The Buddhists often been to Japan the messengers of progress and light. In a real sense has Buddhism been the “Light of Asia,” and perhaps no part of Asia has received as much through it as has Japan (Eliot 115). However, it does not mean that Japan would have remained in darkness if it had not been for the religion of the Buddha. But the history of Japan having been what it was, it is correct to say that Buddhism has been a determining factor, and that the sources of Japanese culture have been either directly or indirectly mainly Buddhist.
In the field of art it is more correct to say that Zen Buddhism created certain branches of Japanese art than simply that it influenced them. Thus Japanese architecture, sculpture and painting are what they are because Zen Buddhism has made them so. Music and poetry have also been influenced, though perhaps to a lesser degree.
Japanese poetry, also, shows the influence of Zen Buddhism. It may be difficult to prove that the form of poetry has been much influenced but its contents reflect every aspect of Zen Buddhist thoughts and ideals. This is peculiarly true of the short stanzas called Tanka, consisting of not more than five lines and thirty-one syllables, and still more of the Hokku, consisting of only seventeen syllables (Izutsu 75). These short poems are really more like epigrams and so are apt vehicles of sentiments too deep for thought or ideals too lofty for many words. The favorite subject matter of these short poems are “the flowers, the birds, the snow, the moon, the falling leaves in autumn the mist on the mountains . . . and the shortness of human life,” but the point of view from which these are treated is usually the Buddhist (Eliot 70). Thus the favorite cherry blossom is the symbol of the brave knight who does not cleave selfishly to this life; the moon is the symbol of the change to which all things are subject, the falling leaves in Autumn point the way of all life, and the shortness of human life is, of course, an ever-recurrent note in Buddhism; and the short stanza is especially well suited to give expression to a sigh over life’s fleetingness.
Then a form of poetry which is distinctively Buddhist is the Wasan or Buddhist hymn. Though the Wasan is not ordinarily ranked very high as literature, occasionally these hymns rise to high levels and compare not unfavorably with our Christian hymns and songs (Dumoulin et al 95).
But if the influence of Zen Buddhism on Japanese life has been strong in the field of art, it has been perhaps even greater in the realm of philosophy and religion. In fact, it is very doubtful whether Shint? would have survived at all if it had been opposed by Zen Buddhism, and not incorporated into it; for Shint? was entirely too primitive to have satisfied much longer the growing intelligence of the Japanese (Eliot 77). Buddhism’s victory might have been delayed but it would have been inevitable. And Confucianism, too, gained its hold in Japan largely because Buddhists propagated it. It was fostered by them because it supplemented the Buddhist teachings, especially in the field of practical ethics. Thus, as we have said, both Shint? and Confucianism had their place in Japanese life largely on terms laid down by Buddhism. This, of course, in turn affected Zen Buddhism and made it quite different in Japan from what it was in other lands. But still the genius of the religion of the Japanese people, especially in its higher intellectual and philosophical aspects, has been for centuries and still is today, more Buddhist than anything else.