Politically Incorrect Glossary of Japanese Buddhism

高野聖 Kōya hijiri

A brand of merchant from Mount Kōya, usually from the criminal class. Often improperly translated as “Buddhist missionaries”, sometimes with the claim that they spread some Buddhist beliefs, which is at best a vast exaggeration of the facts. In reality, although they were approved by Kōya authorities, the approval chiefly permitted them to make a living as traveling salesmen, perhaps playing some music or dancing on the side.

English Wikipedia amusingly links their Kōya hijiri article to another term, yadōkai, which they describe as follows: “Yadōkai (夜道怪) is a derogatory term for Kōya hijiri. They were considered to be a kind of supernatural creature, wandering at night, damaging property, injuring people or kidnapping children. As shown in Gegege no Kitaro. Kōya hijiri served as itinerant traders, were well informed about life, and deceived local people.”

解毒圓 Gedokuen

A brand of medicinal herb sold by a pharmacy named Dōshōan 道正庵 under exclusive contract from the Sōtō Zen sect of Japanese Buddhism; it was sold to Zen temples as well as the general public. Mixing Gedokuen with various other herbs or rubbing it on yourself was guaranteed to cure almost any ailment, and it was advertised as a panacea. The story went that the recipe for Gedokuen was received by Dōgen from the white fox kami Imari, and Dōgen went on to order Dōshōan to sell the drug throughout Japan. This story was fabricated in the 1700s and tacked on to the first printed biography of Dōgen, which created a fairly confusing narrative where Dōgen’s whole life built up to endorsing a magical drug. However, the Sōtō Zen sect apparently approved of this activity. It continued until 1945.

Another famous panacea of the Tokugawa period was called Kintaien 錦袋圓, and was also invented by a Buddhist sect, allegedly communicated to a young monk in a dream by the sect’s founder Gyōtei.

般若湯 Hannya tō

“Water of Perfect Wisdom”. A term for alcohol used by Japanese Buddhist monks, implying that drinking this very special water will open you up to the wisdom of Buddha. Drinking alcohol is a violation of one of the five precepts of all Buddhist monks and is grounds for expulsion from the sangha, except in Japan. In the Meiji period, many temples had signs posted at the door warning monks not to bring alcohol inside, but hannyatō would be carried in regardless. Contrary to the American scholarship on Japanese Buddhist jargon, this euphemism is not meant to cover up the fact that monks are drinking alcohol. Rather, it is a sardonic term, and many Americans seem to misunderstand the deadpan tone in which the joke is told (e.g. “if you call it hannyatō it’s okay”). It is still used today.

There are various other Japanese Buddhist terms which had secret slang meanings in the Edo period, most of which are not fit for publication on a family blog: 念仏講 nenbutsukō, 阿弥陀経 Amida Kyō, etc.

三種の浄肉 sanshu no jōniku

“The three kinds of pure meat”. It is often claimed that the precept prohibiting killing renders all Buddhist monks vegetarians. However, in Japan (as well as China and Korea, in this case) circumventing this rule has proven all too simple. There was a sutra somewhere, nobody knows quite where, that says that there are three ways to make meat pure:

  1. You didn’t see the animal being killed.
  2. You don’t know whether it was killed for your sake.
  3. You didn’t hear whether it was killed for your sake.

These exemptions are so ludicrously huge that meat is pretty much fine. Thus everyone in Japan has an in-joke to laugh about, and gaijin vegetarians who come to a temple seeking Japanese vegetarian food are oftentimes naively disappointed (or charged exorbitant prices for shōjin ryōri).

僧兵 sōhei

“Warrior monks”, or more accurately the military forces of temple-states. There are entire books written about this subject, but suffice to say, the majority of “monks” from A.D. 950-1600 were not above setting fire to rival temples or pillaging local villages. Usually they lived in temple towns, 門前町 monzenmachi, and not within the temple itself. Most notably found in Hieizan Enryakuji (controlled western Biwako), Kyōto Hongwanji (distributed throughout the provinces), Kōyasan Kongōbuji (controlled Kii), and and Kōyasan Negoroji (controled Kii; notable for manufacturing muskets).

Posted: October 1st, 2010 | Dharma 1 Comment »

One Comment on “Politically Incorrect Glossary of Japanese Buddhism”

  1. 1 Leonardo Boiko said at 4:42 pm on November 19th, 2010:

    I have to thank you for this. Your blog is criminally overlooked.