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Buddhism in Japan

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by Jeffrey Hays

As is the case with Shinto, estimates on the number of Buddhists in Japan varies greatly. According to one count there are 92 million of them, in another there are 37 million. The first figure reflects the majority of Japanese, who visit Buddhists temples and make offerings at Buddhist shrines from time to time, and attend Buddhist funerals. The second figure reflects more serious Buddhist followers.

The are numerous Buddhist sects in Japan. The largest is the Nichiren sect with about nine million members. The Zen sect has about 4.5 million members. Most Japanese Buddhist sects embrace beliefs of East Asian Mahayana ("Greater Vehicle") Buddhism, which preaches salvation in paradise for everyone rather than focusing on individual perfection as is the case with Theravada Buddhism favored in Southeast Asia.

Buddhism has traditionally been embraced by Japanese because it promised salvation and an afterlife. It is practiced in conjunction with Shinto beliefs—people often say prayers both to Buddha and Shintos kamis—and this is not considered contradictory. Today, Japanese Buddhism contains elements of Chinese-style ancestor worship.

The Japanese name for The Buddha is Shaka. Japanese Buddhism is very similar to Chinese Buddhism. It has held up better than Chinese Buddhism because it has adapted itself better to the modern world and was not repressed like it and other religions were in Communist China. Because of Japan’s historical isolation and hierarchal society, once Buddhism was introduced, it took on a definite Japanese character with sects developing like corporations so their survival would be ensured.



Good Websites and Sources: Buddhism in General Introduction to Buddhism ; Guide to Buddhism Buddhist Studies Virtual Library on Buddhism ; Buddhism Library

Buddhism in Japan Guide to Buddhism in Japan ; Wikipedia article on Buddhism in Japan Wikipedia Japan Buddhist Federation ; Buddhism and Shintoism in Japan A to Z Poto Dictionary Honganji temple Site ; History of Japanese Buddhism ; Buddhism and Prince Shotoku ; Columbia University article on Buddhism in Japan ; Asia Society article on Buddhism in Japan Photos Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive ; Of Temples at Japan-Photo Archive ; Of Pagodas ; Of Buddha at Japan-Photo Archive

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in Japan: A View on Religion in Japan ; Book: Religion in Japan ; Religion and Secular Japan ; U.S. State Department 2009 Report on Religious Freedom in Japan ; Resources for East Asian Language and Thought ; Society for the Study of Japanese Religions ; Contemporary Papers on Japanese Religion ; Japan Glossary Washington State University ; Shinshuren, Federation of New Religious Organizations of Japan

Mahayana Buddhism

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Mahayana Buddhism encompasses a wide range of philosophical schools, metaphysical beliefs, and practical meditative disciplines. It that is more widespread and has more followers than Theravada Buddhism and includes Zen and Soka-gakkai Buddhism. It is practiced primarily in the northern half of the Buddhist world: in China, Tibet, Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam and Japan.

"Mahayana” means "the Great Vehicle.” The word vehicle is used because Buddhist doctrine is often compared to a raft or ship that carries one across the world of suffering to better worlds. Greater is reference to the universality of its doctrines and beliefs as opposed to narrowness of other schools. It rival sect Theravada Buddhism is referred in a somewhat dismissing way as the Hinayana (“Lesser Vehicle”) sect.

Mahayana Buddhism evolved around the A.D. 1st century during the second phase of Buddhist development as a reinterpretation of the Theravada rules for monks. It teaches that there is only one path to enlightenment and it is open to all beings; holds Bodhisattvas in great reverence; and places an emphasis on ritualistic practices, sutras and meditation and discourages forming attachments on the basis they are impermanent.

Mahayana spread to more distant lands than Theravada Buddhists because it allowed monks to travel more freely and was able to assimilate and accommodate local religions by using the concept of Bodhisattvas. Mahayana Buddhists have great reverence for Bodhisttavas, the future Buddha Maitreya and Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise and the Buddhist equivalent of a savior who helps followers get into "heaven.”.

Mahayana Buddhism Beliefs

Mahayana Buddhists believe in a multitude of heavens, hells and descriptions of nirvana and have great reverence for Bodhisattvas—Buddhist "saints" on the verge of nirvana who stopped short of attaining it, so, like Buddha, they could teach their method to others.


The tenants of Mahayana Buddhism are more vague and all-encompassing than the strict tenants of Theravada Buddhism, but its followers often conform to a very regimented routine as is the case with Zen.

Mahayana Buddhists believe that salvation is accessible to all those who have faith and regard their religion as a way of life that can be embraced by any one. They also enjoy philosophical discussion and intellectual gymnastics and enlist the help of female deities and magical forces and worship a pantheon of gods, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Mahayana Buddhists see The Buddha as the sum total of everything there is; discount his historical personage; view his life on earth in magical and transcendent terms; and have Bodhisattvas and Buddhas that address issues important to ordinary people. The Supreme Buddha became an all knowing force that pervaded every part of the universe, like a creator God.

Mahayana Buddhism places an emphasis on the process of attaining nirvana through the purification of the consciousness and has been “expanded” to respond to the needs of local people it severed. Its followers a number of mythologies and ontological doctrines. They see true reality as “Emptiness;” define ten stages which Bodhisattvas must pass through to reach Buddhahood; and see everything being connected by a kind of cosmic thread rooted in true reality.

Differences Between Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism ("doctrine of the elders") is the oldest and most orthodox of Buddhism's three major sects. Regarded as the belief closest to the one taught by The Buddha himself, it is based on the recollections of The Buddha’s teachings amassed by the Elders—the elder monks who were Buddha’s companions. It is practiced in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and the Mekong Delta areas of Vietnam.

The guiding principal in Theravada Buddhism is that nothing is permanent and attachment to things will only bring unhappiness and distract one from intrinsic spiritual matters. Anicca teaches that nothing lasts. Trying to embrace experiences, states of mind and objects only causes dukkha. Annatta is coming to the understanding that there is there is no point dwelling on one’s place in this world.

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In Theravada Buddhism worship and devotion to persons is frowned upon. The offerings of fruit and flowers made are temples are symbols of impermanence not an object of worship. Chants are not prayers but are reminders of the beneficence of The Buddha, Dharma and the monk community.

Mahayana Buddhists claim their doctrines are rooted in early teachings of Buddha and say they do not reject the beliefs of Theravada Buddhism, but have just expanded on them. Theravada Buddhists view Mahayana Buddhism as a corrupted form of Buddha’s teaching plus see it as too easy. Theravada Buddhists are taught that one must “work out one’s own salvation with diligence” whereas Mahayana Buddhists believe faith is enough to earn all believers eventual salvation.

Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism differ greatly on the matter of Bodhisattvas. Mahayana Buddhists recognize many of them as well as many Buddhas. Theravada Buddhists recognize just one, The Buddha.

Early History of Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism is believed to have been first introduced to Japan in 539 A.D.—along with the Chinese language, Chinese ideographs and Buddhist styles of painting, sculpture and architecture—via Korea when a Korean ruler attempting to form an alliance with the Yamato clan sent some Buddhist texts as a gift. Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) Buddhism was the school of Buddhism that was introduced.

The famous Tang Dynasty Chinese monk Jianzhen, who is known as Ganjin in Japan, is credited with introducing Buddhism to Japan in the 7th century. His first five efforts to reach Japan were thwarted by shipwrecks, storms and government red tape. He finally made on his sixth attempt after he was blinded by an eye disease.

At first Buddhism was rejected by Shinto priests on the grounds that embraced foreign kami (spirits or deities), but later it was accepted by members of the Japanese court. Its acceptance rose and fell in the early years based on political factionalism and struggles and Buddhism’s perceived role in natural disasters and good and bad harvests.


Shotoku Taishi (born in 574, ruled 593-622) is regarded as the "father of Japanese Buddhism." He made Buddhism the state religion by constructing major Buddhist temples such as Horyu-ji near Nara. His was goal was to create a harmonious society. Under Shotoku Buddhism became the state religion, scriptures, art and craftsmen were brought in from Korea and Japanese monks were sent abroad to study. Temples were founded, monks were ordained and ceremonies were held publically.

Buddhism was promoted in the Nara Period (A.D. 710-794), especially by Emperor Shomu, who ordered the construction of Todaiji Temple and Daibutsi (Great Buddha) in Nara, and issued a decree for the construction of state Buddhist temples in each province. Emperor Shomu was deeply religious. He believed that he could overcome the epidemics and unrest that occurred during his reign with the power of The Buddha.

Buddhism in Medieval Japan

Buddhism began to have some influence in Japan the Tang period (618-907). Jianzhen had some success spreading Buddhism in Japan and sent 19 groups of Japanese students to China. They in turn brought back knowledge of Chinese culture, medicine and other things.

Japanese monks who studied at Chinese monasteries and returned home in the Southern Song period from the mid 12th to mid 13th centuries had a profound impact on Japan. The Mongol invasions of China in the 13th and 14th centuries caused many Chinese monks to immigrate to Japan.

The main Japanese Buddhist sects—Shingon, Tendai, Pure Land Nichiren, and Zen—sprung up during the Heian Period (794-1185) and Kamakura Period (1192-1338). The first homegrown Buddhist sects to take hold in Japan were the Tendai and Shingon schools. Buddhism spread and was embraced by a wide range of people during Kamakura Period (1192-1333), when Japan experienced a great deal of political unrest and social chaos.

In the Heian period Buddhist culture was primarily the property of the court and the aristocracy—a very small minority in Japan. Between 1150 and 1300 new sects and doctrines arose that were founded by reformers. They used simple ideas and lively language that appealed to ordinary farmers, fishermen and soldiers.

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Mt. Hiei (on a ridge between northern Kyoto and Lake Biwa) is one of holiest mountains in Japan and is regarded as the mother mountain of Japanese Buddhism Enryaku-ji Temple sits on top of Mt. Hiei. Founded in 788 by Saicho, the priest who founded the Tendai school of Buddhism, it was established to protect Kyoto from demons traveling from the northeast and was the center of Buddhism in Japan for 800 years.

At its height Enryaku-ji Temple contained 3,000 buildings and the ruling monks that resided there—who were more powerful than the Imperial family—had armies warrior monks to support them. In 1581, the ruling shogun saw the temple as threat and ordered nearly all of the temple buildings and the monks destroyed. Many famous monks are associated with Enryaku and Mt. Hiei: Honen, founder of the Jodo sect; Eisai, founder of the Zen sect; Dogen, founder of the Soto sect; Shinran, founder of the Jodoshin sect; and Nichiren, founder of the Nichiren sect.

Buddhism introduced a style of art to Japan that dominated aesthetic life there until the 17th century and emphasized grace, ease, color, gaiety and harmony that conveyed human interest and narrative and shunned the grotesque and discordant.

History of Buddhism and Shintoism

The term Shinto was first used around the time that Buddhism was introduced in part to distinguish the indigenous religions of Japan from the imports from the Asian mainland. The way (to) in Japanese is the same as Tao in Taoism. It was fortunate that the brand of Buddhism that entered Japan was the Mahayana form, which tended to be tolerant and willing to accept new ideas and form bonds with other belief schemes.

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Within Japanese Buddhism, Shinto was explained as a sort of local manifestation of universal truths and kami were integrated as local versions of Buddhist deities. Shintoism accommodated Buddhism by making Buddha a kami that originated from China and making kamis susceptible to the same cycles or death and rebirth that Buddhist believe occur to people. Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were often built near one another. Buddhist sutras were recited to kami and kami were later regarded as incarnations of Bodhisattvas.

Buddhism has coexisted in Japan along with Shintoism for at least 1,400 years. Throughout most of Japan's history, Buddhism was a faith linked with the upper classes while a mixture of Shinto, animist and Buddhist beliefs were observed by ordinary Japanese. Buddhism is credited with making purity in Shinto an internal issue as well as an external one.

Ryobu, or Dual Shinto, is movement based on mutual respect between Buddhism and Shintoism. Originating in the 8th century, it borrowed ideas and doctrines from both religions and manifested itself through Buddhist relics placed in Shinto shrines; statues of Shinto deities erected in Buddhist temples; and the Emperor expressing his loyalty to Three Treasures of the Sun Goddess and promising to revere the teachings of The Buddha.

Temples for the Buddhist Tendai sect had so many Shinto elements they were described as “religious junkyards.” The Tendai believed that Buddhist deities were aspects of The Buddha, thus it followed that Shinto kami could be incorporated as aspects of The Buddha as well. The Shingon sect of Buddhism also incorporated Shinto elements.

In the Heian Period, ascetic Japanese holy men, known as hijiri, were thought of as Buddhists even though they wandered in the mountains in an attempt to attain superhuman powers and "ecstatic inspiration" and worked at Shinto shrines as shaman. Beginning in the 15th century there was a concerted effort to rid Shintoism of Buddhist and other foreign elements that gained momentum when Shintoism was transformed into a nationalist ideology in the 19th century.


Buddhist Militarism and Power in Japan

here was a militant side to Japanese Buddhism. Many monasteries were fortified and had standing armies. These measures began as protective measures against brigands and marauding armies but over time led to the sects becoming like feudal states, sometimes with large armies controlling entire provinces.

Until the 12th century, Buddhism was closely associated with the aristocracy’s strategy of centralizing political control. Temples such as Kofukuji in Nara, Enryakuji in Kyoto and Koyasan south of Nara held a great deal of power. Religious leaders, court nobles and military leaders competed with one another and formed alliances. Temples earned money from taxes and donations, intended to support monks and maintain buildings.

Monks worked as soldiers and formed power networks with the imperial court and influential members of the nobility. It was not uncommon for violence to occur between monks and warriors over conflicts between temples and the Imperial court. The Buddhist monk Shunkan (1142-1179) is a tragic figure in Japanese history. As punishment for his failed plot against the ruling Heike clan, he was exiled to Iojima island, south of Kagoshima, Kyushu. He was left alone on the island after his conspirators were granted amnesty and is believed to have committed suicide. His story is the basis of a famous Noh play.

Many Buddhist monks were involved in business. Many sake brewers were low level Buddhist priests. They were often the most cash rich people around because they received a reliable source of income from their products. They often served as moneylenders, charging interest of between 60 percent and 300 percent a year. The lords were indebted to sake priests for their ability to generate taxable income.

In the 16th century, Buddhists were persecuted and many were killed for political reasons. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), the shogun attempted to reduce civil strife by assigning religious groups to a specific sphere and forbidding them to move outside it. The shogunate banned proselytizing and forced all people to register at Buddhist temples as part of an efforts to eliminate Christianity. Interest in Buddhism declined during the stable but authoritarian rule of the shogunate. During the Meiji Period, Shintoism was made the state religion and Buddhism was given a secondary role.


Book: The Gates of Power: Monks, Courtiers and Warriors in Premodern Japan by Mikael S. Adolphson (Hawaii University Press, 2001)

Buddhism in Japan Today

Buddhism in Japan has adapted to the modern world by drawing on elements of Christianity and secular scholarship and abandoning some traditional Buddhist doctrines. Western scholarship methods have been applied to Buddhist studies; Western ideas have been debated; welfare services have been set up;; scholars and leaders have gone abroad to study and spread their message and learn from others; monks have been allowed to marry; lay organizations have been involved in temple activity; and Buddhist leaders have been are involved in politics.

Today, Buddhism is viewed by many Japanese mainly as a vehicle for dealing with the death of loved ones. Buddhist monks are often consulted only for funerals and ceremonies honoring the dead and temples and family alters are seen as way of praying for and honoring deceased relatives. Modern-day Japanese Buddhism is often called “funeral Buddhism.”

One visitor to a Buddhist temple in Tokyo told the Japan Times, “I visit the temple just to communicate with my mother. Even though I offer a prayer to Amida for help for my mother, I’ve never felt I engaged in the practice of Buddhism.”

Most of the money earned by temples comes from funerals and the care and honoring of the dead. Priests are typically paid about $2,000 dollars for their role in a two-day funeral service. They are also well paid for presiding over ceremonies honoring the dead. Temples earn monthly donations for caring for graves and displaying tablets with the spiritual names of the deceased. The money earned though is often not enough to pay up for the upkeep costs of the temple, salaries of the priests and monks and the fee to the administrative headquarters of the Buddhist sect.

Buddhist priests say the believe that interest in Buddhism will grow as the world people live in becomes more uncertain and more complex and that more lay people—rather than people following family members—will become priests.

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Modernizing Japanese Buddhism

The inability of Buddhism to address modern problem and to be relevant is regarded as one reason why so many people turn to cult religions in Japan. A monk at Mtizuzoin Temple in Tokyo told the Daily Yomiuri,“People have become estranged from places of worship, especially since the country’s period of rapid economic growth.”“

In an attempt to attract younger followers Buddhist temples are hosting concerts and noh performances, staging musicals and magic shows and encouraging monks to perform stand-up comedy routines and do little dances when they chant Buddhist sutras.

A monk at the Kansho Tagai temple in Tokyo told the Daily Yomiuri, “A temple’s Hondo [main building] is meant to be a place where people get together and mingle. But people are forgetting this.” At his temple a number of events are staged which have allowed people to get together and have a good time and get to know each other.

In Japan there is dial-a-monk service. Typically callers are worried about high funeral costs and want advice on how to save money.

In June 2009, the Koysan Shingon Buddhist sect said it was going to help monks and priests and single women affiliated with its temples to find spouses as part of an effort tp make sure the sect stays alive as it is having an increasingly hard time finding priest to manage its temples.

Buddhist Beliefs

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Buddhists believe that life is full of misery and hardship and that it is ultimately is unreal. The cycle of birth and rebirth continues because of attachment and desire to the "unreal self." Meditation and good deed will ultimately end the cycle and help the individual to achieve Nirvana, a state of blissful nothingness. To achieve this one must look inward and gain control of the mind and find internal peace. To achieve this takes time and is an evolutionary process that takes place in stages through many lifetimes and cycles or birth, death and rebirth to attain the "real soul" within a person which is in a constant state of flux. .

Buddhists believe that only the things that matters is the inward self and outside world is not really real; that the goal of Buddhism is to reach a state of nothingness; and human beings are compositions of five temporary states—physical form, sensation, perception, volition and consciousness—all of which disappear after death. Buddhist deny the existence of an individual soul and tell their followers they must transcend this egocentric view to reach nirvana. In its purist forms, Buddhism has no beginning and no end, no Creation and no Heaven and no soul.

Buddhists believe: 1) life is full of suffering, death, sickness and the loss of loved ones; 2) life is perpetuated by reincarnation (rebirth); 3) suffering is caused by desire (particularly physical desire and the desire for personal fulfillment) and liberation from rebirth occurs with the elimination of desire; 4) eight steps ("The Eightfold Path") are necessary to live a good life on earth; 5) the only one way to escape suffering is the way of Buddha; 6) this path leads to nirvana; and 7) salvation comes with faith in Buddha and practice of Buddha law (Dharma) as preached by a community of monks (the Sangha).

There are many aspects of Buddhism that simply seem to be beyond expression. The religious historian I.B. Hunter described Buddhism as a religion of “affinities, depths, heights and subtleties, with its solidarity and cohesiveness, its clear pointing to something more than could be actually said in words.”

Dharma, Buddhist Teaching


Dharma, or “what is right and what ought to be,” is Buddha’s teachings. The statements that The Buddha is recorded of having said were generally very brief. He only elaborated upon them if requested to or he viewed such elaborations were necessary. These statements were comprehended in many different ways by many different individuals and thousands of pages were written about them.

The Buddha’s teaching was not designed to answer philosophical or speculative questions. It was established to offer a means of escape from suffering. Gautama Buddha was put off by speculation about the cosmos and eternity and was interested mostly in what could help one reach enlightenment in the here and now. Buddhism philosophy and cosmology is either rooted in Hinduism or came about as Buddhism developed after Gautama’s death.

On one hand The Buddha encouraged individuals to seek their own inner truths and never said that his teachings and doctrines were sacrosanct and should be followed completely. But on the other hand he said that there was one sole Way to achieve purification and overcome suffering and those who deviated from the Way would some how fall short of achieving his aim.

In Dhammapada 276 The Buddha said: “Sadly lives the man of sloth involved in evil unskilled states of mind, and great is the goal he fails to win. But he who stirs up energy lives happily, aloof from unskilled states of mind and great is the goal he makes perfect. Not through what is low comes the attainment of the highest, but through what is high come the attainment fo the highest.”

The Way and the Four Holy Truths

Buddha's teachings are known as "The Way," "The Path" or the “Middle Way.” The Buddhist "Path" consists of three directionsmorality, meditation and wisdom—all of which are pursued simultaneously. The "Middle Way" refers to a life is halfway between a life of self-torture and asceticism and a life of self-indulgence in the material world.

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According to the Middle Way one must: 1) live their life “fully but not care what happens; " 2) avoid putting too much emphasis on material success because "it soon turns to dust in our hands;" 3) don’t get “obsessed with the dust, convinced that nothing matters”; and 4) recognize the Four Noble Truths.

The Four Holy Truths of Buddhism are: 1) dukka, the belief that human life is an exercise in suffering replete with evil, disease, imperfection and unhappiness; 2) samodaya, the concept that suffering is caused by craving and desire, which can not satisfy the spirit; 3) nirodha, freedom offered by renouncement of desire, which is rooted in ignorance; and 4) magga, the cessation of desire which culminates in nirvana by following the Eightfold Path. These principals were introduced in the First Sermon at Sarnath.

Three Jewels and the Eightfold Path

he Three Jewels—The Buddha, Dharma (The Buddha's teachings), and the Sangha (the community of monks) who preserve and transmit Buddha’s teachings—are central to the understanding and teaching of Buddhism and are the Buddhist equivalent of the Christian Holy Trinity. One definition of a Buddhist is one “one who takes refuge in the Three Jewels.” The vow taken by Theravada monks—"I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the law, I take refuge in the Sangha—is asserts their embrace of the Three Jewels.

The "Eightfold Path," which Buddhists are supposed to follow is comprised of: 1) right understanding (the realization that is full of suffering and suffering is caused by desire); 2) right thought (conditioning the mind to be free of desire and ill thoughts towards others); 3) right speech (refraining from lies, abuse and deceit); 4) right bodily action (refraining from violence); 5) right livelihood (avoiding self-indulgence); 6) right moral effort (showing kindness and controlling passions); 7) right mindedness (developing virtues); and 8) right concentration (practicing meditation).

The "Eightfold Path” is not only seen as a code conduct but also as means of achieving nirvana by overcoming the senses and consciousness in a step-by-step way progressing through the Three Pillars of the Eightfold Path: 1) wisdom (panna, which embraces one and two in the Eightfold Path; 2) morality (sila, which embraces three, four and five); and 3) concentration (samadhi, which embraces six, seven and eight).

Buddhist Philosophizing

Philosophical discussions are especially important with Mahayana Buddhists. Monks engage in long philosophical discussions about thing like “What is change?” and “What is right?” Novice monks learn the subtle points of Buddhist theology by participating in debates on things like whether or not a rabbit has a horn and whether or not past and future events can be described as real.

Describing the Buddhist form of discussion, one American Buddhist told the New Yorker, “The philosophy of the mind” was presented as “a kind of brick-by-brick construction of proper view of consciousness. Each point was introduced, examined from the point of view of several different schools of Buddhist thought, then synthesized into a conclusion that led to the next point.”

Japanese Buddhist Beliefs

According to Japanese Buddhist cosmology the universe is composed of six realms with Mt. Sumisem—which stands 560,000 kilometers above the oceans that surround it—at the center. On the slopes are the realms of the deva (tenbu or tenjo), beings considered a rank below Bodhisattvas, with the Devas Benzai-ten and Daikoku-ten being particularly popular with ordinary people. Somewhere around the mountain is another realm, Ashura, the home of the deities where there is always some kind of fighting going on.

The other four realms are found on or under an island located near the edge of the universe. On the surface of the island is our world, the realm of the humans (ningen). Below it is the realm of nonhuman creatures, then a multiple-layered hell (jogoku) and finally the realm of the hungry ghosts (gaki), the saddest and most desperate place, where ghosts search endlessly for food and water the can not have for anything that enters their mouth turns to fire.

There is mobility between the realms. The occupants of any one realm are not thought of as residents but rather as visitors.