COVERT SHIN BUDDHISTS TIMELINE
1263: Shinran, the reputed founder of Shin Buddhism, died.
1499: Rennyo died. Although critical of secret teaching in his pastoral letters, he purportedly entrusted the “true” secret teachings to the laity rather than priests.
1722: Tsukiji, a Shin Buddhist temple, issued an edict that prohibits the practices of covert Shin Buddhists.
1754: Yamazaki Mokuzaemon was executed for teaching secret Shin doctrine in northern Japan.
1755: Covert Shin Buddhists were infiltrated and exposed by Shin Buddhist clergy.
1846: Ten people who were arrested in northern Japan for covert Shin activities were sent to prison for six months and were required to pay fines.
1879: Around this year, D.T. Suzuki, who became popular in the West for his works on Zen, was brought by his mother to participate in a covert Shin initiation. He was about nine years old.
1936: Kida Kohan published a book critical of covert Shin Buddhists in which he claimed they were increasing in popularity in all regions of Japan.
1938 (March 25): A newspaper article in Yomiuri Shinbun stated that police were instructed to find and expose covert Shin groups.
1956: Takahashi Bonsen, a professor at Tōyō University in Tokyo, published a major study on covert Shin Buddhists in northern Japan.
1957 (February): The Asahi Shinbun newspaper reported that the leader of a covert Shin group in Iwate Prefecture lost in a court of law his case for libel against the researcher Takahashi Bonsen.
1959: Children in southern Kyushu refused to eat a school lunch with chicken meat. Later it was discovered that they were from families of a particular covert Shin Buddhist lineage in which it was taboo to eat chicken.
1971 (January): Leaders of a covert Shin group in southern Kyushu refused to cooperate with a research team from Ryukoku University after the researchers sent them a letter with documentation on two secret texts.
1995: After Aum Shirikyō released poisonous gas in a Tokyo subway, a covert Shin leader went to local authorities to explain that his group was not involved in any illegal activities.
2001: A leader of Kirishimakō, a secretive Shin group in southern Kyushu that identified itself as Shinto, reported to a researcher that the size of his group had declined to about 700 members, about half of what it was in the 1960s.
2008: A covert Shin Buddhist leader in central Japan told a researcher than there has been a drastic decline in the numbers of members in his group over the past fifty years.
Because “Covert Shin Buddhism” covers a range of religious traditions that, unlike most delineated religions , do not have clear institutional structures or formal organizations that are legally or publically recognized, a few words of introduction on its varieties and relationship with non-secretive forms of Shin Buddhism are in order before focusing on a particular covert Shin tradition referred to as Urahōmon.
Shin Buddhism, also known as “True Pure Land Buddhism,” has been one of the most popular forms of Buddhism in Japan for the past several hundred years. The vast majority of Shin Buddhists believe that Shin, with its emphasis on trust in Amida Buddha, is a tradition without secrecy – unlike some other Japanese Buddhist sectarian traditions such as Shingon and Tendai Buddhism. Yet we have evidence that shows that over the past 700 years there have been Shin Buddhists who practiced their religion in secrecy and have claimed knowledge of secret teachings.
Among the different covert Shin Buddhists groups that have formed since the thirteenth century, we find the following similarities: they conceal their existence from the public; they do not have a professional clergy; and, although they accept the basic doctrines, texts, and practices of mainstream Shin as valid, they have additional distinctive teachings and practices that temple Shin clergy see as not valid.
Beyond these similarities, however, there is diversity among the dozens of different lineages of covert Shin groups in terms of their histories, specific practices, doctrines and social organizations. The greatest diversity exists between two basic types. The first and most numerous type has existed in many regions of Japan and consists of groups that claim secrecy has always been a part of their tradition. The second type consists of groups located in the southern Japanese island of Kyushu that originally went into hiding when Shin Buddhism was prohibited there from the late sixteenth century until 1875. The covert Shin Buddhists of the second type are similar to Japan’s covert Christians (Kakure Kirishitan also known as ‘hidden Christians’), who went into hiding in the early seventeenth century, in so far as they also stayed in hiding even after the ban on their religion was removed in the 1870s.
Both types of covert Shin have been secretive so as to avoid outside interference and because over many generations secrecy has become a customary protocol that is part of their identity. Only the first type claims its secrecy is to protect teachings that contain ultimate truths unknown to outsiders. The rationale they give for their secrecy is primarily to protect these teaching s from corruption. In particular, they fear that if the teachings were made public Shin priests would want to use them to make money and in the process corrupt them. Neither type of covert Shin Buddhism over at least the past 130 years has been secretive due to involvement with antinomian or illegal behavior or anything that the wider public would find especially nefarious. What causes the most suspicion is the act of concealment itself, not what is being concealed.
Below is an overview of one lineage of the first type of covert Shin. It is located in central Japan and claims to preserve the ultimate Shin teachings. They call themselves shinjingyōja (practitioners of the entrusting heart) and their form of Shin “Urahōmon” (Hidden Teachings). Unlike many religious groups labeled as “esoteric” that advertise the existence of secret knowledge and use it to allure new members, the shinjingyōja are covert in that they hide the very existence of their religion. To protect what they regard as the ultimate teachings from those who would corrupt them, they conceal from the public the existence of such teaching s and where someone might go to learn them. The existence of their Shin Buddhism is only revealed to those that their leaders deem worthy. The teachings are orally transmitted, and mostly passed along family lines. Occasionally close friends are introduced to an Urahōmon leader (zenchishiki), who then decides whether to reveal the existence of secret Shin teachings to them. For Urahōmon’s leaders, protecting the purity of the teachings takes precedence over increasing the number of shinjingyōja .
This overview is based on published sources, which were written either by outsiders who infiltrated a group to expose it, or ethnographers, who through various means were able to do fieldwork on an Urahōmon group. For more in-depth information on covert Shin Buddhists and our sources of information on them, see Chilson 2014.
The existence of secrecy and the problems it caused in Shin can be traced back to when Jishin (a.k.a., Zenran) upset his father, Shinran, for claiming knowledge of secret teachings. Shinran (1173–1263), who all Shin Buddhists venerated as their founder, became so displeased with his son for claiming knowledge of secret teachings, that in a letter believed to have been written in 1256, he disowned him saying, “I no longer consider you my son.” Shinran, to assure his disciples in a distant province that he had not given his son a secret teaching, wrote the following in a letter:
I have never instructed Jishin alone, whether day or night, in a special teaching, concealing it from other people. If, while having told Jishin these things, I now lie and conceal it, or if I have taught him without letting others know, then may the punishment, first, of the Three Treasures, and of all the devas and benevolent gods in the three realms of existence, of the naga-gods and the rest of the eight kinds of transmundane beings in the four quarters, and of the deities of the realm of Yama, the ruler of the world of death—all be visited on me, Shinran. (Hirota 1997, vol. 1:575–76)
Yet the idea that there were secret teachings did not die with Jishin. Shinran’s great-grandson Kakunyo tells us in the fourteenth century about Shin Buddhists holding secret rituals in the middle of the night. Then in the fifteen century, Rennyo (1415–1499), the most prominent figure in Shin history after Shinran, repeatedly criticized those who claimed knowledge of secret teachings. In one of his pastoral letters in 1474 he wrote “The secret teachings (hiji bōmon) that are widespread in Echizen province are certainly not the Buddha-dharma; they are deplorable, outer (non-Buddhist) teachings. Relying on them is futile; it creates karma through which one sinks for a long time into the hell of incessant pain” (Ofumi 2.14; translated in Rogers and Rogers 1991).
In the Edo Period (1603–1868), those who claimed knowledge of secret Shin teachings were not just criticized by Shin leaders but were subject to persecution by local authorities who saw them as a practicing an illegal religion. Documents from the eighteenth century mention covert Shin Buddhists being fined or sent into exile or into prisons. One of the most extreme cases of persecution occurred in 1754 in northeastern Japan where twenty four covert Shin Buddhists were convicted and punished. Most were sent into exile, one was decapitated, and two others were tied to a pole and killed by repeated stabbings in the torso.
Leaders of the shinjingyōja, called zenchishiki, are aware of the early criticisms of secret teachings by Shinran and Rennyo, but are not bothered by them because they claim those criticisms were not about the secret teachings given to them and their ancestors. What Shinran’s son was teaching was indeed, they say, illegitimate.Shinran did not give his ultimate teachings that they have possessed to Jishin but rather to Nyoshin, Shinran’s grandson. These secret, ultimate teachings were then transmitted among the head priests of the temple Honganji up to the time of Rennyo. According to the zenchishiki, Rennyo decided to pass these authentic secret teachings (not the false secret teachings he criticized), to nine laymen because he felt that Shin priests could not be trusted with them. Among these nine laymen was a doctor of Chinese medicine named Yoshimasu Hanshō, back to whom the zenchishiki of Urahōmon trace their lineage.
The zenchishiki seem less aware or concerned with the persecutions that occurred during the Edo (1603-1868) Period. The zenchishiki do not describe episodes of persecution in their sermons or characterize covert Shin Buddhists as victims of misunderstanding; nor do they use stories of persecution to vilify Shin priests or to warn their followers of the importance of secrecy. Surprisingly, the persecution that earlier generations of covert Shin Buddhists suffered are not talked about and victimhood is not part of their identity.
After the Edo period, in the 1880s one prominent leader of Urahōmon named Ōno Hansuke, formed a relationship with the Kūyadō, a Tendai temple in Kyoto that had connections to both social pariahs (hinin) and the imperial family. The Kūyadō helped Ōno and his disciples avoid suspicion because , when large gatherings met at his home or elsewhere, they could tell outsiders they were members of the Kūyadō; but it also led to some Shin priests investigating why members of a Tendai temple did practices that were most closely associated with Shin Buddhism. A strong relationship with the Kūyadō continued into the 1990s but began to wane in the 2000s and is now largely, although not entirely, non-existent.
Shinjingyōja fear that if their secrecy is discovered they will be regarded as dangerous. This so concerned one Urahōmon leader that after the Aum Shinrikyō poisonous gas attack on a Tokyo subway in 1995 (see the profile on Aum Shinrikyō on this site) , he went to the local authorities to explain that he and his disciples were not involved in any nefarious activities. Although the authorities did not seriously investigate him or cause his group trouble, other Urahōmon leaders chose not to expose themselves and continued to conceal their religion.
The shinjingyōja say there are two types of Shin Buddhism: overt and covert (or omote and ura in Japanese). Overt Shin is found at
Shin temples and in publications on Shin Buddhism. Its most basic authoritative texts are the three Pure Land sutras and the writings of Shinran and Rennyo. Prominent among its teachings is dependence on the other power of Amida Buddha rather than self-power. Amida brings those who have a heart that trusts him (i.e., shinjin) to his Pure Land, which is a paradise from which its occupants all eventually enter nirvana. The most common overt Shin practice is the nenbutsu, which is the recitation of “na-mu A-mi-da bu-tsu” to show gratitude to Amida.
Shinjingyōja agree with and follow overt Shin’s basic texts, teachings, and practices. They see them as correct but incomplete. In addition to Shin’s public scriptures, they say Shinran passed on orally the ultimate Shin teachings in secret. These ultimate teachings were at some point encapsulated in a secret text called the Gosho, which only a zenchishiki (i.e., a Urahōmon leader) can possess and read. To protect its contents, it is concealed even from all other shinjingyōja who are not zenchishiki .
Although the Gosho can only be understood by zenchishiki who were trained by other zenchishiki , there are two basic teachings that are taught to all initiates that clearly diverge from mainstream Shin. First is that the shinjin (i.e., the entrusting heart) can be received from Amida in a ritual in which a person asks for it. The zenchishiki teach that the overt Shin clergy do not know this because they are ignorant of the true meaning of the word tanomu, which appears in the writings of Shinran and Rennyo. Urahōmon teachers say that tanomu does not simply mean to “rely on” as overt Shin clergy preach, but “to ask,” particularly to ask Amida to save them.
Second, initiates are taught that once they receive the shinjin from Amida, they are ontologically equivalent to a buddha. Therefore no other types of religious practice are necessary. Shinjingyōja may go to other temples and participate in other religious activities, but there is no need to do so because there is nothing they can get from them that is greater than what they already received from Amida.
Urahōmon groups hold religious services one to five times a month. These regular services last for three or more hours, from late morning into the afternoon. They commonly include recitation of the Amidakyō (i.e., the Smaller Sukhāvatī-vyūha Sutra), lunch, and several sermons, one by the zenchishiki, and others by his assistants on non-secret teachings.
Similar to overt Shin clergy, shinjingyōja perform an annual hōonkō (memorial service honoring Shinran) and eitaikyō (memorial services for ancestors). The hōonkō includes recitations of scripture (e.g., Shōshinge and Amidakyō ) and sermons on Shin history and on the life of Shinran. The eitaikyō are done several times a year to honor familial ancestors and express gratitude to them. During these services the same scriptures are recited as in the hōonkō, and incense offerings are made.
The practices most important to Urahōmon and which distinguish it from overt Shin are the ten initiation rites. Before the first initiation rite, an introductory religious service is held during which the existence of a secret Shin tradition is taught. After this service the person will typically be invited to start the initiation process. The first initiation is called ichinen kimyō (literally, “one-thought moment of entrusting”). This is the most important of the initiation rites because it is the one in which the initiate receives the shinjin from Amida. During it, the initiates first listen to sermons on Rennyo’s letters (Ofumi ). Later they are instructed to get on their knees in front of an image of Amida in a darkened room, and bow up and down over and over again while reciting tasuketamae, tasuketamae, tasuketamae (“save me, save me, save me”). This may go on for a few minutes or as long as an hour. The zenchishiki observes the person; then at some stage he says “ yoshi ” (good), indicating that he has discerned that Amida has bestowed the shinjin on the initiate. The receiving of the shinjin often happens on the first attempt, but not always; so some people have to do the rite more than once. After the initiate has done the ritual, he or she is reminded not to tell non- shinjingyōja anything about it.
After having received the shinjin, the person is ontologically ready to understand the secret teachings of Shinran. The next five initiation rites are primarily didactic. These are typically done in order but do not have to be. Because most of them take more than a couple of hours, they are done on separate days, often weeks or months apart. The last three initiation rites are shorter festive ones of celebration that are done in the springtime. All three may be done on the same day. To keep track of where an initiate is in the initiation process, a list of all ten rites are listed on a sheet of paper, and after each rite is complete, the zenchishiki puts a stamp in red ink next to the name of the rite.
Urahōmon is made up of a network of independent groups headed by a leader called a zenchishiki, who is commonly referred to as sensei (teacher). To become a zenchishiki, one must be chosen and trained by a zenchishiki, who instructs the trainee in the most secret of doctrines. The training is orally based and typically involves extensive memorization over a period of years. Writing down instructions or recording them in any way has been forbidden. The memorization is said to be better for remembering the teachings with the body rather than just knowing them with the mind. Those chosen to be a zenchishiki are always men and almost always over the age of fifty when their training starts. It is considered undesirable for a zenchishiki to choose one of his sons to train as a zenchishiki; it is preferable and expected that he will chose a non-relative. A man becomes a full zenchishiki after receiving a copy of the Gosho. Because custom mandates that the zenchishiki not transmit more than three copies of the Gosho , he is limited in the number of men he can make zenchishiki.
No one has authority over the zenchishiki. There is neither a headquarters nor a central place or organization that regulates them or Urahōmon more generally. A group led by a zenchishiki is an independent entity. Different groups are related to each other only through social networks. Two or more zenchishiki of two different groups, for example, may have had the same zenchishiki train them. Zenchishiki might also meet zenchishiki who were trained by their teacher’s teacher. So there is knowledge of and some interaction between the cell-like groups. When shinjingyōja moves to a new area, a zenchishiki, depending on his social connections among other zenchishiki, may be able to introduce a person to another covert Shin group.
What regulates zenchishiki is custom and social obligation. Those who are chosen to become zenchishiki and who give extensive time over the years to becoming one are almost always very committed to the traditions and customary protocols of Urahōmon. They also see themselves as part of a lineage that they are obligated to protect. To act radically different from their teachers would be disrespectful and regarded as dishonorable among shinjingyōja, particularly among older ones who remember previous zenchishiki .
A zenchishiki commonly has assistants who help him with running his group, which may have anywhere from a couple of dozen to a couple of hundred members. The tasks of the assistants may involve giving sermons, managing donations given to the organization, preparing altars by lighting candles, arranging food offerings, and helping clean the area of worship, which is commonly in the home of a zenchishiki or at a privately owned building. Assistants require no special training and include men and women, although the men in this role far outnumber the women.
To become a member of an Urahōmon group, a member needs to introduce the person to a zenchishiki, who then needs to consent to the person joining. Because most new members are born into Urahōmon families, consent is usually given. A simple initiatory rite is often done for newborns and a more extensive initiation rite is done later when the child is mature enough to understand it, which may not be until early adulthood. On occasion other friends or relatives might be introduced to a zenchishiki. After a discussion with this person, the zenchishiki may invite him or her to come back to attend sermons or start the initiation process. One becomes a full shinjingyōja and able to introduce new people to a zenchishiki only after having completed the initiation process, which often takes about a year.
It is hard to know the exact number of Urahōmon members. Among all the lineages of covert Shin there are probably tens of thousands of initiates today, but all the evidence suggests that the numbers have decreased dramatically since the 1960s, in part due to urbanization and the weakening of social ties in local communities. The decline also reflects a general decrease throughout Japan in recent years in participation in Buddhist organizations (Reader 2011, 2012; Nelson 2012). An estimate of several thousand Urahōmon initiates in central (Chūbu) Japan today is reasonable, but the current number may be less than ten percent of what it was fifty years ago.
Many of the issues and challenges that shinjingyōja face are, and have been, directly related to their secrecy. Thus they are suggestive more generally of how secrecy not only results in benefits for those in covert organizations but can also cause problems as well. The issues that shinjingyōja have grappled with show that in a particular situation secrecy can have multiple consequences: some intended, some not, some complementary, and others contradictory.
One problem that secrecy has led to is suspicion by outsiders. Although the shinjingyōja have not faced persecution or even attracted much criticism from Shin clergy since the 1940s, they fear that if a group is discovered, its secrecy will make them appear suspicious, as if they are hiding something vile. Secrecy can help avoid interference, but it can also lead to suspicion that has the exact opposite consequence, namely attracting unwanted attention that leads to interference. For the shinjingyōja secrecy has protected them from intrusion by keeping outsiders ignorant of their existence, but it has also incited outsiders who discover a group’s existence to investigate it to see what it was hiding.
A second problem secrecy has caused shinjingyōja is the preclusion of a public defense of themselves. When Shin clergy have criticized them by saying they were teaching a heresy or were ignorant, they could not publically challenge those criticism by, for example, providing evidence that would counter them because their tradition mandates that they not openly talk about their religion and because it would risk revealing some things about their religion that they want to keep secret.
A third problem secrecy causes shinjingyōja relates to a dilemma that secrecy causes. To preserve a secret, those who know it must refrain from telling it to others; but if they do not tell it to others, the secret will die with the last person who knows it, and thus not be preserved. So shinjingyōja must both conceal and reveal their secrets to preserve them as secrets. To protect their tradition, and the purity of their doctrines and practices, which they claim are based on the ultimate teachings of Shinran, they must hide them. But if they do not also reveal them to new people, their tradition will not survive and what they see as the ultimate Buddhist teachings will be lost forever. In response to this dilemma, the shinjingyōja try to minimize the scope of people who need to negotiate the conflicting obligations to both conceal and reveal, by only giving their top leaders, the zenchishiki, the authority to reveal; all other shinjingyōja must only conceal.
A fourth problem secrecy causes is that it limits shinjingyōja ‘s abilities to proselytize when their tradition is threatened with extinction, as it currently is. Today the numbers of shinjingyōja is dangerously low and within a few generations Urahōmon may be extinct. Because the tradition must be kept secret, the shinjingyōja , including the zenchishiki, cannot advertise their meetings or openly recruit new members. It is important to find trustworthy people to whom to reveal the secrets so that they may stay alive, but this has become more difficult because families of shinjingyōja, who were the main sources of new members, are now drifting away from Urahōmon. For secretive religions that do not hide their existence (e.g., Theosophy, Scientology, Candomblé), secrecy might help allure new members. But the allure of secrecy to attract outsiders is very limited for shinjingyōja because they are required to conceal the fact that there is a secretive Shin tradition. The diminishing numbers of adherents has had a snowball effect: as numbers of members diminish, so proportionately do the number of people who can find and introduce new trustworthy people to the zenchishiki, to whom he can then reveal the secret teachings.
A fifth and final issue worth mentioning relates to finding and training new zenchishiki to replace those that are dying off. To become a zenchishiki requires an extensive commitment of years to memorize lengthy texts and to receive proper instruction of the secrets in the Gosho. As there are fewer shinjingyōja than in the past, there are also fewer who are willing to give this commitment. This problem also relates directly to Urahōmon’s secrecy. Because secrecy discourages the writing down of instructions and interpretations of texts, it makes the training process more arduous as instruction has to take place in person and with oral verbatim memorization. If things could be written down in words or in illustrations, it would be easier to teach and learn the material that needs to be mastered, and more might be willing to pursue becoming zenchishiki. The current decline in zenchishiki is what most threatens the future of Urahōmon because without them there will be no one who knows or be able to convey what shinjingyōja see as the ultimate teachings.
* Due to attempts by covert Shin Buddhists to conceal their existence and activities from outsiders, knowledge of events in their history has remained limited and largely undocumented. The timeline in this profile includes some of the small number of events and episodes over a long period of history during which covert Shin Buddhists were brought into public view.
Chiba Jōryu. 1996. “Orthodox and Herterodoxy in Early Modern Shinshū: Kakushi nenbutsu and Kakure nenbutsu.” Pp. 463-96 in The Pure Land Tradition: History and Development, edited by James Foard, Michael Solomon, and Richard K. Payne. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Chilson, Clark. 2014. Secrecy’s Power: Covert Shin Buddhists in Japan and Contradictions of Concealment. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.
Chilson, Clark. 2012. “Preaching as Performance: Notes on a Secretive Shin Buddhist Sermon.” Pp. 142-53 in Studying Buddhism in Practice, edited by John Harding. London: Routledge.
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Hirota, Dennis, translator. 1997. The Collected Works of Shinran, 2 vols. Kyoto: Jōdo Shinshū Hongwanji-ha.
Nelson, John. 2012. “Japanese Secularities and the Decline of Temple Buddhism.” Journal of Religion in Japan 1:37–60.
Reader, Ian. 2012. “Secularisation, R.I.P.? Nonsense! The ‘Rush Hour Away from the Gods’ and the Decline of Religion in Contemporary Japan.” Journal of Religion in Japan 1:7–36.
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Rogers, Minor and Ann Rogers. 1991. Rennyo: The Second Founder of Shin Buddhism. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press.
Suzuki, D. T. 1986. “An Autobiographical Account.” Pp. 13-26 in A Zen Life: D. T. Suzuki Remembered, edited by Masao Abe. New York: Weatherhill.
2 September 2015