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The Cosmology of Buddhas and Kami in medieval Japan: A reconsideration of kami-Buddhist amalgamation paradigm

by Satô, Hiroo, Tohoku University

What happened when Buddhism arrived in Japan and met the kami (deities in Japan)? How did the two relate to each other? What changes occurred in religious thought and practice? These problems have been addressed by many scholars, not only from a purely historical perspective, but also as a starting point for reflection on the adaptation of foreign cultural elements in Japan. Traditionally, this topic has been approached from a purely doctrinal or intellectual perspective, which has taken the form of tracing the development of the relation between the kami and Buddhism as a process of progressive amalgamation.

However, the premise of a bipolar divine realm, containing only kami and Buddhist divinities, and the exclusive focus on the different kinds of rapprochement and conflict between the two has placed severe methodological restrictions on the study of the subject. As a result, many questions have remained unasked. First of all, while the conventional method has been useful in exploring the diachronic development of amalgamation, it has clear limitations from a synchronic perspective. Even more fundamentally, one has to raise the question to what extent the assumed dichotomy of kami versus Buddhist divinities was in any way important, or even recognized in pre-modern Japan.

To supplement the findings arrived at with more traditional methods, in this presentation I will attempt to open up another perspective, which takes a functional approach to the history of kami-Buddhist relations.

Conference paper presented at Buddhism In (and Out of) Place Conference held 17-18 October 2004

Center for Buddhist Studies