Buddhist Studies Forum
Caleb Carter, Johns Hopkins University

Imagining a History for a Young Tradition: Shugendō at Mount Togakushi, Eighteenth Century


Japan’s mountain school of Shugendō has been depicted through various lens—a folk tradition, a symbol of national unity, and an ancient form of nature worship—all of which leave a hazy impression of its historical formation. This is owed, in part, to sentiments in modern scholarship and the popular imagination, yet it is not simply born out of the modern era. Offering some earlier precedence, this talk introduces several moments in the premodern development of Shugendō through the case of Mount Togakushi (Nagano prefecture). Focusing especially on the eighteenth century, I will reflect on the writings of the Tendai Buddhist cleric Jōin (1682–1739), who served as chief administrator to the site from 1727 to 1738. During his tenure, Jōin cast Shugendō in ancient, idealized terms, replete with legendary events and figures, and harboring an illustrious past at Togakushi.

Jōin’s conceptualization of Shugendō contradicts evidence I have found of its relatively recent entrance to the mountain. While one could thus dismiss his imaginings as simply a case of fictive history, we might also consider his motivations in writing such a history. Contextualizing Jōin’s work within the religious and economic trends of eighteenth century Japan, his projection of Shugendō into the distant past can be viewed as a means of grounding it in the present: by elevating its status to that of the older, established traditions of East Asia; by raising its prestige and allure in the eyes of its patrons; and by cultivating its economic potential for the surrounding community. This set of aims, when compared alongside that of Jōin’s modern intellectual counterparts, suggests one of the ways in which a romanticizing of the past ultimately repurposes cultural traditions for contemporary agendas, both modern and early modern.

Cosponsored by the Asia Center, Fairbank Center, Reischauer Institute, Committee on the Study of Religion, Department of South Asian Studies, and Divinity School.