Religious Meanings of the Hachiman Cult: Releasing Living Beings in Hōjōgawa
"Hirai is a Shinto priest who studied the history of
us to see a famous temple at Ise. Someone in our group,
an American philosopher, told him: I see the temples, I
attend the ceremonials, the dances, I admire the
costumes and the courtesy of the priests -- but I don't
see any theology implied by Shintoism. Hirai reflected
a second and answered: "We have no theology. We dance."
-- Mircea Eliade
Hōjōgawa is a god play by Zeami which is in the currently performed repertoire. It describes the autumn festival (Hōjōe) of Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine at which birds and fish are released. Like its counterpart, Yumi Yawata ["The Bow of Hachiman"], which describes the spring festival at Iwashimizu, Hōjōgawa portrays a god who protects the emperor and brings peace to the realm. Like the spring festival, the Hōjōe connects the present time with the Age of the Gods, the divine time of origins with the temporal cycle. Although Hachiman in Yumi Yawata is depicted as a Bodhisattva, Hōjōgawa more explicitly stresses the religious mission of the Bodhisattva. The Hōjōe is a Buddhist rite that makes tangible the vow of the Bodhisattva to release all living beings. The action of releasing birds and fish in the shrine precincts is a salvific gesture that mimes the cosmic deliverance.
McCullough and McCullough (Tales of Flowering Fortunes, p. 403) describe the two day festival of Hōjōe (whch began on the 15th day of the 8th month) as practiced at Iwashimizu Hachiman in Heian times:
“On the first day, an imposing procession of senior nobles escorted the sacred god's palanquin from the top of the mountain to the bottom, where offerings of food were presented, an Imperial prayer was read, sacred dances were performed, and the Saishōō Sutra (Suvarnaprabhasa-sutra) was expounded. On the second, as recommended in the Saishōō Sutra, birds were released from the mountaintop and fish were set free in a stream. The occasion ended with dances and wrestling matches.”
The Nihon Kiryaku gives a brief description of preparations for the Hōjōe in the year 974:
"The Iwashimizu Hachimangu has its Hōjōe on the fifteenth day. The director of Gagaku will be in charge of the music; it will be patterned on Sechie music. There will be music and dance of T'ang and Korai. The festival is to be celebrated after this pattern in perpetuity. Also, the Left and Right Headquarters of the Inner Palace Guards will present riders, ten from each division, in alternate years."
The origins of the Hōjōe are obscure. At Iwashimizu the first mention in the Nihon Kiryaku occurs in the year 948. According to De Visser, the first notice in the Fusō Ryakki comes in 939, although that passage notes that the festival had already been performed for many years before; the Daijii, he notes, says that Seiwa Tennō first “held such a meeting" in 863.
is generally agreed that the Hōjōe had originally been
practiced since early times at the Usa Hachiman shrine and was then transferred
to the Iwashimizu shrine sometime after its foundation in 859. It should be
noted that the Hōjōe is not mentioned in the Rikkokushi
in connection with either shrine, although some
In the Nihongi, various imperial prohibitions on killing animals are noted beginning in the reign of the Emperor Bidatsu (578) and these proliferate with the rise of Buddhism at the court. Shōtoku Taishi admonished the Empress Suiko against hunting in 611.
But the first specific reference to Hōjō is in 677 (Temmu 5.8.16) when the emperor Temmu commanded that hōjō be carried out in all the provinces, and, later in the year, specifically in the home provinces. The empress Jitō established hōjōchi (ikihanatsutokoro) in all provinces in 691.
the Buddhist doctrine of compassion was translated specifically into
prohibitions of killing and the release of animals in early Buddhist Japan is
clear. But the specific festival of Hōjōe was associated with the
great Hachiman shrines at
Ross Bender, The Hachiman Cult and the Dōkyō Incident
Jane Marie Law Violence, Ritual Reenactment, and Ideology: The "Hōjō-e" (Rite for Release of Sentient Beings) of the USA Hachiman Shrine in Japan; History of Religions, Vol. 33, No. 4 (May, 1994), pp. 325-357
Mae J. Smethurst and Christina Laffin, eds. The Noh Ominameshi: A Flower Viewed from Many Directions
indifference toward the abstract and the transcendent;
in a word, longing for the primordial bridge which used
to connect heaven and earth (the floating bridge, Amano
Ukihashi, by which, in illo tempore, Izanagi and
Izaname ascended to heaven). The Japanese soul yearns
for a concrete epiphany of the divine. I don't think
that a doctrine of the incarnation of the Christian
type (that is, historical and once-and-for-all) could
interest a Japanese; he is attracted by a theology of
the provisional, lightninglike incarnation of the
spirit; gods, god-men, spirits, souls of the dead,
souls of animals, etc., etc. The gods are travelers
par excellence, visitors (they are, in fact, marebito).
Everything in the cosmos can be transfigured, no one is
unworthy to receive the visit of a god: a flower, a
stone, a pillar of wood. The universe is constantly
being sanctified by an infinity of instant epiphanies.
The gods do not settle down anywhere in the world. The
spirit descends any time, anywhere, but it does not
remain; it does not allow itself to be caught by
temporal duration. Epiphany is especially
lightninglike. Every divine presence is provisional.