Many Japanese people are devotees of Buddhism. However, it is possible that not all of these devotees are aware that their personal beliefs are Buddhist in origin.
When Buddhism came to Japan, the religion became deeply embedded in the existing Japanese culture. Many contemporary Japanese words are Buddhist in origin.
Buddhism and Japanese culture are tightly intertwined. Sometimes this connection is so close that people no longer even realize that it exists.
For example, when people hear the word “bodhisattva”, most immediately think of its most well-known meaning – a celebrated Buddhist figure. People who are a little more aware of the word’s connotations may also recall that bodhisattva statues usually take the shape of a woman.
While Japanese bodhisattva statues tend to depict female figures, not all bodhisattvas are in fact female. Indeed, most bodhisattva statues from Southeast Asia or India depict male figures with a dignified countenance.
Some people say that the historical deification of yūjo (women of pleasure) in Japan has something to do with how bodhisattva became female in the Japanese imagination.
Original Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism
When Buddhism first emerged in ancient India, it was an idea that barely bore any resemblance to a “religion” at all. The foundations of Buddhism were built on the teachings of Shakyamuni, but these were “principles for how to live one’s life” rather than religious teachings.
As Buddhism spread eastwards, however, it began to take on the trappings of a real religion. This happened because whenever Buddhism took root in a region, it absorbed the indigenous gods who were already worshiped there. That is why the gods of regions outside India are described as Buddhas in Buddhist literature.
By the time Buddhism reached the shores of Japan, it was no longer a set of principles for how to live one’s life, but a full-fledged religion. Of course, Japan’s indigenous gods and goddesses were also absorbed into Buddhism.
This is how Buddhism, which originally had little to do with religious belief, arrived in Japan in the form of a religion with an eclectic pantheon of divine beings.
How Japan’s indigenous goddesses were reconciled with Buddhism
Long before Buddhism reached Japan, indigenous religious practices were already present in every part of the country. One of these was the practice of goddess worship.
Goddess worship took place in every part of Japan. In most cases, this worship probably had its origins in male sexuality. Indeed, it is not so very odd that men would conceptualize women who gave them sexual pleasure as sources of salvation.
Examples from Europe
Goddess worship was definitely part of Japanese history. Still, to claim that this practice was absorbed into Buddhism, which led to the depiction of female bodhisattvas seems like quite a leap of logic.
In Western societies, however, there are also historical examples of goddess worship being absorbed into a new and dominant religion. “Mary worship” is the most obvious example.
At its essence, Christianity is a monotheistic religion centered around the worship of Jesus Christ. In the Bible, Mary’s only role in the story of Jesus Christ is as the mother who gave birth to him. She nevertheless became a figure of worship, because people in areas with existing indigenous religions projected their goddess(es) onto Mary instead.
The bodhisattvas of singing and dancing
Some say that during the Edo period, when the Tokukagawa shogunate ruled Japan, yūjo (women of pleasure) were also called “bodhisattvas of singing and dancing”. In other words, bodhisattvas who were performers.
It is not clear whether yūjo came to be depicted as bodhisattvas because the bodhisattvas were usually depicted as female, or whether bodhisattvas ended up female in Japan because people began to depict yūjo as bodhisattvas. However, it is no stretch to say that by the early modern period, there was a strong relationship between bodhisattvas and yūjo in Japan.
This is how Buddhism, which was imposed upon the public by the country’s rulers, mixed with Japan’s indigenous culture until it was impossible to say where one ended and the other began. We know very little about exactly how bodhisattvas and yūjo relate to each other, but it is an intriguing mystery.