Temple System in Japan

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The Japanese Buddhist temple system was established through legal decrees by the Tokugawa government (1603–1868) as a method to maintain secular control over Buddhist institutions. Overseen by the government's Office of Temples and Shrines, this administrative system involved a head-and-branch temple (honmatsu) organization. Each Buddhist sect designated a headquarters temple, which was approved by the government. With the headquarters temple at the top, all the sect's temples in Japan were linked through a hierarchical network. With links originally formed between teachers' (head temples) and disciples' temples (branch temples), a head temple often had a number of affiliated lineage branch temples. These linkages between generations of temples formed the basis for the concept that a particular temple was hierarchically superior to another.

Under the Tokugawa regime, informal lineage-based ties became formalized, and even temples that had no lineage ties were sometimes arbitrarily placed in head-and-branch relationships. This system consolidated sectarian hierarchies for all Buddhist temples by the early eighteenth century as the government perfected its control over Buddhist institutions. While the system developed out of a secular need for control, it also served each sect to establish organizational sectarian structures that persist into the modern period.

See also:Japan


Nosco, Peter. "Keeping the Faith: Bakuhan Policy towards Religions in Seventeenth-Century Japan." In Religion in Japan: Arrows to Heaven and Earth, ed. Peter Kornicki and Ian McMullen. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Williams, Duncan. "Representations of Zen: A Social and Institutional History of Sōtō Zen Buddhism in Edo Japan." Ph.D. diss. Harvard University, 2000.

Duncan Williams

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Temple System in Japan

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