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  • Before the First Buddha Medieval Japanese Cosmogony and the Quest for the Primeval Kami
  • Fabio Rambelli, professor of Japanese and comparative religion

From the end of the Heian period, a number of texts began to investigate cosmogonic issues, namely, the process of creation of the universe and the manifestations of the first deities—matters more generally pertaining to what is known as "the age of the gods" (jindai or kamiyo). Indeed, pervasive interest in cosmogony is one of the most significant aspects of the medieval Japanese intellectual arena and characterizes the entire contemporaneous discourse about the kami. Such a focus was something quite new; far from emphasizing the primeval condition, the early foundational texts Nihon shoki and Kojiki allocate only a minor place to cosmogony. Although the broader intellectual context in which the focus on cosmogony arose was essentially Buddhist, a striking aspect of the discussion of such issues is its extensive recourse to non-Buddhist sources.

The exploration of cosmogony led medieval authors to concentrate on events that they understood in both temporal and intellectual terms as having taken place before the appearance of the first Buddha, events that lay on Buddhism's "outside," so to speak. Investigation of these outside developments necessarily required the mobilization of non-Buddhist sources, concepts, and representations, and it led as well to attempts to identify what was conceptualized as the primordial kami, one that was supposed to precede not only the beginning of Buddhism, but the very creation of the universe.

In this new discourse on cosmogony, Buddhism was criticized for having introduced dualist distinctions (namely, the dichotomy enlightenment/delusion); authors began then to investigate what they believed to be a more fundamental condition of being in which dualism had not yet arisen. This condition, known as "fundamental ignorance" (ganbon mumyō, ganjo mumyō, [End Page 235] or konpon mumyō) because it preceded the arrival of Buddhist knowledge, they equated with the highest and truest embodiment of "original enlightenment" (hongaku), a key concept in medieval Japanese Buddhism. In a vertiginous development, various writers proceeded to identify this pure realm of original enlightenment with the primeval realm of the kami.

In this article, I begin with the paradoxical soteriology proposed by the Japanese Buddhist discourse on original enlightenment, according to which ultimate salvation, consisting in the realization of one's innate enlightened nature, was identical with a primordial condition defined either in terms of absolute being (hosshō, dharmatā) or, in certain cases, of fundamental ignorance. This condition was understood in terms that transcended its epistemological and existential dimensions; eventually, some thinkers came to associate it with the state of the universe prior to the creation of Heaven and Earth and in particular with a divine force immanent in it. This significant move forced such thinkers to investigate cosmogonic issues and to speculate on the nature of this primeval divine entity. To trace the line along which their speculations led them, I will turn next to the most important medieval theories about the creation of the universe and the primeval kami and attempt to chart medieval Japanese cosmogonic speculations and their conceptual structure.

The discourse on cosmogony was carried out in a number of texts, about which not much is known in terms of authorship and readership; often, periodization is also an open issue. However, these texts share at least two common features: they revisit in an innovative fashion myths and deities presented in the Nihon shoki (and, at times, in other ancient texts as well, such as Sendai kuji hongi) and they deal with the deities worshipped at the Ise shrines. Several authors have studied the new mythological discourse that developed within medieval Shinto; since their interest resides mainly in the reinterpretation of the myths in the Kojiki and Nihon shoki, they have not directed much attention to the fundamental intellectual framework out of which cosmogonic speculation initially arose.

To borrow an influential definition by Maruyama Masao , earlier researchers tended to interpret the medieval Shinto doctrines concerning Ise in which such cosmogony unfolds as a reemergence to the surface of contemporaneous intellectual discourse of the "ancient stratum" (kosō) of Japanese culture upon which all other developments were grounded.1 These researchers came to regard...


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pp. 235-271
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