Encyclopedia entries on Japanese religiosity and syncretism

Bilingualism and Japanology > Shikoku > Mount Koya > Buddhist Syncretism

Buddhist Syncretism in Japan

by Steve McCarty

Originally published in the Encyclopedia of Monasticism,
pp. 1223-1225. Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers (September 2000)

Bewildering archaeological discoveries, combined with layers of lore from many religions, have been associated with the Elephant's Head Mountain Range (Zozuzankei) on Shikoku Island, remote from familiar political and religious centers. No one has put all the puzzle pieces together in a comparative Asian perspective and with reference to religious syncretism of the Heian period in Japan. Reconstructing the 'lost chord' from oblivion leads to the conclusion that premodern Japanese viewed the whole Zozuzankei as a sacred area. Like certain other East Asian spaces, it culminates in a syncretic mandala of mountains representing and uniting the religious cultures of India, China and Japan. Japanese people have tended to live on the plains, perceiving the mountains and the sea beyond their purview the abode of the sacred. On these mountains emerged examples of religious syncretism, often in the guise of triads.

Today at the foot of the Zozuzankei in tiny Kagawa prefecture are two small but famous religious towns (monzen-machi) that grew from the gates of a major Shinto shrine and a major Buddhist temple. Kotohira Shrine, called Kompira-san after its mountain, houses many Shinto priests, whereas Zentsuji Temple is a large Shingon monastery commemorating the birthplace of Kukai (774-835), one of Japan's greatest religious figures. He studied in the T'ang dynasty capital of Ch'ang-an at a peak of Chinese civilization, just as it was drawing inspiration from the last flowering of Buddhism in India. Kukai thus helped turn the dawning Heian period into a golden age for Japan.

The depth as well as breadth of religious phenomena concentrated in the space of a few miles is revealed in some of the archaeological discoveries. Nearby in the Seto Inland Sea, which was formed when land dropped down about 10,000 years ago, an Old Stone Age mammoth ivory doll has been found. Similarly, on Mount Elephant's Head (Zozuzan, a Buddhist name for Mount Kompira) and near Kukai's birthplace in Zentsuji, traces of Old Stone Age culture have been discovered along with New Stone Age culture of the Jomon period. Although Mount Elephant's Head is now miles inland, seashells have been found near the summit, indicating that the Zozuzankei formed the coastline a few millennia ago.

Kotohira Shrine, where about four million pilgrims a year go up the 785 stone steps

Before any ritual bronze bells (dotaku) of the Yayoi period that transformed ancient Japan were found in Kyushu nearest the Asian mainland, over a dozen have been found around Kotohira and Zentsuji. Flat bronze swords (doken) found in Zentsuji constitute the most ever found in Japan. Around the Kotohira Shrine was found a 2,000-year-old bronze bell, now a designated national treasure in the Tokyo National Museum, depicting a building similar in proportions to those of the Grand Shrine of Izumo on the Sea of Japan. Then archaeologists were stunned by the finding of a Yayoi period ritual bell on the mountain where Kukai as a child was believed to have met the Buddha.

Tumuli of the following Kofun period number over 400 in Zentsuji, decorated with boats to carry the departed to the afterworld of the sea. Kompira-san is thought to have been a seafaring capital of ancient Japan, worshiping a sea god (kami). Such sites could be termed proto-Shinto, reflecting the fact that Shintoism was late to institutionalize in response to Buddhism. In Zentsuji some Kofun period tumuli have been turned into Shinto shrines as conduits to the kami (shintai), uniting ancestors with gods over millennia. Moreover, evidently an indigenous animism viewed a mountain such as Mount Kompira (or Zozuzan, Elephant's Head Mountain) as itself the body of a god (shintaizan; cf. shintai, the conduit to a god).

Into this congeries entered Heian period esoteric Buddhism, reinforcing the deeper stratum of mountain worship by associating each temple with a mountain. A religious pluralism based on assimilation reconciled the many Asian religious influences then current with the ex post facto theory that all their representative divinities emanated from original Buddhas (honji suijaku setsu). Bureaucratic restrictions on the number of monks that could be ordained had led to spontaneous forms of Japanese Buddhism that favored mountain asceticism (especially Shugendo). It has been shown in connection with Mount Kumano and Mount Hiei that the sacred space outdoors was organized into a mandala of Buddhist-Shinto syncretism that the ritual practitioner could traverse.

Similarly at Mount Kompira, by affinity of name with its sea god, the Buddhist guardian Kumbhira, originally a Hindu crocodile god of the Ganges River, was said to have flown to Japan and became Kompira. He was accompanied by Elephant's Head Mountain near Bodh Gaya, which figures in the hagiography of the Buddha. Mount Kompira does resemble an elephant's head, although not as much as conventionalized views by Hiroshige and other artists. Given the animism of mountain worship, various divinities could be perceived in Hindu fashion as riders on their mounts. Beyond being a crocodile god, suitable to protect seafarers, Kompira was elevated to a Great Incarnation of the Buddha (daigongen). Anthropomorphic iconography exists of Kompira Daigongen riding the mountain in the form of a white elephant - a creature associated with the Buddha, having served also as the mount of the ancient Hindu god Indra.

In time the Shinto-Buddhist hybrid Kompira Daigongen became identified with the Shinto kami of Mount Kompira, O-kuni-nushi-no-mikoto, one of the founding gods of Japan who was vaguely associated with crocodiles in the White Hare of Inaba myth in the Kojiki. A component from Chinese culture was later assimilated with the identification of the Buddhist and Shinto divinities atop Mount Kompira, with Daikokuten in the guise of one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune. In iconography he carries a bag like the kami O-kuni-nushi, with "Daikoku" a double pun on the Chinese characters for "O-kuni."

Two more triads can be documented. The second on Mount Kompira is an Eastern Pure Land Triad of the Medicine Buddha Yakushi Nyorai as ruler, Kompira Daigongen as delegate, and Fugen Bosatsu as attendant. Here Fugen (Sanskrit: Samantabhadra Bodhisattva) rides a white elephant in iconography and has been closely associated with the Shingon Buddhist temple on Mount Kompira.

Fugen preaching atop his elephant mount, with a winged lion above.
This photo is from Koya-san (see companion article), but there are many
examples of iconography in Shikoku where the elephant and lion are paired.
There were never such animals in Japan, so they are purely religious symbols.

Near the opposite and lower end of the Zozuzan mountain range is a little-known temple with the prefix Mount Lion. Monju (Manjusri Boddhisattva) has been viewed as riding Mount Lion, whereas Fugen rides Mount Elephant, just as they are portrayed in Buddhist iconography. Finally, between these two mountains are the Five Peaks, associated with those noted in pre-Han dynasty Daoism [Taoism in China]. They are also seen as the Five Wisdom Buddhas central to esoteric Buddhist mandalas and especially carved inside the [five-story] Great Pagoda of Zentsuji [see companion article on Shikoku]. Among the temples on Mount Five Peaks, two stand out: Mandaraji, where Kukai dedicated the dual mandalas that he brought back from China, and Shusshakaji, literally the "temple where the Buddha appeared" to Kukai. Thus, in a process of what can be called iconographic association, the whole Elephant's Head Mountain Range might have been perceived esoterically as a Buddha Triad (Shaka sanzon) arranged in the customary fashion with lion-riding Manjusri to the left and elephant-riding Samantabhadra to the right. Practitioners could enter such a complex as though it were a gigantic mandala. Few sites anywhere embody such an overlay of religious traditions.

Research on religions in Japan and their syncretism

Three entries in the Encyclopedia of Monasticism, edited by Prof. William Johnston (University of Massachusetts). Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. ISBN 1-57958-090-4 (September 2000).

Companion entries: Mount Koya, Japan | Shikoku, the Pilgrimage Island of Japan

These three entries are interrelated but can be read in any order. Encyclopedia sections after each article on Further Reading (mostly original sources in Japanese), See also (related entries), and Related Web sites are not included at this time. Some of the many photos by the author used in the encyclopedia are included in these articles, with assistance from Prof. Malcolm Swanson in Kita-Kyushu.

Related multilingual research, including Legend of the Woman Diver (English-Japanese), and guides are available at the Global Shikoku Internet Project (Japanese-English).

Full online library: Bilingualism and Japanology Intersection | Japanese version

Updated on 26 February 2017 | e-mail Steve McCarty