Throughout history, faith and religion played the role of the deciding factors dictating the peculiarities of the socio-cultural and political environment of Japan. Religion interfered with virtually all aspects of the life of the Japanese people. It seems rather a complicated task to define to which extent they were concerned about the fact that their local divinities and religious principles were integrated with the ones that were brought from outside. An attempt to assess the merging of Shinto and Buddhism, as well as the foundation of honji suijaku as a historical process, maybe a key to understanding people’s attitudes and perceptions of the respective events. By the time the concept of honji suijaku was introduced, however, Japan had formed a religious system of its own; thus, honji suijaku was intended to explain how the Japanese divinities were affected by the Buddhist religious tradition.
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Faith and religion determined the patterns of interaction between people and affected the functioning of all branches of power in Japan as a state, not to mention religious doctrines, which dictated the moral principles the individuals and social groups were obliged to follow. Shinto is commonly referred to as Japanese local or native religious doctrines. Buddhism was introduced to Japan approximately in the twelfth century A.D. Shinto and Buddhism combined to found what the scientists and researchers would later refer to as the pre-modern stage in the history of Japanese religious practices. Honji suijaku came to be known as a notion that encompassed all features peculiar to the formation of the religious beliefs of Japanese people mainly referring to the process of integration of Shinto and Buddhism. The concept of kami combines the Buddhist religious practices, both eso- and exoteric ones, with the local traditions of Japan. Apart from it, another significant aspect of kami is its connection with moral and spiritual practices derived from Confucianism and Daoism (Blair 284). At different stages of the history of Japan, religious affiliations played an unprecedentedly important role constituting an integral part of the social, cultural, and political life of the country: “From the era of the statutory state, through the court-centered polity to the Fujiwara regency (sekkan seiji) and rule by retired emperors (insei) religion proved indispensable to sovereignty, political authority, and power relations” (Blair 284). In Medieval times, there was the idea of a monarch perceived through the lens of religious affiliation, specifically, Buddhism that shaped the political ideology (Blair 284). In the kami customs, traditions, and practices, on the other hand, an emperor was perceived as a person whose right to rule was divine.
Gender and religion were also connected to religion. Gender politics in Japan have been dictating the character of the religious practices of men and women as well as their expression for centuries (Blair 284). It is most important, however, that the patronage and pilgrimage in medieval Japan served to help people “to legitimate themselves and compete politically” (Blair 284). Religious institutions got juridical and economic control of natural and human resources through establishing the landholdings that took the form of manorial estates, which came to be known as shien in Japan (Blair 24). Manorial estates in medieval Japan were seen as so-called “power blocks.” The institutions like the above-mentioned estates were very similar in terms of their respective rights and functions (Blair 284). In general, the manorial estates contributed to the process of introducing Buddhism to Japan.
The evidence that supported it in medieval Japan was already a religiously diverse state. The Heian period came in history as a watershed that has paved the way for further development of a wide range of ritual, visual, and linguistic practices. The practices of different types that were developed in that period “identified kami ‘as secondary manifestations of buddhas and bodhisattvas” (Blair 288). Today, the rituals mentioned above are known under the name honji suijaku; as Blair puts it, “these practices were integral to Buddhism’s assimilation of non-Buddhist beliefs and practices” (Blair 289). Developing the proposed statement further, the researcher refers to the findings, which other scientists made, and claims that the practices that enabled the assimilation of non-Buddhist beliefs and practices by Buddhism within Japan “were fraught with political significance” (as quoted in Blair 289). Regarding this claim, it has been noted that the cults in medieval Japan were strongly localized (Blair 289). Evidently, the fact that the religious, visual, and linguistic practices of the country were abundant and localized helped to retain the religious diversity of Japan.
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As Hiraoka and Nishiguchi explain it, the institutional history proved itself to be essential for understanding Heian religiosity (as quoted in Blair 289). Kufukuji and Kasuga Shrine extended their political and economic control over vast provinces of Japan in the period between the 12th and 13th centuries A.D. They became extremely powerful; therefore, they were able to affect the court decisions (Blair 289). Naturally, there came the time when Kufukuji and Kasuga started to constitute separate and distinct religious cultures. Nowadays, scholars call sophisticated iconography, strict narrative traditions, and close ritual ties to the court system the distinctive features of Kufukuji and Kasuga Shrine. Heian period is typically dated the period of 794–1185 (Andreeva 682). The scholars are inclined to think that by that time, Buddhism had been already firmly established in Japan. What is more important, however, Heian period is typically defined as a point in Japanese history when kami became identified with Buddhist deities. The term honji suijaku was specifically introduced to designate the process of the introduction of Buddhism to Japan (Andreeva 682). The religious transformation that Japan was undergoing during the Heian period affected the socio-cultural and political life of the state. Finally, the transition from Shinto to Buddhism was an extraordinary event even from a historical perspective.
In the twelfth century, Hunen, Shinran, and Dugen were still regarded newly established religious practices that co-existed with the honji suijaku cult. At the time the latter started to gain momentum in Japan, there were groups that tried to deny the validity of its practices. The main reason for it laid in the fact that the Japanese people were not prepared to stop worshiping kami (Andreeva 689). In addition to it, the generations of kami priests had started a campaign to produce the doctrinal texts of their own and explain the importance of establishing locally enshrined kami. In this respect, Watari of Ise who produced the tradition of Ise Shinto is being identified as, perhaps, the most prolific of all generations of kami priests (Andreeva 689). In general, Ise Shinto is, probably, the most vivid illustration of the process of the Japanese local divinities entering the Buddhist pantheon and of how two religious doctrines became intertwined on the Japanese ground. In the wider pantheon of deities, Amaterasu is being renowned as the Lord of Japan. However, according to honji suijaku tradition, she was considered a minor force. The imperial authority was reconstructed as the cult of Amaterasu started to gain momentum again. The dominant Buddhist worldview prompted the elevation of the goddess (Teeuwen 116). The rise of Amaterasu, conclusively, proves that Buddhism in Japan “kept the kami in a subordinate position” (Teeuwen 116). Regarding this fact, it is essential to admit that Buddhism in Japan has never succeeded in reversing and overcoming the kami tradition, except the fact that “it never reached beyond an extremely narrow circle of intellectuals” (Teeuwen 116).
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In an attempt to disambiguate and outline the concept of kami, Mark Teeuwen makes the following assertion: “as they were incorporated into a Buddhist world-view, the kami ceased to be wild, untamed powers that would arbitrarily latch out at those around them, and instead became the executors of karmic retribution” (Teeuwen 116). Redefinition of Amaterasu is, therefore, not just a mere illustration of the inferiority of kami to Buddhist superiors but also the thing that provides the insight into the complexity of the religious transformations Japan has been undergoing in the Middle Ages. Iso Shinto cult emerged to help the Buddhist ideas spread over Japan (Kuroda and Rambelli 369). Assuming that the foregoing statement is correct, the rites of Iso Shinto can be viewed as a conclusive proof of the premise that Buddhism prospered in Japan and continues to do it to these days.
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The scientific, socio-cultural, economic, and political aspect of life were influenced by the radicalization of the honji suijaku thought. Religious guidance and protection of kami remain the key principles of the honji suijaku doctrine today (Kuroda and Rambelli 372). Furthermore, the specialists in religious studies state that the interaction of Shinto and Buddhism hypertrophied the honji suijaku thought and made it more irrational (Kuroda and Rambelli 376). All things considered, honju suijaku shows how the Japanese native divinities became categorized as the universal Buddhist ones (Teeuwen and Rambelli 1). Technically, the concept of honji suijaku gives insight into how kami entered the Buddhist pantheon.
Disambiguating the construct of honji suijaku is the key to understanding pre-modern cultic system of Japan. Developing the foregoing statement further, the researchers claim that honji suijaku paradigm represents the objects that are mostly material by nature. With this idea in mind, they make a statement that “Buddhism’s attempts to domesticate and pacify the kami by incorporating them, also materially, within its system, ended up by producing ambiguous sacred entities” (Teeuwen and Rambelli 13). Edo period has become the time in the history of Japan when the honji suijaku doctrine spread across the entire country (Teeuwen and Rambelli 38). It was an exact moment, at which the religion was used to give the authorities religious legitimization (Teeuwen and Rambelli 38). At around that time, various entities, for example, kami, buddhas, and human beings represented the divinities of the honji suijaku pantheon (Teeuwen and Rambelli 38). In general, honji suijaku illustrates the complexity of the religious system established in Japan in the Middle Ages.
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Even today, there is no unambiguous approach to understanding the implications of the integration of Shinto and Buddhism. Honji suijaku was the aftermath of the merger of cultures that started to assert itself in the Middle Ages when different peoples, traditions, groups, and ethnicities established new contacts. Honji suijaku was an important stage in the formation of the modern socio-cultural model of Japanese society. The theory illustrates the complexity and diversity of the religious system of Japan. Japanese people respected the kami and Buddhist divinities alike. Still, what was the attitude of the Japanese to the transformations that took place in their country in the Middle Ages is the question that requires additional and more extensive research. What is known for sure is that religion has been an integral part of Japanese people’s lives for centuries It has not changed until today? The merger of Shinto and Buddhism and the foundation of honji suijaku made the Japanese religious system more complex and ramified.