Volume > Issue > Honji Suijaku: Shell Game of the Gods

Honji Suijaku: Shell Game of the Gods

MIX AND MATCH DEITIES

By Jason M. Morgan | July-August 2023
Jason M. Morgan, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, teaches history, language, and philosophy at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan. He is the author, most recently, of Law and Society in Imperial Japan: Suehiro Izutarō and the Search for Equity (Cambria Press, 2020).

In 2016 I went to New York City on a newspaper assignment. My editor had given me a budget for the trip, not an expense account. It was to my advantage, therefore, to book the cheapest flights and stay at the cheapest lodgings.

An Internet search solved both problems. With bargain-basement tickets in hand, I started looking for a place to rest my weary head in the city that never sleeps. I found a remarkably inexpensive place in Chelsea, some kind of cooperative. The online reviews were positive. Communal showers and restrooms — yikes, I thought, but okay, I’ll survive. Each guest gets a bed in a room the size of a walk-in closet, four walls but no ceiling, and some towels. The entire place observes monastic silence. Free bagels and bananas for breakfast, but no meat or dairy products allowed inside. Well, groovy. Cheap, clean, and available. Sign me up.

When I arrived, the vegan vibe was immediately explained by the décor. It was a Hindu co-op. There were posters of Vishnu on the walls, and other India-themed bric-a-brac on the counters and end tables. Exhausted from my trip, and with a full workday ahead of me, I checked in (in a whisper) and hit the hay.

The next evening, my newspaper labors done, I was back in my room with some time on my hands. So I flipped through some of the books on the small shelf over the foot of my bed, mostly Hare Krishna stuff and assorted subcontinental New-Agery, when one caught my eye. It was titled something like Christ and Krishna, though I can’t remember the exact wording. Jesus Christ, the overall argument went, was really an embodiment of the titular major Hindu deity. Krishna had gone among the Jewish people in the avatar of a rabbi from Nazareth.

What sprang to mind as I skimmed the book was a concept from Japanese religious history called honji suijaku, the mental mechanism of the Christ/Krishna assertion. It’s a shame that the term has not entered the English lexicon because it’s a concise, and accurate, way to describe something rather familiar. Honji suijaku is a five-dollar (five-hundred-yen?) phrase in Japanese, familiar to scholars of religion but probably not to the person sitting next to you on the train. But what it describes is everywhere in the Japanese past and present — everywhere in the world, in fact.

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