Pilgrimage, Place, Devotion in Heian Japan


A review of Pilgrimage to the Sacred Traces of Koyasan: Place and Devotion in Late Heian Japan, by Ethan Claude Lindsay.

Ethan Lindsay’s dissertation examines the religious history of Mt. Kōya between the ninth and twelfth centuries. Due in large part to its reputation as the final resting place of Kūkai (774-835), also known as Kōbō Daishi, Mt. Kōya has been a popular pilgrimage destination throughout the past millennium. Having been designated a World Heritage Site in 2004, it is also an important site in contemporary heritage tourism.

In keeping with its storied reputation, Mt. Kōya has been the subject of considerable previous research in both English and Japanese. As Lindsay notes, two recent North American dissertations, Londo and Drummond (Londo, William. 2004. The Other Mountain: The Mt. Kōya Temple Complex in the Heian Era. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Michigan; Drummond, Donald. 2007. Negotiating Influence: The Pilgrimage Diary of Monastic Imperial Prince Kakuhō—Omurogosho Kōyasan Gosanrō nikki. Ph.D. dissertation, Graduate Theological Union), have examined the mountain’s religious history during the Heian period (794-1185). In framing his project within this context, Lindsay points to the need for a study that 1) provides an in-depth analysis based on “specialized knowledge;” 2) accounts for doctrine and ritual as well as institutional history; and 3) is not focused on one particular source or genre (pp. 6-7).

In examining what he calls the “dialectic of story and ritual” (p. 216), Lindsay does indeed draw his source material from multiple genres. This gives the dissertation a hybrid structure. On the one hand, individual chapters focus on particular texts, which in turn represent specific genres: chapter 1 takes up engi, chapters 2 and 3, pilgrimage diaries; and chapter 5, biographies of individuals who have achieved birth in the Pure Land (ōjōden). On the other hand, the chapters are also organized around the activities of individual devotees. Thus, chapters 2 through 5 focus respectively on Retired Emperor Shirakawa (1053-1129, r. 1072-1086), Retired Emperor Toba (1103-1156, r. 1107-1123), Bifukumon-in (alternatively known as Fujiwara no Tokushi or Nariko, 1117-1160), and Fujiwara no Sukenaga (1119-1195).

In the first chapter, Lindsay examines legends about Kūkai collected in the Kongōbuji konryū shugyō engi, which, following Abe Yasurō, he dates to the early twelfth century (p. 15). Lore about Kūkai has been examined before, most notably in Shirai (Shirai, Yūko. 2002. Inseiki Kōyasan to Kūkai nyūjō densetsu. Tokyo: Dōseisha), but here Lindsay provides a welcome summary in English. He also emphasizes the suasive power of Kūkai legends in representing Kōya as a sacred site worthy of pilgrimage. More specifically, he examines three themes: the engiʼs representation of Kūkai as a “spiritually resonant saint” who evinced the powers of a buddha or bodhisattva (p. 20), the role of “territorial legend” in legitimating the annexation of territory (p. 48), and claims that Kūkai never died, having instead entered a protracted state of samādhi (nyūjō) at the mountain’s inner sanctum (Okunoin).

The second chapter shifts from legend to history, and centers on an account of Retired Emperor Shirakawa’s 1088 pilgrimage, written by Fujiwara no Michitoshi (1047-1099). Here Lindsay engages Clifford Geertz’s “theatre of state” model, as adapted by Stanley Tambiah and applied to the context of medieval Japanese pilgrimage by Moerman (Moerman, D. Max. Localizing Paradise: Kumano Pilgrimage and the Religious Landscape of Premodern Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2005). In calling attention to the “unscripted” aspects of pilgrimage, Lindsay argues that “the theater of state was improvised and interactive” (p. 65), and that the model needs to be revised to account for the agency of a range of participants, in this case, monks and retainers, in addition to rulers. As this and the following chapter show, Shirakawa’s pilgrimage set a standard in pilgrimage protocol: it began with an offering (kuyō), followed by a recitation of the esoteric Guiding Principle Sūtra (C. Liqu jing; J. Rishukyō) in the precincts of the Okunoin, where Kūkai was said to be seated in eternal meditation. Later, the pilgrimage party went on to the portrait hall (miedō), where Kōya residents (in this case, a monk named Jōken) give manuscripts in Kūkai’s hand to eminent pilgrims (in this case, Shirakawa). These activities were followed the next day by a visit to the “three-pronged vajra pine tree” (sanko no matsu), where pilgrims heard stories about how a vajra Kūkai threw from China had landed in the tree. Importantly, Lindsay also notes that Shirakawa’s pilgrimage affected Mt. Kōya’s institutional circumstances: the retired emperor promoted the mountain’s monks in reward for their service, and pledged to reconstruct the Great Stūpa, which had been lost to fire in 994. Perhaps most importantly, the royal visit resulted in an overall enhancement of the mountain’s reputation.

Through a consideration of Retired Emperor Toba’s 1124 pilgrimage, Lindsay shows in chapter 3 that later pilgrims assiduously followed Shirakawa’s example at Mt. Kōya. In Toba’s case, adherence to precedent extended beyond ritual performance to a pledge to rebuild another of the mountain’s monuments, the Western Stūpa. By the same token, argues Lindsay, Toba’s activities testify to new interests and concerns. In sponsoring a liturgy at Mt. Kōya’s Yakushi hall, Toba expanded the ritual scope of his pilgrimage (p. 143). Moreover, whereas earlier devotees had expressed an interest in Maitreya by praying to be reborn in Tuṣita Heaven, twelfth-century pilgrims, including Toba, sought to ensure that they would meet Maitreya when he becomes a buddha in this world (p. 127). Notably, Toba also performed a sutra burial at the Okunoin (pp. 133-39). Compared to other mountain sites, archaeological evidence for sutra burial at Mt. Kōya is quite scant; in this respect, a set of materials buried on behalf of the nun Hōyaku (n.d.) in 1114 and excavated in the twentieth century is particularly important. Happily, Lindsay discusses both Hōyaku and Toba’s sutra burials, which are the earliest to be attested at Kōya in contemporary sources or the archaeological record.

Despite its notional focus on the devotional activities of Bifukumon’in, who achieved significant political influence, first as Toba’s consort and then as an imperial lady, chapter 4 is devoted largely to discussion of the vicissitudes of women’s salvation in East Asian Buddhism. Like other sacred mountains, Mt. Kōya maintained a ban on women (nyonin kekkai); accordingly, Bifukumon’in was unable to visit the Okunoin, the portrait hall, or Mt. Kōya’s other famous sites. Lindsay speculates that as a consequence, spatial and liturgical differentiation were of less interest to her. Her patronage, he argues, indicates a shift toward a broader interest in the mountain as a whole. It also involved a re-orientation toward funerary ritual: Bifukumon’in stipulated that after her death her remains were to be installed in a stūpa at the Bodaishin’in, a cloister she had endowed at Mt. Kōya. As Lindsay notes, this is one of the early examples of the ritual interment of human remains (nōkotsu) at Mt. Kōya, a practice which became tremendously popular during the middle ages.

Lindsay’s stated aim in the last chapter is to analyze the Kōyasan ōjōden in light of the religiosity of its author, Fujiwara no Sukenaga, also known by the Dharma name Nyojaku. Lindsay treats this collection of biographies of Mt. Kōya monks as a comparatively transparent historical source: “in spite of their hagiographical embellishments,” he writes, the biographies “provide a vivid, historically accurate portrayal of the devotion that [Sukenaga] and others were conducting on the sacred peak Kōyasan” (204). Sukenaga did indeed spend time at Mt. Kōya after taking the tonsure and apparently availed himself of the opportunity to collect stories about local monks. Strikingly, with Kōyasan ōjōden, we may see an extension in the trend away from devotion to Kūkai already apparent in Bifukumon’in’s patronage. According to Lindsay, references to Kōbō Daishi occur in only four of Sukenaga’s thirty-eight biographies, a trend he attributes in part to the ōjōden genre’s focus on the buddha Amitābha. By the same token, the collection evinces a diversification in conceptualizations of ōjō: five of the biographies refer to other hoped-for realms of rebirth, namely, Maitreya’s Tuṣita Heaven, Mahāvairocana’s Land of Esoteric Splendor, and possibly also a destination associated with Mañjuśrī (pp. 209-211). Lindsay concludes that the collection emphasizes “the diversified nature of the faith associated with Kōyasan” (p. 213).

This dissertation is clearly organized and easy to understand. Lindsay provides summaries of his discussions in an introduction and conclusion to every chapter. At the macro-level, the chronological progression of the chapters makes the information provided easy to digest. In light of previous work on Mt. Kōya, Lindsay’s attention to Bifukumon’in and Sukenaga represent the most innovative aspects of the project. This dissertation should be of interest to those whose research concerns Heian history, pilgrimage, and religious landscape.

Heather Blair
Assistant Professor
Indiana University

Primary Sources

Kongōbuji konryū shugyō engi
Kanji ninen Shirakawa jōkō Kōyasan gokōki
Toba jōkō Kōya gokōki
Bifukumon’in ryōji an
Kōyasan ōjōden

Dissertation Information

Princeton University. 2012. 246 pp. Primary Advisor: Jacqueline Stone.

Image: Photograph of cemetery at Mount Kōya, Japan, on New Year’s Day, 2009. Photograph by author.

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