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Seeing like monks : strife and order at Kōyasan temple, Japan, fourteenth to seventeenth centuries Okawa, Eiji


This study reassesses the politics of religious institutions from the late medieval to the early Tokugawa era in Japan. It suggests that the dominant discourse on the topic has been constrained by a theoretical tension between religion and the state as the main framing device. What has been overlooked is the interplay between geographical manifestations of religion and politics. This study examines documents of the Kōyasan Buddhist temple, to learn how monks overcame tensions at the contested space of the temple from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries. It was found that in the late medieval period (fourteenth to the late sixteenth centuries), the numinous power of the temple was exploited by monks to transform themselves into regional overlords. Monks controlled land through the medium of a sacred landscape and governed the region in unison with deities. This changed with the emergence in the late sixteenth century of the unified state of early modern Japan. The state curtailed the potential of the sacred to give rise to autonomous power, all the while consolidating its hold by ritually tapping the numinous power of a national landscape. It also entrenched its power at the heart of the temple society by issuing land grants. Accompanying this shift was an epochal change in the manner by which the temple space was organized. In the medieval period, monks forged a ritualized unity to overcome conflict and impose order. The unitive impulse was broken inadvertently by the state with its land grants. Internal divisions hardened and it no longer became possible to overcome differences. Divided groups then tapped the state’s judicature to rebuild their society. From the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, the source of order at the temple shifted from the sacred to the state. For monks, both authorities were higher powers that they needed to contain the fluidity of their contested space.

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