Land and Soil in the Religious Culture of Kôyasan in Medieval and Early Modern Japan

Land and Soil in the Religious Culture of Kôyasan in Medieval and Early Modern Japan

Eiji Ôkawa (University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/IJPPPHCE.2017010103


In traditional worldviews, the natural environment was replete with sacred powers. With a holistic worldview, people interacted with nature and sacred manifestations through ritual practices, and organized their lives in spaces suffused with supranormal beings. Nowhere is this more evident than in the religious cultures that developed at sacred mountains. Yet due partly to the sway of the normative analytical model that privileges doctrinal and ideological dimensions of religious phenomena, little attempt has been made to explore the rich relationships between nature and the sacred in the religious cultures of sacred mountains. By examining legendary narratives, rituals, and the landscape of Kôyasan Buddhist monastery in Japan, the paper investigates how elements of nature, in particular land and soil, were infused with symbolic meanings, and played vital roles in the production of a local political space and trans-local religious culture in medieval and early modern periods.
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This paper examines the constitutive roles that elements of nature played in the development of religious phenomena with manifold implications in medieval and early modern Japan. It is a case study of the Buddhist monastery of Kôyasan, located in the mountains of Kii province—present-day Wakayama prefecture, and its focus will be land and soil. We will examine how land and soil were interpreted in religious terms and exploited by the people who operated the monastery. In particular, the paper addresses the following two questions. First, Kôyasan is known to have been a major landholding power that controlled large estates in its surrounding area in the late medieval period (14th to 16th centuries). How was the material power of the monastery to rule the region related to cultural understandings of and ritual relations with land? Second, in the early modern period (17th to 19th centuries), Kôyasan became a site of popular devotion and pilgrimage. With patrons and worshippers in different areas of the country, it called itself “the realm’s afterlife ritual site” (tenka no bodaisho 天下の菩提所). How did elements of the natural environment influence Kôyasan’s becoming a transregional site of worship and devotion?

Little empirical exploration has been conducted on the historical roles of the natural environment in the shaping of religious culture in Japan, especially in regards to Buddhism. I suspect this is related to the meanings that we attribute to the concept of religion which is a modern term related closely to Christianity and the European experience of modernization. When we think of “religion,” it is almost automatic that we think in terms of such seemingly natural subcategories of religions as the great religious traditions of the world which in the Japanese case would be Buddhism and Shintôism and their sectarian variants, or gods and theology or ideology, rituals and practice, and so on. While these are fruitful frames by which to study religious phenomena of the past, we should not forget that religious institutions, without exception, sat on plots of land and thus occupied nature, and existed and reproduced themselves through dynamic interactions with the environment. In other words, religious institutions are nature transformed through culture. With their rich history and records, they have much to tell us about the cultural interactions with and exploitations of the environment in the past.

The idea that religious institutions, or temples and shrines in the Japanese context, are nature transformed calls to mind the term “sacred.” According to the human geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, sacred has its roots in the “Latin sacer, which carries the general sense of restriction but whose specific meaning is an area that stands apart and has limited access, because it caters to the gods” (16).1 A Japanese term that has a similar meaning is ba 場 also read jô. This is also a standard term for “place.” Let us be clear that this is not a uniquely Japanese term. It is a Chinese character that is used across the East Asian cultural sphere. According to the dictionary Nihon kokugo daijiten, one meaning of this word is place flattened to enshrine deities and buddhas. The character itself is compelling. It combines the radicals “earth” or “soil” 土 and “light” 昜. According to the dictionary Jitsû, the light radical represents the shining light of a gem placed on a platform that is used in rituals to pacify spirits, and the character means place to perform ritual. Thus, it can be said that the character represents a plot of earth with an altar dedicated to the gods, which is the primordial temple. In this sense, the character itself is reflective of the nature of place and temples as earth-bound liminal thresholds to the ineffable powers of deities.

But temples and shrines are not simply places. They are stages for action and interaction among humans and the meanings and “symbolic messages” that are vested in elements of nature and artifices built upon them, including soil, trees, shrine, images or ritual spaces and objects.2 The dynamic interactions give rise to a diverse array of religious phenomena with manifold implications, all the while driving the production of social and cultural space in which people assert and negotiate interests. Below, I discuss how land and soil were transformed through religion and ritual to generate wealth for the monastery, and how that allowed the monastery to exercise political power over the regional society, on the one hand, and create a lucrative religious enterprise that attracted a wide variety worshippers and patrons from war and wide, on the other.

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