Shinto (Honji Suijaku) and Buddhism

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Any investigation into the relationships of Shintō and Buddhism in Japan cannot ignore the effects of the anti-Buddhist persecutions and forced separation of Buddhist monasteries and kami shrines that occurred during the Meiji era (1868–1912). Such an inquiry can be further strengthened by understanding the pre-modern contexts. This entry will attempt to do precisely that by discussing how Buddhist concepts and ritual techniques served (or were adapted) to articulate the significance of various kinds of gods and spirits in premodern Japan.

Received interpretations and their problems

According to received definitions, Shintā is the autochthonous religious tradition of Japan. Its origins can be traced to animistic beliefs dating from the remotest antiquity. Its main features are an animistic belief in the sanctity of nature, shamanic practices, ancestor cults, respect for authority and communal value, and a strong capacity to integrate and homogenize foreign elements. Standard accounts also present the history of Japanese Buddhism as a gradual process of "Japanization," that is, of Buddhism's integration within the supposedly dominant Shintō system of beliefs and ritual practices. These kinds of accounts are heavily influenced by a nativist ideology of Japanese religion and do not reflect actual historical processes. In order to disentangle the complex relationships between Buddhism and local cults in the Japanese archipelago from ideological stereotypes, it is necessary to begin with an analysis of the term Shintō itself. As Kuroda Toshio has made clear, Shintō did not mean the same things throughout history. In particular, it did not designate an established system of religious institutions and their beliefs and rituals until after the eighteenth century.

Shintō, most likely pronounced "jindō" until at least the fifteenth century, was essentially a Buddhist concept indicating the realm of local deities as related to, but distinct from, Indian deities of the Buddhist pantheon, which were usually referred to as ten or tendō. It was only since the second half of the Edo period (1600–1868) that more or less autonomous Shintō institutions began to develop, mainly centered on the Yoshida house in Kyoto (see below) and several schools of Confucian studies. However, Shintō as an independent religious tradition begins only in 1868 with the so-called separation of kami and buddhas (shinbutsu bunri). This forceful separation, carried out upon orders emanating from the government, was one of the first acts in the Japanese process of modernization, and amounted to the artificial creation of two separate religious traditions, namely, Shintō and Japanese Buddhism. Subsequently, Shintō's development was directly related to the policy and imperial ideology of the new Japanese state in what is known as State Shintō (kokka Shintō)—a formation that was disbanded after the end of World War II.

In practice, shinbutsu bunri was not a mere "separation." It defined what was "Buddhist" and what was "Shintō," meaning that which was supposedly autochthonous in the religious world of the time. "Buddhist" elements (such as images with Buddhist flavor worshiped as the body of a kami, architectural elements, Buddhist scriptures offered to the kami, and so forth) were set apart and, in many cases, destroyed. "Shintō" elements, on the other hand, were systematized and "normalized." Many local shrines were destroyed; the kami enshrined in several others were replaced by kami listed in the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), an early eighth-century text that had become the bible of the nativists. Sacerdotal houses that had been in charge of services to the kami in certain locales for several generations were replaced by state-appointed officers who were followers of the nativist scholar Hirata Atsutane's (1776–1843) brand of religious nationalism. Local rituals were replaced by authorized ceremonies that were related to a newly created cult for the emperor. People were forced to attend to new holidays that were related to state-sanctioned events. In this way, a new religion, supposedly autochthonous and with roots in a remote Japanese past before the arrival of Buddhism, was created and propagated among the people. After a few years of prohibition, Buddhism reorganized itself as a religion that was concerned with funerals and the moral education of the citizens of the new Japanese state.

Buddhist appropriation of Japanese local deities

The Buddhist appropriation of local kami is not a typically Japanese phenomenon: Local guardian gods and fertility gods are worshiped at Buddhist monasteries throughout Asia. Monastery gods are perhaps the original forms of adoption of local divinities in a Buddhist context. The interactions between Buddhism and local deities in Japan went through several phases, according to patterns that seem to be common to most Buddhist cultures. Japanese kami were first subjugated or converted to Buddhism, then transformed into dharma protectors, and finally organized in a hierarchical structure, a phase that involved a redefinition of the place of the kami in the Buddhist cosmology as manifestations of buddhas and bodhisattvas.

At first, local kami were envisioned by Buddhists as dangerous entities that needed to be saved from their deluded condition and guided toward enlightenment; this implied acts of subjugation or conversion. Two legends exemplify this stage well. One day in 763 the kami of Tado village is said to have manifested itself through an oracle and requested to be converted so as to be liberated from its kami condition. A Buddhist monastery (jingūji) was built in the area where the kami resided, and special services were held for the kami's salvation. Another tale reports how a giant tree, believed to be the abode of a kami, fell to the ground and rolled into a river, where it was carried by the current. Every time the tree was stranded, epidemics struck the area. Finally, a Buddhist monk cut the fallen tree into pieces and carved three images of the Bodhisattva Kannon (Avalokiteśvara) out of them (one of these images is said to be the Kannon at Ishiyamadera near Kyoto). Immediately, the epidemics ceased and the images generated good fortune and miracles. In both tales local kami are described as dangerous, violent entities, and sources of calamity to the local people. In contrast, Buddhism is presented as a pacifying and ordering force. At a subsequent stage, converted kami turned into protectors of the Buddhadharma and guarantors of the peace and prosperity in their respective locales. Kami were also gradually organized into a hierarchical structure, with the deities of twenty-two imperially sponsored shrines at the top, regional shrines at the middle, and village shrines at the bottom. There were in addition various orders of local deities that granted particular kinds of protection.

These stages (subjugation or conversion of local divinities, their inclusion within the Buddhist system as protectors, and their redefinition as manifestations of sacred, translocal Buddhist entities) are usually presented as moments in a linear process of evolution, but it is important to emphasize that in practice they amounted to different modes of interaction rather than separate historical stages. As such they often overlapped. A local kami could be seen as a manifestation of a buddha or a bodhisattva, but at the same time it functioned as the protector of a specific locale, and Buddhist rituals were performed in front of it to secure its salvation.

The field of Japanese local deities and its complexity

Kami are usually understood as local, autochthonous Japanese deities. They are often described in animistic terms as supernatural forces abiding in natural entities such as trees, rocks, mountains, and waterfalls. However, the situation in premodern Japan was more complicated. Not all kami were animistic entities. In fact, scholars can identify a historical variety of kami, including royal deities, divinities of local clans (more or less related to royal deities), village spirits (which often had no name and no clearly defined shape), and imported deities (from India, Korea, and China). Royal deities, in particular those listed in the Kojiki and the early eighth-century Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan), were worshipped by the emperor as part of his sacerdotal duties. Interestingly, Buddhism was largely unconcerned with those deities, except for the most important ones among them—the kami of the Ise shrines. Japanese Buddhists devoted great efforts instead to domesticate and incorporate within their system local tutelary spirits. Clan divinities were largely treated as tutelary deities, and as such they were included in the Buddhist system in the ways discussed above.

In premodern Japan there were a large number of local tutelary deities (chinju), ranging from household gods (such as the deities of the hearth), to village gods (such as paddy deities, ta no kami), to provincial and national protectors such as Hachiman, Kumano, Kasuga, and Sannō. The sanctuaries of these gods were normally affiliated with major Buddhist institutions (such as the large monasteries in Nara and Kyoto), were sponsored by the royal court and local gentry, and were often centered in sacred mountains where Shugendo mountain ascetics resided. In addition there were monastery gods (garanjin, such as Idaten, the son of Śiva, but also arhats) and dharma protectors (gohōjin), even though this distinction was, in most cases, purely theoretical. These orders of deities were not clearly distinguished and, in practice, they often overlapped. The case of Nichira is particularly interesting. Originally a Korean general who became the tutelary deity of Mount Atago, which was considered a Japanese manifestation of bodhisattva Jizō (Ksitigarbha), Nichira came to be treated as an arhat. The name Nichira was interpreted as an abbreviation for the Japanese words nichi from Nippon (Japan) and ra from rakan (arhat). Arhats were the protectors of some Zen monasteries in Japan.

As the case of Nichira indicates, not all kami were autochthonous, or originally Japanese. Buddhist priests brought to Japan deities from India, Korea, and China. Some of them were quickly "naturalized" and became very popular. Even today, many popular kami include foreign deities such as Benten (Sanskrit, Sarasvatī), Daikokuten (Sanskrit, Mahākāka), Shinra (Korean, Silla), Myojin (probably of Korean origin), and other minor deities of Chinese origin related to yinyang and polar star cults. In addition, new deities were created under the influence of Buddhism. The two most popular kami in modern times, Hachiman and Inari, were produced by Buddhist combinatory doctrines and rituals. Hachiman, in particular, is said to have been the tutelary deity of a clan in southern Japan, but was recognized by the state in the eighth century as a great bodhisattva (daibosatsu) who promised to protect the country and ensure the diffusion of Buddhism there. He was also one of the protecting deities of the Todaiji, the largest monastery in Nara. Since then, he has always been one of the main protecting deities of Japan.

Finally, premodern kami were usually not singular subjectivities, but plural entities that combined historical human beings, deities from various places in Asia, and Buddhist supernatural beings. Hachiman, for example, is both a kami and a bodhisattva, a king and a holy being: He is the deified aspect of Emperor Ojin (who is said to have reigned in the late fourth to early fifth centuries) and at the same time a Japanese manifestation of Amida (Sanskrit, Amitabha), or, according to some sources, of Śakyamuni. Analogously, the kami Inari began as an agricultural spirit bringing prosperity, later became the tutelary deity of the Fushimi area near Kyoto, and finally was envisioned as the Japanese manifestation of the Indian cannibal ogresses known as ḌĀkinĪ. Inari is variously represented as an old man, a white fox, or a beautiful woman.

With the development of increasingly complex hierarchies of protection and classification of divinities, we also see the formation of new interpretations about their functions and their modes of interaction with human beings. In general, buddhas and bodhisattvas were in charge of supramundane benefits (such as better rebirths and ultimate salvation), whereas the kami dealt specifically with worldly benefits and material prosperity. Furthermore, buddhas were normally benevolent, whereas the kami were in charge of punishing those who did not respect the deities. However, in medieval Japan a more nuanced vision developed, according to which buddhas and kami together administer punishments against their enemies. On the other hand, in some cases, such as in certain Shintō esoteric rituals, the kami provided a form of soteriology. In addition, refusal to worship the kami was considered a subversive act by the establishment and a revolutionary act by reform movements. In this way, the structure of the Buddhist pantheon was directly connected with visions of social order and morality.

Japanese kami as manifestations of Buddhist sacred beings

Buddhism interacted with Japanese deities in a way that finds no equivalent in most other Buddhist cultures (though there are very few comparative studies of Buddhist interactions with local deities). Around the eleventh to twelfth centuries, kami began to be envisioned as Japanese manifestations (Japanese, gongen; Sanskrit, avatāra) of bodhisattvas or other deities of the Indian pantheon brought to Japan by Buddhism. The capacity of manifesting themselves in many forms is a feature of the gods of classical Indian mythology that was later attributed also to buddhas and bodhisattvas; in Japan, this feature was used to explain the status of the kami. This logic of manifestation was commonly defined as honji suijaku and wakṠ dṠjin. The term honji suijaku (literally, "the original ground and its traces") was originally used by the Chinese Tiantai patriarch Zhiyi (538–597) in his exegesis of the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪa-sŪtra). According to Zhiyi, the first fourteen chapters of the scripture contain the provisional "trace-teaching" of the historical Buddha, whereas the final fourteen chapters are the ultimate "original teaching" of the eternal Buddha. In medieval Japan, honji suijaku was employed to mean that Indian and Buddhist entities constitute the "original ground" (honji) of their Japanese manifestations as local kami, defined as "traces" (suijaku).

The expression wako dojin (literally, "to soften one's radiance and become the same as dust") can originally be found in the Chinese classic Daode jing (The Way and Its Power), where it refers to the way in which the Dao, the supreme principle, manifests itself in the world. The idea here is that the supreme principles (in this case, buddhas and bodhisattvas) cannot show their true forms in this world, but require a "coarsening" that makes them understandable to human beings. The "coarse" forms of buddhas and bodhisattvas were, of course, those of the Japanese kami. The underlying implication of both these expressions, as explained by several medieval texts, was that the Japanese people are too difficult to convert and too ignorant to understand buddhas and bodhisattvas in their "normal" forms. Therefore, they require rough manifestations to guide them to salvation. For example, according to honji suijaku logic, the sun goddess Amaterasu was envisioned as a manifestation of Mahavairocana, the universal Buddha of esoteric Buddhism; Hachiman was a manifestation of Amitābha; and so forth.

The idea that Japanese deities were local manifestations of translocal deities proved enormously productive. By the fifteenth century, some Buddhist authors were arguing that the kami were in fact the primary, original forms of divine beings, while buddhas and bodhisattvas were Indian local manifestations of these original Japanese models. This reversal of dominant Buddhist ideas was at the basis of a new Shintō movement, of a strong nativist character, that stressed the superiority of all things Japanese against imported cultural elements. The center of this nativist reversal of the honji suijaku paradigm was the Yoshida shrine in Kyoto. Its priest, Yoshida Kanetomo (1435–1511), had collected a number of doctrines and rituals about the kami, mostly related to the then dominant esoteric Buddhism (mikkyṠ), and tried to establish his own tradition by getting rid of the most visible Buddhist features. Gradually, the Yoshida tradition became the point of reference for nativist thinkers, anti-Buddhists, and kami priests disgruntled with the Buddhist establishment still dominating their shrines. These were the people and the groups that contributed to the constitution of a Shintō discourse as distinct from Buddhism during the Edo period in a process whose final stage was the early Meiji separation of Shintō from Buddhism.

However, in medieval Japan not all kami were considered manifestations of Indian sacred entities. In the second half of the Kamakura period (1192–1333), the kami were divided into three categories that were based on original enlightenment (hongaku) thought: (1) kami of original enlightenment, such as Amaterasu of Ise; (2) kami of nonenlightenment (fukaku), such as the violent kami of Izumo shrine; and (3) kami of acquired enlightenment (shikaku), such as Hachiman. Even though this classification was probably devised to enhance the status of the Ise shrines and their deities, it is interesting to note that the kami are here thought to embody modalities of Buddhist soteriology and that some of them represent an obscure realm of ignorance and violence untouched by Buddhism.

This latter point was further developed during the Kamakura period when authors began to define a distinction between "provisional deities" (gonsha) and "true deities" (jissha). Whereas provisional deities were considered to be benevolent, true deities were described as violent and dangerous entities that threatened the peace and security of local people. This distinction indicates that in medieval Japan divinities still existed that had not been integrated within the Buddhist system and that were described as chaotic forces (much as local deities before the arrival of Buddhism). The attitude of the Buddhists toward true deities was complex. Some warned local people not to worship them, since they were outside of Buddhism and therefore were irrelevant to the process of salvation; others suggested that these deities should be propitiated, while still others argued that human beings could not easily tell the difference between one category of deities and the other, and it was thus best to worship them all.

Esoteric Buddhism and kami cults

Honji suijaku and original enlightenment (hongaku) were essential parts of premodern Japanese esoteric Buddhism (mikkyō), especially in its configuration known as exotericesoteric (kenmitsu) Buddhism. In fact, esoteric Buddhism played a fundamental role in the transformation of the kami and their inclusion within the Buddhist cosmology and salvation process. In particular, esoteric Buddhist maĒḌala provided an important model for the systematization of the realm of sacred beings in Japan. The external sector of the Womb Maṇḍala (taizōkai mandara) contains a number of non-Buddhist divinities ranging from Brahmā, Śiva, and Indra, to more animistic entities such as the gods of fire, water, and wind, and violent spirits and demons (yakṢa). These divinities constituted the template for the organization of the premodern Japanese pantheon: As part of maṇḍala they were provisional manifestations of the Buddha, and therefore entitled to a place in the Buddhist cosmos. In other words, Buddhism provided in Japan a new and broader cosmological framework in which to insert all (or most) forms of local sacred entities. During the Middle Ages, furthermore, maṇḍalas were also used as conceptual models to represent the sacred space of kami shrines. In these images, the kami are usually represented both as "traces" (suijaku) with their earthly forms (animals, human beings) and as "original grounds" (honji), that is, buddhas and bodhisattvas.

Esoteric Buddhism also influenced doctrines and rituals concerning the kami. Several schools of esoteric Shintō teachings developed at major cult sites, such as the Ise outer shrine, Hie shrine (affiliated with the Tendai monastery Enryakuji), and the Shingon monastery Ṡmiwadera (or Daigorinji). They all discussed issues of the honji suijaku paradigm, each from its own sectarian perspective and with its own Buddhist vocabulary. At the same time, these centers also developed a vast body of esoteric rituals dealing with the kami. Especially significant among them were initiation rituals on kami matters (jingi kanjō or Shintō kanjō,), directly modeled on esoteric initiation rituals (denbō kanjō), but also rituals for specific professions (e.g., carpenters, merchants, farmers) involving deities of the honji suijaku universe. In this respect, the previously discussed Yoshida tradition has a particular position in that it absorbed several elements from esoteric Buddhism (such as the goma fire ceremony and the notion of originals and traces), but developed them in an anti-Buddhist direction.

See also:Cosmology; Folk Religion, Japan; Ghosts and Spirits; Japanese Royal Family and Buddhism; Local Divinities and Buddhism; Meiji Buddhist Reform; Shingon Buddhism, Japan; Shugendō; Space, Sacred


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Fabio Rambelli