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Religious Drift: the Tenrikyo

The inclination toward the drift in religious thinking that went as far back as ancient Mesopotamia and Greece was alive and well in 19th century Japan, taking shape in a new sect called the Tenrikyo. It would have some similarities with the drift that would be taking place in the United States into the 20th century.

In the early 1800s, Nakayama Miki (surname first) was married at twelve to the eldest son of one of the most affluent families in town. She gave birth to seven children, three of whom died. Her husband was self indulgent and led an idle and dissipated life. Miki lived according to the moral and ethical duties for women taught by the Buddhist sect to which she had belonged since childhood. She saw wives of poor farmers working everyday alongside their husbands, appearing to be happy, and she was not. She was exhausted after years with the wealthy Nakayama family. She concluded that poverty was a starting point for happiness.

At the age of forty, Miki's son suffered from leg pains. An exorcist was called and failed to relieve his pain. Another exorcist was called and Miki took the place of the female shaman who was to accompany the exorcist. Spontaneously during the exorcism she began uttering words – as if speaking in tongues. It was a conversion moment for her. Her son's leg pains are reported to have been relieved. She renounced her family wealth and began a new career relieving suffering among poor people. She became a practitioner of safe childbirth, and she helped others in pain. She developed a reputation as a healer and acquired a following.

As her following grew, it became a target of criticism by established religious leaders and journalists. Miki died at the age of 88, in 1887 – two years before the Meiji constitution went into effect. Miki left behind a new sect, the Tenrikyo, and it was considered by authorities as one of those not protected by the Constitution. In 1896, with the Tenrikyo in mind, the Meiji regime ordered a ban on new religions that the government considered heretical. Charges against Tenrikyo included indiscriminate socializing between men and women, disregarding medical science and compulsory donations. The government directive recommended increased police surveillance.

Tenrikyo labored on. During the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 they bought and helped sell government bonds. They donated money for assistance to soldiers going to war and for the war effort itself, to demonstrate their patriotism. In 1899 the Tenrikyo applied to the government for official recognition as a legitimate religious sect. The application was denied. A few more attempts would be made and would finally be accepted in 1908.

Tenrikyo, meanwhile, had accumulated a number of ideological points. Members viewed negativity not as sin but as dust that can be swept from the mind through ritual and genuine expressions of gratitude – hinokishin. They believed in a constructive attitude toward personal troubles and in avoiding judgments concerning the past. And Tenrikyo adherents believed in a single god, Tenri-O-no-Mikoto, whom they defined as the creator and caring parent of all mankind.

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.