Today’s Kyoto is increasingly getting disfigured by Pachinko buildings, convenience stores, and modern high-rises. Yet this city still harbors some stunning assets, particularly temples and shrines, which testify to its previous beauty. One of them is the Sanzen-in 三千院, in the Ōhara 大原 area Northeast of Kyoto.

View from one the Sanzen-in’s windows

Let me share with you one remarkable image found in this temple, which conjures tales of magic and ancient beliefs. Guess what the following picture represents:

Ganzan Daishi

 Well, as indicated on the caption, this demonic figure is called Ganzan Daishi 元三大師. So far so good but what is more surprising is that this is one of the posthumous names given to Ryōgen 良源 (912–985), the eighteenth abbot of the Tendai school.

The belief is that he had acquired supernatural powers (reigen 靈驗), in particular the ability to transform his body into that of a demon. According to legend, this proved useful when the whole area was struck by an epidemic and he was himself suffering from high fever. He swiftly transformed into a horned demon, thus frightening the demon who had come to terminate his life. At that time, there was a widespread belief in epidemic deities (yakubyōgami 疫病神). Thereafter, images of the horned Ganzan Daishi, also known as Tsuno Daishi 角大師, were used to ward off evil and illnesses. Here is a modern example of an amulet from Jindaiji 深大寺 in Chōfu, Tokyo metropolitan area:

Ganzan Daishi wooden plaque at Jindaiji

Ganzan Daishi wooden plaque at Jindaij

What also picks our curiosity is the resemblance of this image with Daoist talismans. These similarities would require further research. The other fascinating aspect is that the same Ganzan Daishi is credited for having invented the usage of O-mikuji 御籤 (fortunes written on strips of paper). One doesn’t need supernatural powers to see the resemblance with similar divination devices used in China (língqiān 靈籤), often made of wood.

The Buddha Amida flanked by two Bodhisattvas, Ōjō Gokuraku-in 往生極楽院 hall within Sanzen-in

Should you wish to see more of the Sanzen-in, you can visit my photo gallery.