Question no. 4: Is Tenrikyo monotheistic or polytheistic?

Q: I grew up assuming that Tenrikyo is monotheistic, believing in one creator God. Yet when I once opened The Doctrine of Tenrikyo and read Chapter Four, I see a list of ten Shinto deities. So what gives? Is Tenrikyo a monotheistic or polytheistic or what?

submitted by No Scope in the Morning (real name withheld)

A: Wow, another complicated question, to say the least. I think one way to answer this question is to quote the late Tenrikyo theologian Yoshinori Moroi from his critique of Henry van Straelen’s work The Religion of Divine Wisdom (hold on, this is going to be long):

“A fourth misconception is revealed in the contention that, while Tenrikyo was originally polytheistic, it subsequently became monotheistic. In support of this it is pointed out that at least in the beginning the Foundress’ idea of God was definitely polytheistic.

“This allegation raises a very important problem which calls for a discussion of the way of thinking which divides religions into polytheism and monotheism, and a consideration of what these terms mean.

“We must recognize at the outset that there are polytheistic expressions in older books written by Tenrikyo believers, and from this it may be concluded that Tenrikyo is a polytheistic faith. In particular the expression ‘eight myriads of gods’ (yao-yorozu-no-kami) was used in the Tenrikyo doctrine of the Meiji era (Meiji kyōten) as collectively indicating the God of Divine Wisdom (Tenri-Ōkami [天理大神]); but we should not conclude from this that the original teaching itself was necessarily polytheistic. As has already stated, Tenrikyo was able to attain independence only because it put itself in the category of Shinto, which is a polytheistic faith, and inevitably polytheistic ideas were adapted which naturally found expression in the prewar writings of the sect leaders. However, instead of examining such books, we should study the texts of the original teaching in order to gain a correct understanding as to whether the faith is really polytheistic or monotheistic.

“In this connection we must refer to the Ofudesaki and the Mikagura-uta, written by the Foundress Herself, and the Osashizu, which is a record of the oral revelations of the Foundress and Her disciple Izō Iburi. In these texts, there is no trace of polytheism. To be sure, we do find the names of ten kami but this should not be interpreted as polytheism.”1

Moroi sensei contends here that the ten sacred names found in Chapter Four of The Doctrine of Tenrikyo (originally from the Ofudesaki) “should not be interpreted as polytheism.”

The ten sacred names are more commonly referred to as “the ten aspects of the complete providence” of God the Parent. The theological claim is that the list of “ten Shinto deities” is not a list of actual deities to be worshipped to, but was just a way Oyasama happened to categorize the multifaceted nature of God the Parent’s providence.2

As for Moroi sensei’s mention of the Meiji kyōten, it must be said that this text cannot be considered a representative expression of Tenrikyo faith of the time since a majority of its contents were imposed upon the organization.3

I don’t understand why the Meiji kyōten is mentioned at all here but a description of its contents may have been a large part of van Straelen’s work. (It has been a long time since I read van Straelen, so I’m not sure.)

I would insist that the Kōki (“Divine Record“) narratives written by individuals such as Ryōsuke (or Ryōjirō) Yamazawa and Isaburō Masui are more representative articulations of the Tenrikyo faith. While I am only familiar with Ryōsuke’s Yamazawa poetic, waka version of the Kōki, I get a sense that many of Oyasama’s followers assumed that the ten “sacred names” she taught them were actual deities.

Further, despite Moroi sensei’s insistence that “there is no trace of polytheism” in the Tenrikyo Scriptures, it would be more accurate to say that it cannot be argued conclusively whether Oyasama regarded God the Parent as “ten,” “two,” or “one.”

To elaborate: while “Kami” (one of the three terms Oyasama uses to refer to God the Parent in the Ofudesaki; the other two terms being Tsukihi, or “Moon-Sun,” and Oya, “Parent”) has been translated as “God” in the official translation of the Ofudesaki, because the Japanese language does not have any grammatical way to differentiate between single and plural nouns (as with the English language by the absence or addition of an “s”), it really is difficult to make a case that Oyasama’s understanding of God was truly monotheistic.

The plainest statement in the Ofudesaki regarding this issue I am aware of is: “Listen! This origin is the venerable Kunitokotachi and Omotari” (16:12), which, for me at least, merely suggests God as being a divine couple at best. Yet, that’s just my personal assessment. I would imagine that the following statements better express the representative stance on the issue whether Tenrikyo is polytheist or monotheist:

“Turning. . . to the rituals of Tenrikyo, if Tenrikyo were polytheistic and the names of the ten gods meant ten separate deities, there would then be ten separate shrines and worship would be performed ten times in ten places. If Tenrikyo had two gods, two kinds of worship would be offered; but we do not have ten or even two separate shrines or any way of worshipping any deity other than the one God. We can definitely say, therefore, that the ten names do not mean ten separate deities.”4

The argument here is that Tenrikyo is monotheist since there are no separate shrines, altars, or sanctuaries dedicated to each of the sacred names or “kinds of worship” dedicated to each: only the Jiba-Kanrodai is dedicated to God the Parent at the Main Sanctuary in Jiba and only one altar is dedicated to God the Parent in Tenrikyo kyōkai (“churches”) located across the world, and this has been the case throughout Tenrikyo history. (I imagine it would be argued that the altars dedicated to Oyasama and memories of deceased predecessors, i.e., the “Memorial,” are categorically different and are not considered “deities” in this sense.) This is a compelling argument in favor of showing Tenrikyo as monotheist. Nevertheless, Moroi sensei further writes:

“Although the author of The Religion of Divine Wisdom states that present-day Tenrikyo is monotheistic, we do not necessarily emphasize this fact. The God of Tenrikyo is God the Parent, but we do not attach too much importance to the oneness of God. We believe in God the Parent as the Parent whose action is Tsuki-Hi, which means oneness in duality. Therefore, if anyone asked whether Tenrikyo is polytheistic or monotheistic, we can only answer that, while Tenrikyo is monotheistic, it is not limited to monotheism. The way of thinking which divides religions into the two categories of polytheism and monotheism is itself open to criticism. This is only one way of thinking, and we must insist that God the Parent is a different concept which transcends such limitations; and that this idea of God in the original teachings has never been changed.”5

Moroi sensei makes an interesting point that monotheism in Tenrikyo is not necessarily emphasized so strongly, something that can be an important aspect in Japan, where traditionally, the mainstream religious worldview leans toward a multi-verse populated by a variety of kami and Buddhas.

I have come across literature on the Internet that suggests there is a contingent in Tenrikyo whose adamant theological stance is that Oyagami-sama (“God the Parent”) is not one God, but two, a divine couple, but I have yet to meet anyone who claims to belong to this contingent.

Moroi sensei also calls into question the practice of differentiating between “polytheistic” and “monotheistic” religious traditions. I will go out on a limb a little here and suggest that while there is a tendency for some Tenrikyo theologians to insist that God is ultimately “one,” the issue whether Tenrikyo is polytheistic or monotheistic (or “pantheistic” as it is asserted on Wikipedia), is, at the end of the day, not quite an important one to address in the tradition.

It can be argued that they just happen to be labels that were devised to distinguish one’s culture from others. It is also possible to attribute this lack of insistence or emphasis on Tenrikyo’s monotheism to how the Japanese value ambiguity and eschew clear-cut statements, but such is the nature of Tenrikyo theology as I am not aware of anything in Scripture that makes a compelling, conclusive case for Tenrikyo’s monotheism.

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

**A comment on macrons that has nothing to do with the question that was asked:

I have added them in this post where I thought maybe they could be useful and because the text where I took Moroi sensei’s quotes from had them. This is the first post so far on where I have utilized them. I have a strange ambivalence toward macrons: surely, they are necessary in a technically sense to differentiate long vowels and short vowels when transliterating Japanese into roman letters. But I remember at one point where I thought to myself, “Enough!” since too many of them on one page annoys me with their pure anal-ity, if you will. So this comment is just a convoluted way of me saying that I am torn on the issue of using them at all. My academic training tells me I ought to use them where there are long-vowels; aesthetically, my intuition gives macrons a highly unenthusiastic “Meh.”


  1. “Critique on H. van Straelen’s The Religion of Divine Wisdom” in Tenrikyo: Its History and Teachings. Tenrikyo Overseas Mission Department, ed. Third printing, 1973: pp. 268–269.
  2. The Doctrine of Tenrikyo describes this as: “God gave a sacred name to each aspect of the complete providence and explained its workings.” I also would like to mention that, although the ten sacred names are Shinto-sounding, not all of them have corresponding equivalents in Shinto mythology. I have written about this in more detail in my second post in this particular thread at Tenrikyo Forum.
  3. Moroi later writes on p. 270 that “the Meiji doctrine was written by Shintoists.”
  4. Moroi, p. 269.
  5. Moroi, p. 270.