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Bell Ceremony

The October 9th issue of Jinja Shinpō contained an article about a joint Shinto-Buddhist ceremony with a long history.

The ceremony involves Enoshima Jinja, in Fujisawa, and Engakuji, a Buddhist temple in Kamakura, both in Kanagawa Prefecture, west of Tokyo. These two cities are very close together, as are the two institutions. The origin of the ceremony was the creation of a bell, the Ōkanë, or “big bell”. This bell is a National Treasure, and it is 259.4 cm tall. It is, apparently, the largest temple bell in the Kantō area, and I can easily believe it. It was a gift from the ninth regent of the Kamakura shogunate, Hōjō Sadatoki, in 1301.

However, the current bell was the third attempt. The first two attempts to cast the bell ended in failure, presumably because of its size. Sadatoki then spent seven days in retreat at Enoshima Jinja, and received the favour of its kami, Enoshima Benzaiten. As a result, he was able to successfully cast the bell. In gratitude, he enshrined Enoshima Benzaiten in a jinja next to the bell, and the jinja is still there today.

Starting in 1480, it became the custom to hold the grand matsuri of the bell jinja once every sixty years, with the participation of both the temple and Enoshima Jinja. This should have happened in 2020, but, as you may remember, there were limits on large public events at that time. Thus, it was held this year, on September 11th.

The ceremony started with the bell being rung, and at that signal a procession left one of the temple buildings. An image of Benzaiten on a palanquin was central, accompanied by the monks of the temple, and the priests of the jinja. The image was taken to a Buddha hall, where it was removed from the palanquin and enshrined.

Next, the priests honoured it with a standard Shinto matsuri, including a norito, miko kagura, and the offering of tamagushi. This was followed by a Buddhist ceremony. There is a plan to hold a large procession on October 29th, with traditional local matsuri music, a Benzaiten mikoshi, children in traditional costume, and a float with a life-size model of the bell (if I have understood correctly). This procession dates back to at least the Edo period, and it seems that it is being revived this year. I don’t know why it wasn’t held closer to the ceremony, although given how hot it was around Tokyo then the reasons could have been entirely practical.

According to the numbers, this ceremony should have been held in 1900, during the separation of Shinto and Buddhism. The article does not mention what happened that year, but I would be interested to know. In theory, it should not have happened, because it should have been illegal. I am not entirely sure that that would have been allowed to stop a 400-year tradition, although it would have been enough to stop the procession, I think. That may be why the procession needs to be revived — 1960 is just early enough in Japan’s post-war recovery that the cities may not have had the necessary resources.

In any case, this is another example of the very close links between Shinto and Buddhism, and shows that they are still active today.

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5 thoughts on “Bell Ceremony”

  1. How interesting to have a tradition that only happens every 60 years—literally once in a lifetime! And of course I love seeing the combined participation of shrine and temple.

    1. There are a few others that have the same interval — always in the same year of the Chinese calendrical cycle, pandemics willing. I don’t remember coming across anything on a longer cycle, though, and that makes sense.

  2. . . . with a life-size model of the bell (if I have understood correctly). . . .

    Oh, paper mache, a light wooden framework and fabric, something, comes to mind . . . . .

  3. Do you think we’ll see continued reintegration of Shinto and Buddhist practices in the coming decades? Would you say that’s the trend, David?

    1. I don’t think we will see reintegration, because Buddhism no longer has the social power that allowed it to take over Shinto practices in the past. I do think we will see more revivals of shared ritual and ceremony, and the creation of new rituals of that sort. I expect separate categories of “Shinto” and “Buddhist” ceremonies to remain the largest categories for the foreseeable future, but I also expect the “both” category to get bigger. The “neither” category is also important: local matsuri that have no link to any religious practice.

      I could be wrong, of course, but that is how things look to me at the moment. I expect the situation to continue to be complex.

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