—O-take Dainichi Nyorai: An Unlikely Shugendō Icon                                                   

In the goho of the various Shugen sects various manifestations/'local-traces' (垂迹) of what in their 'ground essence' are Buddhas (本地), are worshipped, praised and recognised daily. In this article world-renowned author, researcher and Haguro Yamabushi, Gaynor Sekimori, explores the popular faith around O-take-Dainichi Nyorai (お竹大日如来 or 於竹大日如来), an Edo-period maid-servant. The historical exclusion and minimisation of the spiritual accomplishments of women makes the presence of Otake at Mt. Haguro all the more unlikely.

By popular account she was a common humble maidservant who gave all she had to the poor, leaving hardly any food for herself. She is said to have performed the most menial tasks with extreme diligence and achieved enlightenment through her discipline and piety. A group of mountain ascetics recognised her nature as that of the Cosmic Buddha Dainichi-Nyorai and she is often depicted with a halo or a shadow identifying her as a Buddha.

The Otake Dainichi-Nyorai Engi (Tale of Otake Dainichi Nyorai) is a three-volume picture scroll (e-maki) housed at Haguro Shugendo's Arasawaji-Shozen-in. The Otake Dainichi-do Hall built to honour her memory is said to have been built in 1666. The Origin-Tale tells the story of a young girl from a Sakuma household in Edo named Take. She was pious, disciplined and gave all she had to those suffering from hunger. Ascetics from Dewa Sanzan were given signs in a dream to seek out a woman in Edo in the househould of Sakuma. They found Take and her body was said to emit a great halo of light. She was worshipped and held to be a manifestation of enlightened activity. In the Edo period Haguro Shugen's Yamabushi spread the story of Otake, which for a brief period took hold of the popular imagination and achieved cult-like status.

The entire tale along with the picture scrolls can be viewed here (made in cooperation with Shozen-in Temple):

By Gaynor Sekimori.
Originally printed in CSJR Autum 2009 Issue 18-19

At the entrance to the pilgrim town of Tōge at the foot of Mt Haguro, the Shugendō centre in Yamagata prefecture, there is a hall dedicated to Dainichi Nyorai, the cosmic Buddha.

Nothing strange in that, you might say, except that the buddha here is considered to be manifested as a woman called O-take. Since Shugendō, as a practice, excluded women until the end of World War II, it always seemed strange to me that a (presumably) historical female should have been taken up as a cult figure by Haguro yamabushi, particularly since her earliest legend places her firmly in Edo with only a tenuous connection with the Dewa mountains (Haguro, Yudono and Gassan).

I had always thought, without too much evidence, that O-take’s connection with Haguro Shugendō must have been related in some way with attracting women pilgrims to Mt Haguro (which had always been open to female access). However, when I started looking more seriously at the question, something far more interesting arose, relating to political and social changes taking place in the seventeenth century, when the hierarchical and affiliation structure of religious centres was being restructured in response to Tokugawa religious policy. In particular, the cult seems to have been very closely related to the fortunes of one Tōge yamabushi family, Genryōbō. The O-take legend is woven of a number of strands, embracing Yudono, Haguro, and the Edo temple Shinkōin. The earliest reference is contained in a late 17th century chronicle called the Gyokuteki inken, in a record of the death of O-take, “the servant of Sakuma Zenpachi of Ōdenmachō” during the Kan’ei era (1624-43). It praised her for not wasting food and for feeding beggars, and stated that “a shrine priest from Mt Yudono” had recounted that she was the central figure in a triad, flanked by the Sakuma husband and wife, which existed there. 

A second version, which became the best-known, focuses on Mt Haguro. It was popularized through etoki (picture narrations) of 1740 and 1777, composed by Genryōbō, Haga Chūshin, when O-take was the subject of degaichō (public displays of religious icons and objects) in Edo. In the early part of the seventeenth century, they say, an ascetic associated with Mt Yudono wanted to see a living Dainichi. He was in the habit of visiting Mt Haguro and staying at Genryōbō’s lodging, and it was there he had a dream telling him to visit Takejo, a maid-servant of the Sakuma family in Edo. She was extolled for wasting nothing, straining food so as not to throw away even a grain, and giving most of her own food to beggars and hungry animals.

Genryōbō and the ascetic traveled to Edo and venerated her, and later the Sakuma family dedicated a statue of her at Mt Haguro, under the care of Genryōbō. The 1777 etoki version adds that O-take was an exemplar for women to preserve their wifely virtues, and that she promised women to protect their children Yamabushi revering O-take Dainichi at the beginning of the Autumn Peak ritual and descendents, and release them from the shackles of the five obstacles and the three dependencies.

A third strand represents a more shadowy connection, to an Edo temple called Shinkōin, originally in the precincts of Zojoji, said to have been the funerary temple of the Sakuma family, where O-take was buried. This version omits all mention of Mt Haguro, and rather stresses the virtues of O-take’s washing board (nagashidai), which the temple exhibited above its gateway. (There is a picture of Shinkōin in the Edo meisho zue showing the gate where the board was hanging, with stalls and crowds outside it.) The Shinkōin etoki mentions an ascetic priest associated with Yudonosan who prayed that he might see the living embodiment of Dainichi Nyorai.

After seven days of seclusion he had a dream of a golden pagoda in which there was an illuminated seat, but no figure. A priest told him the seat used to be occupied by Dainichi, but he had now taken form among human beings, as Take, a servant of the Sakuma in Edo. The centre stage of the tale though is taken by the washing board, reputed to have been bequeathed by Dainichi to benefit living beings. Those who reverently viewed this sacred object would without doubt be relieved of illness and catastrophes, be wealthy and long-lived, and have all their wishes granted. The Sakuma donated it to Shinkōin, and later it prompted in Lady Keishōin a strong devotion to O-take, and she donated a wrapping cloth and box for it.

It seems likely that O-take was a minor cult figure in Edo, revered for her “wifely” virtues as a paradigm for virtuous women. A Yudono ascetic may have initially been involved in popularizing the cult, but his role was later appropriated by Genryōbō of Haguro. How this came about is open to conjecture. But there is no doubt that Genryōbō was behind the enormously popular degaichō that were held four times in Edo between 1740 and 1849, and which in turn spawned a vast quantity of artistic and literary material in the nineteenth century. It is tempting to see Shinkōin’s entry on the scene as an attempt to take advantage of O-take’s popularity by offering Edo devotees a permanent focus of attention in the form of a sacred object authenticated by no less a person than a Shogun’s mother! But this did not prevent Genryōbō from exhibiting the “true” washing board, amongst other misemono, to the avid public during the 1849 degaichō, as a picture by Kuniyoshi in Gyokutei Senryu’s Ogen Otake monogatari illustrates.

Records held by Shōzen’in, the head temple of Haguro Shugendō, say that the O-take Dainichi hall was built in 1666, through the efforts of Genryōbō, Haga Sen’an (d. 1679), who became its supervisor (dōmori). Though this dating cannot be independently confirmed, the architecture reveals a sophistication that points to Edo craftsmen, not local carpenters, which supports the claim that the building was commissioned externally. But a map of 1687 refers to the existence of the hall, and it is also mentioned in the Sanzan gashu of 1710, in a temple guide (Sanzan annai shuhyo) of 1755 and in the official map of 1791. There is no reason why we should not accept the temple dating.

If Haga Sen’an died in 1679, he might well have travelled to Edo in the Kan’ei era and met O-take (who, according to Shōzen’in records died in 1638). However the exact circumstances surrounding the appropriation of O-take cannot be retrieved today, since any records that may have been preserved at Genryōbō did not survive the institutional changes of the first Meiji decade, when most of the leading yamabushi in Tōge became affiliated with Ideha Jinja, the shrine created out of the former shrine-temple complex in response to the government’s policy of separating kami and Buddha worship. The earliest independent record attesting to Genryōbō’s existence is 1667, when his name appears on a kishomon, and by the early 19th century the family was one of highest-ranking yamabushi in Tōge. While the wealth of other high-ranking Tōge yamabushi (called onbun) was based on the possession of “parishes” (kasumiba, dannaba) scattered around northern and eastern Japan, there is no mention of Genryōbō in the parish confirmation documents issued in the mid 1630s by Tenyū, the temple head (bettō). Parish relationships had already been forged by the time major institutional reorganization took place at Haguro, in response to losses suffered as a result of the turmoil at the end of the sixteenth century and to Shogunate policy designed to control religious bodies. Regulations (hatto) issued in 1613 placed all Shugendō groups under the authority of either the Tōzan or the Honzan lineage; institutions like Haguro could only exist under the umbrella of one or the other.

Yamabushi throughout the land were to be controlled by their own head temple and by local supervisors called furegashira, who might well be of a different sect. In 1641, Haguro asserted its independence by placing itself under the protection of Kan’eiji in Edo, the dominant religious power after 1614, thereby removing it from either Tōzan or Honzan authority. Temples in the Hagurosan complex, which previously had been Shingon, Tendai, Zen and Nenbutsu, all had to become Tendai. Subsequently the Haguro presence in Edo was consolidated by the placement in 1652 of ten supervisory priests (Edo jūrō) there to supervise Haguro yamabushi and act as liaison between Haguro, the other sects and the authorities. Very soon a number of dominant Jakkōji subtemples (collectively known as Honbō) were busy staking a claim to the burgeoning population and riches of Edo, employing lower ranking yamabushi to develop networks there on their behalf. Genryōbō’s appropriation of O-take must be considered in this context.

Genryōbō, as we have seen, did not possess any parishes, which were the basis of all onbun wealth and status. How then was the family able to achieve onbun status in 1778 and eventually become one of the largest landholders in Tōge and an official lodging of the bettō? With no income from parishes, and therefore pilgrims, what was the source of Genryōbō’s status and wealth? Could the O-take cult, developed by the Genryōbō ancestor Sen’an, have been the means by which the family achieved both? Had Sen’an been working in Edo some time prior to 1638 to foster personal relationships, with an eye to developing a parish (kasumi) there, and in the process made contact with the wealthy merchant family of Sakuma? Since it was too late in the day for an individual yamabushi to create parishes in the traditional sense, since to do so would have brought Genryōbō into conflict with the interests of the Honbō, he may have been spurred to develop his influence in another way. In other words, it was his association with the O-take cult that may have paved the way for his family’s fortunes.

Genryōbō was the supervisor of the newly built Dainichidō, but this position in itself could not have brought in enough wealth to establish the family as one of the most prominent in Tōge. Though a supervisor had complete control of the hall’s income, gained through the sale of talismans and amulets, and also through donations, he also had the responsibility to maintain the fabric of the building, which could be a burden in the rigorous northern climate. Where then did his wealth come from?

I suggest it was based on the income generated from periodic degaichō held in Edo. Although only four were held in the course of the Edo period (1740 [site unknown], 1777 [Atagosan Enpukuji], 1815 [Nenbutsudō, Sensōji], 1849 [Ekōin]), successful degaichō are known to have been very lucrative. Massive expenses were involved, as venues had to be rented from temples (yadodera), and special halls (kaichō koya) built on these plots. With success so very important, extensive advertising was essential to attract the populace. The participation of important people, such as the Shogun and his household, could make or break a kaichō, and weather was also a deciding factor. Not just the image itself, but objects related to the figure (misemono) and related attractions and events were also very important. A successful degaichō attracted huge crowds, making them very lucrative. For example the Zenkōji degaichō at Ekōin in 1778 drew 270,000 people per day over the sixty-day period, and the Naritasan degaichō at Eitaiji in 1703 made 2000 ryō profit over the same time.

Display and advertisement were the order of the day. In 1815 and 1849, yamabushi carrying banners, red umbrellas, halberds and swords, together with 200 people representing various confraternities and the Sakuma heirs, the Magome, escorted the statue to the venue, by way of places associated with O-take (Fukiokaya nikki [1804-68]). Etoki and related material were central to promotion. Genryōbō prepared etoki for all the degaichō, and in 1849 also took the opportunity to promote his own misemono. No records have been found recounting the financial success, but it is tempting to surmise that Genryōbō’s surprising prominence in Tōge society was largely due to the income received from the degaichō.

Ironically, O-take is probably better known among art historians than among scholars of religion or devotees. The degaichō of 1849 promoted a large volume of secular art and literature using O-take Nyorai as the topos. Around fifty different prints are known to exist, and these almost invariably transform her from a servant-saint into a “beauty”. They were created as souvenirs of the degaichō, and also in response to its popularity. They can be divided broadly into engi prints, with at least a semi-religious flavour (O-take as a servant, O-take as a teacher, O-take ascending to heaven), into prints exhibiting female virtues (O-take as a model servant), and into prints showing popular deities (hayari gorishoken). In literature too fictionalized extended biographies such as the O-take Dainichi Nyorai osanai etoki (1815) developed into illustrated novels where only the bones of the O-take legend remained (for example Takejo Ichidaiki, Kogane no hana sakuragi soshi, by Gyokuransai Sadahide, 1845-6) and even into Kabuki. For example, Futatsu cho oiro no dekiaki (1864) by Kawatake Mokuami (Shinshichi), combines, with little mutual relevance, the O-take setsuwa with a revenge episode.

One of last pictorial representations of O-take was made in 1933 by the potter, artist and banker Kawakita Handeishi (1878-1963). Here O-take appears as a pert young early-Showa beauty with no hint of her connection with Dainichi Nyorai. But in a satisfying instance of serendipity, the print was discovered in the family storehouse after the artist’s death by his grandson, a practitioner of Haguro Shugendō. Realizing the significance of O-take, he donated it to Shōzen’in, so returning O-take in her modern manifestation to the site of her transplanted cult.