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Category: Buddhist temples in Japan

Maitreya’s Temple or Mirokuji in the Nara Prefecture

Mirokuji 彌勒寺

This story begins with my study of Hori Shitoku 堀至徳 (1876–1903), a neglected young Buddhist priest who went to Bengal as a result of his quest for the truth. It proved necessary to look into his initial teacher in Japan, Maruyama Kanchō 丸山貫長 (1844–1927), who initiated an attempt to reform Japanese Buddhism. This drove me to visit one of the temples where Kanchō resided as abbot, Mirokuji 彌勒寺 (simplified 弥勒寺, Maitreya Temple) in Dongo 土庫 (irregular reading), a small village in the prefecture of Nara. Thanks to the introduction by Professor Ikeda Hisayo 池田久代, Reverend Itō Kyōjun 伊藤教純—the current abbot—and his wife Taeko 多永子 extended a warm welcome.

Maitreya, the Buddha of loving-kindness

Everything began by being formally introduced to the main Buddha, Maitreya, whose statue recently came back after undergoing restoration work following its designation as an important cultural property (Jūyō Bunkazai 重要文化財) in September 2012.

Statued of Maitreya Buddha, carved in one piece around the tenth century

This amazing and elegant statue is more than a thousand years old .

Maitreya head, restored in May 2015

Its distinctive long earlobes—which display patterns representing Brahma’s net (bonmō 梵網)—helped determine the date when it was carved because they have been found on other artworks from the same time period.

Moreover, it was carved from a single piece of wood, except for the left hand added later. No other known ancient statue of Maitreya shares this feature, since many wooden Buddhist statues are hollow and made of two halves (yosegi 寄せ木) assembled in the last phase of  the statue’s completion. Another rare feature is that it represents Maitreya not as a Bodhisattva (Buddha to be in the future) as it is more common but rather as a full-fledged Tathāgata. Nothing more is known about where this statue came from, because it predates the construction of Mirokuji in 1538 (Tenbun 天文 7) as a temple commissioned by the Dongo 土庫 clan. It may have been linked to a period during which belief in Maitreya (miroku shinkō 彌勒信仰) was becoming increasingly popular during the Heian period. This type of messianic belief consists in believing that Maitreya represents the coming of a new cosmic Buddha, born five billion six-hundred-seventy million years after the Buddha Śākyamuni, who allows those still unaware of his teachings to come in touch with the truth.

Maruyama Kanchō and his family

In any case, Maruyama Kanchō is a fascinating figure, who was also a gifted calligrapher and, apparently gained access to the imperial court to teach the consort of Emperor Meiji. He married at the age of fifty and then divorced before marrying again… As a result, he had six children, five of whom survived and occupied various positions in local Buddhist temples belonging to the same branch of the Shingon denomination (Shingonshū Buzanha 真言宗豊山派).

A sample of Kanchō’s calligraphy

Maruyama Kanchō and Hori Shitoku’s ambitions for reforming Japanese Buddhism can be surmised by the petition they submitted in 1899 to the Interior Minister Saigō Tsugumichi 西郷從道 (1843–1902) for the recognition of their movement under the new name of “the True Teachings of Nonduality” (Funi Shinkyō kōshō negai 不二真教公称願).

You can find additional images related to this temple in the following gallery:

Oriental Cherry Blossoms: Cliché, Symbol of Impermanence, or What?

Kyoto is a place of contrast, and the quick transition from its freezing winter to an explosion of blooming trees is not the least of them. When is the turning point, then? One popular belief is that it coincides with the Buddhist ritual called Mizutori (technically Shunie 修二会 but known as Omizutori お水取り) taking place at the Nigatsudō 二月堂, a subtemple of Tōdaiji 東大寺 in Nara. It used to be performed between the first and the fifteenth day of the second lunar month but now takes place between March first and fourteen. Once this ritual involving a spectacular display of huge burning torches being shaken across the temple (Otaimatsu お松明) is over, this is is believed to mark the end of winter. You can watch a video here: This year (2015), the cold seems to have miraculously abated on March 13, right after the peak of this ceremony.

Now to the cherry blossoms. Let me introduce the topic with a picture taken today:

Well, this is so pink that it seems almost artificial. Maybe you prefer the white ones:

Aesthetically speaking, I think that the contrast between the various colors is what makes these trees so stunning for a few days:

These petals will soon scatter, following the universal law that whatever is composed eventually dissipates and returns to a state of dispersion. Of course, human beings are no exception but it does not prevent them from enjoying their own transitoriness or the flowers’.

Instead of pontificating about the philosophical implications of the above, dear reader, I want you to make your own conclusions. Let me conclude with yet another color:

Should you wish to see more, you can visit the photo gallery that I just created:

Taiwanese Chan in Japan and Reflections about Purity

Everyone living in Japan is bewildered by the unusual status of the clergy in this country, where Buddhist monks (there are also very few nuns) do not pay attention to the monastic precepts of their own tradition. A convergence of complex historical factors created this situation but the result is that supposedly ordained individuals are not held in high regard by the Japanese population, and that they are the object of ridicule in other Asian countries. Being currently conducting research on Taiwanese Buddhism, it was natural to visit one of their branch temples in Japan. Thus, I went to Pǔdōng Chánsì 普東禪寺, the Japanese branch temple associated with Zhōngtái Chánsì 中台禪寺, which is located in Kadoma-shi 門真市, slightly outside the center of Osaka. Here is a picture showing the outside of Pǔdōng Chánsì:

Pudong Chansi in Kadoma-shi, Osaka Prefecture

Pudong Chansi in Kadoma-shi, Osaka Prefecture

I was fortunate to be allowed to discuss with the Abbess, Venerable Shì Jiànxuān 釋見瑄, who speaks fluent Japanese because she used to be a teacher of Japanese in Taiwan. Among the topics discussed, I had to touch the delicate question of possible interactions with the Japanese Buddhist schools and ask whether any exchanges were taking place. The reply was that there were no such interactions, because both perceptions of values (kachikan 価値観 ) are so radically different. This was a very diplomatic way to hint at the gap separating a strictly monastic, celibate, and vegetarian clergy from the Japanese pretense of monkhood. More than a century ago, the Indian monk Swami Vivekananda was attracting attention worldwide after his spectacular interventions at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago and the following lectures he gave across the United States. Among Japanese figures impressed by his charisma and spirituality was Okakura Kakuzō, who hoped to invite him to Japan. Unfortunately, because of health issues, this project never came to fruition (although Vivekananda made a brief stopover en route to Chicago). In any case, barely one month before his passing, on June 14, 1902, Vivekananda sent a letter to his disciple Dhira Mata, also known as Mrs. Ole Bull or Sara Bull. It included the following passage relevant to the Japanese situation:

Modern Buddhism—having fallen among races who had not yet come up to the evolution of marriage—has made a travesty of monasticism. So until there is developed in Japan a great and sacred ideal about marriage (apart from mutual attraction and love), I do not see how there can be great monks and nuns.
(accessed March 30, 2015)
I think that it bluntly expresses what most observers feel about the hypocrisy of wearing a robe without making the corresponding commitment in terms of adhering to monastic principles. This boils down to the fundamental concept of “purity,” śauca in Sanskrit, often translated into Chinese as qīngjìng 淸淨. It also constitutes the first of the five observances (niyama) in the Yoga approach to training, which emphasizes mental and physical purity.
The puzzling question is why, although there are a few individual exceptions, there is no articulate movement within the Japanese clergy to return to the original Buddhist precepts. Without wanting to sound too pessimistic, I fear that this may be linked to the current crisis of Japanese Buddhist institutions, where they are compelled to close one temple after another because they lack resources and support from the public.