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Shogunate Japan: Religion

A resource guide for the Year 8 History Samurai assignment

Source: Emily KenCairn

Religion played an incredibly important role in Japanese society, and continues to do so to this day. Shinto is among the oldest of Japan's religions, and rose to prominence during the clan period. During the rule of the Emperors, Buddhism and Confucianism were brought over from China and gained popularity in Japan. Read through these resources to learn more about the religions practiced in Shogunate Japan.

Kosode with a Paragon of Filial Piety

In the late Edo period, warrior-class women often wore robes ornamented with Japanese or Chinese classical or literary themes. Embedded in the decoration of this robe—a winter landscape with plum blossoms and chrysanthemums—is a visual reference to the ancient Chinese Confucian legends known as the Twenty-Four Paragons of Filial Piety.

The story illustrated here involves Wang Xiang (Japanese: Ōshō), a third-century official who, to fulfill his stepmother's craving for fresh fish in midwinter, caught some fish by lying on the ice until it melted. Wang Xiang is represented by only his clothing: an official's cap in gold with a red cord and a court robe in white with green details lie on the riverbank in front of a fishing pole and creel.

Page of a Pilgrim’s Visiting Album

These album pages (14.140.2, .3) are two from a group of three that must at one point have belonged to a larger number, likely owned by a resident of Edo (Tokyo). Each of the three has a cover with multiple textile pieces, some of which may have come from Kan’eiji, a Tendai School temple in the Ueno area of Edo, for they bear the Dharma names of either the fourth or the tenth Tokugawa shogun, both of whom had their graves at the temple. One (14.140.2) has the name of the tenth shogun, “Shunmei’in dono” (Tokugawa Ieharu, 1737–1786). The one shown here, which has a similar cover, is pasted with a small painting of the Buddha Amida (Sanskrit: Amitābha) bordered with golden characters spelling out “Hail the name of Amida Buddha,” as well as an image of the bodhisattva Kannon (Sanskrit: Avalokiteshvara) and a paper slip also reading “Hail the name of Amida Buddha.” The pages’ owner would have obtained these small images on temple visits.

Taima Mandala

The Taima Mandala represents the Pure Land of the Buddha Amida (Sanskrit: Amitābha) bordered on three sides by parables from the Sutra on the Meditation on the Buddha of Infinite Life (Kanmuryōjukyō). This text, portions of which appear in the boundaries between scenes, recounts the promise at the core of Pure Land School teaching: that those who concentrate on the Buddha Amida during life, and recite his name, will be escorted to his Pure Land, known as the Western Paradise, at the final moment of death. The painting depicts an enormous palace with a golden pond presided over by Amida and his retinue.

Musicians, dancers, and thirty-seven different types of celestial beings fill the skies and pavilions, surrounding the pond in the foreground. Those being born into the Pure Land emerge from lotus buds growing up through the water. The parables tell the story of Queen Vaidehi, who achieved birth there by performing sixteen meditations presented to her by Amida. The scenes along the bottom represent the nine levels of birth in the Pure Land, from lowest to highest. Based on Chinese Tang-dynasty compositions, the Taima Mandala was introduced to Japan in the Nara period (710–84), along with teachings about Amida’s Pure Land.

“Parable of the Medicinal Herbs,” Chapter 5 of the Lotus Sutra

This sutra once formed part of a much larger set of handscrolls depicting all twenty-eight chapters of the Lotus Sutra, one of the most popular Buddhist scriptures. Each handscroll consists of a pictorial frontispiece followed by a section of text, all of which are brushed in gold paint on indigo-dyed paper. The present scroll represents a portion of the Lotus Sutra’s fifth chapter, “Parable of the Medicinal Herbs” (Japanese: Yakusōyu). This chapter describes three kinds of grasses and two kinds of trees that all receive the same amount of rainfall from the clouds, a metaphor for five different beings to whom the Buddha gives identical teachings.

Amida Manifesting in the Dharma-body of Expedient Means

This image of the Buddha Amida (Sanskrit: Amitābha) radiating beams of light was created as a private devotional image, most likely for the home altar of a follower of the True Pure Land School of Japanese Buddhism. Unlike deluxe icons made for major temples, a work like this one would have been attached to a paper backing before it was painted—a form of prefabrication. After the image was executed, it would have been mounted on bright silks. Similar examples produced today are sometimes made in sets of three, with Amida at the center; Shinran, the founder of True Pure Land Buddhism, to the right; and Rennyo, the reviver of Honganji Temple, to the left. Alternatively, Amida is flanked by calligraphic inscriptions of ten and nine characters, respectively, known as myōgō. The simplest myōgō used in True Pure Land Buddhism is six characters, and translates to “Hail the name of Amida Buddha.” Although some of the pigments are lost, much of the cut silver foil remains, and is untarnished.

The rays of light symbolize the forty-eight vows made by Amida when he was a bodhisattva to help others attain enlightenment.

Kumano Shrine Mandala

Kumano mandalas represent the Kumano Shrine complex, one of the most sacred sites in Japan. The painting is divided into three sections. At center, Buddhas and bodhisattvas sit on the tiled floor of a temple. In the bottom register, Shinto deities appear against mountains that dip into the Pacific Ocean. The top register reflects the distinctive confluence of Shinto and Buddhism that took place in medieval Japan, depicting deities from both religious traditions standing side by side. At right is Nachi Waterfall, the largest waterfall in Japan, whose tutelary deity—the one-thousand-armed Kannon—is shown in shining gold. Standing against the tallest peak is the three-eyed, blue-bodied Zaō Gongen, the tutelary deity of yamabushi (mountain-dwelling practitioners of a sect known as Shugendō). The sect's legendary founder, En no Gyōja, can be seen seated in a nearby cave, flanked by his two servant-demons.

Zaō Gongen

This boyish figure of ferocious mien is carved of a single block of Japanese cedar (sugi), but for its separately carved limbs. His right foot is raised in a bounding leap as he brandishes a now-missing vajra in his raised right fist. He wears the Hindu dhoti, a long cloth wrapped around the waist and between the legs that, like the long scarf draped over the left shoulder, flutters with the figure's energetic movement. His hair sweeps back in flamelike tufts to frame the face. The powerful expression, with brow bulging and mouth open in a roar, is made riveting by inset crystal eyes, including a third in the center of the brow, that are painted and touched with red to appear bloodshot.

Zaō Gongen is the protective spirit of Mount Kimpu in the lovely Yoshino range south of Nara. Because he came to be venerated as a local avatar of Shaka Nyorai, Kannon Bosatsu, and Miroku Buddha—the Buddhas of past, present, and future worlds— according to a text of 1337, Kimpusen Himitsuden (Secret Traditions of Mount Kimpusen), his abode in Yoshino was seen as a Pure Land in the present world as well as in the future.

Descent and Return of Amida to Western Paradise with a Believer's Soul (Gōshō mandara)

This painting of Amida (Sanskrit: Amitâbha) receiving the soul of the warrior Kumagai Naozane (1141–1208) is based on a dream recorded by the founder of the Pure Land sect, Hōnen (1133–1212). Naozane's taking of the tonsure after dutifully but ruefully killing the young Taira no Atsumori at the battle of Ichinotani during the Genpei War is one of the most affecting stories in Japanese war lore. Unique to this version of the raigō (welcoming descent) theme is the addition of the returning procession in the upper section. The sinuously curved composition of Amida's heavenly host amid the earthly and ethereal landscapes shows the complexity and beauty that Kamakura-period Buddhist painters achieved with the human form.

Fudō Myōō

Fudō Myōō (Sanskrit: Acala-vidyaraja), the chief of the Five Wisdom Kings (Godai myōō), is the wrathful avatar of Dainichi Buddha and the tenacious protector of Buddhist law. His iconography, drawn from the Dainichi Sutra, describes his body as black or blue, with bulging eyes, protruding fangs that bite his lower lip, and hair that hangs down his left shoulder. He carries in his left hand a lasso to catch and bind demons (obstacles to awakening) and in his right hand a sword to decapitate them (cut through ignorance).

The present example, from the workshop of Kaikei, one of the leading sculptors of his day, adheres to this iconography. Traces of colored pigments and strips of cut gold (kirikane) are visible in the deity’s robes, and his eyes are inlaid with crystal, intensifying his ferocious expression.

Eleven-Headed Kannon

Eleven-headed Kannon (Sanskrit: Avalokiteshvara) is an important bodhisattva in the esoteric schools of Buddhism. Atop the deity’s own head are eleven additional heads. Ten of these take the form of bodhisattvas and represent the ten stages toward enlightenment. The topmost head is that of Amida (Sanskrit: Amitabha), the Buddha from whom Kannon emanates. The fluid, deeply carved drapery follows a thirteenth-century sculptural style developed in Nara by the Kei school of Buddhist sculptors. However, the more decorative treatment 
of the robe and the heavy, solemn face suggest a fourteenth-century date for this imposing figure. It was originally installed at Kuhonji, a small Shingon school temple located northwest of Kyoto.

Portrait of Bodhidharma

An influential monk and prolific painter, Hakuin Ekaku made striking and sometimes humorous pictures that played an important role in his teaching. Dozens of half-length portraits of Bodhidharma (Japanese: Daruma), the Indian monk credited with transmitting Zen Buddhist teachings to China in the sixth century, can be dated to the last few decades of the artist’s life. He brushed a variety of different messages on these pictures, perhaps the most common being four Chinese characters conveying a clear lesson: “Look inside yourself to become a buddha.” The inscription on this work, however, is more enigmatic and seemingly incomplete: “No matter how one looks at it . . . ” In his teaching, Hakuin focused on the practice of koan, or paradoxical dialogues that when contemplated may lead to spontaneous awakening.

Shakyamuni Conquering the Demons (Shaka Gōma-zu)

This scene probably depicts an episode from the life of Shaka (Skt: Shakyamuni), the historical Buddha, the attack of the demon king Mara. Shaka Buddha was able however, to defeat Mara and his army and thus attain enlightenment. Some pictorial elements modify the conventional iconography: a flaming dragon replaces the demonic human figure usually representing Mara; a rock cave stands in for the bodhi tree as a place of contemplation; and Buddha's hand is in the prayer gesture. Traditional pictorial elements for representing the historical Buddha in this 19th century painting are the tuft between Buddha's brows (urna) and the cranial bump on his head (usnisa). This complex presentation of Buddha's enlightenment contains elements familiar from other Buddhist iconic representations, for instance, the outdoor settings of Buddha Descending the Mountain (Shussan Shaka) or of Rakan, who is often represented as is Shaka in this album leaf, with a dragon.

The painter, Kyōsai was one of the few Meiji painters whose paintings were collected and appreciated in the West. The powerful subject matter of this painting contrasts with the refined execution of very fine gold on silk.

A Nenbutsu Gathering at Ichiya, Kyoto, from the Illustrated Biography of the Monk Ippen and His Disciple Ta'a (Yugyō Shōnin engi-e)

People from all social classes have gathered to watch the monk Ippen (1239–1289) invoke Amida Buddha through a recitation of the Nenbutsu prayer. Their anticipation is evident as they wait for his buoyant, incantatory dance to begin. Although Ippen first studied Tendai Buddhism at Mount Hiei, northeast of Kyoto, he became an adherent of Pure Land Buddhism (Jōdoshū) and the practice of odori nenbutsu, the rhythmic chanting of Amida Buddha’s name accompanied by ecstatic dancing.


Arhats (known in Japanese as rakan) are legendary disciples of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Following his example, they attained enlightenment through their own efforts. Like the disciples of Jesus, they remain in the world to preserve the teachings of the historical Buddha until the coming of the future Buddha, Maitreya. They are invariably portrayed in outdoor settings, often attended by animals both familiar and fantastic.

Images of rakan hold a special place in Zen Buddhism, where they are honored as exemplars of the individual spiritual quest. They are usually envisioned in groups of sixteen, eighteen, or five hundred and are hung flanking an image of Shakyamuni. These two can be presumed to have come from a set of sixteen, the most common format. They are closely modeled on paintings (now in the Tokyo National Museum) that were signed by a Chinese professional painter, Jin Dashou, at the end of the twelfth century in Ningbo, the port in Zhejiang Province through which Chinese teachers and Japanese students of the Zen sect traveled. The Chinese mien of the figures and the garden setting are features of an iconographic tradition attributed to Li Gonglin (ca. 1040–1106), the most celebrated figure painter of the Song dynasty.

Mandala of Wakamiya of Kasuga Shrine (Kasuga wakamiya mandara)

Seated on a pink and white lotus blossom and enclosed in a golden disc, Ame no oshikumone, the deity of Wakamiya Shrine at Kasuga, floats ethereally through space. Placed within the visual framework of a Buddhist deity and attired in the clothing of a noble youth, he holds a sword with his right hand, an allusion to his Buddhist counterpart Monju (Sanskrit: Manjushri), the bodhisattva of wisdom, whose attributes include a sword with which to cut through the illusions of the unenlightened mind. Monju is often depicted as a youthful figure, a visual reflection of his purified wisdom.

A wakamiya, or “young shrine,” is a type of subsidiary shrine usually dedicated to the child of a deity venerated in the shrine’s principal sanctuary and symbolizes youthfulness and rejuvenation.

Death of the Historical Buddha (Nehan-zu)

Essential tenets of Buddhism are explicit in paintings of the Buddha Shakyamuni’s nirvana, his passing from earthly life to the ultimate goal of an enlightened being: release from the bonds of existence through negation of desires that cause life’s intrinsic suffering. Facing westward in a final trance after a long life of teaching, the golden body of the Buddha bears the marks of his enlightened nature. Short curls covering his head indicate his ascetic life, while elongated earlobes adorned with heavy jewelry reflect his birth as a prince. A cranial protuberance and a circle of light between his brows attest to his penetrating wisdom.

Those witnessing the Buddha’s passing from earthly life reveal their own imperfect level of enlightenment in the extent of their grief. Bodhisattvas, who have achieved the spiritual enlightenment of Buddhahood, show a solemn serenity. Except for the Bodhisattva Jizō, who appears as a monk holding a jewel near the center of the bier, these deities are envisioned in princely raiment covering their golden bodies. Shaven-headed disciples weep bitterly, as do the multi-limbed Hindu deities and guardians who have been converted to the Buddha’s teaching. Men and women of every class, joined by more than thirty animals, grieve in their imperfect understanding of the Buddhist ideal. Even the blossoms of the sala trees change hue, as Queen Maya, mother of the Buddha, descends weeping from upper right.

Monk’s Vestment (Shichijō kesa) with Floral-Lozenge Pattern

The bestowal of the Buddhist master’s vestment (kesa) upon the disciple represents the transmission of the dharma (teaching). This is especially true in Zen Buddhism, as only the master can recognize that the disciple is on the way to—or has reached—enlightenment. Kesa thus indicate the rank of the owner within the religious hierarchy, and are treasured vestments associated with those who wore them. As a reminder of the Buddha’s simple, patched garment, small rectangular pieces of fabric are sewn together to form one kesa, worn diagonally over the left shoulder. This vestment has been created from cut-up pieces of a Noh costume (karaori), which was perhaps a religious offering.

Sazai Hall at the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats (Gohyaku Rakanji Sazaidō), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei)

The Sazaidō (literally, Turban-shell Tower, owing to its spiral staircase) is a three-story tower that was built in 1741 as a temple dedicated to the five hundred Rakan, or arhats, legendary disciples of Buddha. Men and women admire the view of Mount Fuji across the marshes from the temple's balcony. Mount Fuji serves here almost as a vanishing point, with the figures spread fan-like below.

Buddhist Maxim on the Saving Power of Amida

Like adherents of the more popular Pure Land sects, Gukyoku Reisai, a prominent Zen monk, believed in the saving power of the Buddha Amida (Sanskrit: Amitābha). This couplet, written in Chinese cursive script, reads, from right column to left:

For an utterly evil person,
there is no other expedient means.
Simply recite the name of [A]Mida
to achieve birth in Paradise.
—Trans. John T. Carpenter

Guardian Lion-Dogs

Pairs of lion‑dogs (komainu), featuring leonine heads on canine bodies, are traditionally placed before the entrance of Shinto shrines to ward off evil. The figure on the right is distinguished by its open mouth (a gyō), while the figure on the left bears a closed mouth (un gyō). These features may echo the open‑ and closed‑mouth iconography of Niō, the pair of guardian deities who protect Buddhist temples.

The Illustrated Life of Shinran (Shinran shōnin eden)

The lives of monks, who strove to model themselves after the Buddha, were a popular source for illustrated narratives. The first biography of Shinran (1173–1263), who founded the True Pure Land (Jōdo Shinshū ) sect, was written by his grandson Kakunyo (1270–1351). Illustrated versions of the story appeared first in the handscroll format and later as hanging scrolls. The latter were displayed in temple halls during the annual memorial service commemorating Shinran’s death. The entire set of scrolls was made visible to the public, allowing all the episodes in Shinran’s life to be seen at the same time, while a monk recited the story aloud—a type of performance known as etoki (picture explaining).

The narrative here progresses chronologically from right to left, bottom to top. Scenes are divided by horizontal bands of cloud.

Altar Cabinet (Zushi) for Fudō Myōō

The altar cabinet (zushi) shown here was designed to enshrine and protect a statue of Fudō Myōō carved by the monk-sculptor Mokujiki Shōnin (see the entry for 2016.363.1). The zushi was probably created much later than the statue and, reflecting the rustic character of axe-hewn sculpture, was fabricated in a simple manner using nailed together boards (the more ornate roof structure seems older, and may have been lacquered). Mostly likely used in a private home or small local temple, the hinged doors would have been opened when praying to the sculpture.

Portrait of a Zen Master

The intense presence of a Zen master is achieved here by a focus on realism in the face, while the body, with its heavy robes flowing over the chair, is more conventionalized. Sculpted portraits were frequently venerated in the living quarters of Zen temples. There, they provided a physical reminder of the deceased founder, who, in an unbroken chain of transmission from master to disciple, represented the crucial link between his disciples and the lineage that descended from the historical Buddha. This notion of teaching "from heart to heart" without the aid of sutras is central to Zen and made such portraits more important than icons of Buddhist deities.

Modern Versions of the twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety: Guo Zhu

As his young wife watches raptly, a young man is taking boiling water with a bamboo ladle from an iron tea cauldron in a square hearth set into the tatami mat floor. Behind him a Chinese-style painting of a bird in bamboo is hung before a bird-shaped incense burner in the tokonoma alcove. This scene of domestic tranquility focused on the cauldron and other utensils of the formal tea ceremony (chanoyu) is in fact a witty parody of one of the moralizing tales propagated in Confucianism, the official ideology of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Guo Zhu, said to have lived in the second century A.D. in China, was so devoted to his aged mother that, finding himself unable to support his entire family, he persuaded his wife that they should bury their infant son to be able to feed her. As he was digging the grave, he uncovered a cauldron of gold, a just reward which saved him from a painful, extreme exercise of his filial piety. Such an urbane twist on a traditional theme is typical of the wit of Ukiyo artists and their Edo patrons, who chafed under the rigid morality espoused by the Shogunate. Koryūsai adopted the doll-like figures of his teacher Harunobu, adding a fresh robustness that prefigures the more realistic representations of the 1780s. The darkened mottling on the orange color is the result of oxidation of red lead, an effect sometimes used intentionally for architectural elements.


This oversize rendition of the character for “virtue” (toku 徳) reflects the exuberant spiritual energy projected by Ekaku, who was one of the foremost proponents of the revival of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism in late Edo-period Japan. Originally composed by Chinese historian and Confucian scholar Sima Guang (1018–1086), the inscription reads:

If you pile up money for your children and grandchildren,
they won’t be able to hold onto it.
If you pile up books for your children and grandchildren,
they won’t read any of them.
No, the best thing to do is to quietly accumulate virtue,
in the spiritual realm.
Such a gift will benefit your descendants
for a long, long time.
—Trans. adapted from Jonathan Chaves