1921: Kiriyama Seiyū was born in Yokohama with birth name Tsutsumi Masao.
1940s: Tsutsumi suffered ill health and was unable to serve in Japanese army.
1953: Tsutsumi was imprisoned for illicit alcohol manufacture.
1954: Tsutsumi attempted suicide. He claimed to be saved by Kannon and founded Kannon Jikeikai.
1955: Tsutsumi changed his name to Kiriyama Seiyū and started austerities.
1957: Kiriyama published his first book, Kōfuku no genri (The principles of happiness).
1970: Juntei Kannon told Kiriyama he had “cut his karma” and should perform goma (fire ritual) to save souls.
1970: Kannon Jikeikai conducted the first Hoshi Matsuri (Star Festival) near Mount Fuji.
1971: Kiriyama published Henshin no genri (The principles of transformation (of the body).
1975: Hoshi Matsuri was first held at Yamashina, Kyoto.
1970s-1980s: Kiriyama travelled abroad; met the Dalai Lama, Pope and other religious leaders; studied Buddhist texts, including the Āgama (Japanese: Agon) sutras.
1977: Agonshū conducted its first overseas fire ritual at Palau in the Pacific for spirits of the war dead.
1978: Kiriyama dissolved Kannon Jikeikai and founded Agonshū.
1980: The “miracle of Sahet Mahet” occurred as Kiriyama received a message from the Buddha Shakyamuni.
1981: Kiriyama published 1999 nen karuma to reishō kara no dasshutsu (Escape from Harmful Spirits and the Karma of 1999).
1984: Kiriyama conducted a fire ritual for world peace (sekai heiwa) with the Dalai Lama.
1986: The shinsei busshari “true relic of the Buddha” was given to Kiriyama by the President of Sri Lanka, and became Agonshū’s main focus of worship.
1988: Agonshū built its main temple (the “new Sahet Mahet”) at Yamashina with the mission of spreading “original Buddhism” to the world.
1987-1988: Attendance at annual Hoshi Matsuri reached over 500,000 people.
1987 (April): The tsuitachi engi hōshō goma (first of the month fire ritual) was inaugurated in Agonshū.
1993: Hoshi Matsuri became a combined Shinto-Buddhist festival, with increasing focus on Shinto and Japanese nationalism.
1995: The “Aum Affair” affected Agonshū.
2000-2008: Agonshū conducted the goma ritual in different overseas locations, such as New York, Auschwitz, Jerusalem.
2012: Hoshi Matsuri focused on rebuilding the spirit of Japan after the March 2011 tsunami tragedy.
2012: The “Buddhist memorial service on the seas” (yōjō hōyō), a 7800 kilometre voyage by Kiriyama and some members took in former war sites in places such as Iwo Jima, the Philippines, Taiwan, Okinawa and Kagoshima, and ending in Kobe.
2013: Kiriyama visited Jerusalem and performed goma rituals for peace.
2015: Kiriyama visited the Yasukuni Shrine with right-wing nationalist Ishihara Shintarō.
2016 (August 29): Kiriyama died at age ninety-five. His funeral was held on October 16. Fukada Seia became leader of Agonshū and Wada Naoko continued as administrative leader.
2016 (c. November-December): Kiriyama’s first “spirit message” (kaiso reiyu) was transmitted to the new temporal leadership.
2017: Kiriyama was proclaimed the second Buddha and continuing spiritual leader.
2017 (February 11): Kiriyama’s relics were enshrined at the Hoshi matsuri.
2017 (June 30-July 6): The Hoppō Yōjō hōyō (Northern Seas memorial voyage) took place. The Agonshū boat voyage with Kiriyama’s relics on board performed rituals for the spirits of the Japanese war dead.
2018: A new Kiriyama kaiso reiyu announced a new secret meditation technique (okugi no meisōhō) to be taught by Kiriyama’s spirit to members.
The history of Agonshū is closely linked to that of its charismatic founder Kiriyama Seiyū [Image at right] (1921-2016), whose life story provides a model for followers, and serves as a basis for the teachings he espoused, especially in relation to karma, ancestors and the spirits of the dead. Agonshū not only developed out of and was shaped by his experiences and practices during his lifetime but has continued to focus on him in the aftermath of his recent death, as he has become elevated into a figure of worship who, according to Agonshū’s temporal leadership, communicates to followers from the spiritual realms and continues to oversee the movement and lead it spiritually.
Kiriyama was born under the name Tsustumi Masao in Yokohama in 1921. Like many Japanese who trod a religious path, he later took on a new name in his role as a religious leader. His early life (according to his later explanations) was unhappy, and he suffered from various maladies that, eventually, meant he was not able to serve in the armed forces during World War Two. Initially Kiriyama wrote that he was happy not to have had to serve, as it meant he would not have been in a position to do bad things and accrue bad karma (Kiriyama 1983:42-43), but he also lamented that many friends and age cohorts were enlisted and died in the war. In later years, he attributed the heavy emphasis in Agonshū on performing rituals for the spirits of the war dead in part to this sense of regret and duty towards his fallen friends. He also in later life expressed regrets at not having been able to fight for (and even die for) his country, regrets that reflect an increasing turn to militant revisionist nationalism that has become predominant in Agonshū in very recent years (Baffelli and Reader 2018: Chapter 5).
Kiriyama’s earlier life, according to his later sermons and writings, was fraught with difficulties, not just due to ill-health but also to a seeming inability to find a purpose and gain any meaningful or economically sustaining employment. Feeling beset by bad karmic fates, he started engaging in religious practices and visiting temples and shrines seeking a new path in life. However, in 1953 faced a new calamity: he became involved in an illegal scheme to make and sell alcohol. In 1953, he was sent to prison for several months as a result, and this event coupled with further failures lead him to contemplate suicide. According to later Agonshū stories, he actually went to hang himself. However, as he did so he saw something on the beam where he threw his rope; it was a copy of a Buddhist text, the Kannongyō or Kannon Sutra. He read it and his life was transformed; he realised that Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, was there to help him and others. The suicide story and Kannon’s intervention via the text, have become a foundation miracle story in Agonshū.
In 1954, as a result of this transformative event, Kiriyama embarked on a journey of ascetic practice, centred on the worship of Juntei Kannon (one of the many forms of Kannon) and on austerities related to Shugendō (the Japanese mountain ascetic tradition) and esoteric Buddhism. He set up a faith group, the Kannon Jikeikai, devoted to Kannon, and in 1955 changed his public name from Tsutsumi to Kiriyama Seiyū. He realised the importance of karma, and the belief that people are deeply affected by spiritual hindrances (reishō) from unhappy spirits of the dead, both from one’s own ancestral lineage and from the collective realm of unhappy spirits. It was such hindrances that led to his own misfortunes and the same was true for all others. In order to achieve one’s goals and happiness, one had to “cut one’s karma” (innen wo kiru) by identifying and pacifying the unhappy spirits that were at the root of all misfortunes.
He published one book, in 1957, but otherwise had little public presence until 1970, when Juntei Kannon appeared to him and told him he had, through his austerities and studies, “cut” his own karma and was now ready to lead a mission of world salvation and show others how to liberate themselves.
In 1970, the Kannon Jikeikai held its first major public ritual, the Hoshi Matsuri (Star festival), a goma (fire) ritual focused on praying for happiness and the pacification of unhappy spirits of the dead. This festival subsequently became Agonshū’s main annual event, which is widely publicised and has over the years attracted vast crowds and helped to give the movement a major public presence. In 1971, Kiriyama published a book, Henshin no genri (The principles of transformation (of the body) that talked of supernatural powers (chōnōryoku), such as divination, prophecy, and the ability to realise one’s wishes, that he had acquired via his esoteric Buddhist practices and that he could transmit to others. The book sold well and brought Kiriyama to public notice. According to Agonshū claims, it spurred what came to be known as the “mikkyō boom” (mikkyō būmu), a growth of interest in esoteric Buddhism, which became popular in the 1970s and 1980s and which demonstrated that Kiriyama was at the cutting edge of the religious world of the era. Certainly from this period onwards he came to be seen as one of the foremost shapers of the popular religious environment of the latter decades of the last century, and this helped in the development of his religious movement.
In 1978, Kiriyama dissolved the Kannon Jikeikai and in its place inaugurated Agonshū (literally, the sect focused on the Agon (Āgama) sutras). He proclaimed that he had found the inner essence of Buddhism in the early Āgama sutras and had married such early Buddhist teachings to later esoteric practices. Kiriyama proclaimed his new movement the fount of “original Buddhism” (genshi Bukkyō) and of “complete Buddhism” (kanzen Bukkyō).
During the 1970s and 1980s, Kiriyama also travelled abroad, conducting the movement’s first overseas goma (fire) rituals at Palau in the Pacific region, to pacify the spirits of the war dead. Thereafter, such overseas fire rituals for the spirits of the dead became a major element in Agonshū practice, and in ensuing decades such rituals were held in places such as New York, Paris, Auschwitz and Jerusalem. In his travels, Kiriyama met various religious leaders, and these meetings, which were widely publicised by Agonshū, served to increase his stature and appeal to prospective converts in Japan. Among those he met were Pope John Paul II in 1984 and the Dalai Lama. In 1980, during a visit to India, Kiriyama claimed to have received a spiritual message from the historical Buddha while visiting Sahet Mahet, the site of the first Buddhist monastery. According to this visitation, the mantle of original Buddhism and of Buddhist leadership was passed to Kiriyama, and henceforth he proclaimed that he and Agonshū has a mission to spread Buddhism from Japan to the wider world. In 1988, Agonshū opened a new temple at Yamashina, close to Kyoto, where it held its annual Hoshi Matsuri. This temple became known as the “new Sahet Mahet,” the centre from which a new Buddhism for the present age would spread to the world.
In 1986, Kiriyama was presented with a casket from the President of Sri Lanka that was said to contain a Buddha relic. Buddhism has a long history of the transmission (and trade) in Buddha relics and, while the exact circumstances of how and why this particular item was given to Kiriyama are unclear, it clearly fits into this wider historical tradition. For Agonshū it was a highly significant moment, portrayed in its public pronouncements as recognition by the leader of a country with a Buddhist tradition, of Agonshū and Kiriyama’s standing as leaders of Buddhism in the modern world. Henceforth Agonshū referred to the relic as the shinsei busshari (“true relic of the Buddha”), proclaiming that it was a genuine relic of Shakyamuni and that most other relics in Japan were false. The shinsei busshari became Agonshū’s main focus of worship both in its main centres and in devotees’ homes, and Agonshū practices were amended to focus on its veneration. According to Agonshū, via the shinsei busshari the living power of the Buddha was transmitted to all followers. Rituals were conducted to transmit the power of the relic to miniature shinsei busshari caskets that members installed in their home altars and performed regular acts of veneration before. The twin themes of the message said to have been communicated to Kiriyama at Sahet Mahet, and the acquisition of a relic deemed to be that of the historical Buddha, served in Agonshū to reinforce its message and claim that it represented a complete form of Buddhism, and was the modern reiteration of original Buddhism sanctified by the Buddha.
Agonshū became well-known in Japan during the 1980s for its use of new media technologies, notably using satellite broadcasting to transmit its rituals simultaneously to its centres around Japan, and using a variety of media materials and public relations tools to attract attention and spread its message (Baffelli 2016). This helped publicise its mass rituals, such as the Hoshi Matsuri, while conveying an image of a movement that, while articulating what it claimed to be ancient truths, was well in tune with the ethos of the age (Reader 1988).
Agonshū also articulated widespread concerns in Japan about the possibility of chaos and world crisis at the end of the millennium; it was one of several movements that articulated such millennial messages of potential danger and destruction, while also arguing that it held the keys to salvation. Kiriyama was portrayed as a spiritual leader with a message of world salvation and a mission to bring world peace, via his teachings and via Agonshū’s notion of complete Buddhism, and this heightened its attraction in the last decades of the last century. It was in the late 1980s that it experienced its greatest growth; estimates are that its membership increased at least tenfold and may have reached over 200,000 people in the late 1980s, while attendance at the Hoshi Matsuri was estimated to be over half a million people at the end of the decade.
Although Agonshū emphasised that it was a Buddhist movement with a universal mission of world salvation, it also from early on articulated nationalist messages. Japanese flags and symbols were prominently displayed at its rituals; the Hoshi Matsuri was held on February 11, a national holiday with nationalist undertones, and the emphasis in the movement was on the notion of a mission of world salvation emanating from Japan. Japan, in other words, was placed at the centre of its messages and this underlying sense of nationalism also tapped into the mood of late 1980s Japan and helped enhance its appeal in the country.
Agonshū sought to expand overseas in a number of ways. It developed links to various Buddhist institutions in mainland Asia and made donations to various academic institutions (including SOAS in England), while Kiriyama received, seemingly in connection with such donations, accreditation from a number of overseas universities that enhanced his status, in the eyes of followers, and enabled him to argue that his teachings on Buddhism were academically grounded. However, despite engaging in various overseas initiatives Agonshū has not managed to build any serious international following.
In the 1990s and beyond, however, Agonshū’s earlier growth came to a halt. Like many new movements it appeared to hit a ceiling in terms of growth, while a changing public context served to hamper it. In particular, after the Aum Affair of 1995 (see the entry on Aum on this website for a detailed account about this), the public mood became more questioning of religion and religious organisations, and Agonshū experienced particular problems in this context (see below, Issues and Challenges). The movement, once seen as in the vanguard of modern technology, failed to build on this and adapt to new emerging technologies, appearing unable, for example, to adjust to the challenges of the internet (Baffelli 2016). The peaceful transition to the new millennium removed the millennial fears that had heightened its earlier appeal.
Kiriyama remained highly active, publishing numerous books, conducting rituals and travelling to publicise his movement in Japan and abroad, but as he grew older the dynamism and image of modern vibrancy that had characterised earlier Agonshū receded. Like many other movements from the mid-1990s on, and especially after the 1995 Aum Affair, it attracted few new recruits and became increasingly focused on an ageing membership. At the same time, the nationalism that had been evident from early on, became increasingly pronounced. In 1993, the Hoshi Matsuri became a combined Shinto-Buddhist ritual, in which Shinto themes, priests and deities played an increasingly major part. While continuing to proclaim its role as a manifestation of “complete Buddhism” and its mission of world peace and salvation, the movement under Kiriyama’s direction appeared to increasingly emphasise Japanese nationalist themes. Its overseas rituals, which had from the earliest ritual in Palau in 1977, sought to pacify the unhappy spirits of the war dead in general, became increasingly focused just on the Japanese war dead, while Kiriyama himself began to revise his earlier comments about Japan’s engagement in World War Two.
From earlier saying he was glad not to have had to go to war, he began to speak with regret that he had not been able to fight for his country (Baffelli and Reader, in press). He also articulated revisionist Japanese nationalist views about the war, becoming close to prominent Japanese nationalists such as Ishihara Shintarō, denying Japanese responsibility and claiming that Japan had been forced to fight because of the aggressive actions of Western colonial powers. Towards the end of his life he also talked about missions to repatriate Japanese kami (Shinto deities) left stranded in islands, such as Sakhalin, that formerly were Japanese but taken over by Russia at the end of the war.
Kiriyama died in 2016 at the age of ninety-five. In his last years, he appeared to be too weak to conduct rituals, and a leadership group headed by Fukada Seia, a senior Agonshū priest, and Wada Naoko, a female disciple who headed Agonshū’s administration, appeared to run the movement. On Kiriyama’s death they have continued to oversee the movement, with Fukada designated as official leader (kanchō). However, Kiriyama has remained central to the movement, and the source of its teachings, ritual activities and spiritual orientations. According to Wada and Fukada, his spirit has issued messages from beyond the grave, in which he continues to guide the movement and create links between members in the world and the spiritual realms beyond. These messages (the kaiso reiyu, founder’s spirit messages) have become central elements in Agonshū’s teaching since his death. His presence in the Buddha realms, according to Agonshū, helps devotees reach those realms after death, while he continues to be a spiritual presence aiding followers in this world as well.
In 2017, his relics were enshrined at the Hoshi matsuri in a way that appeared to place them in a superior position to the shinsei busshari, and he was declared to be the “second Buddha” dai ni no budda. Subsequent pronouncements, transmitted both by the founder’s spiritual messages and the acting leadership, have effectively placed Kiriyama above the Buddha in Agonshū’s pantheon. In June – July 2017, Agonshū carried out another of its overseas rituals to pacify the spirits of the Japanese war dead. This event, the Hoppō Yōjō hōyō (Northern Seas memorial voyage), involved Agonshū leaders and members traveling by boat around the northern seas around Japan, including islands which had been formerly Japanese and now are under Russian control to conduct rituals for the spirits of the Japanese war dead. Kiriyama’s relics were carried on board the boat, signifying that he remained, in Agonshū’s view, an active presence in its practices. Moreover, a recent kaiso reiyu in 2018 announced that Kiriyama would impart new meditation techniques from the spiritual realm to his followers. At Kiriyama’s funeral members were encouraged to worship the founder (kaiso reihai), and, in subsequent developments in the movement, this process of founder veneration appears to have become increasingly powerful. As such, Agonshū appears to be turning into a movement that, having been founded by Kiriyama and centred in his charismatic presence, is now increasingly focused on making that founder into its main focus of worship.
Agonshū’s doctrines and beliefs are closely linked with practices and rituals, which enact in physical and symbolic form the meanings of the movement’s teachings. While its doctrines are, according to Agonshū, grounded in Buddhism and represent what it terms both “complete” and “original” Buddhism, drawn from Kiriyama’s insights into Buddhist texts, they also clearly draw from Japanese popular concepts about the spirits of the dead and from Kiriyama’s own experiences and his interpretations of the misfortunes that befell him in earlier life. Agonshū’s orientations as a Buddhist movement are very much tied to its nature as the product and representation of the Japanese religious environment, in that it places great emphasis on issues related to Japanese identity. In this identity Japan occupies a seminal and central role in the world, as the fount of future salvation with a mission to spread true Buddhism to the world at large.
Central to Agonshū teachings and practices are the notions of “cutting karma,” pacifying and liberating the spirits of the dead, and achieving happiness and liberation in this life and thereafter. The concept of karma, referred to in Japanese by the terms karuma and innen, is especially crucial. While these two terms (karuma and innen) are largely interchangeable in Agonshū, there are subtle differences in Kiriyama’s interpretation, with innen being the conditions that determine one’s fate and karma is the force that drives such conditions (Kiriyama 2000:92). Individuals are influenced in their lives by the karmic repercussions both of their own previous lives and of their ancestors. Karma and innen are both intrinsically negative forces and incorporate what in Agonshū are referred to as reishō “spiritual hindrances” from unhappy spirits of the dead that afflict the living and cause misfortunes. These serve as barriers to achieving one’s wishes in life, and to achieving any form of spiritual liberation in this or future realms. Agonshū adheres to Buddhist notions of transmigration, with the dead having to face the consequences of their actions in life when they die, while the living have to deal with the consequences of past lives and of karmic hindrances from the spirits of the dead.
In order to achieve liberation (gedatsu) in this life and to achieve one’s wishes, one has to “cut one’s karma” (karuma wo kiru, innen wo kiru) by freeing oneself of all spiritual impediments, whether those that are due to one’s own actions or those that are inherited from ancestors. Misfortunes in this life are the result of such things; individuals are subject to some twenty-two different forms of negative karmic repercussions including innen no keigoku (the karmic repercussion of imprisonment). Thus, in Kiriyama’s interpretation, the negative karmic influences of inherited ancestral spirits were the root cause of his own misfortunes, from his early illnesses to his arrest and imprisonment in 1953.
In stating that the spirits of dead are the cause of unhappiness in this world, Agonshū offers a clear criticism of established religious traditions that are portrayed as having failed to offer ways for people to resolve their problems. In particular, this criticism is levelled against Buddhism, which in Japan has been the tradition that deals with the issue of death and (in Japanese terms) is believed via its rituals to pacify the spirits of the dead and aid their transit to the next realm. Agonshū argues that established Buddhism has failed in this and other respects, and that it has monopolised esoteric practices for its own benefit rather than helping ordinary people. Kiriyama’s studies of Buddhism and his mastery of esoteric practices, according to Agonshū teaching, have enabled the movement to offer followers the means to resolve their problems. This is accomplished via ritual practices to care for the spirits, both of their dead kin and of all others who have died but not been properly cared for. Through such means, karma can be cut (i.e. eradicated) and liberation (jōbutsu, literally “becoming a Buddha,” achieving enlightenment, becoming a realised benevolent ancestor) can be achieved. Importantly, in Agonshū, engaging in esoteric Buddhist practices and achieving enlightenment and liberation is not limited by ordination or gender; all can do this via the methods of practice devised and taught by Kiriyama.
Unhappy spirits of the dead are also seen collectively as the root cause of problems in the world. In particular, unhappy spirits of the dead from World War Two and other such cataclysms that have not been properly cared for, are seen as creating spiritual imbalances in the world that lead to all manner of world problems, whether environmental or political, threats to stability caused by nuclear weapons and ecological problems, and so on. While these may have physical causes that can be addressed via political and other means, at root, they have a spiritual dimension that has to be addressed if people are to live peacefully and for the world to avoid cataclysm. Agonshū as such expresses millennial views in which spiritual action is deemed necessary and essential in order to transform the world and bring peace. To do this requires collective rituals through which unhappy spirits can be transformed into liberated entities who can, from the higher spiritual realms to which they have ascended, benevolently protect the world and bring peace and happiness to it.
While Agonshū does not have a specific canonical text, it publishes numerous pamphlets and booklets that outline its core teachings, as well as Kiriyama’s numerous books and sermons. Together these in effect form a canonical corpus in Agonshū outlining its various teachings and providing sources of information for followers. Members are able to send in questions to the leadership and (while alive) Kiriyama regularly answered questions about teachings, doctrines and other concerns in a section of the movement’s members’ magazine Agon. Members were also encouraged to read his writings to develop their understandings further, while the movement also has regularly produced multimedia sources (initially videos, then CDs and DVDs) that outline in visual and narrative forms the contents of Kiriyama’s books and teachings.
Spiritual liberation and salvation can be achieved on an individual and collective basis through following Agonshū’s teachings and practices. As such, doctrines cannot be separated from practices, which are the enactment in ritual forms of its teachings. Agonshū offers members various practices to develop themselves and to achieve liberation and happiness both in this world and beyond. While it offers facilities for yoga and meditation at various of its centres, its main focuses in terms of practice centre on identifying the causes of spiritual misfortune, on various rituals to pacify spirits and eradicate (negative) karma that are performed individually, before a home altar, and collectively in regular Agonshū festivals and ritual meetings. Agonshū also incorporates a pantheon of figures of worship through which followers can pray for happiness, worldly benefits and aid in dealing with misfortunes. While the main images of worship now are Shakyamuni (via the shinsei busshari) and Kiriyama (now venerated as the “second Buddha”), other figures venerated in Agonshū’s and at its places of worship, include Juntei Kannon (one of the many manifestations of the Buddhist figure of compassion, Kannon), Daikokuten and Ebisu, both of which are portrayed in Agonshū as Shinto deities.
Members acquire a personal altar complete with a small copy of the shinsei busshari casket that forms its centrepiece and before which they are expected to perform a daily ritual of veneration. Initially, members had performed a daily practice of Buddhist chants extended over 1,000 days and called the senza gyō (Reader 1988:253). However, after the acquisition of the Buddha relic from Sri Lanka in 1986, this practice was replaced by the veneration of the shinsei busshari, whose power, according to Kiriyama, was more accessible and efficacious (Agonshū 1986:26). Besides this daily practice, members are expected to follow a path of morally rightful behaviour by observing the Buddhist precepts of right thoughts and actions and performing acts of voluntary service for the movement, including soliciting alms and proselytising.
Since Agonshū teaching centres on dealing with misfortune and achieving happiness and liberation, the movement offers various means whereby members can deal with such matters. For those with worries or who feel beset by misfortunes, or who feel they are not attaining the happiness and results they seek in life, the first step (along with maintaining continuous daily practice at home) is to identify the root causes of their concerns. To this end, members (and anyone who visits Agonshū centres) are offered spiritual counselling by trained staff. This process involves the person concerned filling out forms about their problems followed by counselling and divination sessions in which the core problem (usually an unhappy and afflicting spirit) is identified, after which appropriate ritual actions (such as having a special ritual performed to liberate and pacify that spirit) are undertaken.
Besides dealing with misfortunes on an individual basis, the movement offers various collective rituals through which people can express their concerns, pray for the liberation of ancestor spirits and seek personal benefits. Such rituals are also portrayed in Agonshū as collective rituals aimed at eradicating negative karma in the world, especially by pacifying unhappy spirits of the dead that have not been cared for in the past, and thereby helping eradicate sources of unease in the world at large. The main ritual events in Agonshū’s calendar are the movement’s annual Hoshi Matsuri, held each year on February 11 at Yamashina, and two regular monthly rituals, the Tsuitachi engi hōshō goma on the first of every month at its Tokyo centre and the Meitokusai ritual held on the 16th of each month at the main temple at Yamashina. In addition, Agonshū, starting with its 1977 fire ritual at Palau, conducts occasional fire rituals overseas.
The core ritual practice in Agonshū is the goma (fire) ritual, which is based on esoteric Buddhist and Shugendō (mountain religion) practices. In the goma ritual, a sacred pyre is lit on which gomagi (goma sticks, wooden sticks on which people have written various prayers) are incinerated as various chants (notably Buddhist incantations) and ritual performances are enacted. According to Agonshū, the ritual format of the goma rite it uses was specifically developed by Kiriyama, who trained followers to perform the ritual. Kiriyama, until he became too old to do so, was normally the main ritual official in the goma rituals. At the major public event of the Hoshi Matsuri, large numbers of Agonshū disciples who have been initiated into Agonshū’s yamabushi (mountain ascetic) orders play a significant role in the ritual.
The goma ritual is at the core of the annual Hoshi Matsuri. This is a mass event that is widely publicised by Agonshū. It is broadcast to Agonshū centres throughout the country so that members unable to make the journey to Kyoto and Yamashina, are able to participate virtually. The event draws in large crowds each year and runs all day. It involves a ritual procession of Agonshū yamabushi, [Image at right] dramatic music broadcast over loudspeakers, and a large sacred arena (the kekkai) around which a temporary set of stands for spectators is erected. In the kekkai there is a large altar with the shinsei busshari at the centre (and, from 2017, also Kiriyama’s relics) and two large pyres. One pyre is for hōshō (the realisation of one’s wishes) and the other for gedatsu (the liberation of the spirits of the dead). The pyres are lit in a yamabushi ritual, and over the course of the day millions of goma sticks are thrown onto them by Agonshū yamabushi. The goma sticks contain requests written on them by supplicants. While many contain the prayers of Agonshū members, either for their own wishes or for the spirits of deceased kin, non-members are also encouraged to participate in this way. The ritual burning of the goma sticks is believed to symbolically liberate the intentions written on them.
The two pyres were initially referred to in Agonshū by esoteric Buddhist terms. The pyre for the realisation of wishes signified the taizōkai (womb world), and the pyre for liberation of the dead, signified the kongōkai (diamond world). These two represented the mandalas of esoteric Buddhism that signify, respectively, enlightenment in this realm and the practices leading to enlightenment. While these meanings are still present, since 1993 Agonshū has incorporated Shinto imagery into the ritual. Since then Agonshū has portrayed the event as a combined Shinto-Buddhist ritual, in which the pyre for worldly requests is termed the shinkai (realm of the Shinto gods) and that for the spirits of the dead the bukkai (realm of the Buddhas). Together the symbolic meanings of the pyres (prayers for realising one’s wishes and for pacifying and liberating the spirits of the dead) represent core themes in traditional Japanese religiosity.
The symbolic overarching meaning of the Hoshi Matsuri, according to Agonshū, is world peace (sekai heiwa) which can, according to Agonshū teachings, only be realised by pacifying unhappy spirits of the dead that are otherwise causing karmic hindrances in this world. This overarching theme is widely articulated during the festival, although for individual attendees and for those writing their requests on the goma sticks, such personal and individualised meanings appear to be paramount.
The two monthly rituals, the Tsuitachi engi hōshō goma and meitokusai rituals, reflect the two main themes symbolised by the Hoshi Matsuri pyres. [Image at right] The Tsuitachi engi hōshō goma consists of a goma ritual and sermon. It lasts exactly half an hour, a time span determined by an arrangement. Agonshū made an agreement with a broadcasting company to transmit the event live via a satellite network to its members around the country (Baffelli 2016:73-74). Until he became unable to do so any longer, Kiriyama performed both the goma ritual and sermon; the latter usually involved a homily about how to overcome one’s problems and achieve success. Now the ritual is performed by an ordained Agonshū priest, but in a manner that reminds devotees of Kiriyama’s significance in the movement. At the end of the ritual, Kiriyama initiated a series of five chants that articulated a sense of positive thinking as follows: Sā yaruzō! Kanarazu seikō suru! Watakushi wa totemo un ga ii no da! Kanarazu umaku iku! Zettai ni katsu! (“Let’s do it! I will certainly succeed! I am blessed with very good luck! I will certainly do well! I will definitely win!”). These five chants in effect became part of Agonshū’s canonical framework and were chanted at various of its events. After Kiriyama’s death, an additional chant was added: Watashi ha seishi to tomo ni ayumu (“I will walk together with the sacred teacher,” i.e. Kiriyama), thereby further affirming the importance of the founder in Agonshū’s framework.
The meitokusai ritual, according to Agonshū, is based on a Tibetan ritual that was transmitted to Kiriyama by Tibetan Buddhist priests. It focuses on liberating spirits of the dead that are causing problems for devotees but that cannot be pacified by ordinary devotional exercises before members’ household altars. Again, this ritual was overseen by Kiriyama until his death. These two monthly rituals, thus, emphasise the key themes expressed in the Hoshi Matsuri and central to popular religious orientations in Japan, of this-worldly benefits and caring for and pacifying the spirits of the dead.
In addition, and symbolically indicative of Agonshū’s proclaimed mission of world salvation and of bringing world peace, are its various public goma rituals conducted in a variety of locations around the world. These commonly involve a fire ritual, usually with one pyre on which goma sticks for the pacification and liberation of the unhappy spirits of the dead are incinerated using Agonshū’s version of the yamabushi/esoteric Buddhist fire ritual. These ritual events, which are designated as collective rituals for world salvation and peace, have played a significant role in enabling Agonshū to depict itself as a religious movement active on the world stage. In this context, such fire rituals have been held in locations such as New York, Paris, Jerusalem and Auschwitz. While a prominent focus of such rituals has been on the spirits of those who lost their lives in World War Two, in more recent times, and indicative of the increasing turn to nationalism evident in Agonshū, the main and at times the only focus of such events has been on the Japanese who lost their lives in the war. In 2012, for instance, when he was ninety-one, Kiriyama took part in a boat voyage around the Pacific visiting areas where many Japanese military died in the war and performing rituals for their pacification. In June 2017, after Kiriyama’s death, the movement conducted another boat voyage involving rituals for the war dead. This was the Hoppō Yōjō hōyō (northern seas memorial service). It involved memorial services at sea and goma rituals on Sakhalin (an island formerly belonging to Japan but taken over by Russia in 1945) for the spirits of Japanese who lost their lives in naval conflicts with Russia at the end of World War Two. The voyage and event had been planned while Kiriyama was alive, and, according to Agonshū, he (in one of his posthumous founder’s spirit messages) again expressed his wish for this to happen. Indeed, he took part, for his relics [Image at right] were taken on board the boat. While Fukada Seia and Wada Naoko, the official leader and head of administration respectively, conducted the rituals during the voyage, symbolically it was Kiriyama, via his relics, who oversaw the event. During the voyage, Agonshū also conducted rituals to repatriate the spirits of Japanese Shinto deities whose shrines on Sakhalin had been deserted after Japan’s defeat and retreat from there in 1945. As such, the northern seas memorial service, by focusing specifically on Japanese spirits of the dead and on repatriating Shinto deities, further indicated the emphasis on nationalism evident in Agonshū in recent times.
Until his death Kiriyama was the leader and main focus of Agonshū, central to its rituals and services. In his later years he appeared less able to participate in such activities, and other ordained Agonshū priests (the movement, although primarily lay-focused, has a small number of priests who have received Buddhist ordinations) came to perform the main ritual roles. Since Kiriyama’s death the leader (kanchō) and chief ritual specialist is Fukuda Seia, [Image at right] although other priests have taken significant roles in rituals and in explaining Agonshū’s teachings, notably presenting interpretations of Kiriyama’s post-death status in Agonshū. Agonshū also has an administrative structure that organises the movement’s activities and manages its finances; this is headed by a female disciple, Wada Naoko, who also plays a significant role in its rituals. As was outlined earlier, Kiriyama remains central to Agonshū, even after death; he has become a figure of worship, the second Buddha, and the focus of ritual prayers. He also is portrayed as a living entity present at Agonshū rituals and still dispensing teachings and leading the movement through the medium of the current leadership and its priests.
The movement has a main temple and headquarters at Yamashina, [Image at right] just outside Kyoto, where the annual Hoshi Matsuri and the monthly meitokusai ritual are held, and a main centre in Tokyo, where the monthly Tsuitachi engi hōshō goma ritual is held. These two centres are the main ritual and administrative centres for the movement, but it also has regional centres throughout Japan where members can watch, via Agonshū’s satellite television network, rituals held in the main centres. Agonshū also has a number of related commercial interests that support its activities. These include a health foods business and a publishing firm (Hirakawa Shuppan) that publishes books by Kiriyama and other Agonshū publications, as well as other books related to spiritual matters, such as translations of writings by famed Tibetan and other Buddhist figures.
Membership in Agonshū is attainable by paying a small monthly fee and acquiring (i.e. purchasing) a set of ritual implements and a personal altar that contains a small-scale replica of the shinsei busshari before which one is expected to perform regular acts of worship. Beyond ordinary membership followers can attain higher status and ranks by taking part in Agonshū training seminars in which they learn various ritual techniques and perform austerities. These seminars require additional fees and allow members to acquire the status of yamabushi in the movement. Agonshū’s yamabushi orders are divided into ranks indicated by the colour of their accoutrements, and members ascend the ranks via engaging in the aforementioned training seminars and activities. These ranks are open to all irrespective of gender.
Those who undergo the various forms of spiritual training and attend seminars to study ritual and divination practices are able to take on various roles in the movement, from providing counselling services at its centres to taking part in rituals. Those who attain the various yamabushi ranks, for example, play a major role at the Hoshi Matsuri, in particular in lighting and tending the fires and in incinerating the goma sticks on the pyres.
Agonshū, as is common in Japanese new religions, places significant responsibility on members for supporting, maintaining and developing the movement in various ways. Members are encouraged (and expected) to volunteer their services for a variety of activities, from helping out at Agonshū centres to engaging in communal organised acts of public service, such as cleaning public spaces. They are also expected to perform the practice of kanjin, a term that in Japanese Buddhism means to solicit alms in order to support the religious tradition. Agonshū members are expected to do this by persuading others, including non-members, to purchase goma sticks and write prayers on them for Agonshū rituals such as the Hoshi Matsuri. Kanjin is a practice that, according to Agonshū, creates merit and helps devotees eradicate negative karma and liberate themselves and the spirits of the dead. It is also an important element in the movement’s organisation and finances; the vast numbers of gomagi incinerated at the Hoshi matsuri are the result of members’ kanjin activities, and they bring in a considerable amount of money that helps the movement carry out its various activities, such as producing proselytisation materials.
The Hoshi Matsuri provides the best example of the various roles of Agonshū members in action. The huge event requires immense organisation, and at every stage of it members who have volunteered their services play a crucial role, from helping organise the queues to board buses from Kyoto to the ritual site, to greeting visitors, to helping run various stalls selling food, amulets and goma sticks at the ritual site. Those who have acquired higher ranks and training may be involved with providing divination services or acting as yamabushi within the main ritual area.
Agonshū grew quickly and attracted attention in the 1980s because of its dramatic rituals and the charismatic presence of Kiriyama. At that time he and the movement appeared to be at the cutting edge of the religious mood of the age, and leading the way in several areas, from focusing on superhuman powers, to talking about world missions centred on Japan, to being in the forefront of technological developments that showed it to be a movement rearticulating core religious themes in highly modern contexts. However, as Kiriyama aged so did the movement, with few new recruits coming in and the movement appearing out of step with more recent technologies. The trauma of the Aum Affair, while it affected all religious movements, was especially problematic for Agonshū given that Asahara, the leader of Aum, had briefly been a member of Agonshū. The emphasis on Japan as the leader for the new age, which appeared so strong in the 1980s and which drew on an underlying current of national pride, faded in the 1990s and beyond as Japan entered a long period of economic malaise and stagnation. During this period, Agonshū, while continuing to present itself as a movement for world peace and internationalism, became increasingly nationalistic in focus, embracing Shinto themes and adopting a revisionist view of Japan’s role in World War Two. While this might appeal to an ageing and increasingly conservative membership, it appeared less likely to do so to new younger and more internationally minded generations. Certainly in very recent years the movement has looked (notably when compared with its earlier image of being at the forefront of the religious ethos of the times) dated and out of touch.
The emphasis on alms collection and the costs of membership, too, raised concerns among some members, although many remained loyal to and captivated by Kiriyama’s charismatic presence. As he aged, however, and became less able to participate in rituals and give sermons, this posed increasing problems for the movement and led to a growing focus not on the future but on reconsidering the past. Kiriyama’s death in August 2016 presented the biggest challenge thus far to the movement. Initially Agonshū was slow to release news of this event, leading some to think that its administrative leadership had no idea how to deal with the loss of the charismatic leader. Eventually, details emerged of how Agonshū was handling the loss of its founder. Fukada Seia, who had overseen most rituals after Kiriyama had become too elderly to do so, became formally appointed as leader. Wada Naoko, who served as rijichō (administrative chief) under Kiriyama, remained in that role, and apparently holding the main reins of influence in the movement.
Kiriyama has remained central to the movement after death; spiritual messages (kaiso reiyu) said to be from him have been transmitted on a fairly regular basis through the new leadership to the members. In these messages, Kiriyama’s spirit affirms that he continues to preside over the movement and offer spiritual guidance and assistance both in this world and from the Buddha realms to which he has ascended. The messages affirm the role of the new leadership as guardians of Kiriyama’s legacy. Various pronouncements from the new leaders, Wada and Fukada, affirm Kiriyama’s continuing spiritual leadership. Kiriyama is now the “second Buddha” and a main focus of veneration in Agonshū. He is deemed more powerful than its other main focus of worship, the Buddha Shakyamuni. His spirit messages encouraged increased ritual participation in the movement. Followers are urged to increase their kanjin activities, for example, and are informed repeatedly that Kiriyama’s spirit is guarding over and acting with them in such duties. Rituals, such as the 2017 Hoshi Matsuri, (where Kiriyama’s relics were enshrined on the main altar and placed in front of those of Shakyamuni) have affirmed this position and demonstrate that Kiriyama, after death, remains central to Agonshū. As such, the movement appears to be developing into a founder-veneration movement.
Thus the strategy and actions of Agonshū in the aftermath of the loss of its charismatic founder (something that occurred at a time when the movement was ageing and struggling to gain new recruits) have been to stabilise the movement by focusing on the departed founder while solidifying the position of those who have assumed the leadership by presenting themselves as channelling the founder’s messages and following his instructions. Thus far, this has helped the movement avoid secessions and disputes over succession (something that has happened in a number of Japanese new religions on the death of a charismatic founder (see the God Light Association profile as an example). While there have been some negative comments about this and about the legitimacy of the current post-Kiriyama leadership on some online discussion boards, it appears at present that Agonshū has managed to deal with the immediate problem of losing the figure who was at its centre from the outset. At the same time, it continues to face the problems that were evident in Kiriyama’s later years, of a movement with an ageing profile that is not readily recruiting new members and no longer as closely in touch with or shaping the religious zeitgeist of the times as it used to be. The increasing focus on Japanese nationalism and on the spirits of the Japanese war dead, along with the heavy focus on Kiriyama as the second Buddha and on founder veneration, also indicate the potential for the movement to become increasingly introverted and backward-looking. This is something that could pose further problems in terms of recruiting the new members that would be vital if Agonshū is to remain as publicly prominent as it has been thus far.
Image #1: Photograph of Kiriyama Seiyū.
Image #2: Photograph of a ritual procession of Agonshū yamabushi at a Hoshi Matsuri.
Image #3: Photograph of a ritual arena, pyres, alter, and big screen.
Image #4: Photograph of Shinto priests carrying Kiriyama’s casket.
Image #5: Photograph of the Agonshū main temple and headquarters at Yamashina.
** Unless otherwise noted, this profile has drawn in particular from our book in press that draws on over thirty years of research into Agonshū: Erica Baffelli and Ian Reader. 2018. Dynamism and the Ageing of a Japanese ‘”New” Religion: Transformations and the Founder. London: Bloomsbury.
Baffelli, Erica and Ian Reader. 2018. Dynamism and the Ageing of a Japanese ‘”New” Religion: Transformations and the Founder. London: Bloomsbury.
Kiriyama Seiyū. 1983. Gense jōbutsu: waga jinsei, waga shūkyō Tokyo: rikitomi shobō.
Kiriyama Seiyū. 2000. You Have Been Here Before: Reincarnation Tokyo: Hirakawa Shuppan.
Reader, Ian. 1988. “The ‘New’ New Religions of Japan: An Analysis of the Rise of Agonshū.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 15:235–61.
Baffelli, Erica. 2016. Media and the New Religions of Japan. New York: Routledge.
Numata Ken’ya. 1988. Gendai Nihon no shinshūkyō Osaka: Sōgensha
1 August 2018