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Syncretism In Japanese Shinto

Shinto, the indigenous belief system of Japan, has coexisted with Buddhism for the past fifteen hundred years (the traditional date of the first appearance of Buddhism is 552 C.E., when the ruler of the Korean kingdom of Paekche sent a contingent of priests to the court of the Yamato emperor as a goodwill gesture), and Shōtoku Taishi's constitution is by no means the only example of syncretism between the two faiths. The form of Buddhism (Mahayana) that penetrated East Asia places great emphasis on bodhisattvas, or "enlightened," Buddha-like deities that intercede with the divine on behalf of human beings. Many of these figures were syncretized with the myriad Shinto kami, or deities. A good example is Hachiman, who became a Shinto war god, but whose origin, as Byron Earhart (p. 44) points out, "may be Chinese, Buddhist, or both."

Indeed, Shinto and Buddhism have become so intertwined in Japan that it is sometimes hard to know where one ends and the other begins. Most large Buddhist temples play host to one or more Shinto shrines, and, like Hachiman, Shinto kami are often conceived as guardians of the enshrined bosatsu (bodhisattva). Moreover, the latter are often worshiped in the same fashion as the kami, that is, he or she will be asked for the same sort of favors: good health, success in business or in passing examinations, and the like. Many Japanese assert that they "live" as Shintoists, but "die" as Buddhists, and this underscores a major distinction between the two faiths: the former emphasizes this world, while the latter tends to focus on the afterlife. But for practical purposes Shinto and Buddhism are, with a few exceptions, what amounts to a single faith in Japan, a complex syncretism that meets the religious needs of most Japanese.

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