Before and After Buddhism

You may well wonder what faith there was in Japan before Prince Shōtoku introduced Buddhism. While Buddhism was the first structured religion in Japan, there were already many small shrines to kami, local deities, which dotted the archipelago. Buddhist monks explained kami as primitive manifestations of Buddhist entities and so embraced them within their own pantheon.

Kami would provide the foundations for the Shinto faith, but not until the 19th century. For much of Japan’s history, this practice of mixing gods, known as honji suijaku, was what allowed Buddhism to spread with ease and create distinct variants. This can be seen throughout Asia, where Buddhism mixed the local with the regional.

Politics & Faith

In bringing Buddhism to Japan, Prince Shōtoku not only introduced a new religion but also a new form of government from the mainland kingdoms of China and Korea. Through this centralised faith, he created a central government with the imperial family at its head. This was met with resistance from warlords whose power came from local mythology, but ultimately Buddhism endured as the overarching faith with temples like Hōryū-ji acting as its centre of power.

Explore the relationship between piety and power in East Asia with Professor Mark Teeuwen:

Hōryū-ji: A Centre of Faith and Politics

Buddhism not only brought new artforms to Japan, it also brought new architecture in the form of enormous wooden temple complexes complete with ornate prayer halls and towering pagodas. The UNESCO World Heritage Site Hōryū-ji is the oldest such example, not only for temples but for wooden structures anywhere in the world. Today it is the oldest continually active temple in all of Asia, a testament to the enduring legacy of Prince Shōtoku.

The temple was built in the early 600s by Prince Shōtoku next to his palace in Nara so that Yakushi, the Medicine Buddha, might save his ailing father Emperor Yōmei from illness. Hōryū-ji is a perfect example of the practical purpose religious sites and objects carried in Prince Shōtoku’s time, as he believed that only through worship of the Buddha could disaster be avoided. Nor was this almighty construction made for a selfish motive, for the wellbeing of the emperor reflected the wellbeing of the realm.

The Nara National Museum has digitally recreated the inside of Hōryū-ji’s central hall, complete with high-resolution wallpaintings.

Az 3 Oldest Wooden Buildings in the World – Horyuji Temple by Nezzen is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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