Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Japanese Buddhist Astrology and Astral Magic Mikkyo and Sukuyodo

Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Japanese Buddhist Astrology and Astral Magic Mikkyo and Sukuyodo

Article excerpt

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In the first chapter of the Genji monogatari ... (Tale of Genji) by Murasaki Shikibu (ca. 973-ca. 1014), the emperor was troubled about whether to bestow an imperial rank upon his youngest-albeit most cherished- son, whose mother was not of a suitably high rank. In light of the lack of maternal support he would suffer if he were granted an elevated rank, the emperor had decided to keep the boy's status as a commoner. A visiting Korean sage agreed that this was best. Later, the emperor summoned a Buddhist astrologer, who also expressed the same opinion. It was therefore decided that the boy would be a commoner with the name of Genji (1, 45). In chapter fourteen (2, 106), a Buddhist astrologer-monk again makes an appearance to predict the number of children Genji would have and their respective fates. The term used to refer to these astrologer-monks, or their art, is sukuyō ... (constellations and planets).

Although these figures play a very minor role in this fictional tale, they were, in fact, a highly significant community within the Japanese aristocracy from the tenth to the fourteenth century. Various misunderstandings, however, persist in modern scholarship.1 To complicate matters, if one browses the shelves of books on fortune telling (uranai ...) in a modern Japanese bookshop, one will find many popular books, meant for general readers, on a system of astrology called sukuyō. The blurbs on the covers of these books often connect this astrology to Kūkai ... (774-835), the founder of the Shingon lineage in Japan, stating that he brought this system of astrology from Tang China in 806. What, if any, connection is there between these twenty-first century works on "sukuyō" and the sukuyō known to Murasaki Shikibu? What was the role of Kūkai in the transmission of astrology to Japan? This article will answer these questions by tracing the history of Buddhist astrology in Japan, in addition to discussing the various types of astral magic that accompanied it.

I argue in this study that Japanese Buddhist astrology should be understood as comprising two types. The first type should be called "Mikkyō Astrology." This tradition is an integral component within the ritual frameworks of Shingon and Tendai, being primarily based on an astrology manual comprised of mostly Indian materials, brought to Japan in the ninth century, which we will discuss below. The second type is the astrology of Sukuyōdō ..., which refers to a lineage of Buddhist astrologer-monks that emerged in the late tenth century. This latter type of astrology includes all of the material of the former, as well as an advanced system of horoscopy, whose lore and techniques are in large part traced back to the Near East (Hellenistic Egypt and Iran), rather than India, in addition to incorporating several elements derived from Daoism.2 My identification of Sukuyōdō as a unique lineage of astrologers is based on the research of Momo (1975), whose work was later substantially developed by Yamashita (1990; 1996). Drawing on my earlier research of Chinese sources (Kotyk 2017a; 2017b), I also seek to demonstrate that the astral magic practiced by Japanese Buddhists from the early Heian period includes some hitherto unrecognized elements that originated in the Near East, rather than in India or China, that Japanese Buddhists further developed in their own unique way. One final aim of this article is to demonstrate that Buddhist astrology played an immensely influential role in medieval Japanese society and religion, and as such it ought to be taken into greater consideration in studies of medieval Japanese culture.

Historical Background

Indian astrology was first introduced into Chinese via the Śārdūlakarṇāvadāna, a Buddhist scripture, which was first translated by Dharmarakṣa... between 307 and 313, titled the Shetoujian Taizi ershiba xiu jing ... (t 1301; Sutra of Prince Śārdūlakarṇa and the twenty-eight nakṣatras). …

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