Sugawara no Michizane: from scholar to deity

In the past, I’ve talked about a Shinto kami named Tenjin, who was originally the historical Confucian scholar and poet, Sugawara no Michizane, but I haven’t delved much into how Michizane became a deity in the first place. Having finished up Robert Borgen’s excellent biography, I wanted to share some points explained by the book to help show how this famous scholar/poet became a kami revered by many generations.

The very end of the book sums up the process nicely actually:

Michizane’s posthumous deification was in itself a complicated and fascinating process. It was an attempt on the part of those who had slandered him to purge their guilt, but it was also a natural outgrowth of existing religious beliefs and occasionally even an expression of antigovernment [sic] feelings. (pg 335)

Further he notes:

Michizane was of course, no god. Contrary to [Edo Period Neo-Confucian scholar] Kaibara Ekken’s claim, moderation was not one of his virtues. He indulged all too willingly in the academic feuds of his day. Moreover, despite good intentions, he did not prove to be an outstanding administrator when he served as a provincial governor, nor was his record in high office one of remarkable accomplishments. Nonetheless, he remains a figure who was indeed deserving of admiration, if not necessarily deification. (pg. 334)

So what happened that allowed him to be deified?

The final chapter of the book explains a long progression and transformation beginning shortly after his immediate death in exile in Dazaifu in faraway Kyushu island in 903. Michizane was buried there, and a Buddhist temple, named Anrakuji (which no longer exists) was commissioned and sponsored by the brothers of Fujiwara no Tokihira, the man who had Michizane exiled. Meanwhile Michizane’s sons, who were separately exiled, were allowed to return and their positions reinstated in the Court with a promotion in rank.

The first incident blamed on Michizane’s vengeful ghost, according to Borgen, was in 923 when the first crown prince at the time died. Shortly after, the Emperor issued an edict posthumously pardoning Michizane and promoting a rank to senior second rank. The edict even states that this was to help pacify Michizane’s angry spirit. In 930, deadly lightning struck the Imperial capitol and by 941, Michizane’s ghost became a fierce cult object by various aspects of society, including popular religion. Borgen shows one incident in east Japan where a shaman women fell in league with a local warlord claiming that she received a vision that the government would be overthrown with Tenjin’s blessing, and separately even Buddhist monks claimed to have visions of the Fire and Thunder Tenjin (karai tenjin 火電天神), which was the wrathful depiction of Michizane at the time.

The wrathful side of Tenjin was short-lived though as the shrine where his spirit was pacified, Kitano Shrine founded by the female shaman Tajihi no Ayako in 947, was taken over by Michizane’s descendants and made into a proper point of worship by 976, when the Court ruled in favor of the Sugawara family. Before long, Michizane’s image acquired more refined qualities and lost its fierce countenance within generations. By 986, offerings of poetry were reportedly made to the shrine, and by 1004, Emperor Ichijō paid an official visit to provide one last posthumous promotion: Minister of the Left (the high position besides the Emperor) and the Court rank of senior first.1 From there, Kitano Shrine became one of the elite official shrine of the capital and still exists today. Their English-language homepage is here.

Much of Michizane’s original poems and writings are preserved by the way, from an offering by an obscure Fujiwara courtier in 1131 to Kitano Shrine. The offering was the Kanke Bunsō (菅家文草), a collection of Michizane’s works as well as those of his father and grandfather, respected Confucian-scholars of their day. That offering is now the source for all surviving works on Michizane’s writings. According to Borgen, the courtier had bad fortune, and hoped to pray to Tenjin for a better life in the future, but his offering in turn helped literature survive that would have otherwise been lost to time. Meanwhile, in the Kamakura Period, the fame of Kitano Shrine spread, including stories of people who worshiped there and the miracles they had, as well as stories of Michizane’s life that blended fact and legend.

By the Muromachi Period, Tenjin (Michizane) was patronized by Zen monks through the popularity of renga, or linked-poetry. At this time, Borgen shows that stories existed about Michizane such that he went to China after his death to study Zen for a time, similar to what famous Zen monks did previously (e.g. Dogen, Eisai, etc).

But by the Edo Period, Neo-Confucianism rose to great prominence in society, alongside Buddhism and Shinto, and Neo-Confucian thinkers as well as intellectuals in general paid great homage to him, while stripping away some of the myths that had accumulated over the years. As Borgen shows, Neo-Confucian thinkers of the Edo Period such as Hayashi Razan and Ogyū Sorai both expressed their reverence. I recall in fact that Hayashi Razan in particular routinely visited Yushima Tenmangu Shrine in Tokyo, the same one I visited a few months ago.

By the Meiji Period, Shinto and Buddhism were forcibly separated, and any Buddhist elements associated with Tenjin were removed, leaving only Shinto elements still seen today. As Borgen points out, there’s never been any systematic theology or organization for the cult of Tenjin, but over the many centuries, the famous Confucian-scholar and poet has taken on a larger-than-life role in Japanese religion and served as an inspiration for many generations since. The real Sugawara no Michizane was not as great as later stories led to believe, but Borgen does a nice job in showing how even his real historical qualities were greatly admirable, and that “he did not need to be deified to be remembered. (pg. 336)”

And yet the evolution of that worship is interesting in and of itself. Even for a Western scholar, and rational self-professed “nerd” and Confucian-enthusiast, there is a certain magnetism that’s hard to ignore. :)

1 The very same Emperor Ichijo whose wives were served by Lady Murasaki and Sei Shonagon among others. Funny how it all comes together.

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About Doug

A Buddhist, father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
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