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HONJISUIJAKU is a technical term in Japanese Buddhism that originally designated a theory of emanation pertaining to Shintō and Buddhist divinities. Later, it came to be applied to the interpretative framework of the associations among them (shimbutsu-shūgō ). The term is a compound: Honji, usually translated as "original nature," designates the limitless potentiality of the Buddha to manifest himself in as many forms as he wishes in order to lure living beings toward awakening; suijaku, usually translated as "manifestation" or "hypostasis," designates those forms. The original use of the term is to be found in the various Chinese commentaries of the Lotus Sūtra (Skt., Saddharmapuarīka Sūtra; Chin., Miaofa lianhua jing; Jpn., Myōhorengekyo ). These commentaries propose a twofold division of the scripture in which the first fourteen chapters are called (in Japanese) jakumon ("teaching by manifestation") and the second fourteen chapters, hommon ("fundamental teaching"). The jakumon part is the collection of the doctrines propounded before the Lotus Sūtra, whereas the hommon part is the Lotus doctrine according to which the historical Buddha (Śākyamuni) was the mere manifestation of a transcendent principle.

This theoretical scheme was generally applied to the various members of the Buddhist pantheon, so that even bodhisattva s could manifest themselves under variegated guises, using the doctrine of salvific means, or clever devices (Skt., upāya; Chin., fangbian; Jpn., hōben ), in order to guide living beings of different psychological inclinations or intellectual abilities toward the realization of buddhahood. As Buddhism came into contact with other religious systems in Asia the honjisuijaku theory was then applied to interpret the divinities of these religions as lower manifestations of the members of the Buddhist pantheon. This interpretation had surfaced in China at varied levels of religious life, but it played a central role in Japan from the Nara period (710784 ce) on.

Buddhism was officially recognized in the records of the Japanese state by the middle of the sixth century ce. Relationships between the Buddhist sects and the evolving systems of religious cults loosely referred to as Shintō began soon thereafter: The legends describing the arrival of Buddhism in Japan in the Kojiki (Record of ancient matters, 712) show evidence of the fact that mythological and ritual structures of autochthonous creeds were used to interpret the phenomenon, and there is little doubt that Buddhism was treated as an advanced form of Shintō. Various Buddhist scriptures and rites were used in the traditional context of protection of the state and in agrarian rituals; other rites were used to reinforce the legitimacy of the rulers. Shintō shrines were built to symbolize sociopolitical and economic structures; Buddhist temples came to be built along similar lines, often next to Shintō shrines. As a consequence, Buddhist monks came to officiate next to Shintō priests, to the point that they joined them in rites surrounding the funerals of emperors.

From the early Heian period (7941185) on some monks were ordained specifically in connection with major Shintō shrines and received as such the name of shimbundosha (monks ordained for Shintō divinities). As time passed, the Buddhist ecclesiasts came to administrate the economic, political, and ritual affairs of the shrines they were associated with, and associations between Shintō and Buddhism began to occur at the levels of thought, ritual, literature, and art. Japan thus evolved syncretic systems that were locally grounded in shrine-temple complexes, in which the different particular divinities of the Shintō shrines were associated with the different Buddhist divinities of the adjacent temples. It is there that the honjisuijaku theory played fully: Shintō divinities were seen as manifestations of Buddhas or bodhisattva s, and their virtues were explained accordingly.

Because these systems of association were occurring in shrine-temple complexes, the honjisuijaku theory permeated many local cults during the classical and medieval periods of Japanese history; but during the Kamakura period (11851333) the major cultic centers housing the headquarters of the important sects of Buddhism developed integrative philosophical and ritual systems in which the honjisuijaku theory was central. Mount Hiei (Hieizan), center of the Tendai school of Buddhism, developed the syncretic sect Sanno Ichijitsu Shintō, and Mount Kōya (Kōyasan), center of the Shingon school of Buddhism, developed the syncretic sect Ryōbu Shintō.

By the middle of the medieval period, almost all Shintō divinities of Japan were essentially linked to Buddhist divinities at all levels of religious life and experience. Virtually all medieval records of shrines show the name of the Shintō divinity, and immediately thereafter indicate the following: "a suijaku of" such and such a Buddhist divinity. The result of these systematic associations was the creation of a composite culture in which one easily recognizes the Indian, Chinese, and Japanese ingredients. It should be noted, however, that historically the honjisuijaku theory had an implicit vertical power relationship, aptly suited to Buddhism's superority in political, economic, and ritual areas. But most of the associations between the divinities were not perceived, originally, to be couched in the context of power, but rather in the context of association and metaphor. These associations were expressed or interpreted according to word games in which initiated people could read subtle meanings and thereby decode the original and fundamental unity of the divinities of both religions.

However, during the Muromachi period (13361573) some priests of Shintō shrines, jealous of Buddhist institutional power and motivated by nationalistic reasons, created other syncretic systems in which the honjisuijaku theory was reversed to their advantage: Instead of seeing Shintō divinities as hypostases of Buddhist divinities, they claimed that the Buddhas and bodhisattva s were in fact manifestations of Shintō kami (divinities). First and foremost in this respect was Yoshida Kanetomo (14351511), a priest of the Yoshida shrine in Kyoto, who authored apocryphal scriptures, designed rituals, and formed a "Shintō-sided" sect of syncretism known as Yūitsu Shintō. This sect was of some importance in Japanese religious and cultural history, for it was granted, in the seventeenth century, the authority to license Shintō priests. From that time on Buddhism faced mounting criticism, it lost much of its economic and political support, and the nature of its relationships with Shintō changed accordingly. In 1868 the Meiji government decreed the official separation of Shintō from Buddhist divinities. Shintō was then changed in order to become the state religion: This marks the historical end to the meaningful existence of the honjisuijaku theories and practices in Japan.

In the light of these historical processes, the interpretation of the honjisuijaku theory becomes quite complex, for if on the one hand one wants to propose a strictly sectarian interpretation of the term, on the other hand one must keep in mind the various interpretations given to it in the course of history, and there is some discrepancy between the two. The Japanese have, in time of crisis, interpreted the theory as a model of power relationships, whereas in time of peace they have interpreted it as a model of peaceful coexistence. It may be said that many associations remain in the minds of some Japanese religious practitioners, and that composite culture is still a major aspect of Japanese religiosity and culture; but in any case, the honjisuijaku theory is no longer applicable as a structural device for communication processes between religious systems.

See Also

Kami; Shintō; Syncretism; Upāya.


Most of the relevant material for the study of honjisuijaku still needs to be thoroughly researched by scholars; the official separation of Shintō from Buddhism has resulted in a general lack of interest in this important area of Japanese religious history. However, in the last few years important studies have appeared in Japan. One may consult with benefit all the works by the historian Murayama Shūichi; particularly recommended is his Honjisuijaku (Tokyo, 1974), which is most detailed and provides brilliant analyses. The reader is also referred to the works of another historian, Kuroda Toshio. Among these, Kokka to shūkyō, volume 1 of Nihon shūkyōshi kōza, edited by Ienaga Saburō et al. (1959; rev. ed., Tokyo, 1971), gives his insightful remarks on the political background of the associations between Shintō and Buddhism. His book entitled Jisha seiryoku (Tokyo, 1980) is a systematic exposition of the economic and institutional aspects of Shintō-Buddhist associations and provides many openings for future research. The only book-length study in English is Alicia Matsunaga's The Buddhist Philosophy of Assimilation: The Historical Development of the Honji-Suijaku Theory (Tokyo and Rutland, Vt., 1969), but this work needs to be revised to a considerable extent.

New Sources

Teeuwen, Mark, and Fabio Rambelli, eds. Buddhas and Kami in Japan: Honji Suijaku as a Combinatory Paradigm. New York, 2003.

Allan G. Grapard (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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