ON A DAY When I had traveled to Nara to see patriarch Zen'ei Nakayama at the headquarters of the religious organization Tenri-kyo, I finished my business early and had time left to visit Tsubosaka-yama Minami Hokke-ji, one of the important temples for the Buzan branch of the Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism. The temple, which is popularly called Tsubosaka-dera, venerates a statue of the Thousand-armed, Thousand-eyed Kannon, Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World. It is famous throughout Japan for its associations with a story about a blind man miraculously cured by the powers of this Kannon. The story had been given dramatic form in the Bunraku puppet theater and in Kabuki. Many people today continue to revere the Tsubosaka-dera Kannon and to believe that it can cure eye illnesses.
At the top of a sloping path leading through groves of cedar and cypress is a gate housing statues of two fierce-looking guardian deities. Inside the gate, on the left, are four one-story houses for elderly blind people and a two-story, reinforced concrete sound library. The head priest maintains these facilities and takes part in a movement to help lepers in India, as well. Because his efforts to realize the mercy of the Bodhisattva Kannon on earth make me very happy, I proceeded at once to the temple office to make a monetary contribution.
A priest named Benki, from the temple Ganko-ji, is said to have founded the Tsubosaka-dera in the year 700. He sat in Zen meditation, holding in his hand a crystal jar (tsubo), considered a secret treasure of the temple, until he had a vision of the Bodhisattva Kannon. He left the jar on the top of the slope (saka) and carved the statue of the Bodhisattva that is now the main image of the temple. The jar and the slope give the temple its name.
At the top of a gentle incline planted with cedars that are about three hundred years old is the vermilion-painted, three-story pagoda. Beyond this is the worship hall, a deep-eaved building erected in about the fourteenth century. Still farther along stands the octagonal main hall, which houses the statue of Kannon carved by Benki. In the temple precincts, I saw young married couples with their children, middle-aged women on tours of sacred places, and groups of other visitors.
With the help of a handrail installed there for the benefit of the handicapped, a blind man was making his way up the slope to a place from which there is a sweeping view of the surrounding plain. Of course, for the blind, the view has no meaning. But for their sakes, the temple has planted flowers with rich fragrances - roses, gardenias, magnolias, sweet daphne, daffodils, and dozens of other varieties. The blind can enjoy the fragrances and the singing of the birds as they sit on the chairs arranged around concrete tables. The chairs are devised in such a way that when someone sits on one of them music flows from speakers installed under the tables. The garden becomes a place of fragrances and sounds for people who have lost the ability to see. Here and there, placards in Braille provide various kinds of information about the place.
Suddenly I heard an announcement over a loudspeaker: "Would Mr. Nikkyo Niwano of Rissho Kosei-kai please come to the priests' quarters. The head priest of the temple would like to speak with you."
Though young, the head priest is serene and modest. He thanked me for making a contribution to the work for lepers in India; and I congratulated him on the excellent home for the elderly blind, the assistance he is offering the handicapped, and the splendid garden of fragrances and sounds. He said that in doing these things he and his fellow priests are only carrying out the duties of followers of the Bodhisattva Kannon.
Perhaps this is true; but in the present world, just this kind of work and the kind of spiritual growth it represents are in danger of being overlooked.
The head priest said, "No matter how excellent the teachings left by Shakyamuni, unless we priests put them into practice and attempt to carry them to others, they will perish. And it will be we priests who have killed the words and heart of Shakyamuni."
His comment is a stern criticism of the present state of Buddhism. A rebuke of this kind is a living thing only when uttered by a person who, like this head priest, puts his beliefs into practice. I agreed with him completely when he said, "The days of monastery Buddhism have passed. Buddhist statues of the highest aesthetic merit are only cold curiosities when they are used as objects to be shown for admission fees."
I too have often felt that many priests are very much like guides waiting for tourists. The positive activities of this head priest and his magnificent work for the help of others refreshed me. Contact with Tsubosaka-dera, which is popular with the people because it is a living realization of the compassion of the Bodhisattva Kannon, produced in me a spiritual cleanliness that I had not experienced for a long time. I decided then to make a pilgrimage to the thirty-three revered temples in the Osaka-Kyoto area.
In the past, Japanese priests traveled to China to study. While there, they made pilgrimages to famous Chinese temples. After World War II, priests visited the sacred places of India. But these priestly journeys are somewhat different from the kind of lay pilgrimages made by Moslems to Mecca, Christians to Jerusalem, and many Japanese to various holy places in Japan.
Today pilgrimages are much more comfortable than they were in the past. It is possible to board trains or planes and travel quickly anywhere one wishes. There is no specified garb for such trips. But in the past, high and low alike put on all white, including white arm coverings; donned large straw hats; and carried staffs. This costume indicated the equality of all people before the Buddha and the determination of the pilgrims to overcome all difficulties in their path.
My family preserves the memory of one of our ancestors who, for an unclear reason, decided to make a pilgrimage to the thirty-three revered temples around Osaka and Kyoto. It took four or five years to complete the journey, and when he returned home safely, he was extremely happy that he had gone. In his old age, he decided to repeat the pilgrimage. The family objected. They argued that he ought to be satisfied to have made the trip once and told him that he must be prepared for the possibility of never returning home alive. He paid no attention and, with a ceremonial farewell drink of water, departed. Everyone worried about him; and indeed, he died somewhere along the way.
I wanted to follow in his steps, to stand before a waterfall in the precincts of a temple and try to recapture the thoughts he had thought long ago, and to feel the rain in a temple courtyard while I wondered how similar rain had inspired him.
My procedure in visiting temples was first to pray before the main hall and then to examine the main image and other treasures before adding my seal to the others in the temple-office register. Sometimes, head priests who knew of me asked that I talk with them for a while. Such talks usually took place in temple offices.
In the past, I believed, and said publicly, that going from one temple or shrine to another and putting money in collection boxes does not constitute religious faith. But as I made my own pilgrimages, I found that such activities have a significance of their own. In the chapter of the Lotus Sutra entitled "Tactfulness," it is said that one may attain buddhahood by merely bowing one's head in passing a shrine or Buddhist temple.
Certainly in visits to temples it is possible to meet people whom one had not expected to meet and to hear many interesting things. The true significance of pilgrimages is not the monetary contributions, but the many different encounters that help the individual grow, refine his religious faith, and come closer to enlightenment. I found such experiences so meaningful in the first part of my pilgrimage that I decided to extend my tour to include the thirty-three revered temples in the Tokyo area, as well as those in the Osaka-Kyoto area.
In my tour of sixty-six temples, I was greeted in a variety of ways. In some temples, the priests were cold to me as a representative of an upstart religious organization. In others, they were friendly and often demonstrated interest in the work of the World Conference on Religion and Peace. The head priest at the temple Horaku-ji, in a remote part of Ibaraki Prefecture, was especially interested in this aspect of my activities. I told him as much as I could about the peace conferences, religious circumstances in China and Vietnam, the ecumenical movement in the Christian faith, and the Brighter Society Movement.
Of all the things I observed during my travels, the most impressive was the ability of temples that make living contributions to religious activities to capture the hearts of large numbers of people. This is true of such places as the Tsubosaka-dera, in Nara, and the Kiyomizu-dera, in Kyoto. The possession of famous works of art or of a venerable tradition is not enough. For the temple to live in the minds of the people, the head priest must teach in an inspiring way, and the whole staff must attempt to put the mission of their faith into practical work. Seeing this was the most valuable experience of my pilgrimage.
Copyright © 2009 by Rissho Kosei-kai. All right reserved.