Category Archives: Shinto

Heian Kyo in Winter

Snow falling on the Heian Jingu Shrine in Kyoto.


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Heian Syncretic Sculpture

Zao Gongen, the protective deity of a Shinto-Buddhist cult called Shugendo

This statue of Zao Gongen can be seen in the East Asian Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Zao Gongen was the spirit of Mt Kimpu, which is south of Nara.  He had previously been holding a thunderbolt scepter, which is now missing. The Fujiwaras, everyone’s favorite ruling clan, were among the adherents of Shugendo, a syncretic Shinto-Buddhist cult.

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Belong to Contradictory Religions

A major confusing aspect to life in Heian era Japan is that of religion. One cannot simply ask, which religious group did Heian Kyo aristocrats follow? The answer would be every religion that they had been exposed to.

Shinto shrine in Nara

The traditional religion of Japan is Shinto, which roughly translates to the way of the Gods. However, Shinto did not have a name until the introduction of Buddhism to Japan via Chinese ambassadors, back when they were still welcomed, and Buddha was initially viewed as an additional deity to be worshipped.

Shinto and Buddhism, however, are fairly contradictory ways of viewing the world. Put very simply, Shinto is an animist faith of many spirits and gods that involves joyful acceptance of the ways of nature, which man is inextricably a part of, whereas Buddhism is an agnostic philosophy about the inherent suffering humans experience with a resulting emphasis on passionlessness.

As a result of this philosophical mishmash, Heian aristocrats stayed in Buddhist monasteries for weeks on end, but followed Shinto rituals of purity. A certain Buddhist melancholy is pervasive in the art and literature of the period, but pagan Shinto celebrations of agriculture were happily continued.

Great Buddha of Nara

It’s true that both can be applied to different aspects of life, and still are in Japan today. However, now there is even more religious confusion. A wedding in modern Japan will typically involve Shinto traditions, but a funeral will be Buddhist. Confucian thought governs social roles.

Tokyo Tower

Christmas is celebrated in a commercial sense, with gigantic Christmas trees on display in large cities.  The Japanese have less concept of “belonging” to a religion, but rather follow traditions or concepts from multiple faiths without anxiety over the inherent contradictions or any discernible cognitive dissonance. Or do they?


Filed under buddhism, Shinto