On the Evening of August 11th, Kakuo-Ji Temple (覚王寺) in Tsukuba`s Hanamuro is a SITE FOR SORE EYES- with the Yakushi Mando Ceremony
During the summer, many of Japan`s ( and Tsukuba`s) Shinto Shrines hold ceremonies and festivals which were originally concieved of as rituals to help keep the local populace healthy over a time of year which has historically been a season of epidemics and floods. In and around Tsukuba City alone, there are still held dozens of festivals called Gion-Matsuri (among other things), which were originally designed to ritually rid neighborhoods of disease causing evil energies and spirits. These are usually sponsored by a type of shrine called Yasaka Jinja ( and there are thousands of these thoughout Japan), in which the God Susano0-no-Mikoto is enshrined. In the Shinto pantheon, it is this God ( also known as Gozu-Tenno) who is most closely associated with the prevention of disease.
Also for keeping summer sickness away, certain shrines set up straw rings, which are stood upright so that people can walk through them. This concept derives from a story in Japanese mythology in which the very same disease- preventing- god, Susanoo-no-Mikoto, advises a poor , yet kindly man (Somin Shorai) to fashion a ring of reeds, and wear it around his waist to keep healthy during an imminent epidemic.
Keeping disease away in summer, however, is not the exclusive territory of Shinto Shrines, and certain Buddhist temples have also long been in on the act. One of these is the Kakuo-Ji Temple (覚王寺) in Tsukuba`s Hanamuro Neighborhood, where each year on August the 11th, for as long as anyone can remember, local residents have come to offer rice to Yakushi-Nyorai- The BUDDHA OF HEALING AND MEDICINE ( and some would say another manifestation of the same Susanoo-no-Mikoto and/or Gozu Tenno)!
Yakushi-Nyorai, who is often depicted holding a vile of medicine in his right hand while holding the left hand out, palm facing forward, has long been one of the most important and popular figures in Japanese Buddhism. In fact, a similar ceremony to the one held in Tsukuba on Aug 11, was held way back in the year 747AD, when the name of Yakushi Nyorai was invoked in prayer so that the Emperor Shomu might regain his health at a time when he was ill.
There are other cases of Emperors making supplications to Yakushi-Nyorai, (a Bhoddhisatva who vowed,a mong other things, that once he achieved Buddhahood, he would heal the sick), in order to bring about the cure of their own, or their loved ones illnesses. The most famous case of this is probably that of the Emperor Temmu, who in the hope that his wife, the Empress Jito, would recover from a severe sickness, constructed the great Yakushi-Ji Temple in Nara in the 8th century. Ironically, the Emperor himself ended up passing away while the Empress, who went on to finish the construction project recovered, and became one of the few women to become Emperor of Japan and reigned from 686 to 697.
Many of Japan`s other great temples also have Yakushi-Nyorai as their central Buddhist image.
At Tsukuba`s Yakuo-Ji Temple, though not the central image, the Yakushi-Nyorai carving is an impressive work of art. Legend says that it was actually carved by the monk Gyoki (668-749), one of the more important figures in the history of Japanese Buddhism. And though I would take that story with a hefty grain of salt, the statue still impresses with its beauty and apparent age.
On the 11th of August ( the night of the 11th was chosen as the days of the month associated with yakushi-Nyorai, his Ennichi 縁日、are the 8th and 12th of each month. Traditionally, anew day begins at sundown in Japan, and thus the 12th begins on the evening of the 11th), the priest of Kakuo-Ji and his family set up candles up and down both sides of the stairway leading to the temple, and the Yakushi-Nyorai image is moved to its hall. Several local ladies, all in their seventies or older, take up postions in the hall, as their role is to serve tea and snacks to those who come to make offerings.
While it is still light outside, the parishioners of the temple start showing up, one by one mostly, each carrying a small bag containing rice. This they would offer to the Yakushi-Nyorai, along with a short silent prayer, before recieving their snacks and tea.
As it grows darker, the scene becomes more striking as the candles and hum of cicadas make for a magical summers night.
At about 7 PM, the priest, climbs into the hall and begins chanting sutras, while anyone who wishes to can also enter the hall, get on the cushion in front of the Yakushi-Nyorai and offer incense and a prayer.
Inside the hall, what impresses most ( besides the statue itself) are the rustic votive tablets hanging on the walls. Many of these have eyes painted on them, or are emblazoned witht the Hiragana characters reading MEH (eyes).
This is because, though this Buddha is called upon to heal any ailment, it is believed that he is especially good for curing the eyes.
For me, it was the beauty of the event itself which was soothing enough for my own sore and exhausted eyes!
If you are interested, Kakuo-Ji has Zazen meditation classes on the 4th Sunday of every month.
I have written more about Kakuo-Ji here: