Question no. 3: Was Tenri-O-no-Mikoto originally a Buddhist deity?

Q: I once read an article suggesting that the divine name of God in Tenrikyo was inspired by the Indian wheel-turning king, Tenrin-O. Is this true?

submitted by Full Colored Kings (real name withheld)

This is a complicated question. First of all, I would assume that most Tenrikyo followers have never heard of the mythical wheel-turning king. I would imagine the vast majority of followers take it for granted that God the Parent’s “divine name” was always Tenri-O-no-Mikoto and it was not until God the Parent became “revealed” through Oyasama, the “Shrine of God,” that it came to be known for the first time. From an adherent’s standpoint, we may safely assume say the answer would be “No.”

But let us consider the question from a religious studies perspective. I am familiar with religious historian Murakami Shigeyoshi’s assertion that Oyasama taught the chant “Namu Tenrin-O” 南無転輪王 instead of “Namu Tenri-O-no-Mikoto” 南無天理王命 as it is written in The Life of Oyasama. (Just to make clear to those out there who cannot read the kanji or Chinese characters here: “Tenrin-O” is written with characters meaning “turning-wheel/disc-king.” “Tenri-O-no-Mikoto” is written with characters meaning “heaven-truth/principle-king.”)

Murakami insisted that it was only natural for Oyasama—who was deeply devoted to Jodo Buddhism early in her life — to call God the Parent Tenrin-O, the wheel-turning king who was the suijaku (earthly manifestation) of Amida Buddha, the main object of veneration in Jodo.

First of all, while I admit I do not necessarily devote all of my time reading Buddhist literature, I have yet to come across anything that backs Murakami’s assertion up. But for argument’s sake, let’s say that he is right: Tenrin-O was considered the earthly manifestation or avatar of Amida. Oyasama, being that she venerated Amida in her youth, gave the name of this legendary figure to God the Parent.

But the following questions nevertheless come up: Was worship of Tenrin-O prevalent in her day and age? Did other temples promote belief in the wheel-turning king?

Even so, it still does not answer the question why the “Ten” of “Tenrin-O-no-Mikoto” was written with the character “heaven” (not “turning”) in most surviving Tenrikyo documents. (The first appearance of Tenri-O-no-Mikoto, interestingly enough, dates only to 1885.) According to Tenrikyo scholar Hayasaka Maasaki, the only time the “Ten” or “Tenrin-O” was written with the character for “turning” was for Shuji’s brief but unsuccessful attempt to have his mother’s religious movement be legally recognized as a follower’s association directly supervised by a Shingon temple. (Makes sense, they were trying to fake the authorities by claiming, at least in their paperwork, venerating a “Buddhist” deity.)

It should be noted here that neither “Tenri-O-no-Mikoto” or “Tenrin-O” appears in Oyasama’s own handwriting. It is unknown first of all whether she ever wrote the Mikagura-uta down on paper. The only Scripture that survives in her writing, the Ofudesaki, refers to God the Parent as “Kami” (“God”), “Tsukihi” (Moon-Sun), or “Oya” (Parent). The fact that the divine name is missing from the Ofudesaki may be attributed to how the nine (or ten) kana characters of Tenri(n)-O-no-Mikoto does not easily lend itself to fit in the 5-7-5-7-7 form of waka poetry which the Ofudesaki is written in. (For those of you counting on your fingers, “O” would be counted as two kana characters.)

Also, one would imagine that if Oyasama was the “Shrine of the wheel-turning king,” this would be a kind of refutation of one of the so-called five obstructions that supposedly prevented women from attaining Buddahood.

A woman was said to unable to become a Brahma, a Shakra, devil king, a wheel-turning king, or a Buddha. I would imagine that if Oyasama had been able to convince others she was not only a living god, but also a physical manifestation of a wheel-turning king, that would have been a great blow to the misogynous tendencies of Buddhism of the time, potentially signaling to others that salvation was not only open to everyone but also that some assertions of Buddhism were untrue.

To be fair and objective, I would say that it is impossible to confirm whether Oyasama taught the divine name as Tenrin-O or Tenri-O. But seeing the writings of followers, we must concede that many did write the divine name as Tenrin-O as “heaven-disc-king” 天輪王.

Could this be a reflection of the understanding that this was the divine name of Tsukihi, Moon-Sun, or God symbolized by two “heavenly discs”?

It is interesting to note that in Song Nine, verse 8 of the Mikagura-uta, the phrase “Tenri-O no Tsutome” (“Service of Tenri-O”) appears. The hand movements have one pointing up during “Tenri” (symbolizing heaven?) and making a circle with both index fingers during “O no” (heavenly disc???).

At this point, some of you who are followers may be asking yourselves, “Wait, does this mean that we’re saying God’s name wrong?” No, I don’t think so.

Though the first time “Tenri-O-no-Mikoto” as it is written today can be found in a document is only from 1885, this was still during Oyasama’s physical lifetime. One would imagine that she would have brought it to followers’ attention if they were making a mistake by writing the divine name that way.

Also, “Tenri,” as how I understand it, “cosmic law,” is arguably more encompassing than “heavenly discs” and one could make the argument that Oyasama was guiding followers to this understanding step by step all along.

The Honseki Iburi Izo was asked once about this very controversy over the divine name and he said that it was always “Tenri-O-no-Mikoto.” As a follower myself, that’s good enough for me.

*Note: This post has been revised since its original publication.