Tag Archives: Shinto

The Dance of Princely Divinities: Scenes from the Ōji Shrine Dengaku Festival

To members of my dissertation committee, the recent influx of matsuri entries on my blog might raise eyebrows (i.e., that I’ve gotten a bit sidetracked from my main research).  Nevertheless, here’s another.

The shots below are taken from the Ōji Jinja Dengaku Mai 王子神社田楽舞, an annual festival in a northern section of Tokyo that centers on the dengaku dance.   Dengaku is a performance with roots in Kyoto.  As a form of kagura, it was historically intended to engage the deities, who descended into the bodies of the dancers through kamigakari 神懸かり (literally, “divine possession”).  The performance thus encompassed the movements of the deities, whose presence brought blessings to both dancers and spectators. (For an excellent, in-depth study, see Irit Averbuch’s book, The Gods Come Dancing.)

Ōji literally means “prince,” and accordingly, the performers of the Ōji dengaku are boys and girls around the ages of 8-10.  Children often occupied a liminal role in East Asian ritual (examples include Song period Daoism and Shugendo in Japan), in which they provided an interface between the spirit world and the human world.  As a comparative, children in North American/European cultures have also often been imagined to dwell close to the spirit realm (just think of The Shining, The Exorcist, or The Sixth Sense).

In Shugendo especially, young gods known as dōji 童子 acted as divine messengers, attendants of powerful deities like Fudō myōō 不動明王, occupants of mandalized mountains, and protectors of practitioners during their time in the mountains.  Ōji are in fact, a class of dōji originally from Kumano, thus suggesting a historical link between Kumano and the Ōji Shrine as well as the implied, divine nature of the dancers.

Dengaku and kagura 神楽 in general, nowadays, are no longer equated with acts of possession.  However, the specific step sequences of the dances still reflect the original choreography.  Moreover, the performances demonstrate how children continue to occupy a central role in many festivals throughout Japan.

(Click photos to enlarge.)

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Reviving a festival

The Hashiramatsu 柱松 (literally, ‘pine trunks’) is an event in which three columns of tied bamboo or pine branches are stood upright and lit on fire.  The first to ignite determines the success (agricultural, economic, etc.) of the coming year.  Traditionally coinciding with the first day of Obon, it may have also been believed to invite down the local deities and ancestral spirits residing in the mountains.   The festival is held every three years at Togakushi and dates back to the late thirteenth century.  Well okay, that chronology is a bit misleading.

In the wake of major alterations to religious institutions by the government in the early Meiji period, the Hashiramatsu ended in the 1870s.  During this time, the three major temples on the mountain and their cloisters transformed from combinatory sites of Buddhism, Shinto and Shugendo into state-supported Shinto shrines.  Shugendo itself was proscribed from mountain sites around the country, which helps to explain the disappearance of this shugen-influenced ritual from Togakushi.

But after a thorough investigation by local scholars of extant sources related to the Hashiramatsu at Togakushi as well as other mountains (where it has continued uninterrupted), the festival has been recently revived.  Seeing the Togakushi Hashiramatsu offers a glimpse into the rich symbiosis of religious influences that were historically characteristic of practice at Togakushi and other sites around the country.  It may also suggest the future direction of the culture at Togakushi Jinja, given the community’s increasing re-engagement with its vibrant past.

(Click on photos to open gallery mode.)

The ceremony ends with the head priest seeing off the mountain deities and spirits as they return to the mountain.

Again, the event is held only once every three years, so if you get the chance, be sure to check it out in 2015!


The hues of early modern religious thought

One of my dissertation sections deals with a school I’ve translated as the “Mystical Source Shinto of the Shugen Single Reality” (Shugen Ichijitsu Reisō Shintō 修験一實靈宗神道).  It was crafted by Join 乘因 (1682–1739), a head priest of Mt. Togakushi (the main site of my research) in the early 18th c.

So you might be wondering why the name of the school is so long?  Or you might be considering returning back to your Facebook news feed.  Before you do – ! – here’s the answer:  It’s composed of a multitude of religious influences – much of which is worked into the title.  Shugendo, Buddhism, two strands of Shinto (one of which deifies the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu!), beliefs at Togakushi, and even some Daoism.

The main source for my study is Join’s treatise on this school, The secret record of the Mystical Source Shintō of the Shugen Single Reality, which I’ve translated and annotated.  One challenge in translation has been tracking down the various influences and seemingly myriad textual references Join draws from in constructing the text.

As an experiment today, I colored the text according to these influences.  For example, Shugendo = orange; Daoism = purple; Togakushi connections = yellow highlight.  It’s allowed me to better visualize the various components in play.

Image

The chart in the middle shows how these components are interwoven with each other. (I was going to add a close-up of it, but its totally illegible.  Also, I wish the different colored paperclips represented something but they don’t.)

Anyway, based on Join’s multiplicity of influences, I hope to make the following point in the dissertation:

Join’s school is one example of the rich growth of religious thought and practice during the Edo period (1600-1868).  Unlike religion in the modern world – characterized sectarian institutions and often divorced from secular realms of society (at least in theory), doctrine and praxis were highly fluid at this time. This is especially evident in the numerous schools of Shinto that appear – a stark contrast with the state-constructed, uniform Shinto of the modern era.

Join is commonly thought of as a heretic in the field of Japanese religions, but this conclusion arises from the mistaken application of distinctly modern ways of considering religion.  Once we accept the hybridity of early modern religious life for what it is, its hues, textures, and tones become more evident and interesting to visualize.