The Shinto tradition in Japan has a long and fascinating relationship with Buddhism. Emerging originally as a reaction against the spread of Buddhist influence in Japan, Shinto eventually began to incorporate significant elements of Buddhist thought and philosophy into its own traditions in order to support its evolution from simple animistic practices to a unified and institutionalized religion. The relationship between Japanese Buddhism and Japanese Shinto is unique, as no other native animistic tradition in Asia was able to borrow so significantly from Buddhist thought while still resisting absorption into the broader Buddhist tradition. This paper seeks to explore the ways in which Shinto and Japanese Buddhism shaped one another while also highlighting the unique historical developments that allowed Shinto to remain somewhat independent from the broader Buddhist tradition. First, it highlights the role that early Buddhist thought played in catalyzing the development of a coherent Shinto tradition. Then, it illustrates the ways in which Japanese myths evolved to incorporate both Buddhist and Shinto elements. Finally, it examines the historical developments of Shinto institutions that allowed Shinto to retain its unprecedented degree of autonomy in Buddhist Japan.
Before examining the ways in which Shinto and Japanese Buddhism influenced one another as discrete traditions, it is important to understand the origins of Shinto itself. Shinto is a fascinating religion because it originally emerged largely in opposition to Buddhism. Ironically though, the unified front projected by Shinto was possible only because of the introduction of Buddhist ideas like samsara, which provided a framework in which Shinto could evolve and coalesce into a unified religion. This point is not always fully appreciated, as many seem to ascribe an aspect of timelessness to Shinto and argue that it represents the first true religion of the Japanese people, existing even before contact with Buddhism. This misconception is largely due to the conflation of kami worship with Shinto. While it is true that kami worship – the veneration of local Japanese nature spirits – existed since the very early days of Japanese civilization, this practice alone is not Shinto. Shinto represents an advancement of simplistic kami-worship, as it incorporates more formal, institutionalized practices and traditions (Kuroda et. al., 4-7). One example of this evolution occurred in the seventh century, when a number of important kami shrines were organized into one, centrally-led state cult under the auspices of the Ministry of Kami Affairs (Mizue, 13).
Buddhism influenced the development of institutionalized Shinto in two primary ways. First, by creating a unified cosmological framework for organizing different creatures such as hell beings, humans, and gods, Buddhism helped drive the consolidation of localized kami worship into a relatively unified faith tradition. In other words, Buddhist cosmology provided the framework in which localized kami traditions were integrated into one, coherent philosophy. This connection becomes abundantly clear when one looks at Japanese court documents during the period, which used the term jindo when discussing Buddhism. Jindo is actually a Buddhist term, and it is associated with the Buddhist concept of taming local demons and converting them into “protectors of Buddhism” (Teeuwen, 382). Thus, the adoption and integration of kami practices into the broader Buddhist philosophy was clearly a conscious effort, and the use of Buddhist terminology in court documents suggests that this transformation was, at least to some degree, promoted by the state. Consolidation of Shinto shrines was also encouraged by Buddhist monks because they believed it to be an effective means of spreading the Dharma by bringing local deities into the Buddhist cosmology (Teeuwen, 381).
Second, by representing an external threat, Buddhism forced Shinto groups to consolidate and evolve their philosophy in order to better compete with the spread of Buddhism. The challenge of Buddhism manifested in a number of ways. For example, Buddhist bodhisattvas were granted special temples and had specialist priests, and this frustrated and alarmed non-Buddhist clerics (Mizue, 28). However, by far the most important challenge involved the Buddhist challenge to the role of ancestor worship. Kami worship in early Japan was closely linked with the veneration of ancestors, and this hereditary linkage between living members of the Japanese elite and their noble ancestral spirits provided political legitimacy for Japanese rulers (Kuroda et. al., 8). By undermining the concept of ancestor worship – arguing that all lifeforms are related to all others through past lives – Buddhism risked undermining the core political order of medieval Japan.
One very clear example of the tension that existed between Buddhists and Japanese leaders was the Dokyo Affair. In the 760s, the Japanese Empress Shotoku became deeply influenced by the Buddhist monk Dokyo and implemented a number of reforms designed to promote Buddhism in Japan (Kuroda et. al., 8). For example, she ordered the construction of a Buddhist shrine-temple at the place where her imperial ancestors were worshiped. Even more troublingly for the nobles, Empress Shotoku also attempted to appoint Dokoyo as her successor, undermining the entire concept of hereditary rule. In response, the court undertook a highly organized effort to suppress Buddhism. They destroyed the Buddhist shrine temples constructed by Shotoku, further integrated Shinto practices into Japanese court procedure, and re-emphasized the role of ancestral and kami worship (Teeuwen, 378-379). Early Shinto, therefore, had a unique relationship with Buddhism, incorporating Buddhist philosophy while simultaneously evolving in opposition to Buddhism’s rising power in Japan.
This unique origin allowed Shinto to evolve more independently than similar local animistic traditions in other parts of Asia. Indeed, the degree of Shinto autonomy from Buddhism in Medieval Japan has no real parallel in any other region of Asia, and this is likely due to the forced separation of the two traditions after the Dokyo Affair. Kami rituals became divorced from Buddhist rituals due to the rifts that emerged, and this created enough breathing space for Shinto to develop semi-independently of Buddhism. Although Shinto was very clearly shaped by Buddhism, it remained independent enough to still meaningfully influence Buddhist practices in Japan without simply being absorbed by Buddhist syncretic practices.
After emerging as a discrete and fairly independent religion, Shinto continued to interact with Japanese Buddhism, especially as Buddhism became an ever more significant presence in Japan. While the areas of influence between the two traditions became quite extensive (and thus impossible to fully elucidate in this paper), two in particular stand out. First, Shinto and Buddhist traditions interacted to shape the Japanese understanding of birth and death. Despite being heavily influenced by Buddhist thought during its inception, Shinto lacked the highly nuanced understanding of karmic rebirths so central to Buddhist thought (Meshcheryakov, 45). Indeed, because of events like the Dokyo Affair, early Shinto practitioners consciously resisted Buddhist ideas that might undermine the traditional Japanese understanding of ancestor worship. Over time, though, this began to change, and Japanese elites started to incorporate ideas from both practices into their understanding of birth and death. Shinto became the tradition from which elites primarily drew their conceptions of origination and birth, as Shinto philosophy regarding creation was relatively well-developed and focused on natural elements like water, earth, and the sky. Therefore, Shinto was able to offer a compelling creation myth, and it also provided a clear linkage between clans and the gods, granting political legitimacy to rulers (Meshcheryakov, 44). However, Shinto’s relatively vague conception of death offered a niche for Buddhism, and thus Japanese views on birth and death evolved into an amalgamation of the two traditions’ philosophies.
Second, Shinto kamis began to be incorporated into Japanese sects of Buddhism, being viewed as protectors of Buddhism on the island (Harvey, 171; 226-227). The incorporation of kamis was not the only example of syncretism, though. Shinto also influenced elements of local Buddhist symbology and myths, affecting the stories and traditions that became important in Japanese Buddhism. Many traditional Shinto stories began to acquire new Buddhist elements. For example, one Shinto tale recounts the story of a girl who offers to marry a snake in exchange for it sparing the life of a frog. The Shinto origins of this story are clear, as Shinto traditionally views snakes in an extremely negative light and associates them with sexual trickery. However, the story evolves after Buddhism is transmitted to Japan. Instead of simply accepting her marriage, the girl seeks the counsel of a Buddhist monk, Gyogi, who informs her that there is nothing he can do. However, he entreats her to take refuge in the dharma and follow the precepts closely. When the day of her marriage finally arrives, the snake is killed by a host of small crabs, and the girl is freed from her marriage (Meshcheryakov, 50). The core story remains the same, but a number of significant changes – such as the incorporation of Buddhist principles like the precepts – indicate that Buddhist thought has led to an evolution in the plot.
This dynamic is present in a number of other traditional Shinto myths as well. For example, one myth recounts the story of a woman getting raped by a snake twice and then dying. Again, the Shinto notion of snakes as sexual tricksters persists. However, later iterations of the story end by explaining the “law of karmic causality” and informing the reader that demeritorious actions in a previous life can lead to rebirth as a snake (Meshcheryakov, 49). In these cases – as well as a number of other myths studied by Meshcheryakov – the core story remains the same, and central plot points and themes are retained. However, new themes are added to incorporate Buddhist philosophical notions, creating myths that share elements from both traditions.
The incorporation of kamis into Buddhism as buddhas and bodhisattvas might seem to undermine the paper’s earlier claim that Shinto was able to retain a distinct identity relative to Buddhism. Although it is certainly the case that Shinto became increasingly influenced by Buddhism later in the Japanese Middle Ages, it is simply not credible to argue that Shinto was ever fully subsumed by the Buddhist tradition. For example, while kamis became increasingly associated with Japanese Buddhism, they continued to maintain an autonomous status. Even during the height of Buddhism in Japan, sacred Shinto spaces, like the Shrine of Ise, maintained their own special rights and traditions independent of Buddhism. Moreover, many of the most important Shinto shrines maintained prohibitions against Buddhist terminology, practices, and garb (Kuroda et. al., 13).
Shinto also performed a more secular role in Japanese society, further distinguishing it from Buddhism and contributing to its autonomy. The secular aspects of Shinto become particularly apparent when one examines art from the period. Unlike buddhas and bodhisattvas, which are always portrayed as spiritual beings, many kamis are expressed as nobles, gentlemen, hunters, and travelers. Furthermore, Shinto traditions were often used in secular settings like court politics, and the central government was legally required to pay for their upkeep and ensure that all Shinto ceremonies were properly conducted (Kuroda et. al., 15). Shinto still existed within a broader Buddhist worldview. It’s traditions and rights were shaped by Buddhist philosophy, and it functioned in a world dominated by Buddhist law. Yet, at the same time, it occupied a specific niche that allowed it to maintain a degree of autonomy from Buddhism writ large. By the 17th century, in fact, Shinto had nearly completely escaped the influence of Buddhism in Japan, and it began to assume its modern identity as the timeless and original Japanese religion. At the time of the Meiji Restoration in the middle of the 19th century, Shinto and Buddhism had severed almost all ties, and the myth that Shinto existed prior to and completely independent of Buddhism began to resonate nationally (Holcombe, 220). This development granted Shinto more autonomy than ever before – even as it tied it more closely to Confucian and Bushido traditions in Japan – but it also starved Shinto of the rich Buddhist traditions that had allowed it to flourish in earlier centuries (Kuroda et. al., 19). In an ironic twist of fate, the chain of events that led to Shinto’s complete liberation from Buddhism also led to the diminution of Shinto culture by suppressing its Buddhist roots.
As this paper has demonstrated, Buddhism and Shinto developed a unique relationship that was both adversarial and, at the same time, deeply symbiotic. Shinto, which originally emerged as a response to rising Buddhist dominance in Japan, itself began to borrow Buddhist concepts and philosophy to create its own identity. Thus, some degree of melding and integration between the two religions was inevitable, and one certainly cannot argue that Shinto was ever fully independent of Buddhism in Japan. Nevertheless, Shinto was always able to maintain enough separation from the broader Buddhist tradition to retain a unique and separate identity. The level of integration between the two traditions continued to ebb and flow throughout Japanese history, but Shinto never became so ensconced in Buddhism as to be unable to escape. At least in that regard, Shinto was unique.
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