It’s taken a year and a half of dissertation research to figure out, but after sorting through the primary sources for my project, a cohesive structure is emerging. Here’s something from a recent funding proposal.
This dissertation investigates the historical emergence of Shugendō into a self-conscious, religious tradition. Translated as “the way of accumulating special powers through practice,” Shugendō refers to a collection of institutions, rituals and concepts centered on sacred mountains in Japan. While previous scholarship commonly situates the school as a folk religion or timeless element of Japanese culture, these modern constructs overlook the historical and regional contexts under which it developed. Challenging this model, my project examines textual, epigraphical, and material evidence from the site of Mt. Togakushi, located in present-day Nagano Prefecture, as a case study through which I closely analyze the school’s formation from the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries.
Preliminary results from this research reveal that the agency of place—in this case, the mountain of Togakushi—played a central role in the formation of Shugendō. Through a variety of techniques that included the adaptation of new practices, reconstruction of the mountain’s lineage, and the enshrinement of outside gods, practitioners strove to embed the school into their own landscape. Through this process, I theorize that religion and place become mutually productive constructs. Adapting Henri Lefebvre’s discourse on the ‘production of space,’ I argue that the imposition of a new history, identity, and character on to a site in effect, produces the place. These endeavors are especially relevant to the development of a sacred site, where the accretion of numinous elements (e.g., deities, worship areas, the composition of the mountain, itself) acts to increases the efficacy and overall allure of the location. The inversion of this process is that ‘place’ becomes a fundamental building block in the formation of the religious school. In the case of Mt. Togakushi, Shugendō thus is not emblematic of a universal religion but rather a school that becomes uniquely encoded in the mountain and surrounding region.
Considering this dual evolution of religious formation and place, this dissertation addresses not only the complex, religious history of Mt. Togakushi but the broader emergence of Shugendō in Japan. In addition, it seeks to challenge an approach to Asian religions (other examples include Zen in East Asia, Daoism in China, and Shinto in Japan) that anachronistically situates them under modern constructs. By turning attention toward the site-centric formation of an early modern religious school, we ultimately develop a better understanding of the historical significance of place. This awareness in turn, casts the nationalized context of space and religion indicative of our own time into sharper relief.
The dissertation consists of three main chapters. The first examines the early emergence of Shugendō at Mt. Togakushi. While previous scholarship loosely dates its origins at the mountain as far back as the eleventh century, I use contemporaneous textual evidence to argue that Shugendō as a distinct religious school took shape only in the sixteenth century. Examining the agency of place in particular, the chapter reveals points of creative tension in the importation and adaptation of this new school to a mountain temple complex already steeped in its own traditions.
Chapter 2 explores a broad range of textual, iconic and epigraphical materials that reflect the continued development of Shugendō at Mt. Togakushi over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I argue that practitioners of the school labored to carve out an identity and livelihood for themselves under the rubric of Shugendō. This process involved the formation of an officially recognized branch of Togakushi Shugendō, the successful petitioning of expanded ritual practices, and the gradual embellishment of the mountain’s ancient history as being deeply rooted in Shugendō.
The final chapter follows this trajectory in the thought and practice of the priest, Jōin, who served as head administrator to the mountain from 1727 to 1738. Through translations and analyses of his written works, I examine Jōin’s effort to bring Shugendō to the forefront of Togakushi religious life despite conflicting interests from the mountain’s Buddhist establishment. This campaign, which ultimately divided priests on the mountain and led to his removal, demonstrates the tensions fraught in pursuing competing visions over the identity, status and livelihoods of the mountain’s practitioners. Despite the failure of his work, I suggest that Jōin’s attempt to imbue Shugendō into the landscape of Mt. Togakushi reflects the significance of place in the formation of religious schools during his time.
 Lefebvre, Henri. 2004 (1974). The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Malden, MA: Blackwell.