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February 9, 2013

GLOBAL FAITHS: Japanese adapt Buddhism

All major religions undergo change in their spread. That has definitely been the case with Buddhism in its spread north through China and Korea into Japan.

Buddhism came to Japan late, almost 1,000 years after its founding. In the year 552 of the Christian era a Korean ruler sent a delegation to Japan commending the Buddhist religion. Although Japan has had a long history of opposition to foreign influence, the Japanese Empress Suiko encouraged the acceptance of Buddhism, and so it began its development and adaptation in Japan.

One of Buddhism’s major appeals to Japanese society was its superior culture, especially literacy, and ancient Japan was not yet literate. Most of the world is literate today, so we tend to take literacy for granted. When we stop to think about it, literacy is a requirement for civilized life — government legislation, administration and a judicial system. Literacy is also an essential in industry, business and trade. It is absolutely essential in science, not to mention history and the arts.

Japan’s acceptance of literacy along with Buddhism helps to explain Japanese writing. Like the Korean, Japanese writing is borrowed from the Chinese. Although not a tonal language like Chinese, Japanese is written with Chinese characters. Years ago when I was in theological school I saw a Japanese student show a Chinese professor a letter she had gotten from home, and he could recognize some of its characters — that they had gotten some snow, etc. — even though the Chinese professor knew no Japanese.

Buddhism’s spread to Japan led to further borrowing. Though Buddhism had come by way of Korea, Japanese Buddhists soon realized its earlier development had taken place in China. It wasn’t long therefore until Japanese scholar-monks went to China for study. From study in China these monks brought back to Japan six of the major “schools” of Buddhism that had developed in China —“denominations,” we might be inclined to call them.

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