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Kami Guidance for Buddhists

Jishū is one of the major Buddhist sects in Japan, founded by Ippen in 1274. It is one of the sects dedicated to Amida Buddha, and it is famous for its dancing recitation of the name of Amida (“odoru nenbutsu”). The connection to Shinto is that it was founded after Ippen cloistered himself at Kumano Hongū Taisha (in what is now Wakayama Prefecture), and had a vision of the kami. This vision revealed how he should spread the word of Amida’s salvation of all living beings.

The April 17th issue of Jinja Shinpō had an article about this, because the new head of Jishū came to the jinja to inform the kami of his appointment. This is apparently a tradition, and the first act of a new head of the sect is to go to Kumano to inform the kami.

This would have been frowned on under the Meiji Constitution, but Kumano is a long way from Tokyo… Maybe it was kept up, and kept a bit quiet.

The three main Kumano jinja (Kumano Hongū Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha — just to be awkward, Kumano Taisha is not one of them, and is right on the other side of Japan) had a very strong and deep connection with Buddhism, and specifically with faith in Amida’s Pure Land. Indeed, in the middle ages, people used to set sail for the Pure Land from Kumano by being sealed into coffin-sized boats and set loose on the sea. (People actually did this, but funny stories about monks claiming that they would do this but finding excuses to delay it also go back almost a thousand years.)

This raises the question of how to describe the practices at Kumano before Meiji. Were they Shinto, or Buddhism? Is that even a meaningful question?

My current thinking is that the question is badly posed, because Shinto is not a religion in the sense that would make it meaningful. In the pre-modern period, kami were revered at the Kumano jinja, but the form of that veneration was largely derived from Buddhism. Nevertheless, kami were being venerated, and that is the essence of Shinto. Thus, I think it was both, but that describing that situation as a merger of two religions is not the way to go.

However, this is a very big question that I am not going to try to answer in this blog post. Whatever the best answer may be, the connections between Buddhism and kami still exist today.

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