Although most Japanese readers will know almost instantly what you are talking about if you say 'onmyouji' or 'onmyoudou' to them, many Westerners do not have any concept of it. Despite the fact that concepts related to or derived from onmyoudou practices are a part of their entertainment...and sometimes even onmyouji themselves may be involved...they are totally unknowing of what it is, or even that they are watching it.
Then again, many who live in Japan and have grown up surrounded by onmyoudou practices and the legends of onmyouji do not actively practice any of its concepts and simply view it as an entertaining legend. It serves its purpose to them in entertainment and, to some, in the practices carried on in Shinto and ritual Buddhism that were inspired over the years by onmyoudou and assimilated into those other religions.
So perhaps the most appropriate question for a beginner in the field of actual onmyoudou would be, 'what is onmyoudou?'
The simple answer is that it is a spiritual path that incorporates many practices into a way of finding personal balance and applying it to one's world.
The more complex answer begins with an examination of the beginnings of onmyoudou and its history. Although history can only be definitively known by those who experienced it as current events, recorded history can be useful to us as a foundation of thought. We may think of it as a foothold, however precarious, amid a storm blowing around us.
It is thought that onmyoudou had its beginnings somewhere around the sixth or seventh century CE. Using methods prevalent in Taoist practices brought over by Buddhist monks, the way of thought incorporating the yin-yang balance and balance through five elements began to catch on gradually. Over the years it was refined to incorporate various elements of what was then cutting-edge technology in order to extend their practices to reading the stars for divination. Onmyouji used principles similar to modern-day feng shui in order to find auspicious positioning for buildings, especially those of state, and they were also often consulted in matters of the supernatural such as hauntings, possessions, and curses.
Onmyouji were thought to deal regularly with forces beyond most humans' comprehension, so it was only logical that they would be able to defend against those same forces. Most even kept a magical servant called a 'shikigami', although some kept more than one, similar to what modern-day Witches call a 'familiar'. It was not unheard of for onmyouji to act in more than one capacity by sending out their shikigami to resolve one aspect of a problem while the onmyouji himself resolved another.
During perhaps the strongest period of onmyoudou, the famous Abe-no-Seimei brought the title of 'onmyouji' great reputation and widespread fame. Said to be the product of a marriage between a kitsune...or magical fox being...and a human, Abe-no-Seimei was a plainly-spoken man with great power. He quickly became essential to the ruling families and was said to have had many great adventures, and at least twelve shikigami...truly no small feat!
However, after its heyday, gradually onmyoudou came to have its practices assimilated more and more by ritual Buddhism and especially Shinto. Eventually, some sources indicate, the Muromachi period saw closure of the schools formally teaching onmyoudou and the royal affiliation with onmyouji. Many crucial documents and recordings of onmyoudou practices were lost during this period, either destroyed or stolen. Precious little remains in terms of official documentation that might have been otherwise preserved, and for a period onmyoudou was even frowned upon and perhaps outlawed, which was undone during the Meiji restoration. However, by this time there was little left of the glorious golden age of onmyoudou, and the few who still practiced it and preserved this tradition were few and far between indeed.
Nonetheless, the romantic ideal of onmyoudou persisted on, especially in the legends of the beloved Abe-no-Seimei, regarded by many as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) onmyouji of all. It is through his adventures that many came to know about onmyoudou and onmyouji, and indeed the name Abe-no-Seimei is recognized by most Japanese adults and many Japanese children, so well-known is he!
Even outside of Buddhist and Shinto practices inspired by onmyoudou, in popular culture the romantic concept of onmyouji lives on as youths in animated series call upon game cards that come to life and do their bidding just like an onmyouji would a shikigami in days past. So even if they have been unable to put a label upon it, they know the concept as they had been born into it!
Although in recent years there has been something of a revival of interest in onmyoudou and onmyouji, chiefly through the works of talented authors and artists, there has surprisingly not been much in the way of revival of studies of the onmyouji. Perhaps this is due to much of it existing on in aspects of other beliefs, and since the Japanese as a people consider themselves generally non-religious this may be sufficient for many of them. But to those in Japan and abroad who feel the desire within themselves to engage as they can in this beautiful tradition, each in his or her own way, then it is for them that I compose this.
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