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Shingon Buddhism, Japan


Shingon refers to a major Japanese Buddhist school devoted to esoteric Buddhism. Shingon's doctrine is built around two essential theories developed by KŪkai (774–835), based on his interpretation of the Mahāvairocana-sūtra (Japanese, Dainichikyō) and the Tattvasamgraha or Vajraśekhara-sūtra (or Tantra; Japanese, Kōngōchōkyō): the dharmakaya's preaching of the dharma (hosshin seppō), and the practice of the three mysteries (sanmitsu gyō). According to Kukai, the cosmic Buddha Mahavairocana, whose body consists of the six great elements (earth, water, fire, wind, space, and consciousness), is none other than the dharmakāya (law body). The constant, harmonious interaction between the six elements creates all things in the universe; everything in the world, made up of the six elements uniquely combined, is the manifestation of the dharmakaya. Thus, the dharmakāya permeates the universe, and all sorts of movements in the world are understood as the dharmakaya's manifestation of the dharma.

This secret revelation of the dharma can be captured by the study of the ritual system of the three mysteries: the mysteries of the body (mudrĀ), speech (mantra), and mind (maṆḌala). The study of mudras teaches practitioners to recapture in their bodies the cosmic movement of the six great elements by forming sacred gestures with their hands, arms, and legs. Mantras enable practitioners to manipulate the syllables that symbolically represent the six elements and their combinations, and to create the intertwining of the elements in the phonic actions of the mantras chanted. Meditation on the mandala creates in the minds of practitioners sacred images whose colors and shapes illustrate the six elements in their constant, concerted, engendering acts. The mastery of the discipline of the three mysteries therefore teaches Shingon practitioners not only to decipher dharmakāya Mahavāirocana's secret language, but also to engage in the dhamakāya's eternal creation of the universe.

This mode of understanding the relationship between the universe and individuals, the macrocosm and microcosm, led to the development of Shingon as a spiritual and religious "technology." When applied to the area of physiology, the practice of the three mysteries enables practitioners to ritually simulate the body, speech, and mind of the cosmic Buddha, which, because of the intrinsic identity between the creating force and created objects, effaces the distinction between the practitioner and the dharmakāya (sokushin jōbutsu; literally, "to achieve buddhahood in this very body"). The same technology can be employed as medicine in that it can serve as a method to restore the optimal balance between the six elements in the body of a patient. When applied outwardly to the environment, the practice of the three mysteries provides the means to change the course of natural events. Or, in the field of human affairs, it serves as a political technology to be used in diplomacy and warfare. All these elements have influenced the course of the development of the Shingon school in Japanese history.

The incipient Shingon school in the early Heian period of the ninth century grew rapidly due largely to the adoption by the royal court of esoteric Buddhist rituals for performing diverse ceremonies, especially the rites for the emperor's coronation, legitimation, and empowerment. The Shingon school also built an alliance with the schools of Nara Buddhism, which found Shingon's orientation toward ritual studies complementary to their doctrinal, text-based study of Buddhism. Tōnain'in subtemple at Tōdaiji was established in 875 as a center for the combined study of the Shingon and Sanron schools by the monk Shābā (832–909). In the mid-Heian period (tenth and eleventh centuries), new centers of Shingon ritual studies, such as Daikakuji, Kajuji, Ninnaji, and Daigoji, in the vicinity of the Heiankyō (Kyoto), were founded by the emperors and members of the imperial family. Shingon monks at these monasteries vied with one another in developing sophisticated and complex theories and practice of esoteric rituals to better serve the imperial court and the aristocracy. Ningai (951–1045) is celebrated for his rainmaking ritual, which is said to have been used during the great droughts of 1015 and 1018, and on nine other occasions. These developments during the Heian period were important in forming the Shingon school's strong orientation in ritual studies. By the end of the period, thirty-six ritual lineages within Shingon had been established, with each lineage holding its own distinct claim for its dharma transmission.

The study of Shingon doctrine developed only from the latter part of the Heian period. Kakuban (1094–1143) was the first to develop a systematic interpretation of Kūkai's doctrinal works. During the Kamakura period (1185–1333), Kakūkai (1142–1223), Dohan (1178–1252), Raibo (1279–1330), and other scholarmonks of Mount Kōya and Tōji, two institutions founded by Kukai, took the lead in developing a gamut of doctrinal treatises and exegeses on the essential scriptures of the Shingon school. Raiyu (1226–1304) inherited Kakuban's scholarship and founded Mount Negoro Monastery as another major center for Shingon doctrinal studies. Negoro later developed into the headquarters of the Shingi Shingon school, which was largely responsible for the spread of Shingon into the provinces of eastern Japan in the medieval and early modern periods.

During this period the spread of numerous legends depicting Kukai as a charismatic, miracle-making savior further raised the prestige of Mount Koya and Toji. The alliance of the Shingon school with the Nara Buddhist schools continued to grow. It was often the scholar-monks of the Nara monasteries whose combined mastery of Shingon gave rise to the most innovative use of the knowledge of esotericism; they include Hōssō master Jōkei (1155–1213), Kegon master Myōe KŌben (1173–1232), and Shingon-ritsu nun Shinnyo (1211–?). Master Eizon of Saidaiji (1201–1290) and his disciple Ninjō (1217–1303) are particularly renowned for saving beggars, lepers, and outcasts. This was also the time in which kami, the local Japanese gods, became integral within the esoteric Buddhist pantheon, playing the role of the guardians of Buddhism. Eizon's esoteric Buddhist ritual service in 1281 at Iwashimizu, where the god Hachiman is enshrined, was praised by the court, the warrior government, and the masses for its claimed power to protect the nation from the Mongol invasion.

Political turmoil during the Muromachi and Sengoku periods (1333–1600) significantly weakened the institutional and economic foundation of the Shingon monastaries. However, the influence of Shingon on late medieval culture and art, especially in Japanese poetry and poetics, remained essential. A significant number of celebrated waka and renga poets of the period, including Shinkei (1406–1475) and Sōgi (1421–1502), were esoteric Buddhists. In the early modern period, the religious policy of the Tokugawa shogunate prohibited Buddhists from studying more than one discipline. Thus, one significant characteristic of Shingon since inception—its combined study with exoteric schools—ceased, and the Shingon school was reduced to a sectarian institution. The forceful separation of the worship of local gods from Buddhism and the creation of Shintō as the official religion of the nation by the Meiji government deprived Shingon of another important quality. In 1868 the Shingon ritual was eliminated from the emperor's coronation ceremony, and the esoteric ritual lost its relevance to the official business of the state. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Shingon continues to exist as an affiliation of eighteen independent subschools—the largest among them are the Mount Kōya school, the Chizan school, and the Busan school. However, with its sophisticated symbolism of visual signs and representations that are grounded in unique semiotic and linguistic theories, Shingon continues to exert its influence on modern and contemporary Japanese art, literature, and philosophy.

See also:Exoteric-Esoteric (Kenmitsu) Buddhism in Japan; Japan; Japanese Royal Family and Buddhism; Kamakura Buddhism, Japan


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Dobbins, James C. "Envisioning Kamakura Buddhism." In ReVisioning Kamakura Buddhism, ed. Richard K. Payne. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998.

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RyŪichi AbÉ

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