This story begins with my study of Hori Shitoku 堀至徳 (1876–1903), a neglected young Buddhist priest who went to Bengal to pursue 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.
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.
This amazing and elegant statue is more than a thousand years old.
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 period.
Moreover, it was carved from a single piece of wood, except for the left hand, which was 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 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.
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).
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: http://www.smugmug.com/gallery/n-gJGTSH/i-P9h56RB