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The Spirituality of the Kami and the Materiality of Enlightenment in the Kinpusen Cult of Zaō gongen



Yagi Morris


The presentation will discuss multiple combinatory structures pertaining to the deity Zaō gongen in the Kinpusen himitsuden, a text written by Monkan Kōshin in 1337. The first structure stems from a legend regarding the manifestation of Zaō gongen, the mountain divinity of Kinpusen, before En no gyōja atop a rock on the summit of the mountain. The manifestation of the kami was anteceded by the descent of three Buddhas – Śākyamuni, Avalokiteśvara and Maitreya, deemed too gentle for the task of saving human beings. In the Kinpusen himitsuden the three Buddhas are identified as the three honji of Zaō gongen. However, as often is the case, the association between the Buddhas and the kami does not end in a fixed honji-suijaku scheme, but rather brings to a change in the very nature of the divinities. Articulated in the himitsuden as the Three Times, the Three Mysteries or the Three Buddha Bodies, the three honji Buddhas serve to re-conceptualize the kami in esoteric Buddhist terms. 


This idea becomes more conspicuous when we examine a second combinatory structure, which associates Zaō gongen with the Uṣṇīṣa Buddha Sonshō butchō. In early medieval Japanese ritual practices the Uṣṇīṣa Buddhas became intrinsically linked to esoteric Buddhist notions of supreme attainment as well as to notions of imperial sovereignty, and were linked to Dainichi nyorai through the symbolism of the stūpa and the jewel. In the Kinpusen himitsuden, the association of Zaō gongen with Sonshō butchō served to centralize the mountain kami of Kinpusen in the esoteric Buddhist universe and to integrate the kami in an innovative and performative esoteric Buddhist discourse on the enlightened mind and in the symbolic and ritual structure of legitimacy of the imperial court. Rather than an earthly manifestation of the Buddhas, the association with the Uṣṇīṣa transformed the mountain kami into a consummation of the sacred power entrenched in the esoteric Buddhist universe. As such, the Kinpusen divinity is also positioned between the two great mandalas of esoteric Buddhism and is articulated as an embodiment of their unification in a third element, the soshitsuji. Surprisingly, a similar triadic construction is projected upon another divinity within the mountains, Tenkawa Benzaiten, the metamorphoses of the Hindu goddess Sarasvati, who is identified in the text as the soshitsuji and the wish-fulfilling jewel. The juxtaposition of Zaō gongen and Tenkawa Benzaiten, a peripheral deity in the Buddhist universe, attests to the importance given to the locality of divinities in the text, whether or not they are defined as kami.


While the kami as well as peripheral divinities within the Buddhist pantheon acceded to the divine realm of the Buddhas and attained a new soteriological and cosmological dimension, they also embraced a distinct feature of their own - a connection to the land, in terms of both nature and territory. This feature of local divinities assumed great importance during the Nanbokuchō period. The wars transformed the unified realm under imperial sovereignty, imagined as a materialized Buddhist universe, into fragmented territories of dispute, each associated with a local deity (kami or other) and articulated as a site of explosive divine energy. The presentation will explore the rock-body of Zaō gongen as one such site, where the esoteric Buddhist universe as well as the Buddhist path to attainment are rearticulated in territorial and material terms with the divinity bridging the local and trans-local in its multiple identities and transformations.



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