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The culture of secrecy in Japanese religion

Datum: May 18–21, 2004
Ort: Austrian Academy of Sciences

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Abstracts in the order of presentation:

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Mark Teeuwen

Medieval Shinto and the art of experimental esotericism

I will be looking at some examples of the creation of new secrets in tantric traditions of medieval Shinto. Tantric texts and rituals focusing on imperial kami mythology and related sites (notably the Ise shrines) emerged in a range of different settings in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The opening up of this field of imperial ritual to tantric practice inspired many experiments in esotericism, some astonishingly creative. Secret objects, interpretations, and ritual procedures were invented, exchanged, and collected at centres around the country. Some of the new rituals were institutionalised and earned their creators new positions of prominence as guardians of their secrets. Others vanished into obscurity, or were incorporated into larger ritual performances where their original meaning was lost.

In this paper, I will take a closer look at a few concrete instances of experimentation with the creation of new secrets. The two questions that will be asked are why the secrets were created (by whom, under what circumstances, with what kind of aims in mind), and how: what techniques were used when the format of tantric ritual was applied to kami-related materials? Not all of these questions can be answered for all cases, but it is hoped that some insight can be gained into the processes that led to the proliferation of esotericism in this period.

(Mark Teeuwen, Oslo)

Lucia Dolce

Reconsidering the taxonomy of the “esoteric”: Taimitsu hermeneutical and ritual practices

The distinction made in Japanese Buddhism between "open teachings" (kengyô) and "secret teachings" (mikkyô) is often seen as the crucial element in the classification of different currents of Japanese Buddhism. The typology of the esoteric (mikkyô), however, did not remain static through the centuries. Already in the Heian period it was subject to transformations and evolutions, which affected the very understanding of the boundaries between kengyô and mikkyô. A discussion existed within Buddhist circles on the nature of the esoteric and on which teachings possessed "esoteric" qualities. One interesting outcome of such reevaluation was the enlargement of the category mikkyô, by which teachings originally classified as exoteric were given the status of esoteric teachings. These semantic and hermeneutical operations confront us with the pressing question of what should be understood as the defining element(s) of the esoteric.

This paper aims at reconsidering the meaning of mikkyô in the Heian and mediaeval periods, focusing on the distinctive construction of the esoteric operated in Taimitsu (Tendai esoteric Buddhism). It first looks at how Tendai scholar-monks reformulated the "secret teachings" by employing concepts of "secret" (himitsu) and "three mysteries" (sanmitsu) previously elaborated in the (exoteric) Chinese Tiantai tradition. Secondly, it looks at the major elements of the esoterization of the Lotus Sutra, which may be considered the characteristic of the Taimitsu discourse on the esoteric, and it presents one example of the liturgical application of this discourse, the hokkehô, that is, the esoteric ritual of the Lotus. This practice, today little known among esoteric specialists, enjoyed great popularity in the mediaeval period, within and outside Taimitsu circles, and was also part of the liturgies performed for the worship of the kami of Mt. Hiei, the Sannô deities.


Lucia Dolce is chair at the Centre for the Study of Japanese Religion, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London


Bernard Faure

The elephant in the room: Secrecy and Vinâyaka

In medieval Japan, the cult of secrecy characterizes above all the tradition of esoteric Buddhism (mikkyô), in its Shingon and Tendai variants. By privileging the secret over the manifest, esoteric Buddhism was led, paradoxically, to give precedence to certain figures of the sacred (the so-called devas) over the traditional symbols of Buddhism (buddhas and bodhisattvas). This tendency is particularly evident in the development of new cults, such as that of Shôten. This deity, also known as Vinâyaka, and, in his dual form, as Kangiten, is an elephant-headed deity derived from the Indian god Ganesh. His ritual efficacy is essentially function of his secrecy, and he is even today worshiped as a "hidden buddha" (hibutsu). Even after his conversion to Buddhism, Vinâyaka/Shôten remained a dangerous, demonic deity, invoked in black magical rites, in which Buddhist priests were supposed to use various kind of flesh, including human flesh, to make effigies of Vinâyaka and to chew them in order to subdue enemies. Because of this occult power, he came to play an important ritual role at court, and Emperor Go-Daigo, for instance, is famous (or infamous, depending on the standpoint) for his attempt to overthrow the bakufu through magic rituals centered on this and similar figures, like Dakiniten.

This paper will show how, in Vinâyaka's case, secrecy is over-determined by various symbolic and historical factors such as:

the belief in his 'evil eye', from which humans must be shielded the unbridled, obscene sexuality displayed by Kangiten, the Deva of Bliss, which must remain hidden but in last analysis, it is essentially the pervading symbolism of embryonic gestation that explains the transformation of that deity from a mere demon into the primordial, secret kôjin, the "hidden god" of medieval Japan.


Bernard Faure is professor at the Department of Religious Studies, Stanford University, California

Nobumi Iyanaga

Secret transmission, diffusion and apocryphal traditions: Remarks on some paradoxical phenomena

While working on a text entitled Juhô yôjin shû, written by a Shingon monk named Shinjô in 1268, which describes a very special apocryphal tradition -- the well-known "skull ritual", used to be ascribed to the Tachikawa-ryû (but this ascription is certainly wrong) --, I found a pair of curious statements. Shinjô says that all the "eminent monks" to whom he asked questions about the origin and the nature of this tradition replied that they knew nothing at all about it; at the same time, he claims that the practice of this tradition is spread throughout the country, and ninety per cent of monks give themselves up to it. Of course, Shinjô writes these statements in order to discredit this tradition. Nevertheless, the contradiction seems interesting to analyze: on the one hand, this tradition would have been so secret that nobody knows it, on the other hand, everybody practices it.

One can point out other contradictions in the system of secret transmissions which operated in medieval Mikkyo tradition. Secret transmission is supposed to be the source of authority of each lineage, and is also supposed to guarantee the inalterability of the teaching of that lineage. However, there are cases in which some lineages create new, apocryphal traditions in order to gain more authority for themselves; and there are so many "cross-transmissions" of secret teachings -- that is, one monk receiving several secret transmissions from different lineages -- that very often, the secrecy could not be observed at all.

Reading Japanese medieval Mikkyo texts, one notes further that in many cases, teachings related to sex and/or imperial power are said to be "most secret" ("jinpi", "sai-goku jinpi", etc.), but at the same time, these teachings seem to be precisely those which were most widely known (some of them even found their way in well known literary works like the Taiheiki). Isn't this because they appeared most sensational or exiting to those who received them and were thus most easily diffused?

At the same time, these “most secret” traditions were also subject to heresiological critique, that would denounce them as „apocryphal“. The Catalogue of the Sacred Teachings of the Tachikawa-ryû by Yûkai is one example in case. Finally, there existed some "really apocryphal" traditions, those for example that are said to have been "invented," unearthed miraculously. I would like to try to identify and characterize these traditions as far as possible.


Nobumi Iyanaga works as a private scholar on East Asian religions in Tokyo

Albert de Jong

Secrets, secrecy, and the study of religions

The only fruitful way to study secrecy in human cultures and religions is to study it as a social phenomenon. The private secrets of individuals, that is knowledge of facts kept hidden from everyone (for example a woman who hides from her husband the fact that the child she is bearing is not his), are not only most often lost to us, but also do not really constitute a subject that could be analysed profitably. That is why, following a lead from the German sociologist Georg Simmel, secrecy in antiquity as an object of study is most often said to have a "triadic" nature: the three activities of "concealing," "keeping hidden" and "revealing" knowledge involve, in turn, at least three parties: two people who share the secret and a third party, the ones who do not know it.

In order to explore these social manifestations of secrets and secrecy, we need to analyze the working of tradition, the "public nature" of knowledge, and the social (including religious, political, and legal) effects and strategies of concealment. Approaching the subject from this angle carries with it the danger of neglecting the psychological effects of secrecy, especially of secret rituals. In order to confront this danger, we shall, first, present some vital distinctions (on "esoteric" knowledge, supposed secrecy of rituals and the problem of mysticism) and then present three "topics" for discussion: secret knowledge, secret rituals, and secret identities. Our main examples will derive from the religions of Antiquity, but in order to make the paper relevant to the conference as a whole, "classical" Buddhism will be the focus of the last part of the presentation.


Albert de Jong is professor at the Faculty of Theology of Leiden University Indian Esoterism

Ronald M. Davidson

Cultures of exclusion, secrecy, deception, composition and revelation in Tantric Buddhism

While Indian Buddhist systems contributed attributes of secrecy to Japan, as they did for all of East Asia, the cultural circumstances in India were manifestly different from those experienced by Buddhists elsewhere. Consequently, in the formulation of secrecy in Indian tantric Buddhism, Buddhists interacted with social, political, economic and religious systems and values that were generated in a highly stratified, status-conscious, orally-based matrix that was changing rapidly from the sixth century forward. The paper will first present a summation of Indian ideologies of secrecy, exclusion and revelation prior to the seventh century, especially in the Mahayanist formulation of truth into a model of appearance and reality. The paper will then focus on the tantric systems that inscribed secrecy in its structures of vows, in its secret signs and languages, in its rites and mandalas, and in its rhetoric of a revelation so arcane that it was unknown even to the Buddhas themselves. Because of the extensive nature of the sources, the presentation will emphasize the esoteric materials from the eighth and ninth centuries, both from the scriptural texts and from the understudied commentarial literature.


Ronald M. Davidson is professor at the Dept. of Religious Studies, Fairfield University, Connecticut

Martin Lehnert

Tang-period tantric Buddhism: A rhetoric of secrecy

Introducing Tantric Buddhist practices to China, the Indian and Chinese promulgators were compelled to validate the authenticity and truth claim of texts they had to translate and the related ritual performances they had to implement under given socio-political circumstances. Considering the heterogeneity of Tantric practices, the supposition of a self-identifying esoteric school or even a foundational concept of Tantric Buddhism appears to be untenable for the case of medieval India and Tang-China.

The paper approaches the "secrecy" of Tantric praxis as an aspect of promotional pragmatics: secrecy not to be understood as a taxonomical or doctrinal category but as a rhetoric function in the medieval Indian and Chinese context. Secrecy depends on social bonds as it supposes a certain relation to perception and the imperceptible: "What kind of action can be set free by secrecy?"

However, the Tantric rhetoric of secrecy evolve into epistemic settings as soon as the Tantric hierophant attempts to present himself as an authority to the potentially supportive ruler: He claims to possess a secret knowledge of implemented ritual magic, by which useful divine powers could be materialized. As ritual magic implements speech acts, consequently, the unconditioned is no longer excluded from the realm of semiosis. Therefore, in Tantric Buddhism, the world begins to signify before anyone knows what it signifies, and promotional pragmatics seem to be bent into ontic foundations of secrecy: it is the unconditioned state as the secret of mundane reality which lays ground for the hierophant’s competence and his truth claim. How does a secret justify secrecy as a hermeneutics of empowerment? For what does it radiate signs, passwords, coded languages and rituals, by which a given hierarchy of power relations could be overridden, superimposing its grid of secret signification?

Therefore, this paper is aimed at discussing questions of hidden signification and contingencies of language, which were well understood in medieval China due to the many inconsistencies in textual translation: it appears to be the evident lack of conceptual as well as grammatological equivalence between Sanskrit and Chinese language that laid further ground for a Tantric rhetoric of secrecy.


Martin Lehnert lectures at the Dept. for Chinese Studies, University of Zurich

Atsushi Kadoya

Three views of a secret: Myth, rite, and icon

The Sanshu no jingi or “three sacred regalia” prove the legitimacy of an emperor’s sovereign power and became the subject of contention during times of crisis. For example, after the regalia sank into the sea with the young emperor Antoku at the end of the Genpei wars, their whereabouts became a problem. Likewise, their existence was deemed critical during the Nanbokuchô era dispute between two emperors over which could claim imperial legitimacy. In the medieval period, the sovereign power of the emperor was challenged by the rise of the warrior class and during rivalry over succession between two imperial genealogies. Accordingly, the three sacred regalia drew a great deal of attention. Conversely, in ancient times when sovereign power enjoyed relative stability - and also during the Edo period when emperors virtually disappeared from the stage of politics - the existence or location of “three sacred regalia” were not debated.

During the medieval period, another set of regalia, called the Jisshu shinpô or “ten sacred treasures,” was used to explain Shinto. Neither the Kojiki nor the Nihon shoki provides descriptions of these ten treasures. Although they first appear in a tenth century text called the (Sendai) Kuji hongi, in the medieval period this text, thought to have been compiled by the prince Shôtoku Taishi, had more authority than either the Kojiki or the Nihon shoki. It is certain that the ten sacred treasures were based on the three sacred regalia, because stories about their origins are nearly identical, but the characteristics of the treasures and regalia differ. The ten sacred treasures have magical powers. According to Kuji hongi, for example, one can revive the dead by shaking these treasures while reciting a spell.

The ten sacred treasures consist of the following: 1. Oki-tsu-kagami, 2. He-tsu-kagami, 3. Yatsuka-no-tsurugi, 4. Iku-tama, 5. Shinu-tama, 6. Taru-tama, 7. Michi-kaeshi-no-tama, 8. Hebi-no-hire, 9. Hachi-no-hire, and 10. Shinamono-no-hire. In the medieval period, various explanations of the ten sacred treasures evolved, treating them as if they had material substance. Jisshu shinpô zu, “Diagrams of the Ten Sacred Treasures” is thought to be the source of this interpretation. This text, attributed to Kôbô Daishi Kûkai, includes diagrams of the sacred treasures. It was assumed that Kûkai drew these diagrams based on Shôtoku Taishi’s compilation, the Kuji hongi. Thus two improbable, hypothetical origins account for their existence and recording.

Each of the ten sacred treasures is described in such mysterious terms as to making their existence seem merely symbolic. To understand their meaning, we must refer to medieval explanations. For example, the form of one of the treasures resembles the Chinese character for fire and indicates that the treasure enables access to fire in all of its manifestations.

The relationship between the three sacred regalia and the ten sacred treasures was also an important theme in the medieval period. The Tendai priest Jihen tackled this problem in his Kuji hongi gengi. According to this text, nine of the ten treasures are transformations of the three sacred regalia, and the tenth treasure, the Shinamono-no-hire, integrates the other nine. In other words, the Shinamono-no-hire represents the three sacred regalia. It resembles a crown, representing the types of crowns used in imperial enthronement initiations. The Shinamono-no-hire, therefore, symbolizes the emperor’s enthronement and is a kind of hyper-regalia that transcends the original three sacred regalia.

Moreover, the pattern decorating the Shinamono-no-hire suggests the go-gyômon pattern of studs nailed to the gables of both shrines of Ise jingu. According to legend, when the princess Yamato-hime built the shrine of Ise, she included a symbol of the palace in Takamagahara, the go-gyômon. The inner and outer shrines of Ise correspond to esoteric representations of the universe, the Taizôkai mandala and the Kongôkai mandala, respectively. The Shinamono-no-hire crown, therefore, enables an emperor to reign over the entire universe. The wearer of that crown is becomes the universal Buddha Dainichi (Mahavairôcana).

Thus we can see how the ten sacred treasures were linked to various elements including mythology from the enthronement of Amaterasu’s grandson, symbolic Chinese characters, and sovereign power through enthronement initiation. These mythological, symbolic, and ritual elements were woven into a complicated tapestry that gave rise to various explanations. An examination of myth, rite and icon unravels the secret of medieval explanations.

In the early modern period such explanations ceased. While the logic in operation during the medieval period was integration, later ages were more concerned with analysis. For example, in the Miwa-ryû shintô hoshin-shô, the three sacred regalia are classified and abstracted. The author compares them to the ten sacred treasures and concludes that the three sacred regalia are superior. Also, in the Miwa monogatari, Kumazawa Banzan describes the mirror, ball, and sword as symbols of wisdom, virtue, and courage, respectively. In these explanations, the emperor has legitimacy not because he possesses the regalia. Rather, he is qualified to receive the regalia because he is equipped with the attributes of a king: wisdom, virtue, and courage. In the early modern and modern eras, therefore, the regalia are worth less than their corresponding virtues. Accordingly, the ten sacred treasures defined by “illogical” medieval logic have been completely forgotten. The three sacred regalia, on the other hand, are now considered merely symbolic objects, no longer of vital interest to the public or to people involved in matters of imperial legitimacy.


Atsushi Kadoya lectures on Japanese Religion at several universities including Waseda University, Tokyo

Fabio Rambelli

The “secrets” of secret transmissions (hiden) and consecrations (kanjô)

An analysis of medieval and early modern "secret transmissions" (hiden or kuden) shows that they often took place within a ritual context: they were part of consecration ceremonies (kanjô) originating in esoteric Buddhism (mikkyô). Transmissions concern two rather different kinds of "secrets", namely, doctrines and ritual practices. In fact, many of them focus not just on hidden doctrines, but also and especially on what would appear to an external observer as minor, petty details such as the right intonation of a song, a peculiar hand gesture, the correct state of mind of the practitioner, and so forth. In fact, secret transmissions usually took place after a period of study and training in which the initiand was required to master the intellectual content of a doctrine. In this sense, the philosophical discourse of esoteric Buddhism played an important function as the ground for a distinctive outlook on reality. Transmission rituals as "consecrations" sanctioned the correct understanding of the doctrines and authorized the initiand (as a new "master") to further perform or teach them. Thus, they were related to the ways in which knowledge was produced, stored, and transmitted in pre-modern Japan.

In my paper I will outline the main features of the epistemic field of esoteric Buddhism within which these practices originated. In particular, I will address the status of "secrecy" (himitsu); the nature of the semiotic entities it employed and the multileveled structure of meaning (shiju hishaku), the understanding of which required specific studies and transmissions; and the organization of the education curriculum culminating with transmission/consecration ceremonies. Finally, I will discuss some general aspects of the regime of knowledge that made these practices possible and point to some of the ways in which they have been re- (mis-?) interpreted after modernization.


Fabio Rambelli is professor at the Department of Cultural Studies, Sapporo University

Susan B. Klein

Esoteric literary commentaries of medieval Japan and their influence on Noh theater

In my recently published book, Allegories of Desire: Esoteric Literary Commentaries of Medieval Japan (Harvard University Press, 2003), I examined the incorporation of esoteric Buddhist initiation rituals into the pedagogy of waka poetry in the Kamakura period. Now I’m in the process of writing a companion volume, an examination of how both the tantric content of these esoteric commentaries and the interpretive method of etymological allegoresis they employed influenced the writing of Noh plays in the Muromachi period. My paper for the Austria conference would give a brief overview of this research.

It is clear that by the 15th century a number of supposedly secret poetic commentaries had begun filtering into Japanese popular culture. One of the most widely disseminated commentaries was Kokinwakashû jo kikigaki, which provided the secret “histories” (often political) behind selected phrases from the preface to the Kokin shû imperial anthology. These anecdotal allegories were used as the basis for plays as varied as Takasago ("growing old together with the twin pines of Takasago and Suminoe"), Ominameshi ("recalling the olden days of Man Mountain and mourning the brief blossoming of the maiden flower"), Matsumushi ("yearning for a friend at the sound of the pining cricket") and Fujisan ("comparing one's smoldering passion to Mt. Fuji's rising smoke"). Significant allusions to secret commentaries on the Kokin shû appear in the plays Hakurakuten, Kinsatsu, Naniwa, Ukai, Asagao, Ashikari, and Sotoba Komachi, among others. Tameaki’s commentaries on Ise monogatari provided plot and thematic content for plays such as Kakitsubata, in which Ariwara Narihira, exiled to the Eastern Provinces for a forbidden love affair, is revealed to actually be a Buddha incarnate who chose to become mortal in order to bring enlightenment to women through sex. Other plays using material from Ise monogatari commentaries include Izutsu, Oshio, Unrin'in, and Ukon. Tameaki's commentaries also provided material and the methodology for treatises on Noh by the playwrights Zeami and Zenchiku (particularly Zeami's Rikugi and Zenchiku's Myôshukushô).

Noh plays have traditionally been read without regard to possible politicized and sexualized meanings. In the last few years, Gerry Yokota-Murakami, Steven Brown, and Etsuko Terasaki have published books that challenge that assumption, and I hope to continue that challenge through my focus on hidden layers of tantric content and esoteric methodology. Issues relevant to the conference topic include:

How did the content of supposedly secret tantric commentaries (a lost culture of secrecy) become the basis for publicly performed plays? That is, how did relatively lower-class actors such as Zeami and Zenchiku get access to what once had been a closed system of transmission within elite poetry and political circles? What does this access say about the relation of poetic pedagogy to political change? Esoteric commentaries provided not only content for Zeami and Zenchiku’s treatises, they also provided an interpretive methodology for Zenchiku. Were Zenchiku and Zeami attempting to create a new “culture of secrecy”? Who and what would it have involved? To what extent might the methodology of etymological allegoresis used in commentaries and in Zenchiku’s Noh treatises also be used in his plays? And how should we read esoteric/tantric content as it appears in Noh plays and treatises: do we take it literally, figuratively, ironically? My thinking about these issues is still tentative, so the paper will very much be a work in progress: I hope to benefit from the combined expertise of the conference participants. But overall, my goal is to show how much more richly complex, both imagistically and thematically, our understanding of Muromachi Noh becomes when plays and treatises are situated in their historical context and read in conjunction with the secret commentaries actually used to write them.


Susan B. Klein is professor at the Dept. of East Asian Languages and Literatures, University of California, Irvine

Bernhard Scheid

Ôkuninushi as the originator of (secret) religious practice

The influence of Esoteric Buddhism on medieval Shinto has been frequently observed. From the Edo period onward it led to various kinds of criticism regarding the eclectic and syncretistic nature of medieval Shinto. Shinto theologians, on the other hand, were well aware of this fact and strove for explanations to justify the similarities of their religious system to Esoteric Buddhism. A very common strategy was to maintain that Shinto was, in fact, the basis of Buddhism, and in particular of Esoteric Buddhism, i.e. that Buddhism was a secondary fabrication of thought which originated from the teachings of the kami. To sustain such far-fetched claims, a particular episode of the Divine Age Chapter of Nihon shoki was often drawn upon. This account is commonly known as the kuni yuzuri or “land yielding” episode, in which the deity Ôanamuchi (better known as Ôkuninushi) plays the leading role. Confronted with the superior strength of Amaterasu’s grandchild Ninigi who has just descended from heaven to earth, the lord of the earthly realm, Ôkuninushi, yields all political powers to Ninigi and retires (or dies). To medieval exegetes the most interesting and thought-provoking aspects of this narrative were the particular expressions used to describe this event. In the mythical account, what appears to be “political power” or “secular leadership” is in fact simply called “the open things” (arawani no koto) with Ôkuninushi retiring to take care of the “hidden things” (kakuretaru koto), or, in a parallel version, the “divine things” (kami no koto). Given the fact that “to hide” often means “to die” in the language of the Nihon shoki, Ôkuninushi’s “hiding” seems to be just an euphemism for suicide. To the medieval writers, however, the “divine = hidden things” were nothing other then religious service. Ôkuninushi was thus interpreted as the originator of priesthood, implicitly sustaining the notion thereby that religion itself was essentially hidden or secret.

While the founder of Yoshida Shinto, Yoshida Kanetomo (1435-1511), seems to have been the first to draw the exegesis of the kuni yuzuri episode to the extent sketched above, previous authors, as for instance Ichijô Kaneyoshi, dealt with it also. In my paper I will take a closer look at these interpretations and their implications on the medieval notion of “Shinto” and religion in general.


Bernhard Scheid is research fellow at the Institute for Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia, Austrian Academy of Sciences

Anne Walthall

Hiding the Shoguns: Secrecy and the nature of political authority in Tokugawa Japan

What Bernhard Scheid calls "conventional secrecy" constituted an integral component of political authority in Tokugawa Japan. The shoguns flaunted their dominance in massive walls and public works, but concealed their persons. They forbade discussion of themselves, their ceremonies, their conflicts, and indeed contemporary events of any kind, nor did they appear in public in the manner of European monarchs. As Timon Screech recently remarked in The Shogun’s Painted Culture: Fear and Creativity in the Japanese States 1760-1829, they "occluded themselves with an iconography of absence" (p. 112). As a foil for discussions of mikkyô, I propose to investigate the reasons for this absence by situating shogunal authority in a social, cultural, and religious context that is both historical and explicitly comparative. For the EAJS Conference in Warsaw, I took a preliminary look at shogunal rites of investiture. For this symposium, I want to investigate them in more detail to see to what extent they changed over time. Like the Ottoman sultan, the Chinese emperor, the Korean king, and other Asian rulers, the shoguns regulated access to their persons. They established inner quarters in which they placed their mothers, wives, concubines, lady officials, attendants, and scullery maids. They also drew on an eclectic mixture of Buddhist, Shinto, and Confucian ideas to transform their military power into sacred authority. My arguments are as follows: 1) Both palaces and temples shared a spatial configuration in which objects and persons became progressively more concealed the further they were from the periphery and the closer they were to the center. A major difference was that whereas the hidden interiors of Buddhist temples were for men only, the great interior of Chiyoda castle enclosed a realm of women. This contrast colored sliding standards of secrecy along a continuum from sacred to political realms. 2) One symbol of ruling authority was the possession of and control over women who like the ruler remained sequestered from public gaze. In both a literal and a figurative sense, the palace was a place where sexuality was concealed yet continually demonstrated. 3) The shoguns deliberately secluded the sacred monarch in Kyoto, but they refused a strict demarcation between sacred and profane that would have put them on the side of the profane. Instead they crossed back and forth in ways that can provide a new perspective on the dialectic between concealment and exposure in Japanese religion, politics and society.

I hope that my paper will contribute to the symposium in two ways. First, it will bring a political dimension to the discussion on religion, and perhaps suggest that students of mikkyô might want to think about the politics of secrecy. Second, by placing its discussion of shogunal secrecy in an explicitly comparative context, it will suggest the possibility of making cross-cultural comparisons in other fields as well.


Anne Walthall is professor at the Department of History, University of California, Irvine

William M. Bodiford

When secrecy ends: Implications of the Tokugawa-period Buddhist reformation

The worldview of medieval Japanese religion largely came to an end during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) when scholastic Buddhist monks, such as Reikū Kōken (1652-1739) 靈空光謙 and Menzan Zuihō 面山瑞方 (1683-1769), successfully introduced reforms that radically altered the ways that Buddhism should be studied, practiced, and understood. Their reforms were so successful that until recently scholars routinely explained medieval religion in terms of the doctrinal debates, textual studies, and appeals to public morality that dominated Tokugawa-period discourse. This unwitting tendency to view medieval religion solely in terms of Tokugawa-period reformulations not only has caused scholars to overlook the importance of secret initiations in medieval culture, but also has prevented them from explaining either the reformation itself or its broader implications.

I will attempt to partially redress this lacuna by presenting a preliminary examination of Reikū Kōken and his success in having the government ban medieval Tendai rituals of secret initiation that he attacked as immoral. In particular I wish to place this suppression of secret initiations at the intersection of several new social developments: the efforts of the Tokugawa administration to weaken alliances between the royal court and religious institutions, the growing influence of Ming-dynasty Chinese Buddhist scholasticism and Confucian evidentiary learning, the emergence of morality as a topic of public discourse, and the resulting intellectual construction of "secrecy" as being something that is inherently antinomian, subversive, and ungovernable. Finally, I will comment on the implications of these developments for the ways that we research, understand, and teach the history of Japanese religions.


William Bodiford is professor at the Dept. of East Asian Languages and Cultures, University of California, Los Angeles

Kate Wildman Nakai

"Esoteric" and "public" in late Mito thought

The rise of Confucianism in the Tokugawa period brought a shift away from the emphasis on secrecy and privileged transmissions (denju, hiden) of knowledge characteristic of the medieval intellectual and religious world. The establishment of Confucianism as a major discourse in Tokugawa society is often traced, for example, to a symbolic challenge to the court scholarly tradition of privileged transmissions: Hayashi Razan’s decision in the early 1600s to offer public lectures on Zhu Xi's commentary on the Analects. To be sure, Razan and other early Tokugawa Confucian scholars such as Yamazaki Ansai continued to make use themselves of privileged transmissions, particularly in their efforts to link Confucianism and Shinto. Nevertheless, from the seventeenth century, Tokugawa thinkers assigned an increased importance and value to what might be termed "public” as opposed to esoteric knowledge.

The concern to reach and guide the populace prominent in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century thought added a new dimension to the affirmation of public over secret knowledge. The late Mito school provides a prime example. Mito thinkers such as Aizawa Seishisai criticized the medieval and early modern Shinto lineages for holding jealously to their own "house interpretations." Such practices, they held, impeded the inculcation of a general awareness of the "public and correct" principles of service to heaven and reverence for ancestors that were the foundation of proper social behavior and that they took to be the core of Shinto. At the same time, what the Mito scholars envisioned as "public" was quite different from the broad participation in debates over affairs of state advocated by some of their contemporaries. Fearful of the populace's susceptibility to heterodox ideas and practices, and convinced that didactic preaching would not serve as an effective means of countering that inclination, the Mito scholars looked instead to the power of ritual centered on the ruler to keep the people "within the current" of what was correct.

In their affirmation of the magical efficacy of ritual, the Mito scholars shared certain assumptions with the "charlatan priests" and "pedantic Confucians" whom they otherwise criticized. They insisted, however, that to be truly efficacious, the ruler's ritual should not be kept confined within the hidden precincts of the court, but should in some way be made public. In my paper I will consider several dimensions of the Mito scholars' critique of secrecy and advocacy of a public mode of ritual (which would constitute simultaneously a true form of Shinto). One is their rejection of the medieval and early modern Confucian-Shinto emphasis on introspective reflection, predilection for cosmological and allegorical speculation, and tendency to frame teachings as stages of initiation. Another is their effort to formulate a national structure of ritual that would replicate and thereby make "public" the rites performed by the emperor. A third is the dilemma they encountered in this process in seeking simultaneously to preserve a hierarchy of access to the sacred so as to prevent transgression of the properly hierarchical social order. To illustrate how they dealt with such matters, I will discuss their approach to rites concerning Amaterasu, the ultimate focus of a national structure of ritual centered on the emperor, and their perspective on the deity Ôkuninushi, who figured centrally in the medieval and early modern discourse revolving around "hidden/divine matters."


Kate Wildman Nakai is professor at Sophia University, Tokyo, and chief editor of Monumenta Nipponica

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