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How the Mahayan Tradition Was Affected by the Japanese War

Updated on February 10, 2022
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Nyamweya is a global researcher with many years of experience on practical research on a diversity of topics

The Mahayana, which literary means the Great Vehicle is a major branch of Buddhism whose focus is on clarifying Buddhist philosophies and practice. In light of the teaching of Mahayana tradition, the group puts much emphasis in reverence to the path of Bodhisattva which constantly seeks enlightenment for the sake of all conscious beings, an aspect that is also referred to as Bodhisattvana, or bodhisattva vehicle.

When a Bodhisattva fully accomplishes this goal, he or she is regarded as a fully enlightened Buddha or asamyaksambuddha. An asamyaksambuddha or enlightened Buddha is capable or authorized to establish the Dharma and guiding other believers on the process of enlightenment. In essence, the Mayan tradition is the largest main Buddhism branch existing today. The group constitutes 56 percent of believers when compared to Theravadas (38 percent) and Vajravanas (6 percent). Further, this major Mahayana tradition consists of the Chinese Chan, Zen, Nicheren, Tiantai and Pure Land.

Buddhism first entered Japan in 552 A.D where it has since continued to have an influence on the Japanese society since then. Till today, the religion has remained a great influence in the culture of this society. This paper is focused on studying how the war in Japan affected the various subdivisions of the Mayan tradition.


Pure land

Pure land, which is translated in Japanese as Jodo bukkyo, is a wide division of Mahayana Buddhism and among the most practiced Buddhism traditions in East Asia. It consists of Buddhist teaching traditionalist that put great emphasis in revering Amitabha Buddha. The group’s concepts and practices are found within central Mahayana Buddhist cosmology and form a vital component of Buddhist tradition of the Mahayana in China, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet and Japan. Pure land Buddhism is a term commonly used to describe both the separate sects that developed in Japan and the pure land Soteriology of the Mahayana Buddhism that may be understood better as Pure Land teachings or Pure Land traditions. Apparently, Pure Land Buddhism in Japan exists separately as four institutional sects; Ji-shu, Jodo, Shinshu, Jodoshu, and Yuzu-nembutsu.

The war in Japan led to the integration of Pure Land traditions and beliefs with those of the mainstream religions at this time. This integration led to a near parallel of pure land religious practices with for instance, those of protestant Christians. Consequently, this near relation of Pure Land tradition with those of protestant Christianity has led to widespread speculation on the potential association between the two traditions. However, Pure Land tradition has been able to maintain its most essential religious aspects, internal assumptions, cosmology, underlying practices, and doctrines and believes.

During the second world war, the Pure Land Budhist except some sections collaborated with the government in running of their institutions and in generally protecting them. This was because those who were opposite to the government control such as the Soka-gakkai society were severely persecuted and therefore, had to comply with the government requirements. This war also led to integration of this religious community along with others since they saw the necessity of unity as a form of belonging and protection.


Zen is a Mahayana Buddhism School that developed during the 6th Century in china and later spread southwards to Vietnam, Northeast to Korea and lastly to Japan. The word Zen is a consequent of ‘pinyin:Chan’, the middle Chinese word, which is in turn derived from ‘dhyāna’, the sankrit a word that can be roughly translated as being in meditative state. The Zen tradition puts great emphasis on the closeness to the nature of Buddha. Further, the subdivision also focuses on nature and the individual’s expression of these insights to the day-to-day life aspects specifically for the benefits of people. Consequently, the group de-emphasizes on simple understanding of sutras and doctrines. Rather, it favors express understanding through zazen and relations with a skillful teacher.

Among all the sub traditions of Mhayana, Zen is the predominant one that was immensely affected by world war two. Even though it was previously known that the establishment of Buddhism in Japan had supported imperialist and militarist policies of the nation before and during the Second World War, surprisingly Zen’s institutions and leaders had greatly colluded in the efforts that led to this war. Most dismaying is the degree of involvement of prominent Zen figures and masters who were highly regarded and the common man that more than anyone brought Zen to public awareness in the outside of Asia, Dr. D. Suzuki. Furthermore, the adoption of Buddhism by the warrior class was one arena where Buddhism carved a distinctive function in the history of Japan.

From historical records, the Samurai of federal Japan positioned themselves as the exemplary warriors. Similar to European Knights of the Middle Ages, the lore and romance surrounding these warriors have dignified their historical survival into a definitive, rather than a realistic people in some way. In particular, the Samurai warriors as a social group reigned in Japan for half a millennium or so. The warrior-class rose to power with the founding of the Minamoto shogunate that marked the commencement of the Kamakura period. At this particular time, Zen had developed into many sects, and the fame that came after re-introducing it from China was directly related to the patronage of shogun Eisai, the Zen monk who founded the Jufuku temple in Kamakura. A few years later, Eisai was endowed with land for constructing the Kennin temple in Kyoto.

It s therefore, imperative to note that although Budhism disregards war in any form, the Zen community in Japan embraced, as they actively participated in it. In particular, this group had become a powerful community in the land and its leaders and masters had military capabilities in organizing and executing wars. This is why it was able to convince the warrior class to join and engage in war activities in protecting their religion and country.


Nichiren Buddhism is one of the branches of Buddhism that is based on the 13th century teachings of Japanese monk Nichiren. The group is generally noted for focusing on the Lotus sutra and the belief that all humans possess the nature of an inborn Buddha and are essentially capable of attaining illumination in their physical form and current lifetime. Moreover, the group is also peculiar for its insistent opposition to all other Buddhism forms that Nichiren thought were deviating from the discoveries that Budha had made.

The experiences of World War 2 in Japan altered the perceptions of Nichiren Buddhist regarding changing and protecting the society as a form of social responsibility. Rather remaining to be among the victims of this war, the group endeavored to for creating a material, peaceful and psychological society (Metraux49). According to them, this was their biggest responsibility here on earth and that it was their mandated to restore the country. This is why they went on to build schools, temples and healthcare facilities in the country.

Concluding Remarks

Interestingly, the war in Japan had a positive impact on the Mahayana and Buddhism religion in general. In essence, there has been a surge in Buddhism believers in this post war. However, traditional Buddhism has declined in modern perspectives, where smaller Buddhist traditions are diminishing each year.

The research has identified that the war in Japan affected the Mahayan tradition in many perspectives. For one, most of the susb divisions were forced to the control of the government who subsequently determined their conduct and practices. Further, the group had to mingle with other religious groups for religious protection and belonging, a phenomena that influenced their religious fundamentals.

However, it should be noted that although all subsections of Budhism are based on the same religious principles, their views regarding wars may be different. This is why a subdivision as Zen actively engaged in this war while others fought hard to end it.


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