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The Kinpusen Himitsuden: Text as a Kaleidoscope of Ritual Platforms

‘I wonder,’ he said to himself, what’s in a book while it’s closed. Oh, I know it is full of letters printed on paper, but all the same, something must be happening, because as soon as I open it, there’s a whole story with people I don’t know yet and all kinds of adventures, deeds and battles … All those things are somehow shut in a book. Of course you have to read it to find out. But it’s already there, that’s the funny thing. I just wish I knew how it could be.’ Michael Ende, The NeverEnding Story.


This article explores the narrative potency and ritual efficacy of a medieval Japanese esoteric Buddhist text in relation to the process of awakening and the construction of imperial legitimation, perceived as two interrelated objectives. Entitled the Kinpusen himitsuden, ‘The Secret Transmission of the Golden Peak’, the text was written by the Shingon monk Monkan Kōshin in 1337, soon after the outbreak of the civil war, at the stronghold of the southern court in Yoshino. The text is treated here as a complex ritual platform of metamorphosis and empowerment, intermingling the local cultic structure and the esoteric Buddhist ritual stage of the imperial court as well as realities internal and external to the text, which mutually inform and impregnate one another. Focusing on the articulation of a rock—the body/abode of Zaō, a tutelary mountain deity—we explore its transformation from the site of a local legend of apparition into a Buddha, an object of contemplation, the centerpiece of the imperial stage and a mold for the practitioner’s liturgical body, an achievement allowed by the text taken as a transformative agent. We demonstrate that as an epitome of esoteric Buddhist power, Zaō becomes the source of the emperor’s renewed authority as a Buddhist king, and that in turn, the emperor’s participation in the semiotic sphere of the text endows the deity with sovereign power. As such, this article shows that rather than a vessel of knowledge, the text-as-an-event, is a powerful mechanism of transformation.

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  1. Two of three scrolls of the Himitsuden are signed by Hōmu Sōshō, who scholars agree is the monk Monkan. It is possible, however, that several people had worked on the text (Satō, 1966, pp. 120–121).

  2. This idea derives from Eviatar Shulman’s recent explorations of texts as agents, which was brought forth in several conferences, including ‘The Idea of Text in Buddhism’, Hebrew University, 10-12.12.2019.

  3. The office of the gojisō first arose during the 9th century following the establishment of the Mantra Hall in the palace when charismatic monks had increased access to emperors, and it became institutionalized during the 10th century. In the 11th century rituals performed by the gojisō for the protection of the state became also conceived of as physically protecting the emperor. It was, however, the precipitating conflict between the two imperial lines, the tensions between the court and the shogunate, and finally the war that followed, which positioned the gojisō at the forefront of the imperial ritual stage (Conlan, 2011, pp. 79–85).

  4. For Monkan’s biography see Quinter (2015) and Rappo (2017).

  5. It was the revolutionary historian Kuroda Toshio who first demonstrated the centrality of this doctrine as an interpretive framework for investigating the political role of Buddhism in Japanese history (Kuroda, 1996).

  6. Yoshino designates an area incorporating the village of Yoshino, Mt. Yoshino, and its associated religious institutions, whereas Kinpusen, now known as Ōmine Sanjōgatake, refers to the northern part of the mountain range from Yoshino to Sanjōgatake. These names were also often used interchangeably in medieval texts.

  7. On this topic see Bialock (2002–2003), Blair (2015), and Moerman (1997).

  8. Shugendō, ‘the way of [ascetic] practice’, comprises syncretic rites and practices derived from Buddhist, Daoist, shamanistic, and local cults of the kami (practices that are later to become Shintō), conceptualised within a Buddhist framework and associated with specific mountains. It evolved from the practices of the yamabushi—religious mountain practitioners who sought to obtain magical power through the performance of austerities in the mountains, which during the 13th century became institutionalized as a religious movement.

  9. In the 1920s–1930s, the text was included in the Japanese Buddhist canon, Shugendō shōsō volumes of the Nihon daizōkyō . In the second half of the 20th century, with the monumental work of the founders of Shugendō research, Gorai Shigeru and Miyake Hitoshi, it featured or was alluded to in all major collections of Shugendō sources, such as the Shugendō shiryōshū and Shugendō shōso kaidai.

  10. On this topic see Ruppert (2000), Naitō (2001, 2011), and Abe (2011b).

  11. Medieval sources allude to a very large number of texts (“some thousand volumes or more”) written by Monkan that circulated widely during this period (Abe, 2013, pp. 238–240). On the corpus see Rappo (2017).

  12. Abe (2013, p. 239). Beyond the Himitsuden, written in 1337, this corpus includes the Tōchō daiji (‘The Most Important Matter of the Tōji Abbot’), otherwise known as the Goyuigō daiji (‘Great Matter of the Testament’), the Goyuigō hiketsu (‘Secret Teachings on the Testament’), the Himitsu gentei kuketsu (‘Oral Teachings on the Origins of the Mysteries’), the Ichinisun-gōgyō hishidai (‘Secret Teachings Combining the Three Worthies’), the Saigoku himitsu-shō (‘Treatise on the Ultimate Mystery’), the Sanzon-gōgyō hiketsu (‘Secret Teachings on Combining the Three Worthies’), and the recently discovered manuscript, the Yuigōhō (‘Ritual of the Testament’). It is estimated that more text will resurface in the coming years (Abe, 2013, pp. 243–245).

  13. According to Satō, Jigen relied most profoundly on a copy of the manuscript originally in the possession of the Tōji abbot Dōnu, which was made by the monk Kankai of the Sōjiin temple at Kōya (Satō, 1966, pp. 119–120).

  14. Following the dōjōkan, the Himitsuden lists the names of the procedures that comprise the rite. According to Robert Sharf, this is common in Shingon ritual manuals. Those include the three core practices listed above as well as other practices such as ‘Procedure for Binding the Sacred Realm’ (kekkai), ‘Procedure for Inviting the Deities’ (kanjō hō), ‘Procedure for Offerings’ (kuyō hō), ‘Empowerment of the honzon’ (honzon kaji) and Dispersed Recitation (sannenju), all of which are intrinsic to the Shidokegyō (‘Four Preliminary Practices of Liberation’). The Shidokegyō is a mandatory practice for all Shingon and Tendai monks, comprising the Jūhachidō (‘Eighteen Stage Practice Training’), the Kongōkai practice, the Taizōkai practice and a ‘fire rite’ (goma). Each of the four practices of the Shidokegyō, as Sharf explains, consists of hundreds of units, among which three are considered the soteriological core: ‘interpenetration of self [and deity]’ (nyuga-ga-nyū), ‘formal invocation’ (shōnenju), and ‘syllable-wheel contemplation’ (jirinkan), which respectively unite the body, speech and mind of the practitioner and the honzon of the rite, thereby ritually instantiating the three mysteries (Sharf, 2003, pp. 59–61).

  15. The first version was included in the Konjaku monogatari compiled in the late Heian period. Kamakura period narratives were included in collections, such as the Shijū hyaku innen shū of 1257 and the Shasekishū of 1279–1283. See Morrell (1985, p. 78).

  16. The five sections (gobu)/Buddha families of the Diamond world mandala, which together signify the actualized state of Buddhahood embodied by Mahāvairocana at the center.

  17. The translation of this paragraph is based on Suzuki (2009, p. 164).

  18. The three mystic modes of activity refer to activity through the body, speech and mind of the Buddha, which are universal as all creatures in body, speech, and mind are individualised parts of the Buddha. Since illusion hides this Buddha nature, esoteric practitioners seek to realize it by the performance of mudrās, mantras and meditations, to reach a state of interpenetration of the Buddha and practitioner. See “sanmitsu” Def. 1. Digital Dictionary of Buddhism (henceforth DDB). Charles Muller, ed. 8.9.2001, updated 31.10.2014. Web 1.6.2016.

  19. The term siddhi is used in esoteric Buddhism to describe the attainment of enlightenment through mystical practices.

  20. Samādhi means 'intent contemplation’ and it refers to a high level of meditative concentration and to the skillful unification of mind and object. “Sammai”. Def. 1. DDB. Charles Muller, ed. Paul Swanson, trans. 1.9.1993, updated 2.1.2018. Web. 5.4.2015.

  21. The Jewel Section is one of the five sections of the Diamond world mandala. It is positioned in the south with Ratnasaṃbhava as the central Buddha.

  22. The gōbuku shuhō is an esoteric Buddhist ritual for defeating evil forces, demons and enemies, usually invoking the five wisdom kings.

  23. ‘One of great kindness’, daijison, refers to the future Buddha Maitreya, which derives from the Sanskrit maitrī, kindness/benevolence. “Miroku”. Def. 1. DDB. Charles Muller, ed. 1.9.1993, 5.4.2015.

  24. The word śarīra is written in seed-syllables as śā rī. The interlinear script reads dhātu, which means element and refers to Buddha relics.

  25. The term kegen (‘transform’) refers to the changed form that Buddhas and bodhisattvas take when appearing in this world to save sentient beings.

  26. The earliest dated record is the 1142 ‘Account of the ‘Latter-Seven-Day Rite’ at the Imperial Mantra Chapel in the Second Year of Eiji’ (Eiji ninen shingon’in mishuhō ki [Zoku gunsho ruijū 25B, 110b–168b]) complied by an attendant to the Kanjūji monk Kanjin (1084–1153). It states that the Rite of the Two Realms (the ‘Latter-Seven-Day Rite’) is in fact a Buddha Hōshō rite. See discussion on this document in Abé, 1999, pp. 347–349) and Ruppert (2000, p. 119).

  27. For an analysis of the ritual altar see Ruppert (2000, pp. 111–123) and Abé (1999), pp. 348–349.

  28. The uṣṇīṣa śiraskatā—the protuberance of transcendent wisdom and the light emanated from the Buddha’s head illuminating the entire world is the most important of the thirty-two superior marks of the Buddha.

  29. Buddhoṣṇīṣa vijaya (J. Sonshō Butchō) may be translated as ‘The Most August Deity Manifested from the Buddha’s Head’.

  30. Jōbodaishin is the mind of pure enlightenment, which perceives the real behind the seeming and understands the inherent Buddha-nature of all. It is also the aspiration to realize bodhi-wisdom, that is, perfect enlightenment.

  31. Joshō butchō—‘The Uṣṇīṣa Buddha Removing Obstructions’ is another name for Sonshō Butchō.

  32. Bukka, the Buddha fruit, or the result of following the Buddha path, as opposed to the Buddha-cause (butsuin). It also means awakening, enlightenment. “Bukka”. Def. 1. DDB. Charles Muller, ed. 1.9.1993, updated 17.8.2009. Web. 6.5.2016.

  33. Fudō ‘The Immovable’ is the most important of the Five Wisdom Kings. As a fierce manifestation of the Buddha, he is a wrathful blue-black figure, carrying a sword, a noose and a thunderbolt. He usually stands or sits on a rock. His right eye is open while his left is closed, and he has protruding teeth. A second representation is with four faces and four arms. “Fudō myōō”. Def. 1. DDB. Charles Muller, ed. 8.9.2001, updated 6.4.2010. Web 6.6.2016.

  34. Gōzanze ‘Conqueror of the Three Worlds’ (Skt. Trelokavijaya). According to Yixing's commentary on the Mahāvairocana sūtra (The Daibirushana jobutsu kyōsho), Trelokavijaya is associated with the unhindered power that eradicates the obstructions in the three worlds caused by delusions. According to the instructions in the sūtra, Trelokavijaya is surrounded by a violent flame, he wears a treasure-crown, and holds a vajra. In the Garbadhātu mandala, his body is blue-black and he wears a treasure crown with flame-like hair standing up above the crown; he has three wrathful eyes and two fangs that stick out of his mouth; in his right hand he holds a three-pronged vajra-spear and in his left a three-pronged (sometimes five-pronged) vajra. He is seated on a massive rock or sometimes a lotus pedestal situated inside a flame. “Gōzanze myōō”. Def. 1. DDB. Charles Muller, ed. 15.7.2001, updated 2.6.2016. Web. 6.6.2016.

  35. A derivative of this maṇḍala type, based on the Dhāraṇī Sūtra for Buddhoṣṇīṣa Vijaya (Skt. Buddhoṣṇīṣa vijaya Dhāraṇī Sūtra, J. Butchō sonshō darani kyō) [T.967-T.974], consists only of the triad of Mahāvairocana and the two Vidyārājas, Acala and Trailokyavijaya.

  36. This rite is distinct from the earlier Uṣṇīṣavijaya rite (Sonshō hō) held at the court during the 9th century, and which had the Uṣṇīṣavijayā dhāraṇī and the Uṣṇīṣavijaya maṇḍala as its core. As Brian Ruppert maintains, ‘The Jewel Rite of Uṣṇīṣavijaya’ featured instead the wish-fulfilling jewel as its main object of worship (Ruppert, 2000, p. 363).

  37. Zui’en means ‘gradual enlightenment’, an enlightenment that evolves according to circumstances, to accord to the reality of dependent arising.

  38. This refers to the depiction of Gōzanze within a half moon in the left foreground corner of the mandala. It may also refer to the shape of the wind element in the five-wheel stūpa.

  39. The 'wind-wheel' is a layer of active air underground, portrayed in Buddhist scriptures as a component of a cosmological map. According to this cosmology, there are four Great Wheels from bottom to top: 'Empty Space Wheel’, 'Wind Wheel', 'Water Wheel’, and 'Gold Wheel', which is the only wheel above ground. “Fūrin”. Def. 1. DDB. Charles Muller, ed. 15.8.2001, updated 24.11.2012. Web. 6.6.2016.

  40. The triangle refers to the depiction of Fudō in the right foreground corner of the Sonshō mandala. It may also refer to the shape of the fire element in the five-wheel stūpa.

  41. A wheel of fire (Skt. alātacakra), produced by rapidly whirling a fire-band is a symbol of the emptiness of the visible, since such a wheel does not exist. “Karin”. Def. 1. DDB. Charles Muller, ed. 5.3.2002, updated 30.5.2008. Web. 6.6.2016.

  42. Shikaku, initial enlightenment, refers to the first phenomenal actualization of enlightenment in this lifetime, as contrasted with hongaku, original enlightenment. The concepts of initial enlightenment and original enlightenment are a primary topic of discussion in the ‘Awakening of Mahāyāna Faith’ (Kishinron) [T. 1666.32.576b14]. “Shikaku”. Def. 1. DDB. Charles Muller, ed.1.9.1993, updated 19.10.2007. Web. 7.6.2016.

  43. A term employed in certain esoteric traditions to describe the way that wisdom, working like a 'flame', consumes the 'firewood' of delusion, thereby eradicating all afflictions of the mind bonnō (Skt. kleśa). “Chika”. Def. 1. DDB. Charles Muller, ed. 15.7.2001, updated 12.1.2010. Web. 7.6.2016.

  44. Hon’u means originally existent, inherent, the source and substance of all phenomena.

  45. Henceforth T. will be used as an abbreviation of Taishō shinshū daizōkyō.

  46. One of the three cakra-bodies of the Buddha—a wrathful emanation that teaches being with undisciplined positions. See “sanrinjin”. Def. 1. DDB. Charles Muller, ed. 29.5.2016. Web. 1.9.2020.

  47. The Sanskrit term dharmatā literally means naturally or innately, and it indicates the true nature of things. “Hōni”. Def. 1. DDB. Charles Muller, ed. 1.9.1993, updated 2.8.2012. Web. 5.4.2017.

  48. The unenlightened and mistakenly conceptualising consciousness that does not perceive that the thusness of all dharmas is originally equal. “gōshiki”. Def. 1. DDB. Charles Muller, ed. 1.9.1993, updated 20.2.2007. Web. 1.6.2016.

  49. This notion, which centralized Japan within the Buddhist world, became widespread in medieval Japanese texts. On the topic see Rambelli (2006, pp. 62–63).

  50. See ‘Commentary on the Mahāvairocana Sūtra’ (J. Dai Birushana jōbutsu kyō sho, Skt. abhisaṃbodhi-tantra) By Ichigyō (Ch. Yixing), composed between 724 and 727. T.39.1976.750a20-a21.

  51. See for example Yūhan’s commentary on the Mahāvairocana sūtra T.2213.58.0335c05-c06 and T.2213.58.0404c24, where this eight-petalled lotus, inside the chest, is described as the natural and pure essence of original enlightenment.

  52. Hishō. By Shōken (1138–1196). Shukaku Hōshinnō ed. (1150–1202).

  53. This letter is explained in the text as “the reality-body as principle (rihosshin) of Mahāvairocana Buddha”. The expression refers to the dharmakāya as absolute being, in contrast with the dharmakāya as wisdom.

  54. ‘The Ritual of the Secret Dhāraṇī of the Three Siddhis for the Destruction of Hell, the Transformation of Karmic Hindrances and Liberation from the Three Conditioned Worlds’ (Sanshu shichi hajigoku tengosshō shutsusangai himitsu darani hō). Translation by Rambelli (2000, p. 377).

  55. This assumption is based on the visualization practices that follow in which it is consistently either the syllable A or Ā, which appears on the altar/mountain summit.


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Morris, Y. The Kinpusen Himitsuden: Text as a Kaleidoscope of Ritual Platforms. J Indian Philos (2022).

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  • Buddhist literature
  • Japanese Buddhism
  • Medieval Buddhist discourses
  • Kinpusen cult
  • Monkan