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Buddhist Pilgrimage Sites: Japan

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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 According to Nihon Shoki (the Chronicles of Japan), Buddhism was introduced to Japan in 552 AD by Korean monks. Sutras were later brought from China, temples and shrines were built and monastic communities established.

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During the 8th century there were initially six schools of Buddhism based in Nara:

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    Ritsu (Vinaya)
    Jojitsu (Satyasiddhi)
    Kusha (Abhidharma)
    Sanron (Madhyamika)
    Hosso (Yogacara)
    Kegon (Huayen).


Esoteric Buddhism was then introduced from China by Kukai and Saicho who founded the Shingon and Tendai schools. The Kamakura period (1185-1333) saw the emergence of the extremely popular Pure Land Buddhism (the worship of Amida) and Zen Buddhism.

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Set in the forests of the Kii Mountains in the north-eastern part of Wakayama Prefecture, south of Osaka, three sacred sites - Yoshino and Omine, Kumano Sanzan and Koyasan (Mount Koya) - are linked by pilgrimage routes to the ancient Japanese capital cities of Nara and Kyoto. Each site contains shrines, some of which were founded as early as the 9th century and reflect the fusion of Shinto (Japan's native belief system rooted in the ancient tradition of nature worship) and Buddhism, which was introduced into Japan in the 6th century from China and the Korean Peninsula. The tradition of pilgrimage to sacred mountains was practised by members of the imperial family, nobility, warriors and Buddhist monks and in later years larger groups from the general population.

On the peak of Koyasan is Kongobuji, the main temple of the esoteric Shingon Buddhist sect; the temple was founded in 816 by the monk and scholar Kukai (774-835), better known by his posthumous title Kobo Daishi. Koyasan was believed to have been a sacred mountain for ascetic practitioners even before Kukai received imperial permission to found his religious community there. A Designated National Treasure, the complex today comprises more than 120 temples. The Inner Sanctuary is the setting for a vast cemetery that includes the mausolea of many famous Japanese, including that of the 16th century samurai ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The 25 metre high Daimon Gate and has served as the main entrance to the temple ever since its foundation.

The area today is part of the living culture of Japan and attracts some 15 million visitors annually. Lodging facilities are provided by the temple for pilgrims, but are also available to visitors.


Buddhism was introduced to Japan in 552 AD. During the 8th century, a number of temples and shrines were constructed in Nara including the huge temple of Todaiji ([[Great Eastern Temple), commissioned by Emperor Shomu (ruled 724-49). Todaiji had been destroyed by fire and re-built several times but the Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden) of the current building is still the largest wooden structure in the world and contains a colossal bronze statue of Vairocana, standing 15 metres high weighing around 400 tonnes. Other important temples and shrines in Nara include Saidaiji, Kofukuji, Gangoji, Yakushiji, Toshodaiji and Kasuga shrine.

Saikoku Kannon Pilgrimage

This traditional pilgrimage route includes thirty-three temples dedicated to Kannon in Western Japan. Kannon (the Japanese name for the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion) is believed to have the ability to take 33 different forms. This is the most likely reasoning behind the development of the thirty-three temples to be found on this 1500-mile pilgrimage that stretches from Lake Biwa to Kobe and touches Japan's east and west coasts.

The pilgrimage route possibly dates from as early as the 11th century, but many of the temples (some date to the 7th century) were the focus of earlier pilgrimage in their own right. Traditionally pilgrims would walk the route and visit the temples in order from 1 to 33, but today they can also be reached in day-trips from Kyoto using public transport and a contemporary pilgrim can easily average two temples each day. The complete pilgrimage can also be accomplished in a 'model' form at Ishiyamadera near Kyoto, where a circuit can be made ofthirty-threestone Buddhist images in the temple grounds.

Pilgrims can buy a special book ('nokyocho') and at each temple on the route the book is inscribed and stamped for a small fee (which goes towards the upkeep of the temple). Many of the temples charge a small entrance fee and some sell pilgrim's supplies such as clothes, sandals and hats and most sell 'omamori' - amulets made of wood inside a cloth pouch.


The 88 Temple pilgrimage on Shikoku is Japan's most famous pilgrimage route. The circuit encompasses the entire island through 88 temples as well as an optional 20 'unnumbered' temples. Many of the temples on this pilgrimage route are said to have been founded or restored by the renowned Buddhist monk and scholar Kukai (774-835), better known by his posthumous title Kobo Daishi. Among his many achievements he is said to have created the simplified Japanese 'kana' syllabary, (a simplified form of the written Japanese language). He is also credited with bringing the tantric teachings of esoteric Buddhism from China and developing it into the uniquely Japanese Shingon sect, founding their headquarters on Mount Koya (Koyasan) near Osaka.

First references to the Shikoku pilgrimage can be found in Japanese documents from the 12th century, although neither the established route nor specific temples are mentioned. The 88 Temple pilgrimage route as it is known today is believed to have become established some time during the 16th or 17th centuries.

While most modern-day pilgrims (an estimated 100,000 yearly) travel by tour bus, often only to specific temples, a small but significant minority of Japanese and non-Japanese still set out the old fashioned way on foot, a journey which takes about six weeks to complete. These pilgrims, known in Japanese as 'o-henro-sama' can be seen at the temples and along the roadsides of Shikoku clad in a white jacket bearing the characters 'Dogyo Futari' (meaning 'two travelling together'), the companion here being the spirit of Kobo Daishi.

Myoshinji and Ryoanji, Kyoto

Japanese Zen Buddhism derives from Mahayana Buddhism, and is known in Chinese as Chan, which itself derives from the Sanskrit Dhyana 'meditation'. Zen emphasises the form of meditation known as Zazen - which aims to achieve personal awakening. There are three main schools of Zen in Japan today: Sōtō, Rinzai and Obaku of which Sōtō is the largest and Obaku the smallest. Rinzai Zen Buddhism is divided into several subschools based on temple affiliation and is centred in Kyoto in temples such as Myoshinji, Nanzenji, Tenryuji, Daitokuji and Tofukuji.

Zen Buddhism was introduced into Japan as a separate school in the 12th century, when Myōan Eisai travelled to China and returned to establish the Rinzai lineage of which the Myoshinji school is the largest. The Myoshinji temple complex in the north-west of Kyoto is the head temple of the Rinzai sect of Buddhism and was founded in 1337 by the retired emperor Hanazono (ruled 1308-18), who practiced Zen under the distinguished master Soho Myocho. Although completely destroyed during the Onin Wars (1467-77), the temple was restored by its ninth abbot, Sekko Sojin (1408-86). The Myoshinji complex contains 57 sub-temples and chapels, many of which are attached to tombs of daimyo (regional warlord) patrons, and plays an active part in the daily life of the local community. There are more than 3,000 affiliated temples across Japan. The Myoshinji complex is noted for its many art objects, its superb gardens, and its temple bell, the oldest in Japan. The temple complex includes Shunkoin, a small temple established in 1590. It has important art works and a Zen dry-stone garden (karesansui) and offers visitors from all over the world the opportunity to experience Zazen meditation.

Perhaps the most well-known Rinzai centre in Kyoto is the nearby temple of Ryoanji, (Temple of the Peaceful Dragon). Ryoanji was built in 1450 by the general Hosokawa Katsumoto who, hoping to revive the declining fortunes of the Myoshinji, invited its fifth abbot to take up residence there. Ryoanji is renowned for its dry stone garden, reputedly the work of the artist Soami (c.1455-1525) which is used as a focus for Zen meditation. The garden, enclosed by stone walls on three sides and a veranda on the other, comprises fifteen moss-covered boulders of various sizes surrounded by areas of raked gravel. The arrangement resembles a seascape of groups of islands rising out of the sea. They are placed so that when looking at the garden only fourteen of the boulders are visible at one time. Tradition says that only through attaining enlightenment would one be able to view the fifteenth boulder. The custom of creating Zen-influenced dry landscape gardens began during the Muromachi period (1336-1573).