TsukuBlog

A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

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

 

Image of Kukai

Image of Kukai (16th-17th century) from the Kongubuji Temple on Mt. Koya- on display at the Suntory Museum thru December 7th 2014. Even those generally uninterested in Buddhist sculpture- or sculpture in general, will find this exquisitely curated exhibition EXCITING

 

Typical Daishi-Sama image (of Kukai) found in a small wooden outdoor hall in the Tsukuba area.

Typical Daishi-Sama image (of Kukai) found in one of the many small wooden outdoor halls located in the Tsukuba area. At the end of March, the priest of the Tofukuji Temple leads a group on a pilgrimage to visit 88 of these tiny Daishi-Sama halls – a miniature version of the great 88 temple circuit of Shikoku

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 ).

 

Vajra

Three-pronged Vajras (meaning diamond or thunderbolt) from the Heian Period, shaped like a type of ancient Indian weapon of war is used by the Shingon Sect as a ritual object to represent an irresistable force, or indestuctibility. These are on Display at the Suntory Museum

 

The same instruments (though NOT 1,200 years old) being used at a SEGAKI Ceremony at an old Fudo Hall in Tsukuba

The same instruments (though NOT 1,200 years old) being used at a SEGAKI Ceremony at an old Fudo Hall in Maeno, Tsukuba. This ceremony is held evey year at this site to protect the spirits of departed ancestors from GAKI (餓鬼- hungry spirits)

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.

 

Bell

Single-pronged Vajra made in Tang China on display at the Suntory Museum. The ring produced by this bell is meant to drive away evil

 

Close-up

A Closer look at some of the details

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.

Nationa Treasure- Three-part niche with various Buddhist figures made in Tang China and brought over to Japan by Kukai

Nationa Treasure- Three-part niche with various Buddhist figures made in Tang China and brought over to Japan by Kukai – it sends chills down your spine !

Dainichi

Statue of Seated Dainichi Nyorai  – which according to the tenets of  Shingon Buddhism represent the Univeral truth. This work is dated 887

 

A Dainichi Nyorai Statue in Tsukuba

A Dainichi Nyorai Statue in Tsukuba

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.

Teaching for the Deaf and Blind - in Kukai`s own hand. One of the greatest calligraphers in Japanese history- and acclaimed in China, as well. In fact, after hving been washed ashore in China, far off their intended course and port of arrival, Chinese police were suspicious of the ragtag band they found on the beach. When they saw Kukai`s writing though, they immediately snapped to respectful attention and escprted the Japnese group to the capital

National Treasure- Teaching for the Deaf and Blind – in Kukai`s own hand. One of the greatest calligraphers in Japanese history- and acclaimed in China, as well. In fact, after hving been washed ashore in China, far off their intended course and port of arrival, Chinese police were suspicious of the ragtag band they found on the beach. When they saw Kukai`s writing though, they immediately snapped to respectful attention and escorted the Japanese group to the capital

 

 

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

Fudo Myo-o

Fudo Myo-o- 12th century. An important figure in Shingon Buddhism, Fudo means UNMOVEABLE or UNSHAKEABLE and can represent firm faith as well as peace and stabilty, lack of earthquakes, and a pregnancy going safely to term.

 

Fudo-myoo in Tsukuba

Fudo-myoo inside a Fudo worship hall in Higashioka, Tsukuba. Prayer meeting are held at such hall in the Tsukuba area on the 28th of each month.

 

Fudo

Fudo-Myoo (13th century). With its fearsome visage, Christian missionaries first encountering these images reported back to their headquarters that the Japanese worshipped the devil. The intention,however, behind Fudo`s terrifying bearing is to banish evil and to frighten those without faith into the fold

 

 

Deity

Aizen Myoo with his Celestial Bow (12th century)- this figure represents overcoming sexual passions and the turning ones focus to achieving enlightenment

 

 

National Treasure

National Treasure- One of the Eight Attendants of Fudo (12th century) by Unkei

 

National Treasure

National Treasure- One of the Eight Attendants of Fudo – by Unkei (12th century)

 

National Treasure

National Treasure – One of the Eight Attendants of Fudo by the brilliant 12th century sculptor Unkei

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

Closed Tuesdays

 

A Goma Taki sacred fire ceremony held at the Tofuku-Ji Temple in Tsukuba. Prayers and wishes are made during these ceremonies.

A Goma Taki sacred fire ceremony held at the Tofuku-Ji Temple in Tsukuba. Prayers and wishes are made during these ceremonies.

 

Kujaku Myoo ( Peacock Myoo) - dated 1200- by the renowned sculptor Kaikei

Kujaku Myoo ( Peacock Myoo) – dated 1200- by the renowned sculptor Kaikei . Peacocks are important in Indian culture

 

A peacock on the grounds of the Shingon Temple Amabiki Kannon near Tsukuba

A peacock on the grounds of the Shingon Temple Amabiki Kannon near Tsukuba

 

* 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.



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