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Home » 2. Kami (Deities) » Combinatory Kami
§ Combinatory Kami
[Shinbutsu Shūgō]
Often translated "kami-buddha syncretism," shinbutsu shūgō refers to the complex phenomenon of "combinatory" interaction between Japanese beliefs in jingi or kami ("deities"), and the foreign, established religion of Buddhism. While this description is basically accurate in transmitting the outlines of the phenomenon, it is not always adequate to conceive of shinbutsu shūgō in Japan as involving the amalgamation of "entirely indigenous jingi beliefs" and a "pure imported Buddhism." Which is to say, at the time it entered Japan, Buddhism was already product of a complex process of adaptation and amalgamation with other belief systems in India, China, and the Korean peninsula. In fact, while in India, Buddhism had already incorporated deities of Brahmanic Hinduism such as Brahma (Jp. Bonten) and Indra (Jp. Taishakuten) as guardians of the dharma (gohō). In that sense, the Buddhism transmitted to Japan was already equipped with a disposition toward producing new combinatory deities.

In turn, when combinatory deities with new traits were adopted and systematized in Japan, it was normal to search for their origins in the Buddhist scriptures and among the guardians of the dharma found in India.

It should be noted that when first introduced to Japan, the buddhas were understood as an extension of the Japanese concept of kami, namely as "foreign kami" (banshin) or "buddha-kami"(busshin) in contrast to native kami. Numerous ambiguities surround the actual situation of anti-Buddhist debate that occurred when Buddhism was officially accepted in Japan, but it is clear that by claiming the importation of Buddhism was responsible for disaster in Japan, the anti-Buddhist faction relied on an understanding of Buddhism that was an extension of their understanding of the activities of native kami.

As a result, by viewing buddhas as another kind of kami, and thus understanding them both on the same conceptual level, it was possible for the two to coexist in Japan while occupying functionally differentiated roles. Even so, remaining merely at the level of that kind of "parallel existence" would not alone have led to the kind of combinatory phenomena whereby they were amalgamated in the way they were. Japanese "combinatory deities" or shūgōshin were generated only when a differential understanding of kami and buddhas became relatively widespread, specifically, an understanding that emphasized Buddhism in terms of its doctrine or dharma.

A clear example of this development can be seen in the events surrounding the building of the Nara temple Tōdaiji. In 749, the native kami Usa Hachiman (in Kyushu) issued an oracle (takusen) predicting the successful completion of the temple. In return, a branch shrine to Usa Hachiman was constructed in Kyoto (see kanjō), but what is important is the fact that Hachiman himself clearly expresses his role as "guardian of the dharma." Behind this kind of development lay the growing perception of Buddhism as "defender of the nation," but we must also emphasize the political situation including the court's favorable attitude toward the incorporation of the native kami into this systematic structure, and the willingness of the Hachiman cult to be so assimilated.

Transmitted to Nara from its home in Kyushu, the kami Hachiman was immediately enshrined in the Tamukeyama Hachimangū, and subsequently, the motif of a kami's serving as tutelary (chinjushin) for the Buddhist dharma or for a specific Buddhist temple came to play one of the most important roles in the history of combinatory deities in Japan. The Sekizan Myōjin enshrined by Ennin as tutelary of Mt. Hiei, and the Shinra Myōjin enshrined by Enshin at Onjōji were both tutelaries of their respective Buddhist schools while also being raised to the level of national protectors. According to legend, both were originally tutelaries of the Chinese temple Sekizan Hokke-in (Ch. Chi-shan Fa-hua Yuan), from which they had been "invited" to branch shrines in Japan. In short, they were deities with the strong characteristic of Buddhist tutelaries, after the model of Chinese combinatory deities. The same can be said for Seiryū Gongen, tutelary of the temples Daigoji and Shingoji. This deity was said to have originally been the tutelary of the Chinese temple Seiryūji (or Shōryūji; Ch. Qing-long-si), and brought to Japan by the monk Kūkai.

On the other hand, the more locally oriented custom of establishing jingūji (Buddhist "confessor" temples at Shinto shrines) also began to appear from the early eighth century. Such temples were built as a means of allowing local kami to be converted to Buddhism in order to escape their state of "suffering" as sentient beings. While indicating that the kami were in a position subordinate to the Buddhist dharma, it was also linked to the new practice of constructing shinzō, namely, depictions of kami in Buddhist iconographical form, such as the image of "Hachiman as a Buddhist monk."

The apprehension of kami as Buddhist monks or bodhisattvas in turn led to the concept of honji suijaku ("original substance and manifest traces"), namely the concept that the native Japanese kami could be apprehended as temporal manifestations of transcendental Buddhist truth. Within this conceptual system, kami came to be given titles like myōjin ("eminent deity") and gongen ("avatar"; see gongen shinkō).

From the medieval period, new theories suggested that kami were not necessarily subordinate to Buddhism, and humans also came to be given posthumous titles of myōjin and gongen in tribute to their achievements during life.

Other theories attempted to weave a wide range of well-known kami into a vast synthesis of Buddhist tutelaries, as in the "thirty deities of the Lotus" (sanjūbanshin). Further, of the various combinatory deities, some, like kōjin and ugajin had roots that preceded the importation of Buddhism, but acquired more concrete divine personalities as they became linked to Buddhist thought. While both these kami were originally viewed as possessing jealous, malevolent temperaments, such characteristics changed under the influence of Buddhism, and they became popular deities of good fortune.

It should also be noted that two of the most important sources for Japan's unique style of religious assimilation can be found in the ascetic mountain religion of Shugendō, and in the worship of goryō or vengeful spirits of the dead. The prototypical deity of the shugen cult was Kongō Zao Gongen, the tutelary known as protector of the gold of Mt. Kinpu until the descent of the future buddha Maitreya. Another notable deity of this sort is Izuna Gongen, enshrined at Mt. Izuna in Shinano Province (present-day Nagano). This deity was well known in conjunction with the secret religious techniques practiced by "izuna keepers," who were believed to exploit the magical power of foxes.

The cult of goryō, on the other hand, began from the granting of divine titles to certain kami believed responsible for epidemic diseases, or to the vengeful spirits of noble persons who had died under tragic circumstances. It quickly developed so as to produce deities such as Gozu Tennō of Kyoto's Yasaka Shrine, and Tenman Tenjin (Sugawara Michizane; see tenjin shinkō). From the late Heian into the medieval periods, both of these deities were woven into highly complex systems of divine ranks and titles, identified variously as Buddhist tutelaries or attendants to the Buddha, and placed in positions of authority over large numbers of subordinate spirits.

Such objects of worship came into being as a result of the activities of shasō (Buddhist priests serving at Shinto shrines), as well as a variety of ascetic mountain practitioners, shamans (fugen), and other folk-religious figures, who also worked to spread faith in the deities they helped to create. These combinatory deities and their cults attracted the faith of powerful patrons in the court and warrior government, and were equipped with a wide range of features and functions, ranging from community tutelaries of nation and local community, to more personal deities that responded to individual entreaty.

When considering the spread of faith in deities like Kōjin and Gozu Tennō, we must also not overlook the substantial influence of Taoism and Chinese Yin-Yang thought (Onmyōdō), which produced the prototypical familiar spirits known as shikigami. The popular medieval cults to divine "guardians of the dharma" (gohō) and "sprites" (dōjigami) were in substantial measure the product of such Onmyōdō shikigami beliefs, together with influences from beliefs in familiar spirits held by Lotus practitioners and esoteric Buddhists.

-Yonei Teruyoshi, Satō Masato
"Establishment of a National Learning Institute for the Dissemination of Research on Shinto and Japanese Culture"
4-10-28 Higashi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 150-8440, Japan
URL http://21coe.kokugakuin.ac.jp/
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