Types of Japanese Buddhism

4 Types of Japanese Buddhism Explored

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, a cabinet-level ministry in the Government of Japan, conducted a Japan Statistical Yearbook 2014, which explicitly states that there consider themselves Buddhists. 

With such a large following, it hardly comes as a surprise that there are numerous sects within the religion, 59 to be exact. The Japan Buddhist Federation is affiliated with several of these denominations listed, but there are still several other sects within Buddhism. In this article, we will focus on the more prevalent sects of Buddhism throughout Japan’s history.

History of Japanese Buddhism

Buddhism originated somewhere around 500 BC in India and spread throughout Asia over the next following 1000 years. Japan was the last Asian country to be exposed to Buddhism around the 6th century, following Korea and China. 

The widespread Buddhism in Japan is believed to link back to Price Shoutoku Taishi and his utilization of the religion in his life and political practices.

The significant sects of Buddhism that have since evolved since Prince Shoutoku Taishi all stem from three primary sects of Japanese Buddhism: Nara Buddhism (Nanto-six-sects), Heian Buddhism (Heian-two-sects), and Zen Sects.

1. Nara Buddhism

Nara Buddhism

When Japan’s capital moved to Nara or Nanto from Asuka in 710, the Japanese ambassadors brought the academic form of Buddhism over from China. Visionary Buddhism studied during this time forms the six different sects called the nantorikushuu or The Six Sects of Nanto.

One of Nara Buddhism’s primary characteristics is that it directly correlates with protection on a national level.

Sanron (Three Treatises)

The Sanron-sect of Buddhism was brought to Japan in 625 by the Korean monk Hyegwan and came from a Mahayana school from China originally. The Sanron-sect is also commonly referred to as the Middle-Way School.

The primary teachings of the Sanron-sect are based upon three texts, two of which belong to the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna and the last from one of his disciples, Aryadeva.

Joujitsu (Establishment of Truth)

The Jojiitsu-sect of Buddhism came to Japan during the same time as the Sanron-sect and was established by the same Korean monk, Hyegwan. The central teachings of the Jojitsu-sect come from the Satyasiddhi (Perfection of Truth) by the Buddhist scholar of India Harivarman. The text was then brought to China around the 5th century and later to Japan.

The Jojitsu-sect believed the actual teachings of historical Buddha come explicitly from the sutras and ultimately rejected the Abhidharma.

Kusha (Study of the Abhidharma-Kosha)

The Kusha-sect of Buddhism, also known as the Theravada Buddhism, originated in Japan around 658. The Kusha-sect is solely reliant on the Buddhist scholar Vasubandhu’s teachings from the 4th century in India.

The Kusha-sect was never actually recognized as an independent school of Buddhism within Japan but a sub-division of the Hossou-sect.

Hossou (Mind-Only)

Hossou, also known as Yuishiki, is the only one of the six sects known for studying Yogacara, originating in India. Today, you will find Hossou in two of Japan’s more popular temples at Koufukuji or Yakushiji. 

The focus of this sect of Buddhism is within the world of transient where permanent things do not exist. The Hossou-sect believe that they are specific distinctions amongst individuals and that all do not have the ability to evolve to a Buddha.

The Hossou-sects and Kusa-sects of Buddhism are known as having the most complicated teachings of the religion.

Kegon (Flower-Garland)

The Kegon-sect of Buddhism is explicitly focused on studying the Avatamska Sutras. Today, the main temple for the Kegon-sect is well-known at the Todaiji. In 752 AD at this temple there was a historic statue built of Vairocana, known as the Resplendent Buddha. 

The central teachings of the Kegon-sect of Buddhism are based on the key mantra, “One equals many and many equals one.” The idea of their beliefs is centered around the blending of thoughts opposite of their own.

Ritsu (Rules of Discipline)

The Ritsu-sect of Buddhism was formed in 754 when monk Jianzhen, or Ganjin, traveled from China to Nara. Here, he built the Toushoudaiji temple and focused studies within the temple on Buddhist Vinaya teachings. 

2. Heian Buddhism

Heian Buddhism - Sensoji Temple

The capital was moved to Heiankyou from Jeijoukyou in 794 AD by Emperor Kanmu under direct order from his father, Emperor Konin. As a result, the Buddhists of Nara were left behind in the previous capital.

From 794 to 804 AD, a brief period that was blank in terms of religion occurred as they worked to establish a new form of Buddhism at the capital, which would eventually become the Tendai-sect and the Shingon-sect.


After completing a 12-year extensive Buddhist training in the mountain, Saichou would go on to found the Buddhist Tendai-sect. Today, the teachings of Saichou are still practiced in the Joudoin temple on Mount Hiei.

Saichou developed this new sect as a result of finding three primary flaws in Nara Buddhism, which were that it was:

  • Primarily theoretical, not practical
  • Connected to political power
  • Not open for everyone to achieve enlightenment, therefore being able to enter Nirvana

Contrastingly to Nara Buddhism, Saichou focused his beliefs of Issaishujoushitsuubusshou, which meant that everyone has the ability to carry Buddha’s nature within them and, therefore, the ability to attain Nirvana.


The Shingon-sect of Buddhism was formed in Japan in 823 when Kuukai, or Kouboutaishi, was granted Touji temple on behalf of Emporer Saga. Kuukai had learned esoteric Buddhism from the priest known as Keika before returning to Japan to form his sect.

This esoteric sect of Buddhism became the primary form of the Buddhist Heian due to the impact it had on Japan’s society. 

The central teachings of the Shingon-sect were based on the Mandala. Kuukai brought two mandalas back from China, which became the central focus of the Shingon-sect’s rituals:

  • Ryoubu Mandala (Mandala of the Womb Realm)
  • Kongoukai Mandala (Mandala of the Diamond Realm)

The Mandala of the Womb Real served to represent mercy while the Mandala of the Diamond Realm was a representation of Buddha’s wisdom. 

3. Kamakura Buddhism

Kamakura Buddhism

The end of the Heian period marked a turbulent time for the people of Japan. As the samurai increased in power, that of nobility was declining and political and financial stability.

Between the political upheaval as well as natural disasters occurring, including fires and epidemics, Buddhists were beginning to believe more in mappou, or the World’s end, where no enlightenment can be obtained.

As a result of all of the turmoil in Japan during this time, Kamakura Buddhism became increasingly popular as centralized politics was moved to Kamakura from Kyoto.

During this time, Buddhism took a split into two directions, which ultimately resulted in the formation of other sects:

  • Zen-sects
  • Hounen’s Joudo-sect
  • Shinran’s Joudo-shin-sect
  • Nichiren-sect


The Nichiren-sect was formed in 1253 and is the final Buddhism form from the Kamakura period. Following a grave time in Japan’s history filled with epidemics and famine and a Mongol invasion heightened social anxiety once again.

The Nichiren-sect followed the Lotus Sutra teachings regarding the end of the World and that the way to achieve salvation comes from chanting the Nichiren mantra.

4. Zen Sects

Zen Buddhism - Types of Japanese Buddhism

The Zen-sects of Buddhism came from Buddhists searching for a new form of religion while breaking ties with older, more traditional teachings. As a result, the Zen-sects teach a form of Buddhism that focuses on carefully self-discipline and practiced meditation to achieve self-enlightenment.

During the Kamakura period, two Zen-sects were formed after being introduced from China, the Soutou-sect and the Rinzai-sect.


The Rinzai-Zen-sect was formed by Eisai, who was heavily influenced by the esoteric styles of Buddhism in China.

Eisai’s Rinzai-Zen-sect focused primarily on Zen religious meditations known as kanna zen. In these studies, you are heightening your self-awareness through the study of the kouan, a textbook.


Following Eisai’s lead, Dougen later traced to China and returned to Japan with the Soutou-Zen-sect. Dougen is known for his work the Shobogenzo, The Treasury of the Eye of True Teaching.

The Soutou-Zen-sect focused its teachings on shikantaza, to do nothing but sit.


The Buddhist Jodo-sect came as a result of the word spreading about Mahayana Buddhism spreading in India. The Jodo-sects, and those that branched from it, focus on emphasizing that people cannot be saved on their own. Instead, people must focus on prayer to Buddha while trusting in Buddha’s ultimate power.

From the Jodo-sect came:

  • Hounen’s Joudou-sect
  • Shinran’s Joudo-shin-sect
  • Ryounin’s Yuuzuu-nenbutsu-sect
  • Ippen’s Ji-sect

Japanese Buddhist Holidays

Nearly all of the Japanese Buddhist holidays are celebrated by the major Buddhist traditions. These holidays include:

  • January 1st: Shogatsu (Japanese New Year)
  • February 15th: Nehan-e (Nirvana Day)
  • March 21st: Higan-e (Spring Equinox)
  • April 8th: Hanamatsuri (Buddha’s Birthday)
  • July through August: Obon Festival
  • September 21st: Higan-e (Autumnal Equinox)
  • October 15th: Daruma-ki (Bodhidharma celebrated by Zen Buddhists)
  • December 8th: Shaka-jodo-e (Bodhi Day)
  • December 31st: Joya-e or Sechibun-e (End of the year celebration)