The Wooden Memorial Boards -TOHBA (塔婆), Found at Cemeteries Have Notches on Top…… well, most of the time ! Some thoughts elicited by a walk on Mt. Tsukuba
By Avi Landau
I had long been looking forward to visiting my friend Kazuko-San. She had promised to give me a tour of her neighborhood- a very special neighborhood indeed – one on the southern slope of Mt. Tsukuba, below the Mt. Tsukuba Shrine.
When the day that we had agreed upon for my visit had finally come, I woke up to find that it was going to be a cold and drizzly day. Not the best conditions for a walking tour. But still, we did not put things off (we had both been waiting far too much time for this day which had been convenient for both our schedules) and as scheduled I headed out towards Mt. Tsukuba and took the road that leads up to the big shrine. Then following the directions I had been given, I turned off on a side road which I had passed countless times before but had never had the gumption to drive down because of its narrowness.
Proceeding along the winding path I passed several houses, and could not help wondering HOW people could live in such an out-of-the-way place. Or why anyone who had not been born around there ( as was the case with my friend) would want to move there.
When I finally arrived at Kazuko-San`s front gate and stepped into her vast garden I realized why. It was spectacular- surrounded by an old and varied forest, intoxicatingly fragrant air, melodious chirpings of birds, the babbling of a stream which forms on border of her property (which is in fact the MINANOGAWA RIVER- mentioned in one of Japan`s most famous poems!), and most impressively in late November- the large citrus trees of all sorts resplendant with shiny fruit: Citron (YUZU), NATSU MIKAN ( a type of orange) and the little tangerine that is famous for growing only on and around Mt Tsukuba- the FUKURE MIKAN – of which the tree in that garden was the largest and most FRUIT-FULL that I had ever seen.
Kazuko-San showed me the places in her fence where the wild boars (INOSHISHI) had recently broken through to get at her vegetable patch and then we started out on our tour.
Walking around the back of the house and openig a little gate we stepped out into quite a different ambience- an old cemetery. The presence of the cemetery did not surprise me at all. In fact, it seemed quite logical to me. Real estate price our much lower for plots adjacent to graveyards and for those who are not superstitious this makes it possible to by larger tracts of land.
But after a few steps this graveyard looked curious to me.
The wooden tablets that are usually found in Japanese cemeteries were different here than they usually were.
But before I get further into this, first I had better explain a little about these long and slim wooden slabs which are common features of Japanese cemeteries and are usually referred to as TOHBA (塔婆)- short for SOTOBA.
What are TOHBA (塔婆)?
TOHBA are long and narrow wooden slabs which are set standing upright upon or next to graves in Japan ( for every Buddhist sect except JODO SHINSHU).
The TOHBA you see in cemeteries in Tsukuba are usually inscribed with SANSKRIT (BONJI,梵字), as well as Chinese Characters.
Fresh tablets are usually set at least once a year by family memebers. In the Tsukuba area (where most of the native residents are members of the Shingon Sect) new TOHBA are brought to the graves at the end of summer (after the 28th of August).
Another important feature of the TOHBA that you will see in Tsukuba ( and the rest of Japan) is that there are notches in the board`s upper segment on both sides.
What is the origin and significance of the TO-BA?
When I give my own history tours, I always like to point out the TOHBA and talk about them. They help me to illustrate how traditional Japanese culture is a often a blending – forming from multiple currents: with native Japanese and Chinese (or Indian), as well as aristocratic ( or samurai), merchant class and peasant sources .
Native Japanese source: in the native Japanese religious tradition (which is now referred to as Shinto), the concept of the YORISHIRO (依代), an antennae like pole used to attract a KAMI (deity) to a particular spot is essential.
Remnants of the YORISHIRO abound in Japan`s calendar of traditional events- the pine branches (KADO MATSU) set at the doorway for New Year`s to welcome the God of the New Year (TOSHIGAMI SAMA),
the poles from which carp streamers are hung for the Childrens Day Festival ( originally used to attract the God of the Fields to the rice paddies in spring).
the bamboo poles used as Tanabata decorations in July,
the SUSUKI (pampas grass) used as a decoration for the Moon-Viewing Festival (O-Tsukimi) in autumn
and then………. at the grave yard.
The Japanese have believed since time immemorial that their ancestors return to this world on certain occassions each year. Even in the present day there are four times a year in which ancestors are present in this world- the equinox days, New Year`s and most importantly, the Obon festival in summer.
A YORSHIRO is used to attract (or guide) the spirit to the grave. Even in the simplest Japanese grave, stick could be stuck into the ground to carry out this function.
The TOHBA that we see today, is a YORISHIRO……… but still more!
When Buddhism was intoduced to Japan more than 1300 years ago, it was taken up with great enthusiasm by the Imperial Court and by the aristocracy, affecting their lives in nearly every way- and most obviously to the tourist in Japan today in ARCHITECTURE.
Buddhism has its origins in India, and it was there that Monuments, often containing relics of the Buddha were erected. These were called STUPA and were shaped like mounds ( the word actually means HEAP). At first they were places of meditation, but later became places of worship.
Anyway, the STUPA became one of the important symbols of Buddhism.
When that religion passed through China, the shape of the STUPA changed, influenced by the design of traditional Chinese pavillions.
The stupa became a tower, with the number of tiers having a symbolic meaning- most famously: 3 for the 3 worlds and five for the five elements that make up the universe.
Over the centuries, the wealthy and powerful Buddhists devotees in Japan have built five-tiered pagodas- many of them of outstanding beauty. This was done as an act of devotion and in order to obtain merit.
As a less expensive five-tiered pagoda ( but still one requiring financial means) five-tiered stone monuments (GORIN TO, 五輪塔) could be created. There are several extant Kamakura Period (1185-1333) GORIN TO which can be seen in the Tsukuba area today.
Now the common people certainly could not afford to construct towers and even if they had the means to buld their own stone towers that would had been cosidered stepping over class boundaries. But still, their deep devotion (after Buddhism spread throught the archipelago to all classes) meant that they wanted their own TOWERS or STUPA.
Well, they got them, made from peaces of wood rustically carved into five tiers by notches or cut into the side. Their stick-like form also let them be the same old traditional antennae- the YORISHIROs which had always been used.
The name SOTOBA, often shortened to TOHBA, derives from the sankrit original- STUPA.
The inscriptions on them are varied but usually have the old Indian symbols for the five elements- VOID, AIR, FIRE, WATER and EARTH on them as well as the symbol of one of the Buddhist deities written in the same script. In the Tsukuba area this is often the sound BAN which represents the DAINICHI NYORAI (Vairocana, in Sanskrit), the most important deity in Shingon Buddhism. In Chinese characters are usually the name of the deceased and a line of a sutra (Buddhist scripture).
These TOBA are offered not only as a consolation to the spirits of the deceased, but also as an act of merit by those who pay for and put them in place.
I have written about the how many Tsukubans recieve their TOBAs after a special ceremony in August:
Anyway, it is fascinating ( for me at least), how these wooden boards are a combination of so many cultural currents- from India through China and from the Aristocracy to the commoners as a Buddhist symbol- melded with the traditional YORISHIROs. A perfect example of how beautifully complex Japanese culture (and cultural symbolism) can be.
The Cemetery on Mt. Tsukuba
But there in the cemetery on the slope of Mt. Tsukuba, right behind Kazuko-San`s house, things were strange (as I have already told you)! Since I always take note of TO-BA, I notice it right away- these wooden slabs had no notches on them. Looking more closely I realized that there was no Indian script on them either.
What was this?
Then it hit me! We were right below the Mt. Tsukuba Shrine which had until the 1870`s been the site of a large Buddhist temple complex. The cemetery we were standing in was surely within the precincts of the old temple- and that is why there were no Buddhistic symbols in this place: no ancient indian characters, no pagoda shaped slabs- no incense! This was the site of one of the worst examples of HAIBUTSU KISHAKU (廃仏毀釈) in Japan. This was a movement which sought to rid Japan of any foreign elements (as if that were possible) and it led to the destruction of many ancient buildings and other objects ( many of which were probably great historical and artistic treasures).
The reason that the temple on Mt. Tsukuba (which was called Chuzen-Ji) was the target of especially fierce destruction was that it had long been important to ( and heavilly endowed by) the ruling Tokugawa Family (which was overthrown in 1868) as protection from the unlucky direction (KIMON,鬼門) in which Mt. Tsukuba lies in relation to the old Edo Castle ( the seat of the Tokugawa).
Both the temple complexes on Mt. Tsukuba and Ueno (the old Kannei-Ji, also of great importance to the Tokugawa and also protecting the unlucky North-Eastern direction) were all but completely destroyed. Chuzen-Ji on Mt. Tsukuba became an important Shinto Shrine and Kannei-Ji……. a zoo!
And to this day, as I could see at the cemetery, most vestiges of Buddhism (that foreign faith) have been eliminated. The TOBA are straight edged- merely YORISHIRO, and instead of incence burned for the souls of the dead sacred leaves (sasaki) are offered. On the periphery of the cemetery were old Buddhist stone images- HEADLESS even today, the remnants of the HAIBUTSU KISHAKU (Abolish Buddhism and Destroy the Buddha) Movement.
And then our walk began!
Read more of what I`ve written about the history of the old temple complex- CHISOKU CHUZEN JI – which once stood on the site of the Mt. Tsukuba Shrine: