In the past ten years or so, people have become interested in Buddhism worldwide, and Buddhist studies have advanced remarkably. In the fifth century B.C., the founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha, started the propagation of his teachings in India, which have since spread to Southeast Asia, the Chinese continent, the Korean peninsula, and Japan. In other parts of the world, Buddhism was regarded as an exotic religion or a philosophical system of thought. However, Buddhism became known worldwide after the 20th century, with the rapid advancement of the modern technologies of communication and transportation, and interchange of personnel, materials, and information: Particularly after World War II, many people recognized Buddhism as the third universal religion, along with Christianity and Islam.

With the indiscriminate terrorist attack in the United States on September 11 of 2001 and incessant war and conflict among monotheistic Christian and Muslim zealots also happening elsewhere in the world presently, conscientious people have become aware that Buddhism offers something to remedy the tension and contribute to world peace. In other words, while Christians and Muslims tend to adhere to their own God as absolute and almighty, they seem to disregard other religions as minor or inferior. On the other hand, Buddhists recognize that the Buddha nature is entailed in every sentient being, and are relatively generous toward other religions. This is the reason why Buddhism has become spotlighted.

The Japanese have been greatly influenced by Eastern civilization through Buddhism ever since Buddhism was first introduced to Japan in the sixth century through the Eurasian continent. In the past 1,600 years, those Eastern civilizations were integrated in Japan with the indigenous civilization. The Japanese were able to produce their own unique culture during the period of isolation when they avoided being colonized by the advanced nations of the West. However, Japan was forced to open its doors at the beginning of the 19th century, and from this time was greatly influenced by Western civilization.

In order to catch up with the advanced nations of the West, the Japanese differentiated the merits and demerits of Eastern and Western civilizations, and tried to absorb the good portions of both and integrate them into their own civilization. This successful integration seems to owe mainly to the Japanese flexible and inquisitive spirit and their diligence nurtured by the influence of Buddhism.

Nevertheless, after Japan was defeated by the Allied Powers at the end of World War II, most Japanese lost their raison d’etre and their confidence, finding solace in the pursuit of money and materialism. Despite the fact that Japan was completely reduced to ash because of the war, it rose again like a phoenix due to the ceaseless endeavors of the Japanese, reviving to become the second economic giant of the world. However, with the recent economic recession and unforeseeable future, Japanese have been recently exposed to such risks as deflation, threat of terrorist attack, increasing crime, the degeneration of morals, and the spread of infectious diseases. As a result, they have become aware of the limits of modernization and globalization. Buddhism has now once gain attracted their attention as a solution to external and internal crises with the belief of the coexistence of all sentient beings as one.

Most Japanese Buddhist leaders in the past were fairly passive in their attempts to propagate Buddhism, since from the inception of Buddhism it had been a state religion warmly protected by succeeding governments. Particularly during the rule by the Tokugawa military bureaucracy of the 16th century, all the people of Japan were registered at their nearby temples as parishioners, and both the clergy and the laity were content with their way of life and lost their religious zeal. Buddhism tended to be regarded as nothing more than a premodern folk religion. However, triggered by foreigners and contemporary scientists claiming that Buddhism transcends the manmade ideologies of religion and science, they began to reevaluate the legitimacy of the Buddhist teachings. In response to this new tendency, most Japanese Buddhist denominations and organizations have recently generated a new atmosphere breaking away from their obsolete conventional ways, making a positive stance for religious and social affairs. They are also making their utmost effort to contribute to the social welfare and world peace in cooperation with other religious and secular organizations in Japan, as well as the world at large.

Formerly, most Buddhist denominations and organizations in Japan had to a certain degree carried out their religious and social activities to their own benefit and worked solely within their own purview. However, keenly feeling the necessity to communicate more closely with each other to address various contemporary issues, they established the Japan Buddhist Federation in 1957 consisting of 58 Buddhist denominations, 35 prefectural Buddhist associations, and nine other Buddhist groups. The Japan Buddhist Federation is the sole Japanese representative to the World Fellowship of Buddhists.

The book Understanding Japanese Buddhism was published at the occasion of the 12th general conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, held in Tokyo and Kyoto in 1978, to make Japanese Buddhism and its activities better known both domestically and internationally. Since 20 some years have already passed since then, during which many things have changed, necessitating the revising of its contents for updating the information. Therefore, we recently established this editorial committee under the aegis of the Japan Buddhist Federation (JBF) in Tokyo to publish this handy multipurpose guidebook on Japanese Buddhism. The members of the editorial committee are Rev. Shodo Kobayashi, Rev. Kantai Sakamoto, Rev. Gisei Tomatsu, and myself. With the kind approval of the JBF Director’s Board, the essence of Japanese Buddhism will be introduced to the degree possible, but due to a limited budget and space some relevant essays were inevitable omitted.

Contributions to the essays in this book have been mostly made by myself, and the appendixes by the staff members of JBF and myself. For more information about Japanese Buddhism, please refer to the appendixes at the end of this book. We welcome your opinions and comments on this book, so that we may improve the contents in the near future. I accept full responsibility for the contents and expression of this book.

Lastly, I wish to express my heartfelt appreciation to Ms. Karen Mack for her editorial assistance for this handy guide book.

Autumn 2004

Kodo Matsunami
Chief Editor
Editorial Committee
Japan Buddhist Federation