The Fluid Pantheon

Gods of Medieval Japan, Volume 1

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Bernard Faure
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawai'i Press
    , October
     496 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Like the gods in the original domed Pantheon in Rome, Buddhas and bodhisattvas have traditionally been displayed and thought about strictly within their classical niches. The Musée Guimet in Paris, for example, created “Le Panthéon Bouddhique” from 1991-2015 to display the most prominent Buddhist deities drawn from the consolidated Guimet and Louvre collections of Asian art. Bernard Faure’s The Gods of Medieval Japan is now challenging this kind of “explicit” pantheon of privileged Buddhist deities, proposing instead an “implicit” pantheon of understudied esoteric Buddhist figures who resist neat categories or static functions. Faure’s agenda is to bring out the overlooked esoteric deities from the shadows, retrain our historic spotlight onto these less familiar luminaries, and reveal their iconographic interconnections, ritual interrelations, and functional flexibility relative to other deities, practical necessities, and historical contexts. 

As Faure crosses sectarian boundaries, invokes Indian and Chinese precedents, and traverses an immense body of visual and textual sources primarily dating from Japan’s Heian (794-1133) through Edo periods (1600-1868), he compels the reader to think about the gods as active agents within dynamic systems, not fixed figures within static structures. He employs the analogies of webs and meshes, the internet, genealogical family trees, rhizome root systems, and clusters of brain neurons. He demonstrates that deities can jump synaptic leaps of logic to analogically connect with other noumenal neurons, as tenuous and far-reaching as those dendrites may be. It is incredibly complex and almost impossible to keep track of all the traces, but it is iconic neuroplasticity at its best.

This labyrinthine latticework of deities and their elastic adaptations is Professor Faure’s key contribution to the field. Because any one figure can be considered to be the arbitrary center or node in an extended complex of associated deities, as soon as one shifts the focus to a different deity, other related figures come into focus that were previously obscured. As a result, our understanding of the Buddhist pantheon is much expanded and enriched by his research. Moreover, when one looks closely at these networks in action, one observes how functionally fluid and even interchangeable these figures are. The triad of Nyoirin Kannon, Aizen myōō, and Fudō myōō in volume 1, for example, finds its echo in the triad of Benzaiten, Dakiniten, and Shōten in volume 2, and many deities throughout both volumes are either iconographically, mythologically, numerologically, ritually, or astrologically associated with the cintamani wish fulfilling jewel or the sun kami Amaterasu, to name but a few common denominators. Embryological concerns also run right through both volumes, as both wrathful and benign deities were invoked to manage the fraught liminal stage for both mother and child. 

As a result, reading these volumes is more like consuming a bowl full of ramen than a bento box lunch: each deity has its own strand of developmental history, and Faure handles them in clusters to make a messy but satisfying meal that provides plenty of food for thought. However, any reader who seeks neat categorizations, or who wishes to box each deity into its own circumscribed niche or singular function, will remain frustrated.

Volume One: The Fluid Pantheon 

Chapter 1 lays out the theoretical terrain by dismantling the structural categories upon which the explicit pantheon is premised. Faure invokes Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, Tim Ingold’s meshwork theory, and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s rhizhome philosophy among others to recover unknown associations and to regroove our neural pathways to perceive the gods in new and complicated ways. This is an exciting new way to think about not only the figures themselves, but also the ways in which scholarly categories and theoretical approaches to the study of religion can shape and shift our understanding of visual, textual, and ritual phenomena.

Chapter 2 begins investigating the vast esoteric ecosystem with the admittedly arbitrary but nevertheless universally recognizable “center” of the Pole Star, personified in Japan as Myōken. Faure links this once popular astrological deity to the singularity of Ichiji Kinrin (“One-Mantra Golden-Wheel” cosmic Buddha), other Buddhas and bodhisattvas, the seven stars of the northern dipper, and twenty-three other personified stars, celestial deities, Daoist gods, kami, and devas of Indian origin. This is unsurprising in itself, since every star-gazing civilization observes the same astronomical phenomena, but Faure’s forensic scholarship demonstrates the iconographic and symbolic commonalities among them in extraordinary detail.

Chapter 3 then centers its focus on the popular wisdom king of immovable wisdom, Fudō myōō, but takes a less networked and more historical approach. Throughout Japanese history, Fudō’s two attendant youths (dōji) and other associated deities (e.g., the wisdom king of the three realms Trailokyavijaya, as well as Kōjin and the infamous elephant headed Shōten, also known as Kangiten) comprised Fudō’s “cult and praxis,” to borrow Richard Payne’s phrase. Fudō’s comparatively minimal network, however, is nevertheless complex and multi-faceted. Faure excavates this wrathful deity’s complicated backstory as a domesticated yakṣa demon, whose iconography of canine teeth and eyes pointing both up and down indicate his ambivalent character.

Chapter 4 logically follows with another outwardly wrathful but ultimately compassionate deity, Aizen myōō. Like Fudō, this Wisdom King of Lust represents a kind of “tough love” approach to dispelling delusions. Aizen myōō is related to the previously mentioned Fudō, Trailokyavijaya, Myōken, Ichiji kinrin, and Amaterasu, but also to newly introduced deities like the lord of samsara Yama, the Buddha-eye Buddha-mother Butsugen Butsumo, and Eleven-Headed Kannon. Aizen’s rituals resemble those for Shōten but also the female deities Dakiniten and Benzaiten, and his symbolic “human yellow” (an invented life-essence premised on the actual materia medica of ox bezoar) actually mimics the comma-shaped symbol of the wish-fulfilling jewel, to be discussed in chapter 6.

Chapter 5 then explores the hybrid character of the so-called “two headed Aizen myōō,” whose multivalent connotations link him to snakes, Ugajin, and by extension the female Benzaiten, who is a major focus of volume 2. Again, Faure adopts a more historical approach to the ritual linkages between Aizen and his inverse namesake Zen’ai, as well as alternate stand-ins Kongōsatta, Daishō Kongō, or even Fudō. He notes that Aizen and Fudō usually flank Nyoirin Kannon in the Sanzon gōgyō ritual, but also notes that Nyoirin can also be substituted for Kōjin or the sun goddess Amaterasu, who herself has a wide network of associated deities and alter-egos. The tangled web, it seems, continues ad infinitum.

Chapter 6 shifts tack and offers the reader a fresh approach. Instead of centering on one deity’s extensive network, Faure focuses on a material and mythological object, the wish fulfilling jewel (cintamani), and traces out its connections to other deities, dragons, rituals, emperors (like Go-Shirakawa 1127-1192), and even the esoteric Buddhist patriarch himself, Kūkai (774-835). Faure reiterates much material about jewel worship and lore at Mt. Murō that appeared in Sherry Fowler’s Murōji (University of Hawaii Press, 2005), but chapter 6 supplements this material with additional research into the jewel’s symbolic associations with Aizen, Butsugen, and especially Ichiji Kinrin. This chapter demonstrates that objects can operate on the same systemic and functional level as icons, and that supposedly inert Buddhist materiality (to borrow Fabio Rambelli’s phrase), like its visual culture, can take on a life of its own.

Chapter 7 extends the study of the cintamani by focusing on the genderless bodhisattva Nyoirin Kannon, who holds it in one of their four hands at Murōji and elsewhere. In this chapter, Faure links Nyoirin Kannon with the bodhisattvas of wisdom Monju and Kokūzō, Kokūzō’s emanation Uho dōji, and other related figures such as Jizō, Venus, and Kūkai. Nyoirin’s network also includes the kami Hachiman, who is considered to be an emanation of Aizen and Amaterasu, and again recalls the symbolism of dragons, nagas, Ugajin and Benzaiten, as well as Dakiniten and Inari. This laundry list of familiar and unfamiliar names means that the index is absolutely indispensable for anyone wanting to learn about any of these deities or their aspects, since only a rudimentary diagram appears in the front of both volumes. Fixing these figures into helpful diagrams would ostensibly deny them their multiple identities and functional flexibility, but as a result, only the most motivated of readers will be able to keep track of all the connections for themselves.

Volume Two: Predators and Protectors

The second volume opens by further exploring the theme of Buddhicized continental deities that Faure first introduced with Fudō, the domesticated yakṣa demon-turned-Buddhist wisdom king. In the first chapter of volume 2, Faure presents three Indian devas who were integrated into the Buddhist pantheon to serve as guarantors of good fortune in this life and the next: Bishamonten, the militant guardian of the north, and Daikokuten, the hearty god of the kitchen, are both networked into Kubera, Pañcika, and numerous other continental deities, while the judge of the underworld Emmaten and his retinue of mostly Indian deities also help to determine one’s fate. 

Chapter 2 on Shōten discusses this elephant-headed god’s network and uniquely Japanese manifestation as Kangiten, the dual deity who embraces his twin in nondual union. This double deity exemplifies a kind of divine cell division, or pattern of splitting one deity into two, that Faure’s mentor Rolf Stein first advanced. Faure himself previously introduced this doubling motif with the two-headed Aizen myōō in volume 1, but here he also amplifies Shōten’s associations to include his half-brother Skanda, the Navagrahas, the Seven Mothers, and Cāmuṇḍa among others.

Chapter 3 documents the Japanese invention of Dakiniten. The original Indian dākinī figure was a flesh-eating female, but the Japanese elevated her to a Buddhist deva who was esteemed enough to empower imperial enthronement rituals. Her iconographic attribute of the white fox automatically affiliates her with Inari, but also to a now familiar cast of characters: Benzaiten and Ugajin, plus Amaterasu, Monju, Aizen, Nyoirin Kannon and the wish-fulfilling jewel, Shinra Myōjin, Bishamonten, Izuna Gongen (in the Nagano area), and Shōten by virtue of their shared divinatory functions. 

Chapter 4 focuses on the evolution of Benzaiten from an Indian river goddess into her medieval Japanese incarnations as a goddess of war, wisdom through the arts (especially music), and finally during the Edo period, into the only female continental deity in the still popular grouping of the Seven Lucky Gods of Good Fortune (shichi fukujin). The latter cohort connect her with Daikokuten and Bishamonten in particular, but her association with water links her with nāgas, gandharvas, dragons, and Suiten. Her femininity and martial state-protecting function link her with Dakiniten and Amaterasu, and other deities such as Aizen, Dōsojin, and Myōon bosatsu also figure in her network. As art historian Catherine Ludvik has already demonstrated, accurately presenting Benzaiten’s multiple lives requires a demanding command of textual-ritual and visual languages, as her iconography shifts and changes as her functions and affiliations do. 

Chapter 5 extends the discussion of Benzaiten and explores her hybrid character as Uga Benzaiten. Ugajin himself is the subject of chapter 7, but here he is introduced as the serpent man who couples with Benzaiten like Fuxi and Nuwa, the interlocking procreative serpents of Chinese myth. Benzaiten’s alternative role as an earth goddess technically does not fit this Chinese serpentine mythology (the divine female-serpent Nuwa holds heaven’s compass, not her brother’s carpenter’s square for delineating the four corners of the earth), but Benzaiten’s retinue of fifteen attendants may indeed resemble the offspring of the Indian kidnapper-turned-mother-goddess Hārītī. Regardless, like the two-headed Aizen or the elephant heads of Kangiten, Uga Benzaiten embodies Faure’s favorite motif of composite deities whose alter-egos are ultimately nondual. 

Chapter 6 explores complex images of the so-called “Three Deva Deity,” a single fox-riding figure whose numerous arms and three heads depict Benzaiten, Dakiniten, and Shōten. The origins of this Japanese amalgamation are unknown and the variations of its scrolls and mandalas are manifold, but its triple aspect may mimic the earlier triad of Nyorin Kannon, Aizen, and Fudō, while its three faces also readily recall the triple-faced forms of Bishamonten and Daikokuten. The most idiosyncratic version of this hybrid deity known as the Tenkawa Benzaiten actually replaces the three human heads with snake-dragons, foxes, or other animal heads, but Professor Faure readily acknowledges that the iconographic logic behind such tantalizing variations has been lost, and that the complexity of the figure itself challenges the limits of scholarly claims to certainty.

Chapter 7 examines Ugajin, the old man serpent deity who is most often paired with Benzaiten but who, in a sense like the Three-Deva Deity, is also associated with foxes and hence the kami Inari. His other affiliations include the familiar figures of Dakiniten, Daikokuten, Kōjin, the pole star Myōken, the cintamani wish-fulfilling jewel, as well as a new cast of characters including Jūzenji, Toyouke, and especially Suwa myōjin, the patron deity of the Suwa shrines throughout Japan. The conflation of this esoteric Buddhist deity with various kami in Japan complicates the neat one-to-one correspondences in the so-called “original ground, local trace” (honji suijaku) paradigm of medieval Japanese religion, and emphasizes the fluidity and contingency of what we facilely identify as “Shintō” or even “Buddhist” for that matter.

Finally, Chapter 8 presents the complex protector god Matarajin and connects him to no less than eighteen deities. In the context of medieval Tendai esotericism (taimitsu), his network extends into both sides of the longstanding rivalry between Ennin’s (793/794-864) main Tendai sect headquartered at Enryakuji atop Mt. Hiei versus Enchin’s (814-891) Jimon branch of Tendai centered at Onjōji (alt. Miidera) at the foot of Mt. Hiei. Matarajin was associated both with Enryakuji’s tutelary deity Sekizan Myōjin (including his related deities Taizan Fukun and Myōken) as well as Onjōji’s tutelary deity Shinra Myōjin (including his related deities such as Myōken and Dakiniten, as well as the pestilence-protecting kami Susanoo and the Onmyōdō god Gozu Tennō). Matarajin’s role as a placenta god (ena kōjin), as well as his other connections to Daikokuten, the Seven Mothers, Konpira, and maybe even Shōten via the Seven Mothers, fully fills out this complex deity’s network.

The Gods of Medieval Japan follows a loose organizational logic whose free-association form is commensurate with its unbounded content. Its stream of consciousness replicates a kind of early medieval Japanese religious logic that analogically connects one symbolic, ritualistic, or iconographic attribute with another. Within and across the chapters, one gets the sense that everything ultimately links up with everything else within six degrees of separation or less. The functional division of labor within the implicit pantheon is porous, for the wrathful Fudō can be invoked for healing just as easily as childbirth, and Benzaiten is as martial as she is musical. This makes for incredibly fun reading, as long as one takes it in small bites and goes with the flow. Likewise, the sheer number of illustrations (over three hundred and fifty) makes these volumes incredibly exciting to study, as many images have been beautifully reproduced here for the first time in print. It is unfortunate that many lack full art historical visual analyses due to space constraints, but Faure’s monumental contribution to the visual and material culture of Japan’s medieval religious landscape is encyclopedic in its scope, penetrating in its depth, and challenging in its theoretical refinements. It is a must-read for those interested in esoteric Buddhism, premodern Japanese art history, pan-Asian mythologies and ritual, as well as anyone interested in applying actor-network theory to their scholarship or those interested in the visual/material turn of religious studies in general. The Gods of Medieval Japan is a tour de force that will impact the cognate fields of Japanese religious studies and art history for generations to come.

(N.B. Some comments above were first shared at the American Academy of Religion panel dedicated to The Gods of Medieval Japan on Sunday, November 19, 2017. The full set of comments made at that panel will appear in Pacific World journal, forthcoming).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Pamela D. Winfield is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bernard Faure is Kao Professor in Japanese Religion at Columbia University.


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