Shinto Deities

Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion

II. The Significance of Shinto Deities in the Ancient Period

In the previous section the word Shinto was analyzed to show how it was used and what it meant in ancient times. Now it is necessary to consider the institutional significance and place of kami in Japan during that period, especially as evidenced in the jingiryõ laws and in Shinto-Buddhist syncreticism.

The jingiryõ is a set of laws of ancient Japan which instituted ceremonies to the kami. Needless to say, these laws include only those rites which had state sponsorship, but they nonetheless represent a fair sampling of the ceremonies current at that time. In brief the jingiryõ laws cover the following topics:

1) the season, title, and content of official annual ceremonies; 2) imperial succession ceremonies and imi (seclusion to avoid things tabooed); 3) the supervision and administration of ceremonies; 4) õharai (an official ceremony to exorcise evils and offenses from people); and 5) the administration of government shrines.

It is well known that the ritsuryõ law code of ancient Japan was modeled on the codes of Sui and T’ang China. Many scholars have already pointed out that the jingiryõ , one section of the ritsuryõ , was based on the Chinese shiryõ or tz’u-ling code, which has been reconstructed in forty-six articles.13 When compared to the T’ang shiryõ , the jingiryõ is seen to occupy an identical position in the overall order of the law code and to correspond to the shiryõ in topic and sentence structure. The official ceremonies described in the shiryõ include:

1) shi or, in Chinese, ssu (veneration of kami of heaven); 2) sai or chi (veneration of kami of earth); 3) or heng (deification of the spirits of the dead); and 4) sekiten or shih-tien (deification of ancient sages and masters).

From these the jingiryõ of Japan incorporated only the first two and then added imperial succession ceremonies and õharai ceremonies, not found in the shiryõ . These changes probably reflect differences in the use of ceremonies in Japan and China which the compilers of the ritsuryõ code took into account. Notwithstanding these differences, both codes are alike in that they record popular ceremonies of society at that time, even though they include only those ceremonies which had official or political significance. The importance which Japan’s ritsuryõ code placed on kami derived ultimately from such ceremonies.

Originally, kami were popular local deities connected to communal groups bound by blood ties or geographical proximity, and later to the imperial concept of state as well. The kami associated with ancestor worship are one example of such local deities. As the section following the jingiryõ in the ritsuryõ , the government drew up the sõniryõ, laws for Buddhist institutions, to regulate priests and nuns. By compiling the sõniryõ separately from the jingiryõ , the government placed ceremonies for kami in a different dimension from religions such as Buddhism which exerted a special influence on society through its high doctrines.

In subsequent centuries the significance of kami changed somewhat from what it had been under the original ritsuryõ system. During the eighth century the state enthusiastically embraced Buddhism, and the Empress Shõtoku, in collusion with the priest Dõkyõ, established a policy that was pro-Buddhist in the extreme. Recent scholars have shown how this policy met with opposition in aristocratic and court circles, and they claim that in conjunction with political reforms at the beginning of the ninth century there emerged the concept of Shinto as an independent indigenous religion.l4 Certainly, it was during these ninth century reforms that court Shinto ceremonies and Ise Shrine’s organization were formalized. Nonetheless, it is highly unlikely that Shinto was perceived as an independent religion in opposition to Buddhism at this time.

As is already well known, between the late eighth century and the eleventh century Shinto and Buddhism gradually coalesced with one another (shinbutsu shugõ)–or, more precisely, veneration of the kami was absorbed into Buddhism through a variety of doctrinal innovations and new religious forms. Among the doctrinal explanations of the kami were the following:

1) the kami realize that they themselves are trapped in this world of samsara and transmigration
and they also seek liberation through the Buddhist teachings; 2) the kami are benevolent deities who protect Buddhism; 3) the kami are transformations of the Buddhas manifested in Japan to save all sentient beings (honji suijaku); and 4) the kami are the pure spirits of the Buddhas (hongaku).

Among new religious forms were the jinguji (a combination shrine and temple) and Sõgyõ Hachiman (the kami Hachiman in the guise of a Buddhist monk). Such religious forms are exemplary of ceremonies and objects of worship which could not be distinguished specifically as Shinto or as Buddhist. The first stage in this process of Shinto-Buddhist syncretization covered the late eighth and early ninth century. During that period the first two doctrinal explanations of kami, mentioned above, became current. It is only natural that at this stage people became more cognizant of the kami, especially in relation to the Buddhas. Examples of this are found in the Shoku Nihongi. The entry there for 782/7/29 states
that Shinto cannot be deceived and that numerous recent calamities are retribution meted out by the great kami of Ise and all the other kami in return for the negligent use of mourning garb widespread
among men. Such disrespect for decorum, and by extension for the kami, indicates implicitly the popularity of the Buddhas over the kami.

Another example from the Shoku Nihongi is an imperial edict of 836/11, which states that there is nothing superior to Mahãyãna Buddhism in defending Shinto and that one should rely on the
efficacy of Buddhist practices to transform calamity into good. This passage indicates that it is the Buddhas who guarantee the authority of the kami.

These examples reflect a heightened awareness of kami during this period, but they by no means imply that Shinto was looked upon as an independent and inviolable entity. On the contrary, there was more of a sense that Shinto occupied a subordinate position and role within the broader scheme of Buddhism.

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