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Mastering Spirits
"Exorcising Demons" in Abe no Seimei Shrine, Osaka

Mastering Spirits

Columbia's Michael Como challenges traditional views of legendary 'corruptor' figures in the context of cultic ritual and disease in medieval Japan.

Riverbeds became clogged with the small effigies of spirits as the influence of the cultic monks reached its peak. But Genbô and Dôkyô eventually would be destroyed by their grabs for power.


As an invisible force killed thousands of Japanese, from the ranks of the poor to the imperial court, fear of supernatural forces spread, of spirits or maybe gods. And so the people turned to healer-monks who had trained for years on mountains to appease, ward off, or—if they really knew their stuff—control the malevolent spirits.

According to Michael Como, a professor of religion at Columbia University, historians have often picked on medieval Japanese monks such as Genbô and Dôkyô as "Rasputin-like figures, Exhibition A" of power-hungry religious schemers who drove Buddhism into such states of corruption that it had to be rescued by reformers. At an April 3, 2006, colloquium sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies, Como argued for a more flexible historical paradigm.

Como cautioned against a cyclical view of Buddhist history. The paradigm instructs students 1) to observe growth of a particular sect or school, then corruption, and finally reforms spearheaded by champions of a new epoch and 2) to repeat. Under such a paradigm, historians have seen cultic monks as classic villains who engineered the corruption and ultimately the downfall of their sects.

But Como urges historians to consider the lasting influence of cultic monks on Buddhist tradition, a perspective that blurs the line between heroes and villains. "Genbô and Dôkyô were helping pave the way for new paradigms of religious practice," he said. "These monks were representative of a powerful current in Buddhism that emphasized special mantras, astrology, and rituals for health, prosperity, and immortality" rather than the traditional enlightenment-centered practices.

Dôkyô trained on the mountain, studying the mantras and medicines and practicing austerities to gain command over the spirits. Because spirits caused diseases, the study of spirits was part of medical training. He purportedly studied the manual of the "Peacock King," a legendary tome that helped the one who mastered its teachings to gain power over spirits.

Genbô undertook his studies on a mountain and also at the Tung Court in China. When he returned to Japan, he brought back volumes of scriptures related to mastery over spirits.

In 761, when the retired empress Kôken became ill, Dôkyô had a chance to exhibit his skills. Soon after he healed the empress, he began to acquire political prominence. When a rebellion rose up he helped crush it, "ostensibly with the gods' support," Como remarked.

Genbô likewise gained power by healing the powerful, including the mother of an important figure in the imperial court in 737. He gained even more sway when he uncovered a supposed plot to overthrow the court.

All of this occurred within the context of incessant plague ravaging the people. Court officials and peasants alike were forced to rely on these healers and spirit masters for salvation. Probably on the monks' instructions, the peasants would construct little voodoo-like dolls and release them in the river to ward away whatever local spirit they might have offended. The healers also performed rituals involving dances, animal sacrifices, readings of Buddhist scripture to appease the malevolent spirits.

The Fall

As useful as they were, the monks made courtiers wary with their growing influence and claims to supernatural power. The court had its own sponsored monks, and Dôkyô and Genbô were two loose cannons. They "were practicing without licenses," Como joked.

According to Como, the imperial court was reluctant to move against them because of their recognized talents, even saying that "private horoscopes [were] impossible to live without" in a time of disease. When to travel, what to wear, and other daily choices were determined by the monks' divination of the alignment of the heavens.

Riverbeds became clogged with the small effigies of spirits as the influence of the cultic monks reached its peak. Genbô and Dôkyô eventually would be destroyed by their grabs for power, Como said.

With all his worldly, political ambition, Dôkyô's appetite for power was only whetted with each new success and promotion up the power structure. Eventually, he reached for the greatest height, the imperial throne. He claimed to have divined his own legitimacy with the help of an oracle; the gods had decided Dôkyô was to be the next emperor.

The imperial court exiled Dôkyô for political intriguing, saying that only a descendant of the gods carried inherent legitimacy. Genbô was likewise banned for intriguing.

Ironically, it was with his own death that Dôkyô secured his influence over the spiritual world and tradition of the Japanese, Como said. The spirit of Dôkyô was blamed for several disasters, and a new generation of cultic monks offered to appease him and protect the people from him.