at Buddhist temples. The highest rank, called ingo, often sell for $10,000 or more . Skimping on costs on a name is regarded as dishonorable and stingy.

One American who studied Buddhism in Japan told the Wall Street Journal that the chief monk at the temple where he studied told him that "people don't respect you unless you are successful. You've got to have a good car to show you've reached a state of holiness."

Troublesome Monks and Famous Nuns in Japan


In 1995, a 43-year-old monk named Wakyo Godo was fired from Kita-ku Kokubunji temple in Osaka and was punched in the head by the temple's chief monk after Goda complained about doing janitorial work in the temple. To get even with the priest and the temple, Goda organized a Buddhist labor union, the Kokubunji Seven, the world's first religious trade union, and staged several strikes and sick outs.

Arguably the best-known Buddhist in Japan is Jakucho Setouchi, an 80-something nun with a shaveD head who is known for her novels and frequently appears on televison. She became a nun in 1973 and founded her own temple in 1979. Before that she was known for frank—in the view of some—pornographic novels such Joshidaise Qu Aling (“University Student Qu Ailing,”1956) and Natsu no Owari (“End of Summer,” 1963) and won a major literary awards. She married when she in university and then fell in love with one of her husband’s students. Setouchi has been suggested as board member for the troubled Japan Sumo Association.

A Buddhist monk, with a long career as a prison chaplain, who spoke with death row inmates before their execution, told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Our job is to face people who will be executed under law and make them aware of their own sins. So we must not voice doubt about capital punishment.”