UBC Community, Partners, and Alumni Publications

Sannō Shintō, also known as “Tendai Shintō” Sala, Emanuela


Sannō shintō refers to narratives, doctrinal analyses and artistic depictions related to the “mountain sovereigns” (jp. Sannō), the deities of the Hie shrine, now Hiyoshi taisha, in Sakamoto at the foothills of Mount Hiei. In Sannō shintō, the identity of the Hie deities is chiefly conceptualised with the vocabulary and semiotic framework of Tendai Buddhism, and in special (but not exclusive) relation to the lineages residing at the Enryakuji on Mount Hiei, to this day the main Tendai centre in Japan. While the first extant sources relating the Hie deities to the Enryakuji date back to the ninth century, Sannō shintō reached its apex as a discourse in the middle ages (12th-15th century), throughout which the majority of the material extensively treating the identities of the deities was collected. More concretely, Sannō shintō can be defined in two ways. In a narrow sense, it only indicates discourses produced at the Enryakuji, mostly mythological and doctrinal, which establish correspondences between the deities of Hie and specific Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Although Sannō is a collective term for the whole host of deities enshrined in the twenty-one shrines of Hie, most often the “mountain sovereigns” are three of them: Ōmiya, presiding over the western compound of the shrines; Ninomiya, presiding over the eastern, and Shōshinji, also a deity of the western compound. In the “strict” definition of Sannō shintō, these are considered as emanations of, or identical to, three Buddhas: Śākyamuni, the main Buddha of the Western pagoda area of the Enryakuji (saitō), Yakushi (sskr. Bhaiṣajyaguru), presiding over the Konpon chudo in the Eastern pagoda area, and Amida (sskr. Amitabha), presiding over the Yokawa area. Such correspondences are sanctioned by monastic treatises such as the Keiranshūyōshū (14th century). At a broader level, however, we can say that Sannō shintō is also made up of discourses on the deities of Hie that do not quite befit the narrow interpretation. For instance, these might be mythological accounts produced at the Hie shrine, touching upon subjects such as the origin and enshrinement of the deities; accounts of the festival held each year for the deities, as well as monastic discourses which do not quite conceptualise the deities within the same correspondences of the narrow definition. In this entry I shall adopt the broader definition for three reasons. Firstly, because the medieval Hie shrines and Enryakuji were closely intertwined from an institutional point of view. Secondly, because the correspondences of the narrow definition do not represent the full extent of the diachronic evolution of Sannō shintō. Thirdly, because the “narrow” definition of Sannō shintō presupposes the “broader” one, especially from a mythological perspective. Thirdly, because textual material that presents the correspondences of the “narrow” version of Sannō shintō often also includes accounts produced not by monastics, but by priestly lineages at the shrines. Such is the case for two of the the texts which are considered synonymous with Sannō shintō, Yōtenki (13- 15th century) and Sange Yōryakki (13th century). Taking account of this, in consulting this entry one should keep in mind at all times that Sannō shintō was not a conscious religious group, but a discursive field comprising various mythologies, ritual and devotional aspects, all joined together by being centred on the same deities and the same place. Please note that this article focuses on the medieval discourse on the Hie deities, but not on Sannō ichijutsu shintō, the pre-modern discourse issued from Sannō shintō but focused on the Tōshōgū, in Nikko.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


Attribution 4.0 International