chapter  1
14 Pages

Coronation at Kōyasan: how one woman became king and learned about homeland security and national health care in ancient Japan


Technically, I was not trained as an anthropologist of religion. I was just in Kyoto conducting my dissertation research on esoteric Buddhist art and doctrine when I learned that the nearby mountain monastery of Kōyasan was offering lay initiations into the Diamond World mandala. This mandala is one of the two most important images in Shingon Buddhism, which is an early form of Vajrayāna or Tantric Buddhism that is characterized by elaborate rituals, secret initiations, symbolic hand gestures (mudrās), chanted mantras, and colorful mandalas. In Japan, this form of esoteric Buddhism is designed to connect the practitioner to Dainichi, the cosmic Buddha whose name means Great Light. It was October, and I learned that initiation into Shingon’s other main mandala called the Womb World would not be offered until May. I therefore jumped at the chance to witness this unique biannual event, even though I had never done participant observation before.