SYNOPSIS:  About a UNESCO site which leaves to be desired, and a vision that deserves admiration.  About a golden building from the 12th century.


Did somebody have a cousin at the world heritage committee, or what?

OK, I did enjoy my visit of the Chuson-ji in Hiraizumi, the center of the Tendai sect — I don’t want to deny this.  One of the most spectacular architectural gems of all of Japan can be found on this mountain at the end of a path lined with various lackluster halls, including the Chuson-ji itself, smaller temples, shrines, and a belfry:  the Golden Hall, the Konjikido, dating from 1124.  Indeed, it is a structure completely covered in gold, filled with golden statues sitting under a gold-plated canopy.  Everything, aside from the hipped roof is golden or, as the four central beams, inlaid with shells and covered with gold-sprinkled black lacquer.

The central deity of this form of Buddhism is Amida Nyorai, the Buddha of Infinite Light, who presides over the utopia of a Pure Land, a kind of paradise imagined by discouraged Buddhists of the esoteric (secret teachings) Tendai sects which later developed into various exoteric (accessible to all) sects known as Jodo.  Faith in Amida and his power of salvation is all that is required for a Buddhist to obtain a chance to reach nirvana.  As the founder of this sect, Honen Shonin (1133-1212) is reported to have recited the famous Nembutsu (a mantra evoking Amida) 60,000 times a day, later it was believed that a even a single, sincere utterance of the Nembutsu would have the same effect.   Could this be called religious inflation?  😉

The Pure Land is often misunderstood as a kind of permanent heaven, but it is only a temporary place.  Believers expect to congregate here, be instructed in the final sutras, and by the grace of Amida, achieve nirvana, or ultimate enlightenment.  As so many other forms of Buddhism, this idea was imported from China but then took on very distinctly Japanese forms.

The images represented at the Kinjikido are of superb quality.  The central Amida is flanked by Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and Seishi, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.  Guardian kings and multiple representations of Jizo round out the central figurative group.  To the left and right of it two further platforms show two more ensembles of Buddhist deities.  The entire building measures only about 5-6 meters square.  Photography was strictly forbidden and guards were on duty…  Today, this hall is fully encased in a fireproof concrete structure that was built only recently.  But since the Kamakura period it has been protected from the elements by a wooden structure.  It is the only building which survives in its original form from the 12th century.  This is indeed a spectacular building with incredible images, fully deserving world recognition.  I stood in front of it with my jaw dropped.

Koyasan, which I visited last week, is the headquarters of the Shingon sect.  Chuson-ji is the headquarters of the Tendai/Jodo sect.  Already, I was somewhat disappointed in the entire setting after my awesome experience at Koyasan.   There, a mystical ambiance radiated from the cemetery through town, which was hard to escape even for a core agnostic like myself.  At Hiraizumi, I felt nothing comparable, but then, perhaps it was just me.  Chuson-ji was not all; the UNESCO site was more than this temple.  A whole cluster of sites was inscribed as representing the Pure Land, and dutifully I went on to see the rest, ready to be impressed.

There was a mountain nearby, Mt. Kinkeisan, which had been artificially raised by the main patrons of this area, the Fujiwara clan.  They commissioned sutras and buried them here symbolically to mark this as the center of learning in the imagined Pure Land they were trying to create.  I was unable to go there as I ran out of time, but aside from legends of golden cockerels there is not much to see.  It’s a mountain.

The story of the Fujiwaras reminded me a bit of the Indian emperor Ashoka who after witnessing bloodshed beyond imagination converted to Buddhism, vowing non-violence from there on out.  Kiyohira Fujiwara had lost relatives, wife and children in a bloody conflict over power.  He came out ahead politically and started a powerful dynasty, but he was scarred emotionally and vowed to build temples for friend and foe alike, to continue his life without further bloodshed, and to work on the creation of the Pure Land philosophy through the establishment of a peaceful, ideal society; a kind of heaven on earth, so to speak.  Two generations after him continued this vow and this area became indeed the center for Pure Land Buddhism as well as the center of political power for over 100 years.

Muryoko-in Ato was next on my list.  It was the site of the Pure Land temple the third Fujiwara, Hidehira had built.  I crossed the tracks, walked down an ordinary city road, passed a small park with construction workers and almost continued when I paused…  Were they constructing?  Or was this an excavation team of archaeologists?  Indeed.  Despite the hard helmets, there was no heavy machinery; these people were scraping the earth with hand tools, removing it shovel by shovel and barrel by barrel — this was the site of the former temple.  But there was nothing left aside from the shards this team was hopefully unearthing.  Not even a sign.  That was disappointing, but OK.

There was more:  Motsu-ji dated back to the second generation of the Fujiwaras, to Motohira.  There was a $5 entrance fee; that was promising.  40 temples were listed for the site and a lively priesthood but… that was then.  Now?  One temple was there from 1989, and I found out that all the others had fallen victim to fire and/or armed conflict.  At every corner in the garden there was a sign pointing out the significance of every rock and swoop, but let’s face it:  Japan has many, many gardens far superior and more beautiful than this.  It all seemed a bit contrived and farfetched.   The accompanying museum had a few small sculptures, but nothing like the first-class display I had seen earlier at the Chuson-ji.  There, at the museum, a couple of dozen first-rate sculptures from the 10th-12th century were on display.  Here, a few fifth-rate sculptures could not live up to anything even close.  That was disappointing and not worth the $5 spent, but OK.

There was more:  Kanjizaio-in Ato, the pure land temple built by Motohira’s wife, located right next to the Motsu-ji.  Did I miss it when I came?  As I approached the site I could already tell that there was nothing left aside from a pond, a sign, and a few slightly raised mounds.  What presumably once was the foundation of a large temple complex had been filled in with rocks to make it look deliberate.  Otherwise I would have just walked right over it thinking of it as a football field.  By now I was quite upset.  Nothing against preserving sites that once were.  But inscribing them as world cultural heritage?  Give me a break!

Single buildings are inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list.  The US, with the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, and Monticello, is a good example.  The Konjikido deserved its status by a long shot.  But the rest of the sites are not much more than an insult to the idea of world heritage and if you ask me, this kind of inflation is simply unnecessary.

Aside from the golden hall, two things impressed me today:  one of the few remaining ancient Noh theaters (more on theater once I hopefully am able to attend a play) and a new method of audio guide.  You use a magic pen rather than the usual “push-button” method.  Just point to the language you like and to the number you want to listen to on a card menu with your magic pen and your ear phones will deliver the message.  Cool.

Putting that disappointment out of my mind, I tried to focus on the memories of the Konjikido and some of the outstanding pieces of art I had seen at the Sankozo Museum.  But I wish I had done this tour in the reverse order.  As I headed home however, I had to give credit to the Fujiwaras, who at a time when bloodshed was the norm tried to, and seemed to have succeeded in implementing a vision of peace on earth; at least for a while.

Good night.

2 comments so far

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  1. An absolutely gorgeous recitation of the Nembutsu. ET…please listen.

  2. So, some compulsive Buddhist, Honen Shonin, recited a mantra to Amida 60,000 times a day, eh? That is more than 41 times a minute without any stops to take a leak or a drink. Now, that is dedication!