Shinbutsu Shugo | Buddhism & Shinto’s Syncretic Legacy

Shinto fox statues that are dressed in Buddhist robes as representation of the syncretic Shinbutsu Shugo system

“While the story of how Buddhism and Shintoism became intertwined is beyond the scope of this article (I’ll send you to Wikipedia for that) just know that the two religions co-existed until they were forcibly separated by the Meiji government in 1868.”

— Donny Kimball

Okay folks, enough is enough! I’m sick of citing Wikipedia on this one. It’s high time that I finally buckle down and write my own exposé on how the religions of Shintoism and Buddhism became inexorably intertwined in Japan. After all, in just the past half year alone, I’ve written some variation of the above quote more times than I care to count. At this point, god only knows how much free traffic I’ve sent to everyone’s favorite online encyclopedia. While at the end of the day this is a blog about travel, I believe that you, the reader, will be better able to appreciate Japan’s attractions when you understand the symbiotic relationship between these two faiths. Nevertheless, since the topic of religious syncretism can easily become overwhelmingly dense, I’ll do my best to simplify things where I can.

OK, let’s start by first defining our terms. Shinto refers to an animistic religion that is native to the Japanese archipelago. The first codified writings referencing Shinto date back to the 8th century and can be found in some of Japan’s earliest texts such as the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki (though the practice of Shinto is, in fact, far older). While today it is defined as a religion, historically Shinto has been something more akin to a collection of myths and legends. In the most basic of all possible explanations, adherents of Shinto believe that all things have a sacred essence. Rocks, trees, rivers, animals, places, and even people can be said to possess some spark of the divine. When anthropomorphized, these spirits take the form of what are known as kami.

Unlike with Shinto, Buddhism is not a system of belief that is native to Japan (or even East Asia for that matter). Instead, Buddhism was born far away in India around 500 years before the common era. Thereafter, the doctrine took the Asian continent by storm and its beliefs spread from India into Tibet and subsequently into China and Korea. Due it it’s proximity to the Korean peninsula, Buddhism also eventually made its way to Japan during the 6th century. Though there had been many visiting monks from the Asian mainland prior to this date, the Nihon Shoki pinpoints the year 552 as the official introduction of Buddhism to the Japanese islands.

Introducing Shinbutsu Shugo

Buddhist monks bow to Shinto priest at Oita Prefecture’s Usa Jingu in a nod to the syncretic Shinbutsu Shugo system

With our terms defined, let’s talk about “Shinbutsu Shugo.” Initially coined in the 17th century, the term refers to the amalgamation of Shinto and Buddhism’s celestials that naturally happened over the course of Japanese history. Though the two faiths never quite fused into one, how this partial melding happened is quite the tale. You see, when Buddhism was introduced to Japan during the Asuka period (592–645), people originally didn’t know what to do with the foreign faith. Despite some initial debate that was largely political in nature, the eventual consensus was that the Buddhas were just another form of Japan’s native kami. Rather than discarding the old belief system, the Japanese tried to reconcile the two approaches and simply assumed both were true.

One interesting byproduct of this amalgamation was that deities in the Buddhist pantheon began to take on the identities of their analogous kami in Shinto. For example, the essence of the Buddhist deity Dharmapala was tacked on to that of Hachiman, Shinto’s god of of archery and war. A shockingly similar phenomenon can be seen with the goddess Benzaiten who is occasionally noted as also being the incarnation of the hermaphroditic kami Ugajin (check out this post for an awesome location dedicated to the dualistic goddess). In either case, the resulting syncretistic deity was something that could be honored by both Buddhism and Shinto thereby bringing the two faiths even closer together.

Of course, Buddhism itself was by no means passive in this process of assimilation. After all, by this point the doctrine had already been syncretic for many years due to having long ago absorbed Hindu’s divinities. Therefore, by the time Buddhism arrived on the shores of Japan, it had already amassed a large host of divine beings that did not originate within its creed. Because of this, it was easy for the locals to find traces of their omnipresent kami within the scriptures of Buddhism. Just as one might see whatever he or she is looking for in a blob of ink, so too did the early Japanese see their own deities in that of Buddhism’s.

Now it wouldn’t be historically accurate to make the claim that the adherents of Buddhism saw the Japanese kami as equals, especially at first. If the early practitioners of Buddhism didn’t doubt their existence entirely, they certainly viewed the kami as inferior to their Buddhas. As had been done with the gods of Hinduism, the local kami were thought to be spirits trapped in the perpetual cycle of life and rebirth. In fact, many a monk saw kami as spirits crying out for their help. This antagonistic view however proved to be rather counter-productive and eventually even the most devote of monks began to favor the dualistic belief system outlined above.

As Buddhism and Shintoism became more and more intertwined, Buddhist temples started to become attached to Shinto shrines and vice-versa. One of the best examples of this is Oita Prefecture’s Usa Jingu, a site that is often hailed as the first place where Buddhism and Shintoism began to merge. Though the two faiths never completely conjoined into a single set of beliefs, the evidence of their symbiotic relationship can still be found everywhere today. For example, every time you see a gate at a shrine, know that you are looking at the remnants of this syncretic doctrine. When you train your eye for what to look for, you can really find countless examples Shinbutsu Shugo just about anywhere!

Shinbutsu Shugo’s Separation

A former Buddhist pagoda at the Shinto shrine Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura as evidence of the syncretic Shinbutsu Shugo system

Alas, our tale of cohabitation and tolerance has a tragic end. Though the syncretic amalgam of Buddhism and Shinto lasted for centuries throughout the course of Japanese history, their union came to a screeching halt during the Meiji period (1868–1912). In an effort to legitimize the redeemed sovereignty of the emperor, leaders of the time evoked antediluvian Shinto lore. According to these tales, the imperial line, and therefore the young Emperor Meiji, were in fact direct descendants of the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami. By eliciting these ancient myths, the Meiji government was able to justify its usurping of power from the Tokugawa shogunate.

Unfortunately, the new imperial line’s push for legitimacy meant that something needed to be done about the foreign religion of Buddhism patronized by the Tokugawa shogunate. Enter the Kami and Buddhism Separation Order of 1868. As the name states, this edict decreed that all shrines and temple be completely separated. Much like the Cultural Revolution that would take place later in China, this edict resulted in untold destruction to many of Japan’s spiritual establishments. The pagoda pictured above for example once resided at Kamakura’s famous Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. Today, nothing but its stone foundation remains.

As you might imagine though, separating two symbiotic systems of belief with a millenium of history behind them was no easy task. To this day, you’ll still find examples of shrines littered with the earmarks of Buddhist temples as well as the reverse. A great example of this that I’ve covered in the recent past is the magnificent Zuishinmon gate Chichibu’s Mitsumine Shrine. Even when the Meiji government was successful in totally eradicating Buddhism’s apparent trappings from a shrine, its influence is still observed. The very halls of worship that we see at shrines across the country today are in and of themselves Buddhist and origin.

Though officially separate religions nowadays, Buddhism and Shinto continue to maintain somewhat of a collaborative relationship. In years past, the two religions have indeed been interwoven syncretically however their symbiosis today is far more compartmentalized. The Japanese have a saying that one is born Shinto but dies Buddhist. In this sense, the two religions fulfill diverse yet complementary roles. While the roots of this divide are undoubtedly linked to Shinto’s aversion to death and impurity, these remnants are also evidence of Shinbutsu Shugo’s long legacy in Japan.

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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