The differences between shrines and temples are explained in depth and in an easy-to-understand manner! From History to Worship Methods

神社とお寺の違いを解説
Motenas Representative
Motenas Representative
Shrines and temples, although similar at first glance, actually differ greatly in origin, background, and function.
However, surprisingly few people, even Japanese, can correctly explain the difference.
Shinto and Buddhism, institutions of two different religions, shrines and temples, each with their own distinct definitions.
This article will provide a thorough explanation of the differences, beginning with their history, specific differences, and how to visit the shrine.
After reading this, you too will be able to explain the difference between a shrine and a temple to a foreigner!
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What is the difference between a shrine and a temple? Basic Definitions Explained

First, in conclusion, there is a clear difference between shrines and temples.

Shrines and temples worship different things = that is, they have different religions.

Shrines are Shinto shrines and temples are Buddhist temples, which are different religious institutions, with the major difference that shrines enshrine gojintai (sacred objects) and temples enshrine Buddhist statues.

As a result, there are minor differences between shrines and temples in appearance, methods of worship, and other details between the two religions.

Let’s look further into the differences between shrines and temples.

Differences between Shrines and Temples 1. Religious Differences

Shrines believe in an ancient Japanese religion called Shinto.

In Shinto, “yayorozu no kami,” or the “eight million gods,” are worshipped at each shrine as specific deities, such as people and various things in nature.

Therefore, the common definition of a shrine is that it is a place where God resides.

And Buddhism is believed in temples.

Buddhism is a religion founded by Buddha (Shakyamuni) and is believed to have been introduced to Japan from ancient India via the continent.

In Buddhism, a temple is essentially a place where believing monks practice asceticism.

Therefore, the beliefs and purposes are different from those of shrines that worship God.

Differences between shrines and temples 2. Differences in red seals

A paper stamped with the seal of the shrine is generally given to visitors to a shrine as a “red seal.

This is used as a sign of visit to the shrine, and as the name suggests, it is like a vermilion seal.

Red seals are not limited to shrines; temples may also offer red seals.

Although there are no clear rules for design, red seals at shrines tend to be basically simple, with only the name of the shrine and the date or seal.

In contrast, red seals from temples often have a more complex impression, as they may depict Buddhist statues, Sanskrit characters, or temple symbols.

Differences between shrines and temples 3. Differences in appearance

Shrines and temples also differ in the characteristics of their buildings.

Shrines are characterized by a large “torii” gate at the entrance. Since shrines enshrine deities, it is believed that the torii separates the world of deities from the world of humans.

And the “main hall” where the gods are enshrined and the “hall of worship” where people worship are often separated.

You are also familiar with the “chozu-ya” (water purification booth) on the way to the temple to purify your hands. This is also found at temples.

Also, since Shinto worships nature, a forest will often surround the shrine.

In contrast, in the case of a temple, the gate at the entrance is called “Yamamon” (gateway to the temple), not Torii (gateway to the temple).

The interior of the temple is largely divided into a “Garan” and a “Monks’ Hall.” The Garan is a place where Buddhist statues and other objects are enshrined.

The monks then live in the monks’ cells.

In temples, Buddhist statues and pagodas stand out as distinctive architectural features. In addition, temples often have well-maintained gardens, creating an atmosphere of tranquility.

Differences between shrines and temples 4. Differences in monetary offerings and methods of worship

The methods of worship at shrines and temples differ slightly.

First, when visiting a shrine, bow at the torii gate, enter the approach, and purify your hands and mouth at the hand- and mouth-watering booth.

Then, after making a monetary offering at the hall of worship, the basic etiquette is to bow twice, clapping two hands and bowing once.

Visiting a temple is almost the same as visiting a shrine, up to the point where one bows at the temple gate and purifies one’s hands at a hand-watering fountain.

Some temples have “evergreen incense burners” on the approach to the temple, in which case incense smoke is used to purify oneself.

And in temples, it is common for people to bow with their hands together and not clap.

This is the point where they differ from shrines. As for monetary offerings, they are to be put in at both shrines and temples alike, but the meaning of such offerings is actually different.

The offering of money at a shrine is an expression of gratitude to God. In contrast, money offerings at temples are considered to be an offering, a practice in which worshippers renounce attachment and greed.

How to visit shrines and temples

Shrines and temples have slightly different ways of worshipping, and the meanings of structures such as “torii” and “yamamon” are also different, even though they may look similar.

Let’s review in detail the different ways to visit shrines and temples.

How to visit a shrine

  1. Bow before passing through the torii gate
  2. Purify your hands and mouth at a water closet
  3. Two claps and a bow in front of the main shrine

Shrines and temples are basically the same up to the point where you proceed along the approach to the shrine and “purify your hands and mouth at the hand- and mouth-watering booth. However, it is important to remember that the “Nirei Ni-Beat-Itte” method is unique to shrines.

How to visit the temple

  1. Bow before passing through the gate
  2. Purify your hands and mouth at a water closet
  3. Hands together, bowing toward the principal image

If there is an “evergreen incense burner” on the approach to the temple, do not forget to purify yourself with the smoke. If you do not do “Nirei Ni-Beat-Ippou” at a temple, you may be embarrassed, so be especially careful if you are visiting a temple with foreign friends.

How to use hand-watering

Instructions on how to use the hand-watering facilities are usually written on signboards or other signs. However, if the information is only in Japanese, foreigners may not be able to read it and may not understand how to use it.

If you are able to explain the correct usage, you will be able to smoothly guide tourists when they ask you about it.

In the Tezumisha, hold the ladle in your left hand and wash your right hand, then switch the ladle to your right hand and wash your left hand. Then, rinse the mouth with the left hand still holding the ladle, and finally, hold the ladle up and rinse off the handle.

Characteristics and Roles of Shrines

I learned that each shrine and temple has different roots, their meanings and roles.

Now let’s learn more about the characteristics and roles of shrines.

Gods and Goddesses

At shrines, the sacred object, the gojintai ( sacred object), is enshrined around the gofukami (the deity enshrined ). The sacred object is often a natural object, such as a rock, mountain, or river.

The gojintai is generally enshrined in a place that cannot be seen from the outside. While Buddhist statues in temples are located in places where they can be seen as symbols, the go-shintai is located out of sight of worshippers as a sacred object.

However, the gojintai is the important “god” of that shrine. When you visit a shrine, do not forget to be aware that you have come to visit a deity, even if you cannot see it.

Rituals held at shrines

A variety of festivals are held at shrines throughout the year. These are unique to each shrine, but they range from those that give thanks for the changing of the seasons and harvest to those that honor the local guardian deities.

For example, a typical festival of a shrine, the “Omatsuri,” is mainly concerned with the enthronement of the shrine’s deity and is called a prayer festival, an annual festival, or a new rice harvest festival.

Other festivals that are closely associated with the imperial family are called “chusai,” and so on, with different classifications depending on the type of festival.

Wedding Ceremonies at Shrines (Shinto Shrines)

One of the ceremonies performed at shrines is a Shinto wedding.

The so-called “kamizenshiki” is one of the forms of wedding ceremonies held at shrines. In this ceremony, the bride and groom make vows before a deity enshrined in the shrine, report their marriage to the deity, and receive a blessing.

A wedding ceremony in kimono, such as white kimono and cotton hat, is a uniquely Japanese scene, and is more solemn and extended than a Western-style wedding ceremony.

Characteristics and Roles of Temples

Buddha image and the principal image

Temples house a variety of Buddhist images, and the main image is the most important image in the temple. Believers offer prayers to the main image and seek peace of mind.

Events held at the temple

In addition to annual events such as Obon and Higan, specific Buddhist events are held at temples. These are often ancestral memorial services or celebrations of life’s milestones.

Wedding Ceremony at a Temple (Buddhist Ceremony)

A butsusen-shiki is a wedding ceremony held at a temple. The bride and groom make vows before the Buddha and pray for the happiness and prosperity of their married life.

History of Shrines and Temples

Shrines and temples differ only in their beliefs, and there are detailed differences in their origins and history.

Shrine History

When we look at the history of Shinto shrines, we find that they often originated on lands that had a special nature that was worshipped in Shintoism, or where rituals such as Shinto rites were held.

Shrines were built in special places where the gods existed, and the gods were enshrined and shrine maidens and priests still do their work in service to the gods.

History of the temple

Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 6th century and has since been widely accepted by the state and the people. Along with the spread of Buddhism, temples have developed as centers of faith and as centers of learning and culture.

from the syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism to the separation of Shinto and Buddhism

For a long time in Japan, Shintoism and Buddhism were combined in a form of Shinto/Buddhism syncretism. However, in the Meiji period (1868-1912), the government issued a decree separating Shintoism and Buddhism, and shrines and temples were clearly separated.

The Modern Role of Shrines and Temples

Shrines and Temples in Modern Society

Even in modern society, shrines and temples play an important role in the spiritual life of the Japanese people. Visiting them for annual events and at milestones in life provides a place to seek peace of mind and express gratitude.

Changing roles required of shrines and temples

The roles required of shrines and temples have changed with the times. Today, in addition to spiritual comfort, shrines and temples are also increasingly valued as places of community and cultural heritage.

Let’s know the difference between shrines and temples and worship properly.

Understanding the differences between shrines and temples is the first step in learning more about Japanese culture and history. By learning the correct way to worship and visiting these places with respect, you will be able to lead a richer spiritual life.

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