Heather Blair Real and Imagined: The Peak of Gold in Heian Japan

Harvard University Asian Center, 2015

by Luke Thompson on January 20, 2016

Heather Blair

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In her recent monograph, Real and Imagined: The Peak of Gold in Heian Japan (Harvard University Asia Center, 2015), Heather Blair explores the religious and institutional history of Kinpusen, a mountain in central Japan that served as both a pilgrimage destination for aristocrats from the capital and as a site for mountain asceticism.

Focusing her attention on aristocratic, male lay patrons–women were barred from climbing the mountain–she shows how the urban elite saw the mountains (and, in this case, specifically Kinpusen) as the capital's opposite, as an untamed place to which one might go to gain something not accessible in the ordered world of the city of Heian-kyō (modern-day Kyoto). And she describes how some understood the pilgrimage to Kinpusen to correspond to the path to awakening, thereby practicing what Blair calls "spatial soteriology."
A central theme in this book is the difficulty of neatly fitting Kinpusen into a single category, such as "Buddhist" or "Daoist." An illustrative example would be the mountain's multi-faceted tutelary deity, Zaō, who is not easily categorized and who played an important role in linking buddhas and bodhisattvas to Japanese deities.

In addition to looking at how Kinpusen was imagined, Blair devotes about a third of the book to records of pilgrimages to the mountain and activities undertaken on the summit. She provides us with rich descriptions of the preparatory rites and practices that pilgrims undertook for a period of some months prior to departure, of the offerings that were made during the nine-day journey to Kinpusen, and of the rituals performed atop Kinpusen's peak. Addressing the burial of sūtras, which was one of these rituals, Blair shows how on Kinpusen sūtra burial was tied to meanings and symbolism specific to this mountain and its principle deity, Zaō, and that in the evidence available from Kinpusen there is little indication that anxiety about the decline of Buddhism, which is the the basis for this rite most often mentioned in scholarly literature on the topic, was not a central, motivating factor.

With the decline of Kinpusen's main patrons, the northern branch of the Fujiwara family based in the capital, Kinpusen ceased to be a significant pilgrimage destination. In the final section of the book Blair examines this process and the decades-long conflict between Kinpusen and a powerful temple called Kōfukuji, and demonstrates how Kinpusen, rather than falling into ruin, was transformed as it shifted away from the capital's realm of influence and was incorporated into a network of mountains and Nara-based temples. Through the production of engi (temple-origin legends) Kinpusen was reimagined and eventually, in the fourteenth century, linked to the tradition of mountain asceticism known as Shugendō. While many have seen the religious practices carried out on Kinpusen and the production of engi about Kinpusen and associated mountains during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as being somehow opposed to the large, established monasteries and their interests, Blair shows that many of these engi were in fact produced and circulated within networks dominated by, or at least intimately tied to, the larger, landowning temples. In so doing she demonstrates that the distinction between lowland temple and mountain ascetic was not as clear as the rhetoric found in the engi would have us believe.

In addition, through her own fascinating theory of what she calls "ritual regimes," Blair clarifies how rulers used ritual and pilgrimage as means of communication and control. Besides being of obvious importance for the study of pre-modern Japanese religion and Buddhism, this work will be of particular interest to those working on mountains in religion, sacred geography, institutional history, and the interaction of religious traditions in East Asia.

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