Japanese Syncretism
The Goma Fire Ritual
The practice of Shingon centers on the great ritual treasures Kukai brought back from China, both sacred paraphernalia and the actual liturgies for performing the rituals. Within a few years, Kukai and his followers were in demand for performing rites at court. Especially popular were rites for healing and for childbirth. Rather quickly such rites came to be practiced by all Buddhist priests as requests came from the court and nobility, and eventually from ordinary women and men. (Religions in Japan, 104-5)

Shingon & Tendai
Koya-san & Hiei-zan

Probably the most important event in the history of Esoteric Buddhism after the death of Kukai (who established the teachings in Japan) was its triumph on Mount Hiei, the stronghold of Tendai. Common to both Tendai and Shingon exotericism was the ideas that all people could attain Buddhahood in this very life and body through the infinite variety of means and practices represented symbolically in the different forms of the mandala. These could range from the simplest forms of religious practice to the most sophisticated — from the rugged practices and severe austerities of mountain religion to the highly cultivated arts of court society. In this respect, the mysteries of the Esoteric religion, seen as emerging from the timeless bliss of the law body of the Buddha, could take any number of forms, including the secret transmission from master to monk, the aesthetic refinements that induced an emotional rapture among courtiers and court ladies alike, or the mantras, hand signs (mudras), and incantations that, for the ordinary believer, were a palpable expression of numinous mysteries. (SJT, 176-7)
The contest between Tendai and Shingon for recognition as the center of esotericism resulted in victory for the Hiei [i.e. Tendai] monks. Their success was due partially to the failure of Shingon to produce great leaders in the generations after Kukai and partially to the advantage that geographical proximity to the capital gave to Hiei over the more distant Koya. (SJT, 179)

The Goma begins with preparatory practices to purify and protect the area and the practitioner. After special prayers are said, the altar is prepared for the fire ritual. The hearth is purified and the wood is placed. After the fire is ignited, the deities are requested to enter the fire, the fire is purified, offerings and thanksgiving are made, and the deities are invited to return to their realm. Finally, the protections are removed and the merit generated is dedicated to the benefit of all sentient beings.

The physical fire of the Goma burns offerings made to the deities embodied in the fire. The offerings are transferred from physical form to the deities through special offering mudras and mantras.

The symbolic naika or inner fire burns away obstacles to enlightenment and negative karma, allowing us to purify our karma, transform negative emotions and energies, and sow the seeds of light, compassion, and wisdom. (Fudosan Kongoji)


The Goma Fire Altar is central to the Hondo or Prayer Hall. However, the hondo is more than just a room or hall, but more like a Mandala with the Goma Altar at its heart, and its fire well as its ‘heart of heart’. Thus the Goma Altar is a ‘sealed’ area, and is sacred, with the fire itself taking the central position. The back and sides of the Altar are sealed by sacred rope. Objects or offerings being placed onto the Altar or into the fire well from the sides (there is quite often an assistant, especially during a public service) being made always under the rope. The celebrant conducts the ceremony by offering prayers and offerings from a seated, lotus position from outside the sealed Altar, by way of a front Torii or ‘gateway’. The Altar is cleaned and the fire box is made ready and a variety of offerings are ready to hand (Water, a variety of grains, and fire utensils) all of which are offered into the building fire at different stages of the ceremony. At first the fire becomes stronger, and then the drum-beat becomes stronger, and the intoned mantra becomes empowered, and the area more purified, so the veil separating Earthly and Heavenly Buddha Realms is slowly drawn aside. And for a very short time, all is one. At this point Goma maki (prayer sticks) are offered in to the fire and consumed, thus increasing its power.

The fire is set as any normal open fire with kindling sticks that are laid over the fire well in a particular pattern. [T]he fire is lit by small, prepared brush bundles or paper ignited from a candle on the altar and the fire builds as more kindling is added. However, what is not seen is the reflection between the growing Goma Fire and the celebrant who also sees the fire growing within him, or her, self, as an ‘inner Goma’. As the Goma fire begins to slowly burn, this also represents the ‘inner spark of wisdom’ that initiated the path of practice. The inner and outer fires become reflective, non-separate, as both ignite, burn in strength, gradually fade and finally die out having consumed everything which not only includes the offerings but also desires, passions, emotions, all opposites, the self, the Hondo, the World, the cosmos, and the Goma itself. All is burnt away- nothing is left, only silence. The Goma Rite begins in silence, builds to a crescendo, fades, and ends in silence. It is almost impossible for those attending, to not be deeply touched by the Goma. (Tendai Sangha)

From Homa to Goma
The Development of the Shingon Fire Ritual
Goma is a Chinese pronunciation of the Hindu term Homa which originated in India about 5000 years ago with earlier Zoroastrian [roots] and refers to offerings made to deities through the fire. (Fudosan Kongoji)

Both Tendai and Shingon Shu’s Goma Fire Rites are among the oldest found anywhere in the world and has its origins in ancient India where it was, and still is, known as ‘Homa’ — or more accurately Agni(Fire) Hotri(Rite/Ritual), and was originally performed by Brahmin Priests. The Homa can still be seen today practiced the length and breadth of India in both simple and quite elaborate forms by river sides, quiet places and Temples. (Tendai Sangha)

In contrast to the merciful Kannon, Fudo was represented as a “terrible figure, livid in color and of a ferocious expression. He is surrounded by flames and carries a sword and a rope to smite and bind evil. He is generally explained as typifying the fierce aspect assumed by Vairochana when resenting wrong doing.” If Kannon represented the female (or Garbha mandala), Fudo stood for the male (or vajra) and, as such, was popular with the rising warrior class, who —as the guardians of the state in the face of disorder — may have likened themselves to the powerful Fudo. Accordingly, the cult of Fudo spread to regions where nature presented its severest face — rocky crags and seashores. (SJT, 176)
The wood that is offered in the sacred fire, known as Gomaki or literally “energy for the Goma,” is inscribed with the wishes and desires of others. Through the mystical weaving of offerings and mantra, through the physical energy of the fire, and through the assistance of the deities, the wishes are manifested. (Fudosan Kongoji)
The emergence of Daoism as an organized religion can be traced back to the second century CE, during the social turmoil and political disintegration that marked the final decades of the Han dynasty. ... The movement was called the Way of the Celestial Masters (Tianshi dao). ... Its leaders instituted a peculiar form of government that mixed familiar Han bureaucratic institutions with novel ecclesiastical structures. The families of the faithful were organized into twenty-four parishes, led by priest-officials known as libationers, who performed a combination of civil and religious functions. An important part of the libationers’ duties was their mediating between the parishioners and the various gods and spirits. They also kept household registers that were supposedly held by the gods of the celestial bureaucracy, who watched over each individual and recorded his or her misdeeds. ... [The] communication and supplication of the various celestial powers was supposed to go via proper bureaucratic channels, with a priest submitting a written petition to the appropriate celestial bureaucrat in the same manner as a government official would present a memorial to the court. The whole Celestial Masters movement was permeated with a bureaucratic outlook that extended to the terrestrial and celestial realms, which became a prominent feature of Daoism and popular religion. (Introducing Chinese Religion, 72-4)


New Year’s Rituals at Tsubaki Grand Shrine
Oesterle: 299.561 N42b

Prayer of the Retired Emperor Shirakawa
In November, 1128, the retired Emperor Shirakawa — father, grandfather, and great-grandfather of emperors reigning in his own lifetime — offered his prayer to the god Hachiman for ten more years of life. On this occasion, he presented a copy of the Tripitaka to be read without interruption by six priests, and in his prayer, the emperor enumerated other acts of piety already performed. These reflect the Esoteric Buddhism then prevalent at court, especially in its iconographic forms. The syncretic tendencies of Esoteric Buddhism also are apparent in its association with notions concerning immortality and longevity, which are typical of popular Daoism. These same tendencies account for making such an offering to Hachiman. It may seem curious that the Shinto god Hachiman was favored with a copy of the Buddhist scriptures, but in the ages of Combined Faith, Hachiman was worshiped as a great bodhisattva, and such a gift seemed wholly appropriate. Despite the fervent prayers made to him, however, Shirakawa died the following year.
       The practice of a sovereign’s abdicating and becoming a Buddhist monk while continuing to rule in the name of a boy emperor was inaugurated by Emperor Uda (r. 889-897) and became an established institution with Shirakawa. Not only a devout Buddhist but also an astute politician, Shirakawa saw the advantages of governing from behind the scene with the title “Emperor of the [Buddhist] Law (hoo).” This represents a fusion of the tenno concept with the title King of the Law (hoo) once accorded the monk Dokyo, who in the Nara period was thwarted in his attempt to become emperor. With the emperors themselves becoming monks, power could hide behind a religious screen without clear public accountability.( SJT, 180)

This copy of the Tripitaka, transcribed by imperial order, is composed as follows:
Mahayana sutras
Hinayana sutras
Mahayana vinayas
Hinayana vinayas
Mahayana shastras
Hinayana shastras
Biographies of the Bodhisattvas and Arhats
2,395 volumes
618 volumes
5,312 volumes
[... enumerated acts of piety ...]

The virtue of sparing life comes from the fact that it arouses divine retribution. Brahma, sitting in his lofty palace in Heaven, scrutinizes the minds of men and clearly knows their thoughts. Shakra, dallying in his pleasure garden, turns his compassionate glance and illuminates all actions. He who accomplishes an act of mercy will have a prayer accomplished; he who increases the happiness of others will have his span of life increased. ... When I consider my own life and attempt to calculate how long it will last, I realize that if I pray to live 120 years, there are but rare precedents for such a great age. If I hope for eight years, not much remains of my old age. The most I desire is to prolong my life ten years more. Then, as progenitor of three successive sovereigns, I shall be without peer in the world, and as the senior by six years of Shakyamuni, I shall have all I desire in this mortal world. If the Great Bodhisattva Hachiman extends his divine protection, the gods will answer my great prayer, if the Tathagatas of the ten directions vouchsafe their aid, my life will be strong as the Diamond. I shall then be able to attain enlightenment, and I shall certainly be born in the paradise of peace and purity. The moral force of good actions brings neighbors; their merit has no bounds. This one good action will reach alike the reigning emperor, the retired emperor, the empress dowager, the empress, the princes and the princesses, and they will all enjoy longevity. The nation will boast a reign of peace and harmony; all people will be at liberty to enjoy their pleasures. Thus may all, from the pillars of Heaven above, to the circle of the wind below, taste the savor of the Law and sojourn in the garden of enlightenment. (SJT, 181-4)