Child Guardian Spirits (Gohō Dōji) in the Medieval Japanese Imaginaire

Child Guardian Spirits (Gohō Dōji) in the Medieval Japanese Imaginaire

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Child Guardian Spirits (Gohō Dōji) in the Medieval Japanese Imaginaire

By Irene H. Lin

Pacific World Journal, Third Series No.6 (2004)

Introduction: The rise of the cult of gohō dōji, guardian or servant spirits in the form of boys, was a particular medieval Japanese phenomenon vividly captured in both narrative accounts and visual representations. In illustrated scrolls (emaki) of this period, we often see strange-looking boys attacking malevolent spirits, acting as mediums in possession and exorcism rites, or appearing as attendants and saviors of monks or other practitioners of Buddhism. Frequently they served as attendant spirits of esoteric deities, such as Acalanātha (Fudō Myōō), Sarasvatī (Benzaiten), and Vaiśravaṇa (Bishamonten). More generally, these child guardian spirits were personally attached to priests and hermits who had acquired power and holiness through their practice of austerities.

Rather than uncovering the origin or development of the cult of itself, this paper will examine the discourse and the symbol of gohō dōji. The discourse on gohō dōji extended beyond esoteric Buddhist texts to the larger Buddhist literature, such as Dainihonkoku hokekyōgenki, Kokonchomonjū, and Konjaku monogatarishū, and further on to the broader Japanese literature, such as Genji monogatari, Heike monogatari, and Uji shūi monogatari. Moreover, gohō dōji became a symbol that permeated other religious traditions beyond the Tendai and Shingon circles, unifying or organizing the magical beliefs of the medieval Japanese regarding guardian deities or servant spirits. For example, in Onmyōdō (“the way of yin and yang,” that is, Daoism), servant spirits such as shiki gami (ritual deities) or shiki ōji (ritual princes) came to be identified with gohō dōji during the medieval period. In Shugendō, we also find guardian dōji, or ōji, attending to the needs of shugenja, or yamabushi (practitioners of Shugendō), and protecting them. Similarly in folk religion, the guardian deity of the household was a child, the zashiki warashi (parlor child), who could bring fortune or misfortune to the house in which he or she resided.

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