Shinto Controversies Course — 8th Lecture

The eighth lecture of the Shinto Controversies course at Kokugakuin University was held on Wednesday. This time, Professor Okada started by saying that it wasn’t a very interesting subject, and there were more than the normal number of digressions in the course of the lecture. Clearly, this is a topic that is somewhat outside Professor Okada’s main field.

The subject was Ryobu Shinto. Ryobu Shinto is, broadly, the form of Shinto developed within Japanese esoteric Buddhism (Shingon and Tendai) in the medieval period. As a result, it has not been studied as much as might be ideal. From the Meiji Restoration in the mid-nineteenth century, there has been an emphasis on separating Shinto and Buddhism into two clearly distinct religions, and that’s simply not possible with Ryobu Shinto. From the sounds of things, separating the Shinto from the Buddhism is as hard as the reverse, so I suspect that Buddhist scholars have also not given it a great deal of attention. As a result, a great deal about Ryobu Shinto is still unclear.

The name, which means “both parts”, comes from Shingon esotericism, and the narrow use of the term is to refer to the versions of Shinto associated with Shingon Buddhism. Shingon esotericism has two worlds, the Kongo and Taizo worlds (Diamond World and Womb World, perhaps; I don’t know what the standard translations are), which correspond to different aspects of Dainichi Nyorai, the universal Buddha. Ryobu Shinto linked these two worlds to the Inner and Outer Shrines at Ise. The Inner Shrine corresponded to Taizo, the Outer to Kongo. The Grand Shrines of Ise were very important in Ryobu Shinto, and it appears to have had a strong influence on Ise Shinto.

This raises the controversy. When did Ryobu Shinto appear? Earlier scholars had placed it in the fourteenth century, but Professor Okada believes it appeared some time earlier, at the end of the twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century. This belief is based on the dates of works that were central to Ryobu Shinto, but also, I think, on the signs of mutual influence between Ryobu Shinto and Ise Shinto. Ise Shinto can be dated fairly firmly, because it was developed by identifiable priests of the Outer Shrine at Ise, and it started developing in the thirteenth century. While Professor Okada believes that the influence went both ways, he also thinks that the first influence was from Ryobu Shinto.

One reason for this is that, in earlier periods, Shinto had a strong tradition of not explaining things, of not putting things into words. Words had power (the so-called kotodama), and so should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Buddhism, however, had a strong tradition of sermons and explanations, and thus the first systematic explanations of Shinto came from the Buddhist side.

A central text of Shinto is the Nakatomi Harai, an ancient purification prayer that is still used today. It includes a version of important Japanese myths, a version that doesn’t quite match that in the Kojiki or Nihonshoki, and thus is ideal material for interpretation. The earliest (I think) surviving interpretation is the Nakatomi Harae Kungeh, which was written by a Buddhist monk, and interprets the prayer in Buddhist terms. It provides esoteric Buddhist interpretations of the main shrines at Ise, but also of the lesser shrines associated with them. This interpretation was central to Ryobu Shinto, and seems to date from the thirteenth century (again, I think; Professor Okada wasn’t entirely clear on this point).

In any case, Ryobu Shinto continued to develop, with several versions appearing, including Sanno Shinto, Miwaryu Shinto, and Goryu Shinto. Professor Okada said that when he visited Mt. Koya, the centre of Shingon Buddhism, earlier this year, he found that Goryu Shinto was still practised there, so Ryobu Shinto is not a purely historical tradition. The protecting kami of the mountain, Niu, apparently receives the same sort of reverence as Kukai, the monk who founded the sect.

Ryobu Shinto was also closely connected, through Onjoji, a very important Tendai temple, with Shugendo and the Kumano shrines. It also gave rise to the Shinto Kanjo, esoteric initiations based on Shinto symbolism rather than Buddhist. Professor Okada didn’t go into detail on these, I suspect, again, because research on them is not as advanced as it could be.

The overall impression I got from the lecture was that Ryobu Shinto is still poorly understood. People know it was important, but not really enough about it. It looks like a fertile area for research for someone with an interest in both Buddhism and Shinto. Since my interest is primarily in Shinto, it’s not going to be me.

Posted in Kokugakuin.


  1. Thank you for reporting Prof. Okada’s interesting ideas on the origins of Ryobu Shinto.
    I actually think that these topics should be of great interest especially to those who have a primarily interest in discovering and defining “Shinto”.

    Sanno Shinto is not a version of Ryobu Shinto.

  2. Glad you found it interesting.

    I do find these topics very interesting, but it’s not the area I would choose for my primary research. I’ll be reading the results of other people’s research on them, however, as I get round to it.

    As for whether Sanno Shinto is a version of Ryobu Shinto, it depends on the definition of “Ryobu Shinto” you’re using. If you are using the narrow definition, which ties it to Shingon, then no, it’s not, because it’s linked to Tendai. However, if you are taking the broad definition, of Shinto within esoteric Buddhism, then it quite clearly is.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I see that it’s a few years ago, but I am wondering if anyone has ever pursued that “fertile area for research” regarding Ryobu Shinto. I am currently living in Japan and am hoping to find some more information on this subject.

  4. Thanks for the comment. I’m still not aware of any detailed research in English on the subject, although there has been some. I read an article in, I think, Monumenta Nipponica a year or so ago on Miwa Shinto, which is closely related. Shingon, Tendai, and Shugendo still retain a lot of elements, I believe, although they have fewer Shinto elements since the Meiji restoration. I don’t think that there’s much at all in English, and while I’m sure that there’s more available in Japanese, it is, as I said, a little out of my area of interest, so I’m not sure.

  5. Thanks David.

    Japanese sources are fine; however, I’m aware that they still may be difficult to find. I’m looking for something very specific as well. Thankfully, my wife is a professor here, and so I may seek out some of the faculty within the Japanese religion/history department.

    All the best.

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