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Tag: Buddhist temple

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:

Old Kyoto and Hidden Tales of Magic at Sanzen-in

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.