The culture of secrecy in Japanese religion

  • Datum: May 18–21, 2004
  • Ort: Austrian Academy of Sciences
  • Organisation: Bernhard Scheid (IKGA)


This symposium dealt primarily with the dialectics of concealing and unveiling religious “truth,” which played a significant role in what is known as Esoteric Buddhism (Jap. mikkyō). Esoteric Buddhism developed in almost all Buddhist countries of Asia, but was of particular importance in Tibet and Japan. In the latter case, its impact went far beyond the confessional borders of Buddhism, also affecting Shinto and non-religious forms of discourse. Thus the individual papers covered a wide range of Japanese religion and culture as well as general aspects of Asian religious history.

Conference report

by Anna Andreeva, University of Cambridge, UK

The city of Vienna was incredibly busy during the last decade of May, when the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Institute for the Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia hosted a symposium on the Culture of Secrecy in Japanese Religion. The participants were welcomed with a warm reception at the Institute, the city’s gorgeous weather and many cultural delights. For a few days the old city with its stunning architecture and generous cuisine became a centre for many brilliant papers and debates aimed at a broad discussion of the historical and intellectual influence of esoteric Buddhism (mikkyō) in Japan, including examples from neighbouring countries.

The symposium was opened by Professor Ernst Steinkellner, the director of the Institute for the Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia. In his speech, he pointed out the importance of thorough inquiry into the nature of esoteric religions and intellectual history in general.

Prof. Mark Teeuwen of University of Oslo presented the first paper of the day, which addressed the discourse of medieval Shinto and the art of what he called “experimental esotericism.” The invention of new secret objects and ritual practices as well as their interpretation became a focal point of this presentation. Dr. Lucia Dolce of SOAS, London, investigated the taxonomy of the “esoteric” in hermeneutical and ritual practices in the Heian and medieval periods. The focal point of this paper was the meaning of esotericism in taimitsu (esoteric Buddhism of the Tendai school), as exemplified for instance by esoteric rites based on the Lotus Sutra (hokkehō). Prof. Bernard Faure of Stanford University described a concept of secrecy in the cult of Vinâyaka or Shōten, originally a demonic deity of India, invoked in black magic rites, and its transformation into what he called the ‘hidden deity’ of medieval Japan. The presentation by Dr. Nobumi Iyanaga of Tokyo, which brought about a fruitful discussion on the understudied Tachikawa-ryū and other apocryphal traditions in medieval Japan, was of particular interest. He addressed the problem of ‘cross-transmissions’ between secret lineages and questioned other contradictions in the mikkyō tradition.

‘Esotericism Outside Japan’ was the theme of the second day of the symposium. Prof. Albert de Jong of Leiden University presented his view on secrecy in the European antiquity, focusing on mechanisms of ‘concealing,’ ‘keeping hidden’ and ‘revealing’ knowledge. The social manifestations of secrets and secrecy as well as secret knowledge, rituals and identities were the focal points of his discussion. The discourse and social conditions of Indian Esotericism were discussed in a paper by Prof. Ronald Davidson of Fairfield University. The Indian, and particularly, Mahayanist ideologies of secrecy, exclusion, deception, composition and revelation were addressed from the perspective of esoteric scriptural texts and commentarial literature from the 8th and 9th centuries. Dr. Martin Lehnert of the University of Zurich approached Tang-period Tantric Buddhism in China from the point of hidden signification and contingencies of language. His argument shed light on how the lack of conceptual and grammatological equivalence between Sanskrit and Chinese gave ground to the Tantric rhetoric of secrecy. The concluding discussion of this day gave opportunity to raise queries and express opinions on the presented topics.

The third day of the symposium once again took up the topic of Esotericism in Ancient and Medieval Japan. Dr. Atsushi Kadoya of Waseda University discussed the three imperial regalia and ten sacred treasures in medieval Shinto discourse, as well as the ritualism centered on these objects and their interpretations by Buddhist monks. The examination of myth, rite and icon became the cornerstones of this presentation. Subsequently, Dr. Fabio Rambelli of Sapporo University questioned the actual status of secrecy in secret transmissions (hiden) and consecrations (kanjō) and outlined the main features of the epistemic field of esoteric Buddhism, from which these practices originated. Prof. Susan Klein of the University of California at Irvine examined in her paper the incorporation of esoteric Buddhist initiation rituals into Noh theatre in the Muromachi period and shed light on the actual process of creating a literary heritage in medieval Japan. The last paper of the day was presented by Dr. Bernhard Scheid of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, who analysed the notions of secrecy and the pivotal role of the deity ōkuninushi in the interpretations of the kuni yuzuri episode in the Nihon Shoki by Yoshida Kanetomo and Ichijō Kaneyoshi.

The culture of secrecy in early modern Japan was the topic of the presentations on the last day of the symposium. Secrecy and the nature of political authority in Tokugawa Japan were addressed in a paper by Anne Walthall of the University of California at Irvine. Her discussion of the shogunal rites of investiture and their ‘politics of hiding’ combined with an examination of a constellation of Buddhist, Shintō and Confucian ideas as the way to transform shogunal military power into sacred authority, also suggested the possibility of cross-cultural comparisons. Prof. William Bodiford of the University of California in Los Angeles explored the implications of the Tokugawa-period Buddhist reformation, when the worldview of medieval Japanese religion came to an end. The radical alteration of the Buddhist milieu introduced by the monks Reikū Koken and Menzan Zuihō was examined in order to describe the emergence of morality as a topic of public discourse and the resulting intellectual construction of ‘secrecy’ as inherently antinomian and subversive. Prof. Kate Wildman Nakai of Sophia University discussed the concepts of ‘esoteric’ and ‘public’ in late Mito thought, particularly in the works of the Tokugawa Confucian scholars Hayashi Razan and Yamazaki Ansai and their efforts to link Confucianism and Shinto.

The concluding discussion of the symposium touched upon many issues that presently pervade the studies of Japanese religion as well as problems of interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research. It allowed all of the participants to express their concerns and to offer helpful suggestions as to the further development of the field. Some criticism was expressed to the effect that the study of Japanese religion still lacks a thorough theoretical approach. Another concern was that the comparative studies of Japanese religions are almost non-existent, and the broader perspective on this topic should be gained. If such advice is taken as a guideline, we can anticipate the arrival of broader and more elaborated studies both of sources and historiography as well as new theoretical suggestions, which would allow the cross-cultural and multidisciplinary dialogue.

Many thanks are owed to Dr. Bernard Scheid and Cynthia Peck-Kubaczek for their sterling work in organizing this Symposium to such a high and efficient standard. All who attended it were very grateful to their Austrian colleagues for the opportunity to carry on the discussions, which had in fact already begun at the EAJS Conference in Warsaw. Hopefully, the intellectual exchange which has been established now in Vienna will continue on into the future.

Anna Andreeva, University of Cambridge


Bernhard Scheid, Mark Teeuwen (eds.), 2006
The Culture of Secrecy in Japanese Religion. London, New York: Routledge, 2006.