Clark ChilsonSecrecy’s Power: Covert Shin Buddhists in Japan and Contradictions of Concealment

University of Hawaii Press, 2014

by Luke Thompson on November 11, 2014

Clark Chilson

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Clark Chilson’s new book, Secrecy’s Power: Covert Shin Buddhists in Japan and Contradictions of Concealment (University of Hawai’i Press, 2014) examines secret groups of Shin (i.e., True Pure Land Buddhist) practitioners from the thirteenth century onward, but focuses primarily on the past 150 years.  Although today at least thirty different lineages of secret Shin continue to operate, with a total estimated membership numbering in the tens of thousands, because they have been so successful at hiding (a technique they have perfected over a period of centuries), few scholars are even aware of their existence.  Based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork that he conducted from 1998 onward and a number of reports written by mainstream Shin monks who infiltrated these groups or researchers who befriended them, Chilson explains why certain groups concealed their doctrines and practices (and even existence) and, more importantly, reveals the long-term consequences that secrecy had on these groups.  In addition, Chilson provides an in-depth theoretical introduction, showing that scholarship on secrecy has too often conflated different types of secrecy (e.g., esotericism and social secrecy), a problem that is particularly vexing in the case of Japanese religion, in which the influence of esoteric Buddhism is so pervasive.  Rather than simply confining such theoretical concerns to the introduction and conclusion, Chilson skillfully weaves issues related to concealment into the fabric of each chapter, explaining how the case studies he presents illustrate this or that function or consequence of secrecy.

Chilson distinguishes between two types of covert Shin groups—those that went into hiding due to persecution, and those in which secrecy was an integral element from their very genesis—and outlines the similarities and differences between the two.  While much scholarship on secrecy in religion has focused on why groups have secrets in the first place (e.g., to avoid persecution) and on secrecy’s personal power (e.g., personal authority, or the power to avoid detection), Chilson draws our attention instead to how concealment influences the structure, doctrines, and practices of these groups, and to the way in which secrecy, at first a consciously wielded instrument, is eventually incorporated so thoroughly into a tradition that its power becomes structural, a force controlled by no single person but which pervades the group and becomes central to its identity.  In this way, Chilson answers the question that many readers will want to ask: why did the practice of secrecy continue in persecuted groups once the threat of persecution had subsided?

On a fascinating journey that takes us from Shinran’s thirteenth-century admonition of his eldest son for claiming to possess secret teachings, to a twenty-first-century covert Shin leader who worries about the dwindling number of adherents, we hear of secret caves in southern Kyushu used for clandestine worship, dietary proscriptions of chicken and milk, punishment of covert Shin members in northeastern Japan (ranging from promises to abandon covert Shin to crucifixion), and a covert Shin group whose members associated themselves with the Kūyadō and became ordained Tendai Buddhist priests in order to deflect suspicion.  In addition, through access to groups that few scholars have been granted, Chilson describes in detail many of the initiation rituals and teachings at the center of certain covert Shin groups, all the while addressing the ethical dilemmas that researchers studying secret groups face.  This book will be of particular interest to those researching or interested in Jōdo shin shū (Japanese True Pure Land Buddhism), secrecy in religion, secret societies, Edo-period regulation of religious groups, modern Japanese religion, and religious identity.

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