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The Gion Goryōë

The Gion Matsuri is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, matsuri in contemporary Shinto. It takes place every summer in Kyoto, with massive processions of decorated floats, called Yamaboko, and also involves processions of mikoshi. The float processions are thought to symbolically purify the city before the mikoshi, carrying the kami, also process, and the procession of the kami is thought to increase their power before the final ritual that closes the week of ceremonies. It is one of the main tourist attractions in Kyoto, and it is even more difficult than usual to book accommodation in the city when it happens. I really should write a Patreon essay about it at some point.

The matsuri is now associated with Yasaka Jinja, which was previously known as Gionsha. However, “Gion” is a Buddhist term, and so when the Meiji government separated Shinto and Buddhism, the jinja had to come up with a new name, and change the venerated kami from Gozu Tennō (Ox-Headed Heaven King) to something from Shinto — in this case, there was an existing association with Susano’o. (My understanding is that the jinja does not run the whole of the festival, but rather is responsible for the specifically Shinto elements. If I do write a proper essay, I will have to find out the details.)

However, this year the matsuri is largely suspended, because large crowds of people are not a good idea in the middle of a pandemic.

This is ironic, because the matsuri originated in prayers to stop an epidemic, in the ninth century.

The priests at the Yasaka Jinja recognised the irony of cancelling a matsuri held to ward off diseases because of a disease, and so they have held smaller matsuri, the Gion Goryōë, to pray for an end to the pandemic, and these matsuri have been reported in Jinja Shinpō. (I think I have mentioned them.)

The most recent issue reports the third of these, held on the site that is said to be the location of the first “Gion Matsuri”, or rather of the ceremony that developed into the Gion Matsuri. This place is called “Shinsen’en”, or “Garden of the Spring of the Kami”, and it is now managed by a Buddhist temple. This ceremony was thus performed according to both Shinto and Buddhist rituals, and apparently this is the first time it has been done this way since the Meiji Revolution.

The participants gathered at the temple, and then processed through the garden to a jinja, Zen’nyoryūōsha (“Good Woman Dragon Monarch Jinja”), where the ceremony was to be performed.

The first step was purification, which started with the burning of a plant, okera, said to be effective for these purposes. (This is not standard in contemporary Shinto.) This was followed by everyone present, included the Buddhist monks, reciting the Ōharaëkotoba, the most important purification prayer in Shinto.

Next, the priests went to a spot in front of the main sanctuary of the jinja, and called down Susano’o and Somin Shōrai, the kami who were to be venerated in the ritual. (And not the kami of the jinja where it was being performed.)

After that, the chief monk of the temple went forward, and performed some Buddhist ceremonies that I do not know anything about — even how to read the kanji — and read a sutra, before reciting the mantra of Yakushi Buddha (Bhaiṣajyaguru, according to Wikipedia). The monk is specifically described as paying his respects in a slightly unusual way: two deep bows, two claps, and one moderate bow. Normally, all the bows are deep.

The Shinto ceremony happened next, in the normal way, with a special offering of millet cake, an offering based on the legend of Somin Shōrai (which I have talked about before). The chief priest of Yasaka Jinja recited a norito asking for the end of the pandemic, and then the priests used water from the pond beneath Zen’nyoryūōsha (which is called Ryūketsu, or “Dragon Hole”) to perform a purification.

Next, miko from Yasaka Jinja performed a kagura based on the tanka written by Susano’o in the myths, in the prayer hall of Zen’nyoryūōsha. (This is not one of the standard miko kagura, and may have been created for Yasaka Jinja.) Finally, everyone, including the monks, offered tamagushi, and the ceremony ended.

Obviously, the biggest point of interest here is the merger of Shinto and Buddhism. This is still rare in contemporary Japanese practice, but it does seem to be becoming more common, and more accepted by the establishments of both religions. (At least in some varieties of Buddhism; there are varieties of Japanese Buddhism that have always been hostile to Shinto.) Personally, I find the fact that they basically borrowed one kami’s jinja to honour two other kami almost as intriguing. There are other examples of a similar form of matsuri, but it is not common.

I do not have space here to say much more about this ceremony, but it is a very good example of the diversity of Shinto.

2 thoughts on “The Gion Goryōë”

  1. I have studied Japanese Buddhist history for over 15 years (a large part of it in university) and did not come across any Japanese Buddhist tradition which could he described as hostile towards Shinto. Jodo Shinshu is the most “extreme” with saying that followers should not involve themselves in fortune telling and prayer. All other traditions are open towards Shinto traditions. On the other hand there was persecution against Buddhists coming from nationalist and nativist groups with strong connection to Shinto since the beginning of the Meiji era. Can you clarify what you mean by Buddhist traditions being hostile towards Shinto?

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      I was largely thinking of Jodo Shinshu; in this context, “hostile” means “disapproves of and maintains separation from” rather than “actively tries to destroy”. Mind you, Ryōbu and Sannō Shinto could be described as hostile takeover attempts if one were not being generous; certainly, the priests at Hiyoshi Taisha seem to have felt that way in the Edo period. That isn’t what I meant here, however.

      It’s also, in my opinion, a gross oversimplification to describe the Meiji period events as persecution of Buddhists by (groups with strong connections to) Shinto. Many of the targets were jinja, which were forced to abandon their traditional syncretic practices, so unless you accept the Meiji government’s definition of Shinto, which one probably shouldn’t, the persecution was aimed at both Shinto and Buddhist practices that did not fit into a particular, narrow definition. (The link between that definition and Kokugaku was also surprisingly brief; they were pushed out by Confucian nationalists early in the Meiji period.) It is worth bearing in mind that, as far as I know, the only major pre-Meiji religious practice that was actually extirpated during the Meiji period is Yoshida Shinto, the most common form of Shinto in the Edo period. It was suppressed so thoroughly that contemporary specialists are not entirely sure how its rituals were performed. Further, over half of the jinja existing in Japan seem to have been suppressed by the Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa governments. Shinto priests were required to become civil servants and accept government-mandated changes to their ritual practice, or be expelled from their jinja — which were all seized by the state.

      I don’t know enough about Buddhist history to make an accurate comparison, but there is a very strong case to be made for the Meiji persecution of Shinto as an important, and almost totally neglected, phenomenon.

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