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Unformatted text preview: se studies; but in Heian times the court reverted to a rigid
hierarchical ordering of society determined solely by family origins. It is
not surprising, then, that the Heian courtiers found congenial a sect like
Shingon, which similarly asserted a fixed hierarchy among its pantheon
of deities headed by Dainichi. Interestingly, Dainichi is written with the
characters for “great sun”; and the Japanese were not slow to identify him
with the supreme Shinto deity, the Sun Goddess. Going a step further, The Court at Its Zenith 53 Fig. 21 Mandala (courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum) they were able to liken the gods of Shingon collectively to the community of kami from whom all the great courtier families claimed descent.
The exclusive, esoteric character of Shingon also appealed greatly to
the Heian courtiers. Although Shingon, like Mahayana Buddhism in general, preached the universality of the buddha potential, in practice it confronted its would-be followers with such complex and time-consuming
practices that only priests or leisured aristocrats could hope to master
them. And in any case Shingon gave the general populace little chance
even to attempt the practices by keeping them secret from all but a
favored few. The mysteries of Shingon were theoretically transmitted
solely by the teacher, or guru, to his direct disciples. Outsiders might 54 The Court at Its Zenith derive some satisfaction from contemplating with awe the dark wonders
of Shingon, but as the uninitiated they would forever be denied the highest rewards it promised.
So strongly did the courtiers favor Shingon that, in order to meet the
competition, the Tendai sect also evolved a form of esotericism. It is
scarcely an exaggeration to say that esoteric Buddhism, particularly during the ninth and tenth centuries, permeated every aspect of the lives of
the Heian aristocracy. Its aestheticism, exclusivity, and promise of realizing through arcane practices the buddha nature in this life were irresistible to the courtiers. Yet, esoteric Buddhism, although it may have
been established on a high plane by Kûkai and his immediate successors,
was particularly susceptible to corruption; and in...
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- Spring '13