Treasures of Mt. Koya (高野山の名宝) – on display at the Suntory Museum in Tokyo thru Dec 7th – sublime models for the more rustic art found at Tsukuba`s many Shingon-Sect Temples
By Avi Landau
Long before I ever had any plan of coming to study and live in Japan, I thought of Japanese religion almost exclusively in terms of Zen Buddhism- with it`s meditation and all sorts spiritual training – including archery, swordsmanship and the tea ceremony (which I had read about in several Engish language books which were once popular). I imagined sparsely adorned, austere (yet elegant) temples with hardly any decoration at all. And of course there were those famous rock gardens I had so often seen in travel brochures and coffee table books.
When I started doing more serious reading about Japan before coming here, I learned that by the Edo Period (1600-1868), there had already been 23 official Buddhist sects- but the one which had become the most widespread and popular was one called Jodo Shinshu, which from my reading seemed the simplest and most democratic of them all- no meditation, no special asceticisms, no special rituals. The priest Shinran, the founder of the sect asserted that salvation could be attained by ANYONE- the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the male and the female- and the way to do so was simple- Chant the name of Amida, in a chant which goes: Namu Amida Butsu, Namu Amida Butsu, Namu Amida Butsu…..
It should go without saying then that Jodo Shinshu temples utilize as their main images, statues of Amida- with the one that most foreigners are familar with being the Great Buddha of Kamakura (which actually belongs to a temple of the Jodo Shu sect- which is very similar in almost every way to the Jodo Shin Shu ).
How surprising it was for me then, to come live in Tsukuba. Here, most of the temples aound my house in Konda (near the old city office) were of a different sect – one which involved mysterious rituals and bizzare chanting, a wide array of deities (some quite terrifying) complex mandalas depicting the Buddhist vision of the universe, pilgrimages- and most impressively for me : a sacred fire ritual.
It is this type of Buddhism that I have become most familar with living here – since there were nine such temple in my old neighborhood and most of my local friends neighbors and acquaintances were members (DANKA) of this sect.
I am talking about Shingon Esoteric Buddhism, introduced to Japan in the 9th Century by the great Priest Kukai ( who is referred to by believers as Kobo Daishi). As a young priest and scholar Kukai was sent abroad as an envoy China. In Chang-an, the capital of the Tang (now called Xian), he became the disciple of a priest called Keika (Huiguo, in Chinese) who himself had studied with the Indian born Buddhist master Amoghavajra* . It is said that when Keika first set eyes on the Japanese priest he declared: ” You are the one I have been waiting for ! ”
Importantly, Kukai also came into contact (it is said) with another Indian Buddhist called Prajna, who helped him master Sanskrit ( which is actually commonly used by Shingon Preists in Tsukuba)
In a mere two year`s, Kukai mastered everything that Keika had to teach him. And though he was officially in China for a term of 20 years, he put in a petition to the Chinese Emperor requesting permission to return to Japan – 18 years earlier than he was supposed to.
Permission was granted, and Kukai returned to Japan not only with new religious doctrines, but with a treasure trove of important religious objects given to him by Keika in order to help spread the faith.
These manuscripts, mandalas, carved images and ritual objects became the models on which all following Shingon art was based, as it spread through Japan.
Some of the very works which Kukai brought back with him from China way back in the year 806, can now be seen in Tokyo at the Suntory Museum, as part of a superb exhibition (thru Dec. 7th).Interestingly, this display of the very old is being held at a venue which since 2007 has been located inside the Midtown Tokyo Mall- one of the poshest in Japan (and I guess, in the whole world!)
The show has been organized to honor the 1,200th year since the foundation of the Kongubuji Temple on Mt. Koya (in today`s Nara Prefecture). A ceremony celebrating the occassion will be held at the temple in 2015.
And though I have been to Mt. Koya itself, admired the impressive old structures at the Kongubuji-Temple (built deep in the thickly forested mountains), walked through its vast, atmospheric cemetery, ate vegetarian Buddhist food there featuring Koya Dofu ( one of my favorite foods in Japan!) and seen most of its magnificent treasures (at its museum) when I heard about the special exhibiton in Tokyo, I knew without a doubt that I would have to make time to see them again.
I was not to be disappointed- not only in the exquisite quality of the objects on display- my favorite scuptures in the world are classical Japanese works rendered in wood – but also in the fine curatorship. It is all done so tastefully- especially the lighting, which casts shadows on the walls sometimes more captivating that the sculptures themselves..
An exeption to this, on the day I was there, though, was a Buddhist chanting event that was suddenly announced over the public address system. ” Anyone interested in hearing SHOMYO (Buddhist chanting) , please proceed to the 6th floor” When I did so, along with all the other interested folk, I was ushered into a large room (along with everyone else). We were all surprised to be greeted at the door by the staff of the Nankai Railroad- which provides service to Mt.Koya. Each visitor recieved a thick envelop filled with travel brochures
As a promotional film was being screened, a group of monks entered the room, went and lined up under the projected commercial and began to chant.
While this must surely have been worthwhile for someone who had never heard such chanting before, turning the chant into an advertizing jingle seemed utterly tasteless and far less impressive that hearing it one of Tsukuba`s mysterious old temples or prayer halls.
I walked out of the auditorium and headed back to the exhibition. More than the need to escape the commercialized chanting , I felt drawn back to works downstairs – which somehow, because of my life in Tsukuba and all my experience at this area`s Shingon Temples- seemed so familiar. Each piece brought to mind a specific place, person, or experience.
To be continued………………………………………………..
See below for more on my ideas regarding Shingon Buddhism`s spread to Japan and to the Tsukuba area
Treasures of the Sacred Mountain Exhibition at the Suntory Museum in the Tokyo Midtown Complex
Admission: 1,300 Yen – 1,000 Yen for students . Junior high school and under- free
Access: Exit 8 of Roppongi Station on the Hibiya Metro Line or the Toei Oedo Line
Or – 3 minute walk from the Nogizaka Station on the Chiyoda Line
Hours: 10:00- 18:00 (admission till 17:30)
Fridays and Saturday open till 20:00
* It was by looking at the life of this Samarkand born monk who became highly influential in 8th century China that I came to realize why the Shingon Sect of Esoteric Buddhism was able to gain imperial support in Japan and also why it gained a foothold in the area around Mt. Tsukuba.
During the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) against the Tang Dynasty, the rebel An Lushan (after whom the rebellion was aptly named) declared himself emperor of North China. Amoghavajra, who had already gained prominence for his important translations of Sanskrit texts into Chinese had been captured at one point, by was rescued in 757.
It is what happened next that ensured he and his teachings would come to carry weight with the Japanese court. He was asked to perform rite to purify the capital and protect the integrity of the Tang state against the rebellion. When the rebellion was ultimately crushed, the Indian priest presided over the initiation of Emperor Suzong.
It is Kukai`s connection with the teaching of this man, that gave him an “IN” with the Japanese court. Anyone with the same “MAGIC” or power used to help save the Tang Dynasty would undoubtedly be of use “protecting the realm” in Japan.
Instead of focusing on saving individual souls or helping practitioners to achieve enlightenment, the Emperor and great noble families supported Shingon temples for their POWER. They believed that having monks continuously carried out these esoteric rituals would actually have an impact on the peace of the nation.
What is interesting is that in 10th century Japan, a rebellion broke out in Eastern Japan (present day Tsukuba included) which was quite similar to the An Lushan Rebellion- especially in the fact that the rebel leader, Taira no Masakado, declared himself the New Emperor of this part of Japan.
Besides raising an army to suppress the rebellion, temples were asked to begin rituals which would work their magic in protecting the realm. Miraculously (by any standards) Masakado was killed in one of his first engagements with Imperial forces.
Part of the mopping up operations, though, included the support for the Shingon Sect, especially the worship of the UNMOVEABLE ONE, the Fudo Myo`o which represented peace and stability.
Later in the Edo Period, Japan was ruled by one of the most fanatically security conscious families ever- the Tokugawa. It should come as no surprise that their family sect was Shingon Buddhism. They gave generous support to the great temple which once stood on the site of the present Mt Tsukuba Shrine. the Chisoku Chuzen Ji Temple, which they believed protected Edo Castle from harm arriving from the unnucky north-easterly direction (KIMON).
It was probably the Tokugawa`s concern about the security of the realm which made the Tsukuba area (to the unlucky noorth-east of the capital) an important place for Shingon temples- temples which carried out the same rituals as those which protected Tang China.