The “New Religions”
Mixing Old Wines in a New Bottle?
Wine from old barrels being mixed into a new bottle
Icon representing "old wine in a new bottle"
Chart showing percentage of Japanese who identify as a member of a "New Religion" (23.6%)
New Religions
Kanji for Shinko Shukyo
 
The rubric “New Religions” (shinko shukyo) has been given to a number of religious movements that first appeared in late Tokugawa times, gained strength after the Meiji Restoration, and became a powerful force after World War II. ... The term “New Religions,” however, is somewhat misleading because these movements are neither entirely new nor necessarily complete religions in the Western sense. Every New Religion contains elements from one or more of the preexisting traditions: folk religion, Shinto, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and even Christianity. Therefore, these religious movements are as much renovation as innovation, as much renewed religious traditions as new traditions. (Religion in Japan, 226)
 
Image of a charismatic religious leader
 
One of the distinguishing features of the New Religions is that usually a living person served as either founder or organizer. In most cases the impetus for organizing a religion came from the charismatic quality of the founder, who was considered semidivine or divine; his or her utterances became revealed scripture. Even the sect developments of Shinto selected special kami from the Nihon shoki and Kojiki as objects of worship. The New Religions offered specific objects of faith and appealing forms of worship. They usually promised the solution of all problems through faith and worship. Some of the founders were led to their crucial religious experience (or revelation) by a personal dilemma that was solved by the discovery of a new faith. Often the New Religions practiced faith healing but also promised solutions to personal crises such as financial and marital difficulties. (Religion in Japan, 227-8)
 
Though the guarantee of religious freedom was never removed, [from the 1930s to the end of WWII] the Constitution’s limitation of freedom of religion “within limits not prejudicial to peace and order, and not antagonistic to their duties as subjects,” came to be interpreted so strictly as to suppress or even openly persecute any religious group the state saw fit to target. Actually, two kinds of groups, one secular — communism, the other religious — New Religions, were increasingly the scapegoat of state attacks. ... [I]f we focus just on the perceived threat of New Religions, we note that they were attacked by the combined force of intellectuals, competing religious organizations, and the state. To be sure, throughout much of their history, the New Religions have received much criticism as unrefined, superstitious, and interested mainly in acquiring money. However, if they were so “evil,” how can their popularity and “success” be explained? (Religion in Japan, 229-30)
 
Icon representing New Religions

A Sampling of New Religions
Tenrikyo, Soka Gakkai, Aum Shinrikyo & Agonshu
Of all the New Religions that have arisen in Japan since the early nineteenth century, Tenrikyo and Soka Gakkai are two of the most important; their stories serve to highlight similarities as well as differences among New Religions. ... Tenrikyo was a pioneer New Religion early in the nineteenth century. It was one of the first to succeed on a large scale, and it served as a model for later movements. Soka Gakkai arose about a century later in the prewar period and flourished only after World War II, yet its rapid success has made it the envy of other groups. ... Aum Shinrikyo, a third example of a Japanese new religion, arose later, in the postwar period, drawing on especially Buddhist, but also Hindu, Christian, and New Age elements. Aum Shinrikyo was equally organized around its divine founder and his teachings and practices (Religion in Japan, 234-5). [Agonshu] exhibits many of the characteristics of othernew religions, from its focus on a charismatic founder figure, Kiriyama Seiyu, and a cosmology rooted in Japanese folk religious traditions of unhappy spirits of the dead afflicting the living and causing spiritual hindrances and pollution (tatari), to its claims to an inherent universalism and message of salvation for mankind, its provision of a framework and support system through which its members can find meaning and solace in contemporary life, and its aggressive proselytisation (Religion in Contemporary Japan, 208).
Tenrikyo Icon
 
The Main Gate of Tenrikyo
Tenrikyo
The Original God, a Living Kami, and a Joyous Life
Japanese comic of Nakayama Miki's lifeOne of the earliest and in some ways most paradigmatic of the major new religions, now claiming nearly two million members, Tenrikyo was founded by a farmer’s wife named Nakayama Miki (1798-1887). Its defining revelation occurred in December 1838. Shuji, the eighteen-year-old son of Miki, had had a severe pain in his leg for over a year, which greatly inhibited his helping with the farm work. ... A yamabushi was retained to do yosekaji or ritual incantations on the youth’s behalf ... [which required] a female assistant serving as medium to go into trance, holding two sacred staffs with gohei or Shinto zigzag paper hangings on it; a diagnosis of the affliction would be received form a kami who possessed her and spoke through her lips. At the ritual on December 9, 1838, the usual medium, Soyo, was not available. Miki took her place. In trance, the woman’s face reportedly took on an appearance of tremendous majesty, and the voice that spoke through her was not that of one of the many kami, but a Being who said “I am the True and Original God. Miki’s mind and body will be accepted by me as a Divine Shrine, and I desire to save the world through this body.” (IJR, 211)

Kanji for Tenri Ono MikotoThis divinity was Tenri O no Mikoto, literally “Lord of Divine Wisdom.” (Tenri means “heavenly wisdom” and O no Mikoto is equivalent to “royal divinity.”) The deity is also known as Oyagami, “God the Parent.” This divinity gave a rather new message through Miki’s mouth: the kami had loaned Miki her body, but now was reclaiming it and demanding that Miki spend the rest of her life spreading the divinity’s message. Her family reluctantly yielded to the demand. This 1838 event marks the traditional founding of Tenrikyo, the religion of divine or heavenly wisdom. From this point Miki [generally referred to as Oyasama, an honorific title meaning “worthy parent”] is viewed as a kind of living kami. (Religion in Japan, 236-7)
 
Image representing Oyagami (God the Parent)
 
[The story of creation] starts by saying, “In the beginning, the world was a muddy ocean. Finding that condition tasteless, God the Parent thought of creating us human beings so that, by seeing our Joyous Life, God might share in that joy. The whole creation originated from that thought. When creating human beings and the world, God began by drawing forth what were to become models and instruments, and their joined efforts allowed human creation to commence. Human beings, thus created, have thereafter been nurtured by God the Parent while undergoing many rebirths over an extremely long time. The formation of land and sea, heaven and earth, and the entire universe progressed in pace with human development. (tenrikyo.or.jp...)
 
Tenrikyo cartoon with English translation: "Just being alive makes me happy! What a waste it would be not to show some initiative!"
In time, the basic teachings of Tenrikyo emerged. The original creator God is now trying to call humankind back to himself, and so to the yokigurashi [陽気ぐらし] the joy in which the Parent had meant us to live. But we have allowed our minds to be covered by hokori, “dusts,” that have brought forgetfulness and various vices. ... In the Ofudesaki, the scripture she composed under inspiration, she recites the Tenrikyo story of creation, and describes the dances which would be the religions’ basic rite. As we saw in Chapter 2, the greatest dances are performed in the main temple, around the Kanrodai [甘露台, literally “sweet dew stand”], the pillar which according to Oyasama marks the place where the creation began. (The temple is on the former site of the foundress’ home, not far from Nara.) Dances performed in branch churches present sweeping gestures that indicate the wiping away of the dusts. Another practice is osazuke, a commonly-performed healing rite consisting of stroking gestures made just above the body of the patient. Otherwise, worship in Tenrikyo churches is definitely of the Shinto type, with altars (including one to the foundress) and offerings made in a way characteristic of that religion. (IJR, 212)
 
Click for mini-documentary of Tenrikyo
 
Image showing location of the kanrodai in the center of the Tenrikyo templeCentral to this movement’s ethos was the founder as a living kami; her life was a kind of divine model. What she wrote was considered revelation and came to be the scripture of Tenrikyo. The songs she composed became hymns, and the dance she created was transformed into Tenrikyo liturgy. The gestures she used in the dance became standard ritual gestures. depiction of the kanrodaiHer scripture indicated a nearby spot as the place where the world and human beings were created (by Izanagi and Izanami); this location, considered the center of the world, became the site for the main shrine of Tenrikyo. The shrine was built in accordance with Miki’s revelation: there is a square opening in the roof and a wooden column underneath. The corporate worship and elaborate liturgies that Miki established continue to be performed around this column under the open roof. Although these features have assumed a mysterious symbolism within later Tenrikyo, they signify a channel for continued communication between Heaven and humans. As Tenrikyo gradually developed into a larger organization around the central figure of Miki, it also developed a message, or philosophy of life, based on her teachings. Miki taught that “At the very beginning of the world, God the Parent created mankind out of an earnest desire to make them live a yokigurashi, a joyous life. Mankind, however, ignoring the will of God the Parent Who created them to live a life of yokigurashi in the truest sense of the word, has come to abuse their minds which were granted to them as their own, and becoming self-willed, come to regard life as a gloomy world.” According to this teaching, because people have become self-centered and selfish, they are surrounded with gloom. But when an individual recovers oneness with God the Parent, he or she once again participates in the joyous creation of the world. The means to this joyous life is faith in God the Parent and “sweeping away” one’s evils through the worship services instituted by Miki. (Japanese Religion, 198)
 
Photo of the Tenrikyo temple interior
 

The Kagura Service


 

The task of reconstructing the entire world as the world of the Joyous Life is a huge undertaking that cannot be accomplished without God the Parent’s help. Through our performance of the ritual known as the Kagura Service, God the Parent manifests once more the immense energy by which humankind and the world were created and thereby enables all human beings to return to their true and original state and thus lead the Joyous Life. The Kagura Service is truly the ultimate means to replace our minds and return to our original state – the way we really are.

The Kagura Service is performed by ten dancers, five men and five women, who wear their respective kagura masks and symbolize by hand-gestures the ten aspects of God the Parent’s complete providence. To perform this Service, the ten dancers take up positions around the Kanrodai (the Stand for the Heavenly Dew), which is set up on the Jiba, the very place where God the Parent resides.

The Kagura Service depicts the state of the Joyous Life World. The ten Service performers, for example, each represent a different aspect of the complete providence, and yet during the course of the Service they bring their minds into perfect harmony with God the Parent’s desire to actualize the world of the Joyous Life. The Kagura Service thus shows us that, although we human beings may differ from one another in terms of our personalities, abilities, and functions in society, we must cooperate with one another in a unity of mind in order to actualize the Joyous Life World.

All people attending the Service – not just the ten Service performers – must bring their minds into unity and pray for God the Parent’s help in actualizing the world of the Joyous Life. That is the goal of the Kagura Service.

Photo of ritual performers around a portable kanrodai

Following the Kagura Service, the Teodori (Dance with Hand Movements) is performed by three men and three women who stand in a line. Whereas the hand gestures employed in the Kagura Service vary in parts from performer to performer so as to symbolize different aspects of the complete providence, the hand movements for the Teodori are identical among the six performers. Through this song and dance, therefore, we are able to savor God the Parent’s teachings and return to our true and original state.

Local Tenrikyo churches conduct a monthly service, which comprises the seated service – in place of the Kagura Service – and the Teodori. This monthly service is the most important function of the local churches since it enables the church members to receive the truth of the Kagura Service performed at the Jiba. (tenrikyo.or.jp...)

 
 
Icon representing "old wine in a new bottle"
Syncretism in Tenrikyo/New Religions
As befits a religion emphasizing yokigurashi and of which the main rite is dancing, Tenrikyo has no strict or stern moral code, but says live a happy life and encourage others to be happy. Let life have a festive, celebrative flavor. The faith affirms karma (innen) and reincarnation. It has no belief in a future life other than one’s next embodiment, the quality of which will depend on the karma one creates in this life. But unlike the Buddhism which sees reincarnation as a gloomy doctrine, indicating one is chained to the wheel of samsara, for the Tenrikyoist rebirth is something about which to be optimistic and joyous. All in all life is getting better and better. Indeed, soon a wonderful transition will occur, when kanro or sweet dew will fall into a basin atop the Kanrodai, the world will become paradisal, everyone will live to be 115, then painlessly die and be quickly reborn to another long and joyous life. ... Tenrikyo clearly has links in its very founding to shamanistic Shugendo, and just as clear ideological roots in Tokugawa Shinto and Neo-Confucianism (in the very term tenri “heavenly principle”). ...
Tenrikyo icon
But there are also new emphases ... [such as] monotheism, belief in one God. The idea of one supreme God may have foreshadowings in Japan in the Confucian Heaven, in Buddhist Oneness and particularly the popular figure of Amida (Miki was raised in Pure Land), in some medieval Shinto ideologies, and even by means of underground Christian influences. But there is no doubt that Tenrikyo, like the other new religions, was monotheistic or monistic in a new, decisive way, especially in that it emphasized the one God as Creator of the world at a definite point in time, and made this creative act and its recollection central to teaching and worship. In this it is more like the Western monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, though whether any direct influence from them reached Miki is hard to prove one way or the other. ... [Another element that Tenrikyo has in common with other new religions is] a charismatic founder, often a woman and often possessing shamanistic characteristics (a powerful initiation experience by God or the gods; ability to enter into trance and utter divine words — kamigakari or divine possession; ability to heal and prophesy; sometimes ecstatic singing and dancing). (IJR, 212-4)
Icon representing "old wine in a new bottle"
Soka Gakkai Lotus Icon
Soka Gakkai
Faith in the Lotus Sutra and a Happy Life
Soka Gakkai International (SGI) is a Buddhist network
that actively promotes peace, culture and education
through personal change and social contribution.
(www.sgi.org)

 
Nichiren emphasized absolute, exclusive faith in the Lotus Sutra through the phrase Namu Myoho Renge Kyo (or Nammyoho Renge Kyo, the form preferred by Soka Gakkai). After Nichiren’s death, his followers split into groups that in time turned into hard denominational lines. (Japanese Religion, 201)
 
Soka Gakkai is more recent than the earliest Nichiren-derived New Religions but is by far the largest, most dynamic, and most efficiently organized. Its ethos is defined by the solution of all personal and societal problems through absolute faith in the Lotus Sutra. Soka Gakkai holds to absoluteness not only in the commitment of the believer, but also in the truth of its message. Therefore, it follows that all other religions are false. Likewise, all personal and cultural values must be dependent on this absolute truth. A positive aspect of this absolute faith in an absolute truth is its promise to solve all personal and cultural problems. A negative aspect is the frequent accusation that, especially during the aggressive conversion campaign started in the 1950s, absolute faith in the Lotus Sutra led believers to use any means to convert people. (Japanese Religion, 201)
 
Founders of Soka Gakkai International (SGI)
 
[Under the leadership of Toda Josei (1900-1958), Soka Gakkai] became a lay teaching and evangelistic organization with the Nichiren Shoshu denomination. But it had its own structure, meetings for worship and cultural life, its own chain of command, its own publications, though nominally it acknowledged the authority of the older group and its priests. So effective was its promotional efforts that soon Soka Gakkai had five times the membership of the rest of Nichiren Shoshu, a strange relationship which was ultimately to lead to problems, but which worked at the time to make long-quiescent Nichiren Shoshu suddenly the largest Buddhist denomination in Japan, claiming some three million households by 1962, and 7,500,000 households in 1970, the peak year of its rapid growth. The movement had also spread around the world.
 
Photo of an SGI meeting at someone's home
 
How did it accomplish this? First, Soka Gakkai organized in a thoroughly modern way into prefectural, city, district, and block groups. The old-fashioned Buddhism of family temples tucked away in remote villages or on side streets was not for it. Instead, this new Buddhism for the third age of the Dharma was participatory. Neighborhood leaders kept track of members and prospective members, caring about their problems. Soka Gakkai neighbors made sure the zeal of their co-religionists did not flag, and that non-members were not allowed to forget they could join this welcoming and supportive group too. Members were rarely at a loss for something to do; one had the opportunity to take part in lively meetings and activities virtually every night of the week.
       Nor was there anything musty about these activities. While of course dynamic chanting of the Daimoku and Gongyo (passages from the sutra) rang through Soka Gakkai halls and homes, this was a modern, streamlined form of Buddhism for today. No ethereal meditation amid incense and gongs, no ascetic diet or celibacy. Local centers sponsored art classes, sports teams, and music (especially marching bands and min-on, popular music) ensembles. Soka Gakkai activities were good places for outgoing young people to meet others of their kind.
       And there was the practice of shakubuku, “break and subdue,” winning new converts to “true Buddhism.” Needless to say, this was controversial. In the 1950s, it was said that the upstart sect used intolerant, unfair arguments against other religions, and high-pressure tactics. Shakubuku practitioners were accused of calling prospective converts at all hours of day and night, even of threatening to boycott the business of those who would not come around. One convinced family member was supposed to give the others no rest until they joined too.
 
Soka Gakkai Cultural Festival (with many people on stage and in the audience)
 
On the other hand, Soka Gakkai made no secret of its promise of immediate tangible benefits from the practice: healing, prosperity, wishes granted. Shakubuku enthusiasts made house calls, circulated literature everywhere, filled the streets with parades, and the largest stadia with conventions. These were vast rallies, intended to generate enthusiasm more than anything else with the help of chants, cheers, marching groups, and banners. (IJR, 219-20)
 
Soka Gakkai’s grassroots strength was derived from small discussion groups of twenty to thirty people who met informally in members’ homes to share testimonials, discuss personal problems, and study Soka Gakkai doctrine. Most nonmembers made their first contact with Soka Gakkai when a member who happened to be a friend, relative, or coworker persuaded them to attend a meeting (often for the purpose of helping the newcomer handle his or her difficulty). After several meetings, the nonmember might seek to solve his or her problems in the context of such a group with faith in Nichiren and the Lotus Sutra; but to become a member of Soka Gakkai, the person had to be formally admitted into Nichiren Shoshu. This necessitated removing all traces of other religions from his or her home — throwing out or burning the Shinto and Buddhist elements and images that traditionally were an integral part of most homes (Christian elements, if present, also were forbidden). Only then could the individual go to a Nichiren Shoshu temple for the official conversion rites, at which time he or she was given a wooden tablet with the title of the Lotus Sutra carved in it. The tablet was patterned after the one Nichiren made and was a sacred object to be placed in the now-empty family altar.
 
SGI Gohonzon
 
Twice every day, morning and night, the member expressed faith in the Lotus Sutra by chanting the phrase including the title of this sutra (Nammyoho Renge Kyo) and reciting passages from it before the sacred object. From this time the member participated in the discussion groups and the other activities of Soka Gakkai. The new member also was required to be active in proselytizing others and was expected to make a pilgrimage to the head temple of Nichiren Shoshu, Taiseki-ji near Mount Fuji. Several million members made the trip annually. (Japanese Religion, 202)
 
"SGI: Engaged Buddhism for a Changing World"
 
Ikeda Daisaku
Photo of Ikeda DaisakuAfter Toda’s death, the presidency of Soka Gakkai fell to Ikeda Daisaku (1928-) ... [who] gradually led Soka Gakkai away from its narrow, quasi-fanatical mentality, and from the characteristic Nichiren nationalism — seeing Japan as the earth’s spiritual center — toward more emphasis on its cultural, world peace mission. He spoke often of “Buddhist Humanism,” and the Daimoku faith as the foundation of a “Third Civilization” — a new world for the third age of the Dharma, in which the planet would finally find peace, prosperity, culture, and happiness for all. Ikeda’s proudest accomplishments were his dialogues with world leaders and religious figures, including the Pope and the Dalai Lama, and the great world peace conventions sponsored by Soka Gakkai, which included distinguished delegates from many faiths and nations.
       At the same time, there were problems. Not only was Soka Gakkai plagued by criticism and by declining levels of membership and participation as Japan became more prosperous and secularized, but the movement suffered tension between the technically lay leadership of Soka Gakkai and the priests of Nichiren Shoshu, the parent but much smaller (apart from Soka Gakkai) religious sect. The latter demanded authority which the lay group saw as unwarranted interference in their vast, modern, smoothly-running organization, including the administration of a great new temple, the Taisekiji, being built at the foot of Mount Fuji. On the other hand, Soka Gakkais contended that Nichiren Shoshu priests, now mostly married and passing on their high positions by heredity, sometimes to persons with no true calling and unworthy of priestly office, were in effect little better than privileged laymen and had no real right to rule over the spiritual lives of Soka Gakkai members. (IJR, 220-1)
 
In 1991, following an increasingly intensified power struggle between the New Religion Soka Gakkai as a lay organization, and the Buddhist denomination Nichiren Shoshu as the formal parent body and priestly institution, the two bodies permanently separated. From the Nichiren Shoshu viewpoint, this parting was excommunication of a recalcitrant subgroup. From Soka Gakkai’s vantage point, their departure from Nichiren Shoshu was voluntary, an active choice to free a lay Buddhist movement from the restraints of an irrelevant and outmoded priestly establishment. (Japanese Religion, 203)
 
Photo of Nichiren temple with its Gohonzon removed (by Nichiren Shoshu)
 
Icon representing "old wine in a new bottle"
Asahara Shoko, founder of Aum Shinrikyo, on the cover of Time magazine
The most famous — or infamous — of the New-New Religions is Aum Shinrikyo, organized in the 1980s by Asahara Shoko around a mixture of yoga, rigid asceticism, and mystical realization. Although Aum Shinrikyo was relatively successful in attracting followers and amassing an impressive capital base, its growth did not come close to that of some of the other New-New Religions, and it failed to attract members from other groups. Aum’s leaders, frustrated by the group’s inability to develop a large movement and its failure in electing political candidates, resorted to extreme measures. Asahara and members of his group were implicated in abduction, murder, and the 1995 poison gas attack in the Tokyo subway system that killed twelve people and injured thousands. In mentioning so briefly such a controversial subject, we must stress two points: first, Aum Shinrikyo shares many features with the New Religions, especially the New-New Religions — including the presence of a charismatic leader, faith healing, and adaptations of Indian forms of meditation; second, Aum Shinrikyo represents a rare instance of a New Religion resorting to violence against the people and the government to further its ends. (Japanese Religion, 196)
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Kiriyama Seiyu, founder of Agonshu
Kiriyama Seiyu and the Development of Agonshu
Agonshu was founded as recently as 1978 and has come to prominence largely since the beginning of the 1980s although its roots trace back to an earlier religious group founded by Kiriyama in 1954. ... Kiriyama exemplifies many of the characteristics of the powerful individual figures discussed in Chapter 5, for it is his dynamic teaching, spiritual power and charisma, coupled to his talent for proselytisation, organisation and development that have been at the core of Agonshu’s contemporary prominence. ...
 
Click for video of waterfall purification ritual (misogi)
 
By undertaking a long period of ascetic practice, standing under waterfalls, meditating, fasting, reciting Buddhist prayers and making offerings to Kannon, he came to realise that he had been surrounded by karmic hindrances (specifically, unhappy ancestral figures) that were the root cause of his failures. His religious practices served to eradicate these hindrances and, at the same time, to build up a small group of followers. In 1970 Kannon appeared to him in a dream and told him he had eradicated the encumbrances of the past (in Agonshu terminology he had ‘cut his karma’ — karuma o kiru): henceforth he was no longer a seeker but a guide for others and was to go out and help others ‘cut their karma’ and find salvation. ...
 
Tantric bell and vajra, representing the "esoteric" (mikkyo) nature of Agonshu together with "agama" texts representing early Buddhism, prior to Mahayana
 
His following remained small, despite a general if passing interest in [his] expression of potential esoteric power. In 1978 he changed the name of the organisation to Agonshu after ‘finding’ new, hidden truths that form the core of Agonshu’s subsequent growth in the 1980s. This discovery came through reading the Agama (Japanese: Agon) sutras, early Buddhist texts that pre-date Mahayana and esoteric Buddhism and that had been accorded little importance in Japan, especially when compared to major Mahayana texts such as the Lotus Sutra. By reading the Agamas in the light of his esoteric training Kiriyama was able to ‘see’ their inner truths that had long been overlooked and find in them a direct and rapid path to Buddhahood not just for the living but for the spirits of the dead as well. Kiriyama saw a powerful fusion between the essential truths hidden in the Agamas (which are proclaimed by Agonshu as the essence of original Buddhism) and the esoteric knowledge that had evolved since they were transcribed and that he had mastered through his austerities and command of ritual performances. The two in tandem could be synergised into a potent structure through which to overcome all spiritual hindrances, release unhappy spirits from their turmoil and liberate the living from the karmic hindrances that were blocking their own happiness. (Religion in Contemporary Japan, 208-11)
 

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Image of "family karma" with the words "Family Karma: How to Rlease Energetic Ties From Your Ancestors"
Liberating the Ancestors
Apocalyptic Fears & Messianic Optimism

Agonshu’s basic teaching is that it alone, because of the unique configuration of understanding and teaching that it has acquired through the marriage of the hidden truths of the Agamas and the ritual performances of esotericism, is able to perform the correct rites to liberate the souls of the dead. This, it asserts, is a vital role because of the vast numbers of households tainted with some spiritual misfortune from the past. If unchecked these will cause people in the present to suffer, with the result that they will die unfulfilled and angry, leading to a greater escalation of problems and further turmoil for future generations, not just on personal or household levels but on a broader, national and world scale. ...
 
Agonshu Star Festival
 
It is only through recognising this plight via the enactment of religious rituals that eradicate the sufferings of the dead and lead them to Buddhahood (jobutsu), a role only Agonshu is fully capable of performing, that the roots of spiritual interference, and hence of contemporary problems on all levels, can be dealt with. Through the purificatory powers of its fire rites Agonshu can liberate the souls of the dead and transform them into benevolent spirits, thus removing the potential dangers. (Religion in Contemporary Japan, 212-3)
 
Image of Nostradamus with his book of Prophecies
 
Like many new religions Agonshu expresses a messianic view of world doom underpinned by assertions that such an ending will be averted through its own salvific powers. ... Agonshu argues that only by going to the heart of the problems through looking at their spiritual causes rather than toying with superficial political answers that have, in any event, failed, can any solution to the crisis of contemporary society be found. A dramatic Agonshu video ... expounds these themes dramatically, suggesting that the ruin foretold by Nostradamus could come by the end of the [twentieth] century as a result of the escalating hordes of unhappy spirits unless a religious answer is found that gets to the core of the problem by dealing with the souls of the dead themselves. The video makes it clear that such a solution may be found in Agonshu’s methods of pacifying these spirits and enabling people to live positive and fulfilled lives: hence it can, and will, save the world. It further affirms Agonshu’s chosen role by describing how Kiriyama, while visiting the site of the first Buddhist monastery at Sahet Mahet in India, received a ‘vibration’ directly from the Buddha himself. This transmission confirmed his sense of purpose and made him realise that his mission was to revive Buddhism for the modern world: thus he was to build a ‘new Sahet Mahet’ in Japan, at Agonshu’s headquarters at Yamashina near Kyoto, from which Agonshu will spread peace across the globe. (Religion in Contemporary Japan, 214-5)
 
Agonshu headquarters at Yamashino
Icon representing "old wine in a new bottle"
Photo of the "True Relic of the Buddha"
The “True Relic of the Buddha”
In 1986 President Jayawardene of Sri Lanka presented to Agonshu a casket said to contain a genuine bone relic of the Buddha. This relic (known in Agonshu as shinsei busshari, ‘true relic of the Buddha’, but generally shorted to busshari) ... has been widely publicised by Agonshu as a major legitimation of its teachings and as the only true relic that is properly venerated in Japan. Perhaps more important still, the busshari or relic has become the main image of the religion, interpreted as the Buddha incarnate, containing immense power that has been unlocked by Kiriyama via his performance of esoteric rituals and his use of the ‘true essence’ of the Agamas. According to Agonshu an unique confluence has occurred with the arrival of the busshari: the true manifestation of Buddha’s power (the relic), the true method of transforming spirits into realised Buddhas via the fire rituals and the Agamas, and the true teacher who has learnt these methods via a direct transmission from the Buddha. Taken together they represent a coalition of tremendous power that can benefit the lives of all.
 
Minitaure version of the busshari for Agonshu followers
 
Omamori amulet for exam successThe busshari has become the main focus of worship in Agonshu, considered to contain the powers to transform the spirits of the dead and liberate the wishes of the living. Members acquire their own versions of this relic in a casket that is a scaled down model of the one holding the busshari. The casket contains a stone, sacralised by rituals performed before the ‘real’ relic and thus transformed into manifestations of the relic itself: the process is similar to that through which o-mamori and fuda become the essence of a Buddha or kami. Until the acquisition of the relic members used to perform a 1000-day-long practice that involved reciting a set series of prayers each day before an image of Kannon: this practice gradually transformed their ancestors into Buddhas and released the members themselves and their families from all but the most serious spiritual hindrances (for example, a mizuko spirit); for this they would need to seek help from a leading Agonshu counsellor or Kiriyama himself. Now this 1000-day practice has been given up in favour of the simple veneration of the relic whose superior power, according to Agonshu, facilitates a swifter transformation of unhappy spirits and contented Buddhas who will then act as guardians, helping one towards increased happiness. (Religion in Contemporary Japan, 216-7)
 
butsudan
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Photo of the Hoshi Matsuri (Star Festival)
Agonshu’s Hoshi Matsuri (Star Festival)
The formal name of Agon Shu’s Hoshi Matsuri is the Fire Rites Festival – Agon Shu’s Hoshi Matsuri/Shinto-Buddhist Dai-Saito Goma Ceremony (Shinto-Buddhist Sacred Fire Rites). It is held on February 9, 2020 on the grounds of the Main Temple located in Kitakazan-omine, Yamashina-ku, Kyoto, and is the biggest annual event of Agon Shu. The Hoshi Matsuri has been held for the past 40 years, with more than half a million worshippers participating in this event. It is a well-known winter festival event of Kyoto. ...
 
Shingon's Diamond World Mandala

Shingon's Womb World Mandala
 
The great spiritual leader Kiriyama Kancho conducts the Hoshi Matsuri, or the Fire Rites Festival, through the secret teachings of Shinto and Buddhist realms mastered through his many years of training. Two Goma-dan, or giant sacred wooden pyres, are erected on the ritual grounds. Hosho Goma, which changes one’s luck for the better and brings treasures of life, is lit at Shinkai-dan, the Shinto Realm, and Kongokai-dan, or the Diamond Realm, of one of the giant sacred wooden pyres. Gedatsu-kuyo Goma, which venerates ancestors in order to bring good luck, is lit at the Bukkai-dan, or the Buddhist Realm, and Taizo-dan, or the Womb-store Realm, of the second sacred wooden pyre. ...
 

 
Each of us has a “birth star,” and the destiny and fortunes of each person are understood to be linked with this star. The Hoshi Matsuri is a Buddhist festival celebrating one’s birth star and the star governing one’s destiny for the coming year. The ceremony, conducted through secret rites of esoteric Buddhism, prays for individual happiness throughout the year, as well as for world peace and prosperity. Combining the great virtues of the Shinto and Buddhist realms with the Shinsei Busshari, or authentic relics of the Buddha, the Hoshi Matsuri brings the power of liberation and equanimity, in a rare opportunity for worshippers and participants to be blessed with extraordinary power and benefit. Kiriyama Kancho conducts the special rites and chants nine secret words repeatedly throughout the day. The festival starts at 7:30 in the morning and lasts until around 4:00 in the afternoon. The sacred fires rise tens of meters in height to the sky, from both of the giant pyres, and continue to burn throughout the day. Kiriyama Kancho and approximately 18,000 Agon Shu members and practitioners conduct the Hoshi Matsuri. ...

60 Zodiac deities of Baiyun Guan (White Cloud Temple) in Beijing
 
Special permission was granted to Agon Shu by White Cloud Temple (Baiyunguan) in Beijing, China, to reproduce the famous secret statues of the Sixty Zodiacal Symbols, and to erect an altar to these deities in Japan. These replicates, displayed on the day of the Hoshi Matsuri, represent the guardian deities of all people. In Chinese and Japanese tradition there is a sixty-year cycle in which each year corresponds to a particular deity. Each person has a guardian deity according to the year of his or her birth. The sacred statues of these guardian deities, which have been worshipped in Taoism, have never previously been allowed to be reproduced outside the White Cloud Temple. Agon Shu is the only religious organization to have been granted permission to reproduce these statues for public veneration. A temporary shrine on Agon Shu’s Main Temple grounds allow public veneration of these guardian deities on the day of the Hoshi Matsuri ceremony. (agon.org; cf. Religion in Contemporary Japan, 221-5)
Icon representing "old wine in a new bottle"
Tradition and Modernity
Mixing Old Wines in a New Bottle?

A Bullet Train in front of Mt. Fuji (represening the intersection of "tradition" and "modernity"