Zen and Shinto are both religions with a long history and significant influence in Japan. Shinto is a system of nature worship with prehistoric roots in that country, and its traditions are interwoven with Japanese life at a basic, almost primordial, level. Zen, on the other hand, is a branch of Buddhism that came to Japan via China in the 12th century. In feudal Japan, it was practiced mostly by the nobility and military classes.

Shinto Shrines, Buddhist Temples

About 80 percent of Japanese people are either Shinto or Buddhist, and many are both. Shinto is a tradition of nature and ancestor worship, and its shrines, demarcated by large gates called torii, are pervasive throughout the country. They are the sites of yearly matsuri, or festivals, held to honor the gods. Buddhist temples, including those of Zen, are centers of meditation and spiritual practice. Unlike Shinto, which has no dogma or scriptures, Zen has a large body of teachings that includes those of Buddhism in general, and the temples are the traditional places where these teachings are disseminated.

The Sun Goddess

Although Shinto lacks a body of scripture, a document dating from 712 describes the mythological origins of Japan and its people, and that mythology has had an important impact on Japanese history. The Shinto document, called the Kojiki, or Record of Ancient Things, describes how the sun goddess Amaterasu gave birth to the Yamato clan, to whom all subsequent emperors have been related. Shinto has enjoyed the status of a state religion since even before the Tokugawa government proclaimed it the number one religion in terms of political matters during the Edo Period (1603 - 1867). Emperors, who are descended from the Yamato clan, have, in the past, claimed divinity through the relationship.

Zen No-Mind

Zen is highly disciplined practice that traces its origins to Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk who traveled from India and settled in a cave near Shaolin Monastery in China around 500. According to Shaolin Monastery records, Bodhidharma meditated facing a wall in the cave for nine years. That austerity is a hallmark of lineage he founded, and one that greatly appealed to the shoguns and samurai alike. Many Japanese art forms have been influenced by Zen. These include tea ceremony, noh drama, kaiseki cooking, haiku poetry, rock gardens, flower arrangement and calligraphy -- all display a minimalist spirit in tune with the doctrine of no-mind.

Politics of Japanese Religion

Zen-- and Buddhism in general -- has a history of falling into and out of favor with the ruling class in Japan, and when it is out of favor, it is superseded by Shinto. During the Edo Period, the functions of Buddhism and Shinto were separated; the shogunates of the Momoyama Period (1573-1603) and the Imperial government of the early 20th century banned Buddhism altogether and made Shinto the official religion of the country. Today, Zen and Shinto coexist peacefully as quintessentially Japanese creations with an important difference: Shinto thrives mainly on Japanese soil, but Zen has spread worldwide.