|Mesheryakov A.N. Emperor Sho:mu : Slave of Buddha or Faithful Servant of Shinto Gods?|
Emperor Sho:mu : Slave of Buddha or Faithful Servant of Shinto Gods?
Alexander Mesheryakov (Russian State University for Humanities, Moscow)
Emperor Sho:mu 26 year reign (724-749) was the longest in the 8-th century and he himself became one of the symbols of Nara period. His reign is famous for its political instability, awful epidemic of 737, Fujiwara-no Hirotsugu rebel in Kyu:shu: in 740, Shomu's plans to leave Nara capital. At the same time Sho:mu has a reputation of faithful adept of Buddhism. Most of the Western and Japanese scholars believe that Shomu's efforts in proliferating cult of Buddha were unprecedented. It is widely considered that during emperor Sho:mu's reign Buddhism became a kind of state religion for Japan. There are some important facts that seem to prove this point of view.
Sho:mu initiated the construction of huge To:daiji temple in Nara and the network of "provincial temples" (kokubunji), many Buddhist writings were imported from China and copied. Sho:mu called himself "slave of Buddha" during his reign and entered Buddhist orders after his abdication. Because of that after his death posthumous name was not given to him immediately. The culture of this period is usually labeled by Japanese historians as "Tempyo: bunka" (culture of Tempyo: era) which is firmly associated with Chinese influence and Buddhism - first of all with its giant temples and impressive Buddhist statues. But I believe that these data of written sources and representations of visual culture are insufficient to grasp the whole religious, cultural and historic discourse of Nara and Tempyo: periods, and one should not forget about Sho:mu's relations with Shinto though most scholars ignore developments in Shinto and in standard histories of Japan one cannot usually find paragraphs or chapters on Shinto for this period.
Most of the above mentioned facts concerning proliferation of Buddhism during Shomu's reign are recorded in state sponsored "Shoku Nihongi" chronicle (compiled in Chinese in 797). In spite of many other written sources which we have at our disposal it is considered the main source for the history of Nara period as its narrative is the only one to tell us a whole "a story" or "history" of the period.
This chronicle presents more entries on Buddhism that on Shinto. For Sho:mu's reign figures are as following: 114 versus 66, the average for one year is 4,38 entries for Buddhism versus 2,54 for Shinto(see Table 1). During Shomu's 26 year rule there are only 6 years when Shinto entries outnumber those of Buddhism. But the nature and the background of Buddhist and Shinto entries are quite different and that explains why Buddhist entries outnumber Shinto entries.
First of all we should keep in mind that "Shoku Nihongi" is a kind of a narrative with a certain "plot" and its compilers as any other chronicle's compilers tend to record only new information. The chronicle presents "events" but not "structures", routine life, routine matters. So as a rule the chronicle does not record information about annual Shinto rituals and ceremonies on the reason that they were annual and routine. But we know for sure that these rituals and ceremonies were actually held and thus they were deep rooted in the routine life of the court and Japanese society. These Shinto rituals were actually holding but they were not recorded by "Shoku Nihongi". For some years (4 cases) there are no Shinto entries at all but nobody can ever imagine that Shinto rituals were not held in these certain years.
At the same time "Shoku Nihongi" records information about many not annual (irregular) and some annual Buddhist ceremonies as they both were still new for Japan. And that explains why only for one year there are no Buddhist entries at all. Some emperor's decrees and State Council (Dajokan) regulations concerning Buddhism cite sutras and they are quite lengthy that persuade the reader that Buddhist influence on Japan was stronger than impact of Shinto. As for Shinto entries they did not need elaboration and as a rule are shorter (except of decrees in a style of semmyo:). Buddhism sought inspiration in writings of previous ages and Buddhist institutions were producing much written information in a form of temple histories, legends, etc. Shinto depended on oral tradition heavily and in this period it did not produce much written information. So compilers of "Shoku Nihongi" had at hand and could obtain more information on Buddhism than on Shinto. Much information on Shinto was hidden not only from us but from contemporaries, too.
Besides that there is one more feature of "Shoku Nihongi" that affects or even twists our perception of Nara history and religion. For the compilers of the chronicle the main "stage" for "events" was the court and the capital itself. They focus on the Emperor and his nearest retainers. But the Japanese Emperor normally did not travel much as he was considered as earthly immovable representation of Polar Star. Huge Buddhist temples were built in the capital (some of them were moved from previous Fujiwara capital or its precincts) and Emperor visited them. Shinto gods were clan's and local gods, their shrines were usually called not by the name of the god but by place name where they were situated (Ise Daijingu:, for instance) and power of gods was spatially restricted. It is noteworthy that during rebel of Fujiwara-no Hirotsugu (740) prayers of the Japanese army were raised to the local god, i.e. Hachiman. In the 8-th century it was not a common practice to move shrines or to divide the "spirit" of the god between several shrines or to build several shrines dedicated to one and the same god. I think that the Japanese were afraid that by moving a shrine a god could lose its power. So there could be many temples dedicated to Kannon-bosatsu or Vairochana in different parts of the country but there was only one shrine in Japan dedicated to Amaterasu. Though there were some exceptions, "one god, one shrine" - that was the leading principle of Shinto in those days. Main Shinto shrines were situated outside the capital and Emperor did not visit them. As "Shoku Nihongi" tends to depict space around Emperor it ignores most of the Shinto shrines of Japan and we know about their existence and the rituals held there from other sources.
In this sense "Shoku Nihongi" as any other official chronicle misrepresents gravely the true picture of Nara history including religion.
The most impressive visual representation of Buddhism was a temple. And in "Shoku Nihongi" there are many entries concerning construction of Buddhist temples. There are no such Shinto entries. But one should remember that there was no need for compilers of "Shoku Nihongi" to record already existing Shinto shrines as they functioned in their routine way and it was presumed that everybody knew about their existence. On the other hand we find information that some Shinto shrines need repair. That means that Shinto shrines were built already and Shinto was deep-rooted into the life of the Japanese.
In "Shoku Nihongi" there are many entries condemning improper behavior of Buddhist monks (Tempyo:, 1-4-3, 729; Tempyo:, 3-8-7, 731; Tempyo:, 6-11-21, 734, etc.). There are no such entries concerning Shinto priests. That means that Buddhism was not built in the state structure in a proper way yet, and some measures and rules for adequate functioning and behavior of the monks were needed.
There are many entries about healing of Emperor or members of Emperor's family with Buddhist methods (invocation and copying sutras, ordination of monks, etc.) in "Shoku Nihongi". Buddhism and its rituals were considered instrumental in personal healing and posthumous existence. In the end of the Tempyo: era ex-empress Gensho: was gravely ill, many Buddhist measures to heal her and to pacify her soul after her death were taken and it affected greatly the total number of Buddhist entries for this period.
"Shoku Nihongi" records a lot of cases of people entering Buddhist orders. In many cases ordination was considered an effective ritual measure for improving certain situation (say, for healing Emperor or some other high ranked person; for avoiding natural calamities) and orders to enter monastic life were issued. Besides that we find in "Shoku Nihongi" quite lengthy biographies of famous monks (see, for instance, biography of Do:ji - Tempyo:, 16-10-2, 744; Gyo:gi - Tempyo: Sho:ho:, 1-2-2, 749). As Shinto does not know this type of institution and the concept of holiness was not elaborated in Shinto we do not find in "Shoku Nihongi" entries of this kind. There is no doubt that the number of Shinto priests was great but their ordination was regulated by oral tradition that did not need written record and it was not considered that Shinto ordination itself could have effect on earthly matters.
These considerations on the nature of "Shoku Nihongi", Japanese Buddhism and Shinto explain to some degree why Buddhist entries outnumber Shinto entries in the chronicle. But we should also take into account not only numerical aspect but qualitative side, too. We should remember that most important rituals of coronation and renaming era names were held according with Shinto rules. In decrees concerning these events the importance of Shinto gods is particularly stressed. Because of that in 724 (year of Shomu's coronation) and in 729 (renaming era name from Jingi to Tempyo:) Shinto entries outnumber those for Buddhism. In the first year of Ko:ken (Sho:mu's daughter) reign after her coronation Shinto entries prevail also (9 versus 5).
Some other important facts indicate that Sho:mu was not indifferent toward Shinto and important measures were taken to better Shinto functioning. During Sho:mu's reign the list of state (official) shrines (kansha) was enlarged. Kansha is a shrine to which on days of national annual festivals (kinensai) the court was sending annual offerings. Thus during Sho:mu's reign system of state shrines was enforced. In a decree of 737 (Tempyo:, 9-8-13) it is said that those gods (kami) that often send rain and good omens for the sake of the state should be put into the list of gods who already receive offerings (mitegura) from the court. Besides that official ranks should be given to some kinds of Shinto priests.
The first mention of the list of kansha is dated 706 (Keiun, 3-2-26). The year of 737 brought an awful epidemic. Four sons of Fujiwara Fuhito and many other people died in the capital and in provinces. It seems it was decided that the existing list of kansha was too short to protect the country. We can suggest that this list was gradually enlarging that resulted in the list of more than 3000 list of kansha recorded in "Engishiki". According to "Izumo Fudoki" (compiled in 733) the number of kansha in Izumo province was 184. "Engishiki" list for Izumo is 187, i.e. only 3 shrines more. That means that the principal network of kansha was already established in the 8-th century and it was not drastically revised since. As we have no other data of enlarging the list of kansha in the 8-th century except Sho:mu's decree it is reasonable to suggest that this decree was most instrumental in building the network of kansha.
In a sense kansha system of Shinto corresponds to kokubunji system of Buddhism. They both have one and the same goal, i.e. to protect the state by magic methods. But kansha system originated earlier and the process of developing was different. Buddhist kokubunji temples were newly built and Shinto kansha was sorted out from already existing shrines. That fact reflects the peculiarity of cultural situation in Nara Japan in general. By construction of kokubunji the network of magical control over whole Japan was not started. Buddhism with its kokubunji temples supplemented or doubled the network of Shinto official shrines that already existed.
Not only kansha system predates kokubunji. Ranks for Shinto priests predates ranks for Buddhist monks, too. Ranks for monks were initiated only in the year of 760 - many years later after we have data on ranks for Shinto priests. Ranks for Shinto priests were regular ranks. The same ranks were given to bureaucrats and officials. But Buddhist monks were given specially invented ranks (no such ranks existed in China) and that show the different attitude of government to Buddhism and Shinto. Buddhism was considered as something "special" and more alienated.
Saigu: was a priestess of Ise shrine chosen from unmarried princesses. Measures for better functioning of Saigu: office and Ise cult were also taken during Shomu's reign. In 721 Inoue-no Ookimi, the daughter of future emperor Sho:mu, was nominated Saigu:. After purification period she went to Ise six years later in 727. Several days before her departure 121 persons were nominated to serve Saigu: (Jingi, 4-8-23) and the staff of Saigu: was enlarged drastically. Several regulations about Ise cult were also issued (Tempyo:, 1-4-3, 729; Tempyo:, 2-6 interrecular-11, 2-7 interrecular-11, 730). One of them says that dispatches of the court sent to Ise for making offerings should not be persons lower than 5-th rank. So during Sho:mu's reign the status of Ise Daijingu: was obviously raised.
The above mentioned facts show that the influence of Buddhism on Sho:mu's politics toward religion was overestimated and Shinto elements in the structure of state ideology discourse needs more careful consideration. Sho:mu's attitude toward religion was not to propagate Buddhism only. It was more flexible and aimed at more effective functioning of state-controlled Buddhism and Shinto both. The aim of Sho:mu's measures in the field of religion was to duplicate magical effects of Shinto and Buddhist rituals and it is important that in some aspects Shinto measures predate those of Buddhism. We need also more careful consideration about producing, keeping and circulation of information (written and oral both) in Nara period. That will give us more hints about what facts and phenomena are hidden from us. Otherwise the future history of Shinto and Buddhism cannot be explained adequately.
Table 1. Number of Entries on Shinto and Buddhism during Shomu' reign (according to "Shoku Nihongi")
Emperor Shomu: Slave of Buddha or Fairthful Servant of Shinto Gods? - Symbolic Languages in Shinto Tradition. Tokyo, Shinto Kokusai Gakkai, 2008, p.33-41.
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