In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Classical Japanese Buddhist Philosophy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Honji Suijaku (True Nature Manifestation)
  • Hongaku (Original Enlightenment, Awakening)
  • Zen
  • Kūkai (Kōbō Daishi)
  • Shinran

Buddhism Classical Japanese Buddhist Philosophy
Masato Ishida
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0082


The word “philosophy,” or tetsugaku in modern Japanese, can be perceived as problematic when applied to Japanese Buddhism. Until the late 19th century, there was no explicit term or concept in the Japanese mind corresponding to philosophy in the Western sense, while various conceptual and doctrinal formations of Japanese Buddhism mostly took place in the Middle Ages. Furthermore, the language and logic employed in Japanese Buddhist philosophy operate very differently from how they work, for example, in Indian Buddhist philosophy. There is rarely a logical argument that purports to convince the audience rationally, nor can there be found any clear division of philosophy into the common branches of epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics. Japanese Buddhist philosophy is more or less practice-oriented, and the distinction between philosophy and religion is often blurred accordingly. On the other hand, scholastic approaches to canonical Buddhist texts have been valued in the literate sphere, which resulted in numerous commentaries on works by past masters. Classical Buddhist texts, brought to the country through China and the Korean peninsula, were read and studied mostly in Chinese translation. A greater number of domestic Buddhist theories and texts appeared in and after the Heian period (794–1185 CE), reflecting the complete naturalization process of Buddhism in Japan. The growth of honji suijaku (“true nature manifestation”) theory, according to which indigenous Japanese gods are transformed or syncretized manifestations of the Buddhist pantheon, and the development of hongaku (“original enlightenment”) theory, which asserts the strict non-duality of the phenomenal and the real, offer fine examples of Japanese creativity. Syncretism is found across both theory and ritual practice in all sects of Japanese Buddhism, integrating Buddhist views with Shintoism, Confucianism, and Daoism. Buddhist philosophy has remained influential throughout the intellectual and cultural history of Japan since its introduction to the country in the mid-6th century CE. Modern Japanese philosophy, initiated by Nishida Kitarō, the founder of the so-called Kyoto School of philosophy, can be seen as a synthesis of Buddhist traditions and Western philosophical views encountered by Japanese intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Postwar Japanese Buddhist philosophers have involved themselves in comparative philosophy in order to enrich East-West dialogue in the modern world.

General Overviews

There are numerous works on Buddhism that cover some aspect of Japanese Buddhism, but we shall focus on philosophical works. Suzuki 1959, though somewhat dated, is still widely read and could be a fine place to start. Takeuchi 1991 may have a strong appeal to readers with comparative interests, as a work that sets Buddhism in dialogue with Western philosophy represented by such figures as Heidegger, Hegel, and Kierkegaard. Nishitani 2006 considers the meaning and scope of Buddhism in modern and postmodern society from the viewpoint of Japanese Buddhist philosophy. Another work that can be of interest to those working in areas of Japanese philosophy is Snodgrass 2003, which focuses upon the arrival of Japanese Buddhism in the United States after the Meiji era and thereby offers useful information concerning the context in which modern Japanese philosophy came into being. Tamura 2001 is a more general work, but it is listed here because of the significant role the author played in the study of hongaku theory (see Hongaku). Readers seeking more information about the history and cultural legacy of Japanese Buddhism may consult other bibliographies under “Buddhism.”

  • Nishitani, Kenji. On Buddhism. Translated by Seisaku Yamamoto and Robert E. Carter. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.

    Lectures originally delivered in 1971–1972 and 1974 by a one of the most prominent Kyoto School philosophers. Through an engaging dialogue with Christianity and Western philosophy, the author develops considerations of religious consciousness, human existence, and the meaning of Buddhism in modern and postmodern society. Introduction by Robert E. Carter; foreword by Jan Van Bragt.

  • Snodgrass, Judith. Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the Columbian Exposition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

    Focuses upon a less discussed phase of modern Japanese Buddhism. Recommended to those interested in modern Japanese philosophy as well. Includes discussions of Inoue Enryō, Shaku Sōen, Suzuki Daisetsu, John Barrows, Paul Carus, and many other interesting figures.

  • Suzuki, Daisetsu T. Zen and Japanese Culture. Bollingen Series 64. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959.

    Somewhat dated, but often reprinted and still a fine introduction to Zen and its influence in Japanese culture. Written by one of the most influential writers on the subject, the book covers a wide range of topics including art, swordsmanship, and tea ceremony.

  • Takeuchi, Yoshinori. The Heart of Buddhism: In Search of the Timeless Spirit of Primitive Buddhism. Translated by James W. Heisig. New York: Crossroad, 1991.

    The author brings Pure Land metaphysics and Western philosophy into dialogue with particular emphasis on the Buddhist concept of dependent origination. One of the most insightful works in comparative philosophy.

  • Tamura, Yoshirō. Japanese Buddhism: A Cultural History. Tokyo: Kosei, 2001.

    A very fine exposition of Japanese Buddhism by one of the best authors in the field. This book presents a wealth of cultural observations intertwined with the history of Japanese Buddhism. Recommended to a broad audience.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.