The Cultic World of the Blind Monks: Benzaiten, Jūzenji, and Shukujin

In: Journal of Religion in Japan
Bernard Faure Columbia University New York USA

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This paper examines the complex institutional and symbolic network that developed during the medieval period, bringing together people, places, institutions, myths, legends, rituals, and deities. It focuses on the relationships between the goddess of musical arts and eloquence Benzaiten, the Hie Shrine deity Jūzenji, and itinerant performers such as the blind monks (mōsō) and the biwa hōshi, who were instrumental in bringing together traditional Buddhist teachings and the performing arts (geinō). The paper argues that these relationships formed part of a broader semantic and symbolic field, at the center of which was the Protean figure of the shukujin (whose name can mean “astral god” and “god of destiny,” but also “god of the shuku”—outcasts groups and settlements). It shows how the latter was eventually identified by the Nō playwright Konparu Zenchiku (1405-1468), in his seminal work Meishukushū, with the figure of Okina, the divine old man that is widely regarded as the symbol of Nō theater. With the slow decline of the blind monks and the growing aestheticism of Nō, however, the vital connection between esoteric Buddhism, local religious traditions, and the performing arts eventually unraveled.

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