“Stone-mandalas and Empowering Fasting: The Religious Activities of Yudono Ascetics and Lay Devotees in the Edo Period”
The Kan’ei era (1624–1644) marked a boom in the diffusion of devotional practices related to the cult of Mount Yudono into the Kantō region. Among these ritual performances, there was the erection of fully carved votive stelae (tō 塔) with inscriptions and mandalic representations of Yudono Gongen 湯殿権現 and the sacred pantheon related to this numinous mountain. The votive stelae dedicated to Yudono Gongen were built to testify the successful accomplishment of ad hoc ascetic practices (shugyō 修行), which could last for years and were performed by lay members of Yudono religious confraternities (Yudonosan kō 湯殿山講) under the supervision of Yudono ascetics (issei gyōnin 一世行人) or Shugendō practitioners. Among these ascetic practices, there were forms of ritual fasting and offering ceremonies (fujiki kuyō 不食供養), which served the purpose of empowering (genriki 験力) the stele and taxonomically transforming it from a mere stone into a living non-anthropomorphic icon of Yudono Gongen. Once ritually activated, the stelae of Yudono Gongen worked as protector gods (shugo-jin 守護神) for the village and materially displayed the realization of vows (gan jōju 願成就) that were expressed by lay devotees at the beginning of the ascetic practice. The votive stelae donated to Yudono Gongen stood at the confluence of three types of religious and non-religious actors: lay devotees who acted as donors (seshu 施主); issei gyōnin and Shugendō practitioners, who played the role of religious sponsors (hongan 本願); and the stone-engravers (sekkō 石工), who took care of the aesthetic rendering of the religious discourses. Therefore, the votive stelae of Yudono Gongen represent an interesting example of devotional and ritual interactions between religious professionals such as issei gyōnin and Shugendō practitioners; groups of female and male lay devotees belonging to various religious confraternities; an highly specialized artisans such as the stone-engravers who worked in the stone quarry of the Kantō region.