Buddhism had been introduced to Japan in the first few centuries of the common era. But it was not until after the powerful influence of China under the Tang dynasty (618-907) that Buddhism became a common feature of Japanese culture. By 1000, this religion dominated the royal court and nobility, who established Buddhist schools. The Buddhism taught in these schools tended to be sophisticated and complex. However, many people outside of the aristocratic circles wanted a more accessible form of this religion.
In response, different sects of Buddhism developed in the 1100s and 1200s. For example, Zen Buddhism and the Pure Land sect offered a simpler path toward the Buddha that many Japanese embraced.
During this time Japan was undergoing an important transformation. For centuries, the aristocracy and religious temples held huge amounts of land. However, in the 1300s, some warriors or samurai gained prominence by serving as landlords for these large estates. Such landlords were called jitō. The jitō did not own the land. They reported to the central proprietors, which remained the aristocrats or religious temples. Even so, the jitō often became very wealthy and influential. Also, they readily accepted simpler forms of Buddhism and helped to spread these sects.
As a result, the peasants who worked for the jitō also practiced these forms of Buddhism. The peasants had many different classes. The highest class included peasants who were prominent farmers. Below them were those who worked smaller farms. The lowest class consisted of peasants who served as household servants and had no land rights. As the simpler forms of Buddhism spread through these classes, the popularity of this religion skyrocketed.
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