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The Flower of Dharma Nature: Sexual Consecration and Amalgamation in Medieval Japanese Buddhism


This dissertation explores the construction of male-male sexual practices in medieval Japanese Buddhism (tenth to sixteenth centuries). In particular, it examines the ritual and doctrinal elements of the “Consecration of Acolytes” (chigo kanjō), a sexual rite-of-passage characteristic of the Tendai Buddhist school that was practiced in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Hence, this dissertation provides new perspectives on the role of sexuality in temple environs, and on Buddhist discourses regarding male-male sexuality, the body, and childhood. I analyze heretofore neglected manuscripts that describe the ritual procedures and include exegetical commentaries in an effort to reconsider the ritual as an initiation that transforms acolytes into divinities—a process that empowers young acolytes (chigo) and, at the same time, allows monks to reach an awakened state. Additionally, my close analysis of the ritual and its discursive contexts shed light on the Buddho-Shinto amalgamation strategies of the medieval period. In showing how the ritual elevates the status of the kami above those of the Buddha, I demonstrate that the monastic formulators of chigo kanjō did not conceive of Buddhism as superior to Shinto.

Chapter 1 surveys the various understandings of childhood and the configurations of male-male sexuality from the tenth to fourteenth centuries. Reviewing the socio-historical context of monk/acolyte relationships, the male child emerges as a distinctive ontological state, a social occupation, and a sacred being. Exploring multiple forms of exchanges between monks and chigo, the chapter shows that male-male sexual and romantic interactions were common, and were configured in accordance with specific social and cultural contexts – monastic or aristocratic. This was the case in the periods before, during, and after the ritualization of the chigo kanjō. In this manner, the establishment of the consecration ritual did not simply reconstruct the relations between monks and chigo. Rather, it provided a framework for institutionalizing and rationalizing male-male sexuality to fit with the broad constellation of significations invested in the chigo.

Chapter 2 introduces the seven chigo kanjō manuscripts, the context of their production, and the lineages of their authorship. In contrast to the conventional view that chigo kanjō originated in the Eshin School of Tendai exoteric Buddhism, I argue that the chief producers and practitioners of this ritual were Taimitsu lineages (Esoteric Tendai). I support this argument with evidence from ritual procedures and commentaries, and from the “real” and “imagined” lineages constructed through the chigo kanjō texts. Based on these sources, I am able to locate dangisho (seminaries) in the Serada area in the Nitta estate (present-day Gunma prefecture) as a central cultic hub where monks wrote chigo kanjō texts and put them into practice. Through these writings, practices, and the production of lineages, the chigo kanjō was rendered an orthodox practice with genealogical ties to Tendai lineages, and to the Sannō Shinto cult. Therefore, the chigo kanjō was not simply an Esoteric Buddhist ritual like many other kanjō at the time, but it was inextricably linked to the medieval Shinto discourse.

Chapter 3 delves into the specific ritual procedures of the chigo kanjō. I argue that the chigo kanjō ritual conforms to the pattern of himitsu kanjō (secret initiations), a type of consecration that aims to collapse the distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal. In the chigo kanjō, practitioners strove to disrupt the dichotomy between the conventional and conditioned chigo and the three absolute and unconditioned divine beings with which the chigo becomes united: the cosmic Buddha Mahāvairocana (J. Dainichi), the bodhisattva Kannon, and the kami Sannō. The chigo’s identity as either Mahāvairocana or Kannon is enacted not only by ritual gestures and various embodied practices, but also through consecration and the absorption of special esoteric knowledge.

In Chapter 4, the seemingly incongruous array of doctrinal positions presented in the chigo kanjō documents integrate into a coherent force designed to legitimize sexual intercourse with chigo. The chigo kanjō connects a secret transmission, “Kannon’s secret teaching,” with a homoerotic set of tales known as The “Tale of the Compassionate Child” (Jidō setsuwa), original enlightenment thought (hongaku), Taimitsu (esoteric Tendai) teachings, and ideas and practices of Buddha-kami amalgamation. These elements come together to present the ritual as serving a pragmatic salvific goal: to sanctify the chigo, identifying him with one of the loftiest divinities of the Japanese pantheon. By the means of this initiation, chigo served as a mediator between this world and the other world, allowing monks to partake in divine powers.

I conclude the examination of chigo kanjō by reconsidering their social function, namely, to introduce and indoctrinate young novices to sexual practices outside of the initiatory context, and by highlighting potential avenues for future studies.

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