Q: Being that Tenrikyo is a religion from Japan, how is it categorized? Is it a Buddhist or Shinto tradition?
submitted by Paradise Plastic (real name withheld)
A: Great question, Paradise Plastic! I get similar ones all the time. Anyone who asks is understandably curious since Tenrikyo appears to share many elements with Buddhism and Shinto.
For example, like Buddhism, Tenrikyo shares a belief in reincarnation (yet is usually referred to as “rebirth”) and praises God the Parent by chanting “Namu Tenri-O-no-Mikoto.” Architecturally-speaking, the majority of Tenrikyo “church” sanctuaries are arguably quasi-Buddhist in style on the outside.
“Shinto” elements include the look of the wooden altars in Tenrikyo churches and followers’ homes; clapping as a form of worship (although done four times in Tenrikyo as opposed to twice in Shinto); and the fact that the most important ritual in Tenrikyo is called the “Kagura” Service. (“Kagura” happens to be a catch-all phrase referring to music and dance performed as an offering to a Shinto deity.)
But to give a straight-ahead answer to your question, Tenrikyo does not consider itself a Buddhist or Shinto tradition, but as an independent religious tradition based on the revelations of God the Parent through Oyasama (Miki Nakayama).
Granted, outside observers are more than free to make their claims that Oyasama was influenced by the religious traditions around her. For she is said to have been a devout practitioner of Jodo (Pure Land) Buddhism in her youth, once expressing the desire to become a Buddhist nun1 and had been initiated into “the mysteries of the Jodo sect” (goju soden or “fivefold transmission”), the highest instruction a layperson was allowed in the tradition, at the age of 19.2
Yet even from a religious studies perspective, it would be somewhat difficult to categorize Tenrikyo as a Buddhist tradition, since worship of Buddhist deities is not officially prescribed and Buddhist sutras are not part of Tenrikyo canon. Tenrikyo has its own set of Scriptures (Ofudesaki, Mikagura-uta, and Osashizu) that distinguish Tenrikyo as a distinct tradition from both Buddhism and Shinto.
Making the case that Tenrikyo is a religious tradition independent of Shinto is more difficult because of the complex history linking them.
To go into a brief account of the historical background of the time, Tenrikyo emerged from a rural backwater in Yamato Province (present-day Nara Prefecture) and became a national phenomenon during the Meiji Period (1868–1912).
In 1868, the feudal-based government was overthrown for a modernized monarchy (i.e., the “Meiji Restoration”). But since Japan was still a decentralized nation, the concept of Japan as a “nation” was still underdeveloped in the minds of the populace.
One of the first things the new government did to unite the nation was to standardize the deities enshrined at local shrines across the country to deities mentioned in Japanese mythology, which also formed the basis of the belief that the emperor was divine and descended from Amaterasu, the main deity in the new religious entity that is now known as “State Shinto.” Although Japan’s government gave religious freedom to its citizens, it was a conditional religious freedom, as all religious groups had to declare their loyalty to the emperor and the state.
Historically, Tenrikyo had no choice but to gain legal recognition as a “Shinto” religious group under what was called the Shinto Honkyoku (or Shinto “Main Bureau,” now known as “Shinto Taikyo”). Tenrikyo remained a “church” under the Shinto Honkyoku from 1888 to 1908. In 1908, Tenrikyo gained its so-called “sectarian independence” from the Shinto Honkyoku, making Tenrikyo the last of the so-called 13 Kyoha-Shinto (“Sect Shinto”) groups.
Tenrikyo ran into trouble from the very beginning because the divine name of God the Parent, Tenri-O-no-Mikoto, is not mentioned in the imperial mythologies and Tenrikyo teachings such as “everyone in the world are brothers and sisters” and its creation story implicitly denied that the emperor was divine, contrary to what was claimed by the state. There were occasions when Tenrikyo was forced to refer to God the Parent as “Tenri-Okami” and were banned from performing the Kagura Service as it was taught by Oyasama.
Tenrikyo could not openly reveal its true teachings and practice them freely until the end of World War II. That’s almost 60 years under forced Shinto rule. Further, Tenrikyo continued to be classified as a “Shinto” organization by the Japanese government until 1970, when it officially “repudiated its Shinto identity.”3
With the above issues in mind, it may be natural for most outside observers to perceive that Tenrikyo is similar to or still part of Shinto. Yet, I confidently imagine that the majority of Tenrikyo followers would assert the historical identity their faith-organization as a Shinto “sect” was forced upon them, and maintain their tradition as one that is independent and distinct from both Shinto and Buddhism.
*Note: This post has been revised since its original publication.