Shinto Controversies Course — 7th Lecture

Today, the Kokugakuin Shinto controversies course restarted after the summer break. Today’s lecture had two main parts, and an introduction.

The introduction was Professor Okada telling us about his summer holidays. One of the things he did was visit an archaeological dig in Hamamatsu (I think), where a number of festival-related items had been unearthed. One was an an, a rectangular table with eight legs, four in a line along each of the short sides. It was all but identical to the ones used in virtually all shrines in Japan today.

It dated to the fifth century.

This raises one feature of contemporary Shinto: its emphasis on the importance of following and preserving traditions, of continuing the rituals in the same way as they have always been done. Professor Okada said that this was the standard approach of most people in Shinto today.

However, other discoveries from the same dig made him, he said, think a bit differently about it. A number of iron implements were discovered among the items offered to the kami. In fifth century Japan, iron implements were the height of advanced technology, imported from the continent. The modern equivalent might be a liquid crystal television. He reflected a bit on the need for Shinto to adapt to changing times, or die. It sounded as if this visit had brought home to him the fact that even the most ancient tradition was an innovation once. This is one of those facts that’s obvious once stated, but which can be remarkably easy to forget.

The two main topics of the lecture were Shinbutsu Shugo (Shinto-Buddhist syncretism) and Toshio Kuroda’s view of Shinto.

The last four lectures of the course will look at the medieval and later periods, which means that Shinto-Buddhist syncretism is central to understanding what is going on. From the eighth century to the nineteenth, Shinto and Buddhism in Japan were deeply enmeshed with one another, and neither existed fully independently. However, Professor Okada insisted that they had always been conceptually separate; Shinto priests and Buddhist monks had different roles, even when they participated in the same rituals, and people could distinguish the two in general terms.

There were, according to Professor Okada, two basic forms of syncretism.

The first was syncretism for the sake of the kami. This took the form of reading Buddhist sutras to the kami, or founding temples at shrines to pray for the kami. He argued that this was, essentially, an extension of the way that the kami had always been worshipped; the new rituals that had come from the continent were used in an attempt to calm angry kami, or to increase their power. Certainly, the evidence suggests that the very first reaction to Buddhism was to treat it as just another foreign kami; there are some foreign kami that are now a standard part of Shinto.

The second was syncretism for the sake of the buddhas. The most prominent form of this was the founding of shrines to protect temple complexes. The most famous example is probably the Hachiman shrine that protects Todaiji in Nara (the one with the giant Buddha), but virtually every major temple from the ninth century on seems to have had an associated shrine. One reason for the popularity of Inari is that Fushimi Inari was closely associated with Toji in Kyoto, an important Shingon temple, and so Inari shrines were often founded as the guardian shrines for Shingon temples.

An important difference between the two forms, apparently, is that in the second case Shinto priests were not involved. The shrines were entirely managed by the Buddhist monks. Indeed, although monks going to shrines to read sutras for the kami was common, the reverse, Shinto priests going to temples to read norito, was unheard of. To the best of Professor Okada’s knowledge, the first historical example happened in May this year, on Mount Koya. His comment was along the lines of “Well, Shinto has to change with the times, so I suppose it might be OK. But from a historical perspective, it’s really odd”. However, in the early period Shinto priests performed no rituals outside their own shrines. Personal rituals at homes were performed by onmyoji, or shugenja, or esoteric Buddhist monks. This started to change in the medieval period, with the onshi from Ise, but I don’t think this change was fully established until the Meiji Revolution, when onmyoji and shugenja were abolished. Thus, the fact that the priests did not go to temples may not tell us much about the relationship between Shinto and Buddhism, as it may be due to reasons internal to Shinto.

This syncretism was developed by a number of Buddhist monks, and this is where the Honji Suijaku theory comes in. That, I think, will be touched on rather more next time.

The other theme was Toshio Kuroda’s theory on Shinto. Kuroda was a scholar of Buddhism, and his Kenmitsu Taisei theory, proposed in 1975, revolutionised studies of medieval Japanese Buddhism. Essentially, he claimed that the esoteric sects of Buddhism, Shingon and Tendai, remained the dominant sects throughout the medieval period, despite the appearance of so-called Kamakura Buddhism, which had previously been seen as more important. He also argued that Shingon and Tendai temples were major centres of political power.

In Buddhist studies, his theory was highly influential, and is the current orthodoxy. Outside Japan, Professor Okada estimated that 99% of scholars accept it in broad outline.

So, what did he have to say about Shinto? Essentially, he denied it existed. He said that there was no independent religion called Shinto in this period, and that it just indicated a special tradition of Buddhist rituals unique to Japan.

Shinto scholars did not react to this with unalloyed delight. Professor Okada was a young scholar at the time, and he remembers feeling that this matter had to be sorted out, but also that he could not oppose Kuroda directly, because Kuroda was far too important and influential.

Thirty four years later, a number of criticisms of Kuroda’s position have been gathered.

First, he was a historian of Buddhism, not Shinto. He didn’t do any research into shrines or Shinto practice. If he had been right, this wouldn’t have been a problem, because Shinto would have been entirely contained within Buddhism. However, it wasn’t, and so Kuroda’s research missed the evidence that his theory of Shinto was inaccurate.

Second, he was working with a narrow definition of religion, one that saw universal religions like Buddhism as superior, and the ideal form of religion, and that believed that a religion had to have doctrines and scriptures of some sort. On that definition, the first form of Shinto that is a religion independent of (although influenced by) Buddhism is Yoshida Shinto in the fifteenth century, and this was the date that Kuroda gave for the appearance of Shinto.

However, that’s an unnecessarily restrictive definition. In particular, it doesn’t apply to Shinto as currently practised. Ironically, Professor Okada explicitly said that it did apply to State Shinto, as formulated in the Meiji period, which is the period when Shinto was explicitly claiming not to be a religion. I think he’s right. Contemporary Shinto, however, is once again without doctrines or scriptures, for the most part, and is mainly practised as a set of rituals. If you take that definition, you have to say that Shinto does not exist now, and that’s clearly not a useful way to talk.

If you extend the definition of Shinto, it becomes clear that it existed much earlier. Professor Okada’s favoured date for the establishment of Shinto is the late seventh/early eighth century, the reigns of Tenmu and Jito and the immediate sequel. This is when the Daijosai started, and when the 20-year cycle of reconstructions of the Grand Shrines of Ise began. It’s also when the Jingiryo, which set the central court rituals, was promulgated. Another candidate is the fifth century, when we first see evidence of rituals that have continuity with Shinto as defined by Tenmu and Jito. At the moment, I actually incline to the fifth century date as being more useful, but I’m hardly an expert, and it does seem that such features as shrine buildings and organised rituals date from Tenmu and Jito. At the very least, that’s when Shinto was organised.

So, to return to Kuroda, while there was a form of Shinto that existed purely within esoteric Buddhism in the middle ages, this was not the only form of Shinto that existed then, and Kuroda’s definition of a religion was overly restrictive. However, if you take his definition, it is true that Shinto as an independent religion-with-doctrines only appears in the fifteenth century. That has been denied, and is an important point. Yoshida Shinto was made up by Yoshida Kanetomo in the fifteenth century, and State Shinto was made up by various people in the late nineteenth century. Both, however, drew on a religious tradition that can usefully be called “Shinto”, and which dates back to at least the late seventh century.

All in all, a very interesting lecture.






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