Big Dipper cult and Myoken worship in Japan

Since Yayoi times, the Big Dipper/Little Dipper etchings have been found carved on pottery for ritual use, so it can be assumed that some symbolism or ritual significance has been attached to the stars in the constellation since those times.

From the 8th century, a North Pole-cum-Big Dipper cult known as Myoken cult was recorded to have been practised at the Japanese court in 785 AD (Source: Nakamura p. 85).

Stories of Myōken’s miraculous powers appeared in the early 9th century Nihon Ryōiki 日本霊異記 (aka Nihon Rei-iki or Nippon Reiiki). The full title of this text is Nihonkoku Genpō Zen’aku Ryōiki 日本国現報善悪霊異記, commonly translated as “Miraculous Stories of Karmic Retribution of Good and Evil in Japan.” In this book of Buddhist legends, Myōken appears in the form of a deer to help

(1) devotees recover stolen silk robes and

(2) to help worshippers discover a thief (a temple acolyte who steals money from the donations of Myōken devotees).

In another story from the same text, a fisherman whose boat is destroyed in a storm is rescued from certain drowning because of his faith in Myōken. Source: The Nihon Ryōiki of the Monk Kyōkai, translated and edited by Kyoko Motomochi Nakamura, published 1973; see pages 85, 149, 229, and 266-267>

According to the source JAANUS:

“Myōken is an amalgamation of the Shintō deity Myōken Shin 妙見神 and the deity of the Northern Polar Star (Little Dipper). Originally a deification of the Polestar (Hokushin 北辰) but later also regarded as a deification of the Big Dipper (Hokuto 北斗) because of confusion between the two.

Although popularly regarded as a Bodhisattva 菩薩, and usually referred to as Myōken Bosatsu 妙見菩薩, properly speaking s/he belongs to the category of divinities called TEN 天 (Skt. = Deva), and in the Jimon 寺門 branch of the Tendai 天台 sect she is equated with Kichijōten 吉祥天. She is invoked in particular for apotropaic purposes and also for the healing of eye diseases.

At Onmark Productions, Big Dipper ritual worship is equated with Myoken worship and explained as having had its origins in the Chinese folk worship of the North Pole Star.

Myōken 妙見 (Skt. = Sudrsti, Sudarśana) worship was a system of worship involving the deification of North Pole Star & Little Dipper. Below extracted from the Onmark Productions site:

Myōken imagery is commonly combined with representations of the Seven Stars of the Big Dipper and it is the deification of the North Pole Star (Hokushin 北辰) of the Little Bear constellation (Ursa Minor), as well as the deification of the Big Dipper (Ursa Major). The term Myōken 妙見 literally means heavenly eyes, heavenly sight, penetrating sight, one who sees all, or simply “good eyesight.” In Japan, worship of the northern Pole Star along with the seven stars of the Big Dipper (Hokuto Shichisei 北斗七星) is a syncretic blend of Buddhism, Taoism, Onmyōdō 陰陽道 (Yin-Yang Divination), and local kami cults, but it is especially important within Esoteric Buddhism, and from the Heian period (794-1180) onward, Myōken was venerated under various guises as the central star controlling all other celestial bodies, one believed to control the life and fortunes of the people, one who protected not only the emperor and country, but also warded off diseases, prevented calamities of fire and other disasters, increased life spans, and healed eye diseases. As a deification of the Pole Star, Myōken was also worshipped as the deity of safe voyages and navigators. In Japan, even today, s/he is venerated at both Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines.

Myōken goes by many different names in Japan. The Japanese court regarded the Pole Star as an imperial symbol and worshipped its deification as Sonshō-ō 尊星王 (Sonjō-ō, Sonsho-o, Sonsei-ō; the “Monarch of the Venerable Star”), but in the eastern provinces and among samurai warriors, the deity was venerated as Myōken 妙見, Myōken Son 妙見尊, or Myōken Daibosatsu 妙見大菩薩. In Yin-Yang circles (Onmyōdō 陰陽道), the deity was prayed to as Chintaku Reifujin 鎮宅霊符神, who in turn was sometimes known as the Taoist deity Taizan Fukun 泰山府君 or Taiichi 太一, the Great One. <Source: Lucia Dolce, pp. 16-17, The Worship of Stars in Japanese Religious Practice.> As a deification of the North Pole Star, Myōken is closely associated with the Little Dipper (where the north star is located). But because of confusion between the Little Dipper and Big Dipper, she is also known as Hokushin Bosatsu 北辰菩薩 (Pole Star Myōken), Hokuto Myōken Bosatsu 北斗妙見菩薩 (Big Dipper Myōken), or Hokuto-ten 北斗天 (Deva of the Big Dipper).

Myōken is also held in high esteem, even today, by Japan’s Nichiren sect, for the deity reportedly assisted sect founder and radical reformer Nichiren Shōnin 日連上人 (1222-82). Among samurai and peasants, Myōken is considered the guardian of warriors, horses, and farmers, and is worshipped in this role especially at sacred Mt. Myōken in Nose 能勢妙見山 (near Osaka), a Nichiren stronghold, where Myōken appears as a warrior brandishing a sword over his head (see photo below). Horses were especially important in battle and in harvesting crops, hence the association with warriors and farmers. In the Jimon 寺門 branch of the Tendai 天台 sect, Myōken images resemble or are equated with Kichijōten 吉祥天 (the Goddess of Beauty, Fertility, Prosperity, and Merit).

Myōken Iconography & Rituals
Although considered a Bosatsu (Skt. = Bodhisattva), Myōken is more properly classified as a Deva (Jp. = TEN). Myōken’s attributes are not firmly set, and thus s/he comes in various manifestations in Japan. For instance, the deity generally appears with two or four arms, and is shown seated on a cloud or standing atop a dragon, or a turtle, or a composite beast known as the Kida 亀蛇 (half turtle, half dragon-snake). One of the most popular modern forms of

Myōken shows the deity standing atop a turtle (the ancient Chinese guardian of the north).


Modern Myōken Statue.
Atop turtle, holding sword.
Seven Big Dipper Stars in Halo source

Another popular modern depiction shows the deity as a warrior, holding a sword above his head and wearing helmet and armor.

In statuary and mandala artwork, Myōken imagery is commonly combined with representations of the Seven Stars of the Big Dipper. Myōken’s female form, in some locations, is considered a manifestation of Kannon Bosatsu and is venerated as the goddess of the home and prayed to for domestic harmony, as at Kōdō Temple 革堂 (the 19th temple along the 33-Site Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage). Other heterodox views identify Myōken with Shaka Nyorai (the Historical Buddha) or with Yakushi Nyorai (the Medicine Buddha).

The oldest extant representations of Myōken (see photos below) depict the deity with right foot raised and resting behind the opposite knee, while the hands hold the sun and moon discs (befitting icons symbolizing Myōken’s role as the supreme celestial deity, one “lighting” the way along the path of enlightenment). Such iconography is considered unique to Japan, for no trace of it can be found on the Asian continent. The sun disc sometimes contains a three-legged black crow, while the moon disc sometimes contains a hare and/or toad. Myōken also commonly carries a brush and tablet (on which s/he records our good/bad deeds). S/he is sometimes surrounded by a male Yasha-like creature holding an inkstone and/or a female attendant holding a tablet and brush, or depicted as a royal dressed in courtly gowns.

Some of the most important rituals devoted to Myōken, the Pole Star, and the Big Dipper include:

  • Myōken-hō 妙見法, the Rite to Myōken. Held in modern times during adverse weather or when natural disasters threaten society.
  • Hokuto-hō 北斗法, the Rite of the Big Dipper. Came to prominence during the Insei period 1086-1192. Held in modern times during adverse weather or when natural disasters threaten society.
  • Sonjō-ō-hō 尊星王法, the Rite of Sonjō-ō (aka Myōken). Sonjō-ō can be translated as “Monarch of the Venerable Star.” Performed to prevent calamities; one of four imperial rites traditionally performed at Miidera Temple 三井寺 (aka Onjōji Temple 園城寺) in Shiga Prefecture. Came to prominence during the Insei period 1086-1192 AD. In this rite, Sonjō-ō is considered to represent the entire cosmos (not just the Pole Star); the rite, accordingly, combines a multitude of celestial deities into a single visualization of Sonjō-ō. (Source: Gaynor Sekimori, pp. 234-236, The Worship of Stars in Japanese Religious Practice.)
  • Yamamiya-sai 山宮祭, or Mountain Shrine festival/rite, held from the late 9th century until the late Edo period by members of the Watarai clan of Ise priests at Okazaki Shrine 岡崎 (located on the grounds of the Jōmyōji Temple 常明寺, a Watarai clan temple midway between the Inner and Outer Shrines at Ise). Devoted to the worship of the Pole Star, the sun and the moon, and eventually to the protective deities of the 12 months of the year and the 28 Lunar Mansions. (Source: Mark Teeuwen, p. 91-92, The Worship of Stars in Japanese Religious Practice.)
  • Myōken’s Ennichi (Holy Day). The 15th day of each month is considered Myōken’s Ennichi 縁日, literally “related day” or “day of connection.” This is translated as holy day, one with special significance to a particular Buddha or Bodhisattva. Saying prayers to the deity on this day is believed to bring greater merits and results than on regular days. Since the full moon appears on the 15th each month in the old lunar calendar, it is an appropriate ENNICHI for Myōken. Says the Digitial Dictionary of Buddhism (login = guest): “The deity is understood to be in special charge of mundane affairs on that day, e.g. the 5th is Miroku, 15th Amida, 25th Monju, 30th Shaka. According to popular belief, religious services held on such a day will have particular merit.” <end quote> See Ennichi list for 30 Deities (Sanjūn Nichi Hibutsu 三十日秘仏; Japanese only).

In Japan she appears to have been widely revered as early as the Heian period, and in medieval times she came to be worshipped especially among powerful provincial clans as a tutelary deity of the warrior class, evolving into the partially Shintoized deity Myoukenjin 妙見神.

Compare the above Japanese rites with the known Big Dipper rites of China  that have survived till today and that are outlined below:

The system of Big Dipper worship rituals in China as known from Han times and outlined in“Pacing the Big Dippe”r, :

…there are only a few types of magical skills of Pacing the Big Dipper commonly used. In the Eastern Han dynasty, the Tradition of the Mighty Commonwealth of Orthodox Oneness ( 正一盟威道 Zhengyi Mengwei Dao ) taught the Three-Five Big Dipper Register ( 三五星綱籙 Sanwu Xinggang Lu ), in which were described the skills of the Pacing of the Dippers of the East, the South, the West, the North and the Center. Later appeared the Skills of pacing the Dippers of the Twenty-Eight Constellations ( 二十八宿罡 Ershibaxiu Gang ) and the Five Big Dippers of the Sun and the Moon ( 日月五星綱 Riyue Wuxing Gang ). They are commonly used.

The most common form of Pacing the Big Dippers is the Big Dipper of the Mysterious Pivot ( 北斗玄樞罡 Beidou Xuanshu Gang ). On the diagram of the Dippers, there are only seven Dipper stars. The names of the stars are used as the names of the steps to be made by the ritual master during his pacing forward, and the names of the star sovereigns are used as the names of his steps during his pacing back. The pacing of the Twenty-Eight constellations represents the 28 constellations in the heavens. In ancient China, the heavens were divided into 28 areas matched with 28 corresponding signs, which are called the constellations as the symbols of heaven. Pacing it symbolizes turning the Dippers around and crossing the Ji Constellation as well as moving around the heavens.

The basic function of Pacing the Dippers is to symbolize flying over the Nine Heavens, prohibiting evil things, and controlling spirits

The Big Dipper is also called the Celestial Matrix and the Earthly Pattern. So the first function of the Pacing is to pace the Dipper according to the Diagram of the Stars. It is thought that by pacing it the ritual master, crossing the Nine Quarters and patrolling the universe, has been to the Nine Heavens, flying over the realm of Immortals. A common diagram is the Great River Chart Dipper of the Open Valley ( 大豁落斗 Da Huoluo Dou ), which was originally the Big Dipper. The seven stars of the Dippers and the two stars Fu and Bi compose the Big Dipper Diagram regulated by the post-existent positions of the trigrams ( 後天卦位 Huotian Guawei ) listed on the River Chart. There are two types of them; one is used after the Winter Solstice and the other after the Summer Solstice. In the former, the ritual master starts from the Kan Trigram and moves to the Li Trigram ( 坎卦,離卦 Kangua, Ligua ), and in the latter he moves from the Li Trigram to the Kan Trigram. The nine numbers on the River Chart represent the nine areas of the heavens or the nine constellations: Tianying, Tianren, Tianzhu, Tianxin, Tianqin, Tianfu, Tianchong, Tianrui, and Tianfeng. The ritual master recites the incantations while pacing any one of them, pointing out the directions he is moving to, the symbolic meaning of the specific Dipper, and the power of his magic skill. For example, the incantation used when pacing the Dipper after the Winter Solstice says: “The Dipper is sublime at the 12 two-hour periods, and I take the Big Dipper flying over to exhibit mighty power with Vital Breath like the clouds. The seven stars move to interact with the heavens, so that we know the changes of good or ill luck. Pacing the Dipper by the rhythms, it seems I move into the Dipper, and the constellations through the Heaven Pass with the change of the time. Moving from Tianying up to Tianren, I feel cold as if the land has sunk down into a deep valley. Leaning by Tianzhu and bracing Tianxin, I ascend to Tianqin from Tianxin. In addition, I pass by Tianfu and look at Tianchong, going into Tianrui and out of Tianfeng. The passage of the Dippers is open, and the strong and weak mutually assist each other. Happiness and good fortune are increased and passed on to the descendants. I have stayed in the darkness for hundreds of years. I follow your steps after the Yang. The Dipper of the Open Valley is divine, so that it can dispel the devils. As a result, one can avoid the evils at the mouth of the Dipper. Promptly, promptly, in accordance with the statues and ordinances! Act as regent!” Through this incantation we may see that Pacing the Big Dipper mainly symbolizes flying in the sky, with the supernatural function of dispelling disasters and avoiding evils. The Dipper of the Twenty-Eight Constellations and the Five Big Dippers of the Sun and the Moon represent certain areas of heaven, fairyland, or paradise. The ritual master will visualize these scenes while pacing the Dipper. The Dipper of Bright Stars and Pearls ( 星珠熠耀罡 Xingzhu Yiyao Gang ) can be paced in two ways: the eight steps and the three steps. The Daoist paces it each time he offers incense. And he recites the following incantation while pacing: ” The imperial order of Jade Clarity is simple, with the separate scenes of the great Brahma. The original Dippers are flowing and changing with the stars and pearls over and around them. Promptly, promptly, in accordance with the statues and ordinances as the imperial order.” While reciting the incantation, the ritual master will visualize the three realms of Jade Clarity, Supreme Clarity, and Highest Clarity ( 玉清,上清,太清 Yuqing,Shangqing,Taiqing ), where the Lordly Spirits of the Three Pristine Ones ( 三清尊神 Sanqing Zunshen ) reside. The incantation of Pacing the Big Dipper mentions that by burning incense, the Daoist seems to have transferred starlight into the mortal world. A Daoist can succeed in doing so with the aid of such an incantation. This sort of Dipper pacing can also represent the Nine Quarters, which refer to the nine regions: Yong, Liang, Yan, Yang, Qing, Xu, Yu, and Ji. The ancient people symbolized the whole territory of China with them, so pacing the Nine Quarters implies the patrolling of all the land on the earth.

Pacing the Dipper has the additional function of prohibiting and controlling the spirits and superhuman powers. Originally the Steps of Yu and the Pacing of the Big Dippers not only indicated flying over the Nine Heavens, but also prohibiting and controlling the spirits and superhuman powers. In the course of their development, their functions became specialized. Some of them were chiefly practised to fly over the Nine Heavens, while others were used to control the spirits. For example, pacing the Dipper for Destroying Hell and Invoking Thunder ( 破地召雷罡 Podi Zhaolei Gang ), used as a Thunder Skill, can get rid of the Vital Breath of Yin and give off that of Yang, so that frightening thunder can be heard. When pacing the Dipper of Spirit Possession ( 附體罡 Futi Gang ) as a Skill for Summoning and Interrogating Spirits ( 考召法 Kaozhao Fa ), the spirits will adhere to specific children or other designated persons. Pacing The Numinous Dipper of the Divine Tiger of the Life-invoking Roar ( 召命神虎嘯命靈罡 Zhaoming Shenhu Xiaoming Linggang ) can invoke the Divine Tiger General ( 神虎將軍 Shenhu Jiangjun ), who can pursue and control souls in the darkness, when holding the ritual of Refinement and Salvation for Destroying the Darkness ( 煉度破幽 Liandu Poyou ).

The major functions of Daoist magical skills lie in transforming superhuman forces and controlling their changes with the aid of supernatural forces. And the immortals worshipped by Daoists live in heaven or in the grotto residences of the immortal mountains. In addition, one must have supernatural abilities if one wants to penetrate their world. Pacing the Dipper is thought to be effective in helping man to enter the immortal world. Therefore it is widely used as a basic type of Daoist skill.

Positing how Amaterasu’s attributes came to be merged with those of Myoken’s:

Origin of the Big Dipper

The Big Dipper1 is the mother of the stars of the Dipper. Her complete name is ‘Nine-Spirited Supreme Subtle Grandma Primordial Sovereign of the Night Rays and Golden Essence of the White Jade Tortoise Platform”2. She is also called ‘Pure Vital Breath Sovereign of the Big Dipper of Middle Heaven”3, ‘Primordial Queen of Supreme Simplicity, Purple Rays, Bright Wisdom and Kind Benevolence, and Heavenly Lord of Golden Perfected Holy Virtue”4. She is also called ‘Great Perfect Queen of Moonlight”5 and ‘Great Heavenly Healer Sage and Eastern Imperial Sovereign of Benevolent Salvation”6. She is usually simply called the ‘Big Dipper”, or ‘Primordial Sovereign of the Big Dipper”7. As the governor of the Pavilion of Heavenly Treasure8, the Big Dipper, “as the mother of the Dipper Stars, produces the brilliant eyes of all the heavens. She, with the Dipper as her terrestrial spirit and water celestial spirit, is in charge of life.”

…releases infinite subtle rays penetrating the Pool of Essence12. Nine golden lotuses, as incarnations of the rays, give out greater and greater light after seven days in the pood. The light rises to the Nine-Essence Heavens13 and transforms into the Nine Great Treasure Pavilions.” In the pavilions, the Nine Perfect Vital Breaths concentrate and manifest themselves as the Nine Emperors of the Dao Body: the first is the Heavenly Emperor14, the second is Purple Subtlety15, the third is the Lusty Wolf16, the fourth is the Giant Gate17, the fifth is the Store of Wealth18, the sixth is the Civil Chief19, the seventh is the Pure and Chaste20, the eighth is the Military Chief, the ninth is the Troop Destroyer21.

The Nine Emperors of the Dao Body22 are the Nine Stellar Sovereigns of the Dipper. According to the Seven Slips of a Cloudy Satchel23, “the Nine Stars are the numinous root of the Nine Heavens, the bright bridge of the sun and moon, and the ancestral abyss of all things. Therefore, Heaven has nine Vital Breaths corresponding with the Nine Stars as their numinous pivot; the Earth has Nine Prefectures with the Nine Stars as their spiritual master; Man has Nine Apertures with the Nine Stars as their Mansion of Destiny. The Nine Palaces of Yin and Yang refer to the Nine Stars for their doors; the Five Sacred Mountains and Four Holy Rivers24 correspond with the Nine Stars as their abyss and mansion.” The Big Dipper, as the mother of nine stars, is in charge of the production and life of Heaven, Earth and all things.


Worship of Myoken in the modern age

According to Sources: Kokugakuin University; and Mark Teeuwen, p. 92:

“The forced separation of Buddhism and Shintōism in the Meiji Period (1868-1912), shrines commonly replaced Myōken with a Shintō kami counterpart known as Ame no Minakanushi no Mikoto 天御中主尊 (Lord of the Center of the Sky).

Myōken worship suffered when the Meiji government forcibly separated Shintō and Buddhism (Shinbutsu Bunri 神仏分離) in the late 19th century. Between 1868-1875, when the government actively outlawed all fusion of the Kami-Buddha, the Buddhist deity Myōken was commonly replaced with the Shintō kami Ame no Minakanushi no Mikoto 天御中主尊 (a primordial ancestral kami), who then served as the chief kami of the seven major stars of the constellation of the Big Dipper (Ursa Major). Ame no Minakanushi is generally translated as “Lord of the Center of the Sky.” This kami appears in the Kojiki 古事記 (Record of Ancient Matters, 712 AD, Japan’s oldest record of its creation myths), and from 12th-century texts onward, the deity is generally interpreted as equivalent to the Pole Star. (Also spelled: 天之御中主神, Amenominakanushi, Amanominakanushi, Amaterasu). “

Says the Encyclopedia of Shinto:

“Japanese scholar Hirata Atsutane, in particular, propounded a theology wherein Ame no Minakanushi no Mikoto 天御中主尊 was chief kami of the seven major stars of the constellation Ursa Major. As a result of this influence, Ame no Minakanushi was made a central deity at the Daikyōin Temple in the early Meiji period, and he was worshiped within sectarian Shintō (Kyōha Shintō) as well. During the process of separation of Shintō and Buddhist objects of worship, the deity Myōken (the north star) was changed to Ame no Minakanushi at many shrines. <end quote> Many Suitengu Shrines throughout modern Japan still revere Amenominakanushi — which can be roughly translated as “Chief of All Celestial Deities,” thus retaining the nuance of Myōken’s exalted position among all stars. For an excellent review of Myōken in modern times, see story by scholar Gaynor Sekimori entitled “Star Rituals and Nikkō Shugendō,” which appeared in The Worship of Stars in Japanese Religious Practice., pages 217-250, edited by Lucia Dolce; a special double issue of Culture and Cosmos, ISSN 1368-6534. Elsewhere, says scholar Mark Teeuwen, p. 92: “At Ise shrines, from the 12th century onwards, Ise priests wrote texts claiming that the deity of the Outer Shrine at Ise was identical to Ame no Minakanushi (the first deity of creation in the Kojiki).” <end quote Teeuwen>

2 thoughts on “Big Dipper cult and Myoken worship in Japan

  1. […] ideas had arrived much earlier. The Myoken cult’s practices of the 8th century are well documented in the Nihon Ryoiki, and the change of the nomenclature of kimi to the polestar name Tenno pushes polestar and Big […]

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