Jun 4, 2015

Breaching the secretive sects of Shin-Buddhism

Stephen Mansfield
Special to The Japan Times
May 30, 2015

The tendency to perceive covert groups as reticent conspirators rather than curators of hidden knowledge is universal.

In Japan, secret oral transmissions, chants, rituals and services have long been identified with esoteric schools of Buddhist faith such as Shingon and Tendai. Defenders of secrecy have drawn attention to several examples of the discretionary sharing of teachings among other well-established religious groups to prove that they are hardly unique in their commitment to confidentiality.

Among others who prefer to keep their most profound learnings under wraps are the Nichiren Buddhist sect with their many secret teachings, Zen Buddhists with their practice of direct transmission.

Are the Shin-Buddhist groups that researcher Clark Chilson writes about truly “covert” — with all the dark and grainy implications that come with that word — or are they simply esoteric?

Covert groups, as the writer soon discovers, are not primarily interested in disseminating doctrine and, thereby, expanding their congregations, although they may seek to maintain a regular number of adherents. The creation of a mystique through the sharing of secret practices among a select group, is in itself empowering.

Yet secrecy has its limits. By the Edo Period (1603-1868), the much-coveted “secret teachings” associated with gardening manuals were being openly published, prompted by the growing popularity of gardening — no longer the exclusive preserve of stone-setting priests and professionals. On a recent trip to Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, a monk at Jodoji Temple began speaking to me in hushed tones of ahibutsu (a hidden Buddha image or sculpture), concealed in a dank chamber — only to break the spell by finally showing me a photograph he had taken of the figure. There are cases with certain religious objects where excessive conjecture has almost refined them out of existence. There are those who believe that the tiny statue of the deity Kannon — found by two sibling fishermen in Tokyo’s Sumida River in 628 AD and now purportedly housed in the recesses of nearby Sensoji Temple — is a figment maintained by a religious establishment content to enjoy prestige by association.

Historically, covert groups and sects have gone into hiding to avoid persecution — their very secrecy defining them as heretical or injurious organizations outside the legitimizing realm of Buddhist scholasticism, threatening the existing social order. Confucianism, with its innate distrust of secrecy, helped to cast further aspersions on covert groups during the Edo Period. Heeding this climate of suspicion and fear, Chilson’s text is enlivened with anecdotes about religious espionage and undercover infiltrations, arrests and the grisly extraction of confessions.

Religion in Japan is often presented as a harmonious entity, despite historical records to the contrary. Those who know of the murderous rampages of monks on Mount Hiei, or the support lent by Zen Buddhists to the military in World War II, will not be surprised to learn of internal schisms and shifts of ideology and allegiance among the groups Chilson highlights. The author uses the existence of such groups as a vehicle for exploring ideas of concealment associated with Tantric traditions and hidden Christians in Japan, and also the practices of Crypto-Jews and those who practice Gnosticism or follow the Kabbalah.

Confraternities of covert Shin-Buddhists have been grouped into three categories by Chilson, which is a standard division: those found in the northeast of the country (referred to as kakushi nenbutsu), groups deemed heretical, and secret practitioners in parts of Kyushu. Though never privy to the ultimate teachings of these groups, Chilson, gaining the trust of various Shin-Buddhist fraternities, including one known as Urahomon, was admitted to their discussions, prayer sessions and sermons, and was even allowed to witness the rarely performed rites of one group who follow, and claim to protect, the teachings of the 12th-century holy man Shinran.
Chilson was able to explore a number of practices preserved by certain arcane congregations and affiliations, such as the liturgical texts used in services by Kirishimako members from southern Kyushu, who, at least traditionally, enforce a dietary ban on the consumption of chicken. The author was even asked if he would like to undergo the first of a number of initiation rites, an honor he declined in order to keep his integrity as a researcher intact. The acquisition of profound knowledge would have placed the writer in the predicament of having to decide whether to respect oaths of secrecy, or betray them.

Ultimately, the carefully managed balance between revealed and concealed practices helps to maintain the very special identity of these groups. “Secrecy,” as Chilson puts it, “in effect becomes an organizing principle,” for fraternities that are marginal, but essentially self-engrossed rather than socially seditious.
A work of staggering scholarship, ‘Secrecy’s Power’ — an undertaking requiring a mind-bending grasp of Japanese religious terminology and nomenclature — represents a milestone in the study of covert Buddhist groups, not so much for what it tells us, but for what it pointedly omits.
It will be interesting to see how such groups cope in Japan’s new government-driven surveillance society, whose doctrine is full disclosure in the service of the state.

Secrecy’s Power, by Clark Chilson
235 pages.
University of Hawaii Press, Nonfiction.