Asuka Sango. The Halo of Golden Light: Imperial Authority and Buddhist Ritual in Heian Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2015. xxii + 216 pp. $54.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-3986-4.
Reviewed by James L. Ford (Wake Forest University)
Published on H-Japan (December, 2017)
Commissioned by Jessica Starling (Lewis & Clark College)
Kingship and the Dynamics of Buddhist Ritual in Heian Japan
The dominant interpretation of the relationship between Buddhism and the state during the Heian period (794-1185) goes something like this. During the Nara period (710-794), Japan was governed by the emperor-centric and Tang-styled legal and administrative system known as Ritsuryō that imposed strict controls over the monks and monastic institutions. Buddhist institutions were dependent on the state and provided a ritual regime that helped legitimate the emperor-centric ideology so key to the Ritsuryō system. Gradually, the Ritsuryō state fell into decline as land ownership shifted to aristocratic families and Buddhist institutions. The Buddhist monastic institutions themselves reflected this decline of imperial authority as Buddhist ritual became increasingly privatized and appropriated to legitimize the authority of the new aristocratic elite. Indeed, Buddhist institutions themselves became yet another sphere of aristocratic priestly control. At the same time, Buddhist thought and practice centered increasingly on esoteric ritual practice at the expense of the exoteric doctrine. These shifts in the political and religious spheres of governance and authority led, during the Kamakura era (1185-1333), to a shift from aristocratic Buddhism (kizoku Bukkyō) to the popular Buddhism (minshū Bukkyō) of Hōnen, Shinran, and Nichiren. It is a pretty neat and tidy historical summary, but one that has not gone unchallenged in recent decades, particularly the teleological assumption of the victorious ascendance of a uniquely “Japanese” Buddhism focused on the popular masses.
In this wonderfully condensed (only 120 pages) but meticulous volume, Asuka Sango challenges many of the assumptions that inform this well-worn narrative. She is not the first scholar to raise a questioning voice, but this study contributes much to the debates around state Buddhism, the “decline” of the Ritsuryō state, the privatization of Buddhist ritual, the primacy of the esoteric over the exoteric during the Heian period, and the somewhat static understanding of Buddhist ritual in ancient and early medieval Japan. The conspicuous thread of her analysis is the Misai-e Assembly, a court-sponsored ritual highlighting the Golden Light Sūtra, most famous for its promises of protection for nations and, most importantly, rulers who pay proper homage to the text and its Buddhist ideals.
Divided into six chapters and a conclusion, the book begins by tracing the origin and development of the Misai-e Assembly in ancient Japan. As in other Buddhist countries, lectures on and recitations of the Golden Light Sūtra were offered for state protection from enemies and to ward off natural calamities. Of course, the text also presents the ideal of kingship that both obligated and rewarded standing rulers who paid proper homage to this text and patronized Buddhism. Although not mentioned by Sango, there is an undeniable tension in this endorsement of a “righteous” king. That is, like the Chinese concept of the heavenly mandate, if things are not going well in the kingdom, the “righteousness” of the king can be called into question.
At any rate, as with so many Buddhist sutras, the Golden Light Sūtra was quite explicit in its self-promotion. Eventually, the Misai-e became an official state-sponsored ritual assembly in the Daigokuden Hall of the imperial palace, with the emperor playing a central role and mandatory attendance of ranking state officials. As Sango emphasizes, the ideal of kingship proffered in the text served to legitimate an emperor-centric ideology vital to the Ritsuryō state. The ritual also involved an official monastic ceremony, which symbolized, figuratively and literally, state control over the monastic establishment. In other words, Sango concludes, “the Misai-e Assembly was a rite of social relations, serving to formulate and maintain the ideal authority relations between the emperor and the courtiers (state officials) and between the state and the Buddhist community; in this way it visually represented the emperor-centric state structure. At the same time … the assembly also presented the emperor as an ideal Buddhist king depicted in the Golden Light Sūtra. It thereby effectively made the emperor into a dual ideogram of state-defined power and Buddhist kingship” (p. 21). In this way, the ritual invoked two protocols of imperial power--one sanctioned by the ideal of kingship advocated in the Golden Light Sūtra; the other reflected in the symbol of the emperor at the center of the state bureaucratic structure.
Chapter 2 traces the state sanctioned monastic promotion system, of which the Misai-e Assembly was a part. Central to the Misai-e performance were debates between invited monks. Little studied, these debates are often portrayed as rote performances and evidence of state control. Sango demonstrates, however, that beginning with Emperor Kanmu (r. 781-806), the debates actually were a product of a shift in emphasis from recitation and ritual performance to doctrinal knowledge. Kanmu’s reforms, in particular, solidified sectarian boundaries between schools and formalized a system of monastic promotion based on doctrinal knowledge. As Sango observes, the key purpose was less to debate the content or interpretation of a particular scripture, and more to encourage an interdisciplinary doctrinal dialogue between representatives of competing schools. In this way, these debates fostered intersectarian understanding as well. The Misai-e came to be the most prestigious of the Three Nara Assemblies, which remained important to monastic promotion through the Heian era. Based on this analysis, Sango argues that exoteric Buddhist knowledge remained central to monastic training despite claims by Kuroda Toshio and others who emphasize the dominance of esoteric over exoteric during the Heian period.
Chapter 3 examines more closely the role of assemblies like the Misai-e in clerical promotion and sectarian competition for patronage and influence. While the Hossō school monopolized the three Nara assemblies early on, Tendai efforts led to the establishment of three Heian assemblies and even a change in topics. Buddhist logic (inmyō), a specialization among Hossō monks, fell by the wayside. As Sango observes, the three Heian assemblies were “the product of the triangular power dynamics between the emperors, the Hossō school, and the Tendai school (and its two factions)” (p. 52). So while these assemblies were, as often characterized, mechanisms by which emperors asserted some control over monastic appointments, leading clerics were not passive participants and in fact used these assemblies to assert the interest of their school or push back against imperial control. Sango also traces the development of “alternative” avenues to monastic advancement, such as promotion through the Abhisheka Rites (esoteric ritual) and the practice of teachers transferring a reward or position to a disciple. From the seventh to eleventh centuries, the Sōgō (Prelate’s Office) grew from five members or less to almost fifty as a result of these alternative avenues to promotion. These “bypass” promotions were exploited particularly by imperial and aristocratic families, which also contributed to the economic and institutional expansion of the major temples (i.e., the growing “power bloc” system that Kuroda highlighted). Despite the changes, Sango argues that “exoteric” activities such as doctrinal studies and debate rituals increased rather than decreased during this time. Moreover, these avenues for promotion continued to carry more status than esoteric ritual or transmission from a teacher.
These first three chapters demonstrate how the leaders of the Ritsuryō state utilized the Golden Light Sūtra and rituals to build “a strong centralized state based on the emperor-centric ideology” (p. 60). Chapter 4 traces how this emperor-centric ideology and the Misai-e Assembly were adapted during the tenth century in response to the political and social transformations taking place. Traditional historiography, challenged of late, contends that the emperor’s authority was eclipsed as the Ritsuryō system fell into decline. Sango focuses on a new status system that developed within the Heian court and a resulting reconfiguration of imperial authority to argue that a reconstitution of that authority is probably a better description of what happened during this period. Politically, the early Heian period saw a shift from traditional Ritsuryō bureaucracy to the shōden (“rising to the palace”) system in which close advisers to the emperor were appointed by the emperor as opposed to being fixed bureaucratic positions. This resulted in a shift in authority from the position of the emperor to the emperor’s very person. Sango provides a wonderful description of how this process is manifest in the use of ritual space in the palace—a shift in emphasis from Daigokuden Hall, where rituals were conducted for traditional court relations and the Ritsuryō bureaucracy, to Seiryōden Hall, the emperor’s personal space that became the new center of social relationships. This shift from a “politics of Ritsuryō” to a “politics of affinity,” as Sango calls it, reflects shared rulership based on power blocs. Sango then goes on to show how these political transformations are mirrored in the changing Buddhist ritual regimes of the period. More specifically, she shows that the reconstitution of political power and influence can be seen in the restructuring of the Misai-e Assembly.
Chapter 5 examines the problem of ritual efficacy in the context of a battle for political authority. If key officials did not show up for a ritual performance, then this reflected poorly on the ritual’s sponsor. Sango demonstrates that retired emperor Shirakawa was a master at mobilizing aristocrats and monks for his New Year’s Assembly, even though it conflicted with the emperor’s Misai-e Assembly. The bottom line, she concludes, is that it is important to study ritual in the context of its connections to other rituals (competition) and the sociohistorical circumstances.
Chapter 6 explores the emergence of Misai-e imitation rite (jun misai-e) in the eleventh century—rituals that copied much of the liturgical structure of the Misai-e Assembly, particularly the way monastic participants entered the ritual hall. Retired emperor Shirakawa was a frequent sponsor of Jun Misai-e rites, which were clearly designed to enhance his imperial authority. This example illustrates a central argument of the book—that “that Buddhist rituals in the Heian period did not simply evoke a traditional image of imperial religious authority but also actively reinvented that tradition in response to political shifts at court” (p. 101). In this way, prominent rites like the Misai-e and its imitations were both conservative and innovative. “A tradition,” Sango observed, “is neither static nor unconsciously formulated. Rather, it is a form of cultural knowledge that actively seeks its uninterrupted continuity with the past to legitimize itself as both timeless and timely. This is exactly what the Jun Misai-e rites, by imitating the Misai-e Assembly, accomplished” (p. 101). So just as Emperor Kanmu sought control of the monastic community by creating state-sponsored rituals essential for monastic promotion, imperial vow temples and Buddhist rituals played major roles in establishing Shirakawa’s rule as the retired emperor. In contrast to previous scholarship that has interpreted the proliferation of Jun Misai-e rites as a sign of the emperor’s declining authority, Sango sees it not as evidence of decline but as its “reinvention induced by the shift from Ritsuryō politics to the politics of affinity” (p. 114).
In her conclusion, Sango weaves together the key themes of her study. The Misai-e Assembly was originally designed to symbolically reinforce the Ritsuryō authority of the emperor. Over time, kingship shifted from an exclusive focus on the emperor to a more shared polity, and these sociopolitical changes were reflected in the transformations of the Misai-e Assembly. “In this way,” she argues, “the Misai-e Assembly became the dual symbol of the two different types of imperial authority—traditional and new—represented by the Daigokuden and Seiryōden Halls, respectively” (p. 117). In the context of the emerging power blocs that threatened the exclusive status of the emperor, the transformation of the Misai-e reveals a symbolic effort to maintain the emperor as the “exemplary center” and a still-powerful figure within the new shared power bloc structure. The subsequent emergence of the Jun Misai-e rites suggests efforts by powerful members of the court like Shirakawa to elevate their own status and authority by borrowing from the symbolic prestige of the Misai-e ritual format.
Sango challenges the view that rituals during the Heian period were largely static and in decline; rather they were “dynamic, productive, and powerful aspects of Heian Buddhism” too often overlooked. Rituals like the Misai-e, she concludes, “were not mere pageantry displaying a sponsor’s economic affluence and political supremacy; rather, in the Heian period these rituals offered a site for producing and perpetuating religious tradition, wherein the ideas of kingship, interpretations of Buddhist sūtras, and knowledge of ritual protocols were repeatedly contested and reformulated” (p. 120).
The production quality, like almost all UHP publications, is very high. Assuming this goes to paperback at some point, I would strongly recommend adding a few maps and a floor plan of the imperial palace discussed in detail in chapter 4.
To conclude, Sango’s argument is persuasive and nuanced. It is also remarkably accessible despite the fact that it deals with a complex and sometimes opaque social, political, and religious period in Japan’s history. This accessibility, along with the volume’s brevity, make it a plausible option for use in general courses on Japanese history/politics, Buddhism, or ritual studies. The text is not overburdened with too many foreign terms or kanji, although these are provided in the index. This is a wonderful example of tracing the origin, meaning, purpose, and development of one particular religious ritual over more than five centuries. Rituals are not static, and to study their mutability is to unveil the deeply symbiotic relationship between ritual performance, religious meaning, and political power, among numerous other social and cultural factors, each dimension always open to adaptation and reinterpretation.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-japan.
James L. Ford. Review of Sango, Asuka, The Halo of Golden Light: Imperial Authority and Buddhist Ritual in Heian Japan.
H-Japan, H-Net Reviews.
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