Gods of Leather and Lilies: ancestral spirits and community leadership culture in the Buddhist debates at Kōyasan
Since the early fifteenth century, the monastic participants in the Risseigi debates at the Kōyasan esoteric Buddhist community have been promoted to membership in the “Myōjin-kō” confraternity. Although debate protocol was based on that of Kōfukuji’s, the process by which the debating priests were qualified for the confraternity is modeled on practices of rotating leadership in the local communities outside the Buddhist complex. These involved the excursions of various “non-Buddhist” gods and the investiture of their temporary custodians with a program of worship. I will introduce this organizational model and its variants before focusing on the objects of worship, their material supports, and their meanings.
Understanding the practice of rotating leadership sheds light on the initially confusing selection of gods. Most important among these at Kōyasan’s debates was “Ryūgi Myōjin” whose roots can be found in the spirits of a willow swamp and a lily-field, and who is related to a mysterious god of leather-making. Important texts for understanding these practices, the debates, and these gods are the Gohonjiku ritual manual, the Gohonjiku painting, Sanja takusen paintings, the Myōjin-kō liturgy, and the “origin tale” of the leather-making god. The incorporation of the gods (who previously/also occupied other spheres of worship) into Buddhist debates is to do with community identity reinforcement but is indicative of co-existence rather than of subjugation or appropriation. This talk’s study of the “patterns and players” in the debates shows that the medieval mountain was considered, fundamentally, a site of gods - and ancestral spirits – despite the Buddhist community settled there.
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