The Cult and Statuary of Zaō Gongen
Kinpusen is considered to be the most representative sacred mountainous site of Japan. Since the opening of the mountain by En no Ozunu in the seventh century, numerous Buddhist ascetics have ascended this mountain to perform their devotional activities. According to legend, during the ascesis of En no Ozunu, Zaō Gongen manifested himself in the guise of a venerable statue for saving the sentient beings. The cult of Kinpusen was soon established as a branch of Shugendō in which En no Ozunu was the patriarch and Zaō Gongen attracted a lot of devotees as the main deity of this cult. However, the analysis of the sources about Zaō Gongen shows that a statue of Zaō was actually enshrined on Mount Kinpu for the first time toward the end of the ninth century, and was almost immediately concealed from the sight of the devotees for unknown reasons. It is possible to suppose that faith in Zaō Gongen took shape thanks to the proliferation of various legends, which were created after the removal of the statue. Moreover, Zaō was initially called “Kongō Zaō Bosatsu,” but the inscription on the metal cylinder used for the sūtra-burial performed by Fujiwara no Michinaga on Mount Kinpu is the first example of a new appellative as “Zaō Gongen.” This aspect can be interpreted as a gradual metamorphosis of Zaō from a Buddhist deity to a kami characteristic of Japan. In the background of mirror-icons and hanging-buddha plaques dedicated to Zaō Gongen and transmitted on Kinpusen, are portrayed retinues of yakṣa, mountains similar to Kinpusen, torii and all the kami of Yoshino. Even the formation of these aesthetic patterns for representing the background can be traced backed to legends about Zaō. It is important to consider that Zaō Gongen was ritually transferred to sacred mountains in various regions of Japan during the expansion of the Kinpusen cult: rituals were held in his honor, and his name was invoked in numerous offerings dedicated to Kinpusen. In these offerings, Zaō Gongen appears on mirror-icons, hanging-buddha plaques, gold and bronze statues, which were all associated with vows for their preservation until the descent of Miroku. After an x-ray fluorescent analysis of the gold and bronze statues, it is possible to understand that the creation processes often show imperfections in the casting and gilding phase due to an apparent rush to finish the object. The possibility exists that the statues of Zaō Gongen were used in a series of rituals, which included purificatory practices and mountain-climbing during the pilgrimages to Kinpusen.