Thursday, November 30, 2017

In search of Taichō (4)

29/30 October: But how to commemorate the 1,300th anniversary of Monk Taichō’s ascent of Hakusan? We still haven’t climbed anything higher than 613 metres, which seems a bit weak as a tribute to the great pioneer. Then, like a bubble of marsh-gas rising from a muddy sump, an idea pops up.

The summit shrine on Mt Atago: founded by Taicho
as Haku-unji, the Temple of the White Cloud

Tomorrow morning, I’ll leap on the first Kyoto-bound Thunderbird express, ride the local line up to Arashiyama, take a taxi to the roadhead, and zoom up Atago-yama, on the city’s western margin. I’m obliged to the excellent Green Shinto blog for pointing out that Atago too was “opened” by Taichō.

Kyoto's Mt Atago, as it was in better days
(Print courtesty of Ando Hiroshige)

And if the guidebook time can be halved, there’ll be minimal danger of being late for supper with the Sensei and her mother. Surely this is what financier types used to call a rinky-dink plan. And like so many such plans, it meets with a swift demise: the Sensei isn’t enthused. “You’re not going,” she says...

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

In search of Taichō (3)

29 October: The plan is to leave Taichō in peace today. I’m riding a Thunderbird, which is a train, though it feels more like a submarine, heading southwards into rain that is falling more prodigally by the minute. Lake Biwa is a sheet of beaten pewter, the opposite mountains buried under a leaden pall. Typhoon 22 has yet to make landfall, but it has galvanised the autumn rain front into a frenzy of precipitation.

Two hours later, in a tropical downpour, I meet up with the Sempai and his family at Nara station. In our younger days, he and I climbed Hakusan together. We walk the streaming streets, shoes awash, to the Nara National Museum. For just three weeks in October and November each year, there is a chance to take in an exhibition of treasures from the Shōsō-in, the storehouse of the Tōdai-ji temple.

The Shoso-in (photo: Nara National Museum)
The story of how the treasures were acquired is a sad one. When Emperor Shōmu died in 756, his widowed consort Kōmyō donated his possessions to the newly dedicated Great Buddha at the Tōdai-ji. For, as she said in her dedication letter of July 22 in that year,

The list given above contains treasures that have been handled by the Emperor and articles that served him in the palace. These objects remind me of the bygone days, and the sight of them causes me bitter grief.

Indeed, so many treasures were entrusted to the Shōsō-in that fewer than a tenth can be shown in any given year. So every exhibition yields up surprises among the musical instruments, offering stands, gigaku masks, silk banners, and eight-lobed mirrors.

Gigaku mask (photo: Nara National Museum)

Not everything is an artwork of ageless sublimity. I’m about to give up on a display case full of yellowing parchments – tax assessments and the like – when a map catches my eye. It shows farmlands owned by the Tōdai-ji in the province of Echizen, as Fukui was then known. By apparent coincidence, these fields were located more or less on the doorstep of Taichō’s birthplace. It looks as if we’ve caught up with the monk again. Or is it the other way round?

Map of farmland owned by the Todai-ji
(photo: Nara National Museum)

Although born and bred in Echizen, Taichō had quite a bit to do with Nara. When word of the young monk’s spiritual powers reached the court, Emperor Monmu is said to have appointed him as a guardian cleric of the state (鎮護国家法師) in 702. This was when he was just 21. Then, in 722, after he’d honed his prowess by meditating in a cave under Hakusan’s summit for one thousand days and nights, he travelled to Nara to cure an illness afflicting the Empress Genshō.

In 736, Taichō returned to Nara, this time to receive from Monk Genbō a a sutra scroll in honour of the Eleven-Headed Kannon. The following year, the ninth of Tempyō, he performed a rite of repentance to ward off an outbreak of smallpox that threatened the capital. For this service he was raised to the high monastic rank of “wajō” or “kashō” – the reading of the characters varies according to the religious order.

Apron worn at inaugural ceremony for the Great Buddha
(photo: Nara National Museum)

We move on to another set of cabinets. Here are displayed an apron once used in a gigaku dance, and a dedication table for offerings. Like some wormhole in space, the Shōsō-in exhibition can short out the intervening centuries. In this case, it warps us back to an April day in the fourth year of Tempyō-shōhō (752), when all the court and priesthood are gathered in front of the Great Buddha of the Tōdai-ji, its enclosure streaming with silken banners, ready for the gigantic statue’s inauguration. Both apron and table are known to have been used on that august occasion.

Table for offerings
(photo: Nara National Museum)

Seated in front of the statue, facing northwards for perhaps the only time in his life, so that he could show fealty to the Buddha, retired Emperor Shōmu was fortunate to be there. He’d recovered from a serious illness a few months previously, only after the Empress Kōmyō had made an appeal to the Eleven-Headed Kannon. Monk Rōben (689-773), a near contemporary of Taichō, was certainly there too, presiding over the dedication of the statue whose construction he’d supervised over long years. Together, they must have witnessed the gigaku performance, and perhaps inspected the little table with its votive offerings.

The eye-opening ceremony for the Great Buddha of the Todaiji
Painting by Hirayama Ikuo

Alas, Monk Genbō could not attend, having died in exile a few years previously, and nor could Monk Gyōki (668-749), who had travelled the length and breadth of Japan to raise funds  – the statue’s completion is said almost to have bankrupted the country. But Monk Gyōki does make two appearances in Taichō’s story. According to a record of Mt Kōtakami in what is now Shiga Prefecture, the temples there were founded by Gyōki and later revived by Taichō. The legend of Taichō’s life also has Gyōki visiting the Echizen monk on Hakusan.

Oddly enough, both Rōben and Gyōki turn up in adjacent chapters of Nihon Hyakumeizan, Japan’s most famous mountain book. Rōben is said to have inaugurated Ōyama in the Tanzawa range (Chapter 71) as early as the seventh year of Tempyō Shōhō (755), while the Daibosatsu Pass (Chapter 70) allegedly took its name, indirectly, from Gyōki:-

The path up the pass starts at an old temple, the Unpōji. Built in the Irimoya style and with a roof of cypress-wood shingles, its elegant main hall is well worthy of its designation as a national treasure. The temple was founded in the seventeenth year of Tempyō (745) by the monk Gyōki Bosatsu, after he saw a vision in these mountains, where he had come to practice austerities. The pass, it is said, takes its name from the temple.

Such legends should, of course, be treated with care. Samuel C. Morse, whose paper on the Eleven-Headed Kannon in early Heian times furnishes much of the foregoing, has this to say about Taichō:

 “much of the story … is certainly fiction, yet enough details of his life correspond to information in other, more reliable sources to conclude that certain aspects are in all likelihood true: a mendicant monk from Echizen had a vision that prompted him to travel to the capital to seek out religious texts, and while he was there he participated in the rituals held in the capital to attempt to quell the smallpox epidemic that ravaged Japan in 737…”

This much can be said, if we refer to Professor Morse’s article. During Taichō’s lifetime, the Eleven-Headed Kannon saw a steady increase in her popularity, probably on account of her healing powers. And nowhere was she more popular than at the northern end of Lake Biwa, and in the provinces of Wakasa and Echizen, along the Japan Sea coast.

Temples with fine statues of the Eleven-Headed Kannon are often found in remote or mountainous regions, as on Mt Kōtakami. In Echizen, the oldest statue of this deity is found close to Taichō’s birthplace, at the Futagami Kannondō (right), which stands within the lands once owned by the Tōdai-ji, just as shown in the Shōsō-in’s map. Immediately to the south rises Monju-san, a mountain said to have been “opened” by Taichō in the same year as his Hakusan ascent.

The Eleven-Headed Kannon, the healing of the sick, and an apparent ferment of monastic mountaineering in the Tempyō era – all these make for a rich yet mysterious mix. I start to wonder if this association might be illuminated by yet another exhibit, such as that fine shakujō over there.

Ritual staff (photo: Nara National Museum)

According to the catalogue, pilgrims used such implements in the mountains to “chase off snakes and dangerous insects, stabilize their steps, and announce their arrival in front of a gate”. Indeed, this particular staff bears an uncanny resemblance to the one found on Mt Tsurugi in 1907 and which can now be inspected in the Tateyama Museum.

I'm heading over to take a closer look when I hear a discreet whisper at my elbow. It is the Senpai. What about lunch, he suggests. His wife and children have already decamped to the canteen, having performed sufficient museum austerities for the morning, and we might like to join them. There's no question of eating elsewhere - the rain is sheeting down harder than ever outside.

It looks as if the question of Taichō’s mountaineering kit - and where he used it - will have to wait for another day.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

In search of Taichō (2)

28 October, Fukui: it’s raining again as we drive to the Prefectural History Museum. A large banner at the front door advertises the exhibition – “Taichō: exploring the significance of the Hakusan faith”.

As good historians should, the exhibition curators start by kicking the tyres. That is, of their sources. Actually, there is only one source for Taichō’s story. This is the Taichō-kashō-denki, preserved only in a handful of ancient scrolls – like the one in front of us in the display cabinet.

There is no original for this manuscript, only copies, of which the oldest known was transcribed in 1325 and preserved at a temple library in Yokohama, the so-called Kanazawa Bunko. Other copies belong to the Ozoe Mitsutani family, to Heisenji, a temple-turned-shrine in the eastern outback of Fukui Prefecture, and the  Ōtani-dera, a temple at the foot of Ochi-san. The text of the Taichō-kashō-denki did not appear in print until 1953.

According to the Taichō-kashō-denki itself, the story of Taichō was first written down by a monk at the Ōtani-dera, around the year 957, in mid-Heian times, based on the verbal account given him by a senior cleric of the Tendai sect. Thus, even if we accept that the Taichō-kashō-denki did originate around then, the chronicle dates from almost two centuries after Taichō’s death.

Now we understand why Ōtani-sensei had given us the tickets. Several of the key exhibits, including the scroll, come from his home temple, the eponymous Ōtani-dera, at the foot of Ochi-san. They’ve also lent this wooden sculpture of Taichō, seated in meditation and flanked by two attendants.

The central figure wears a wise, almost humorous expression. Although less than a foot high, the figure looks as if it was carved from the life. But that cannot be: the catalogue dates it to 1493.

The two acolytes must be Fuseri and Kanbe-no-Kyosada. Fuseri, it is said, travelled from what is now Nanao City on the Noto Peninsula to join Taichō on Ochi-san. There it was his practice to magically exact votives of rice from ships plying on the Japan Sea. (Even sages have to eat.)

Kanbe, the captain of one of these ships, refused to provide this tribute, whereupon Fuseri flew into a rage and sucked the ship’s entire cargo onto the mountaintop. When Taichō intervened, and graciously returned Kanbe’s rice, the sea captain decided to become the monk’s second disciple.

We move on to the exhibition’s second section, entitled “Ochi-san: the mountain where everything began”. Now we’re on firmer historical ground. There is a fine painting of the hill as it was during the heyday of popular pilgrimages, during the long peaceful centuries of the Edo period.

Ochi-san, as it was then

You can see the Otani-dera at the mountain’s foot, and the summit shrine too – alas, most of the buildings in between have vanished. For pilgrims with more ambitious goals, there are Edo-period guidebooks to climbing Hakusan too.

Ochi-san, as it is now
Of course, the Hakusan faith took root long before the Edo period. The Hakusan deity first appears in a chronicle of early Heian times, and a Hakusan shrine in Kaga features in the Engishiki, a compilation of laws and customs completed in 927. By 994, no less a personage than Sei Shōnagon was invoking the goddess of Hakusan.

By Muromachi times, pilgrims were filing up the mountain from three directions – from Heisenji in Echizen, the temple that once held sway over the summit, and from Kaga and Gifu too. The Hakusan faith spread all over Japan: even today, there are some 2,700 Hakusan shrines all over Japan, rather more than enshrine the deity of Mt Fuji.

A small but brightly coloured figurine catches my eye. Labelled as a “goddess”, it dates from the Northern and Southern Courts period (1336-1392), and belongs to the temple of Eiheiji, the original Zen temple, sited just up the road from Fukui.

Even the Zen masters, it seems, deferred to the goddess of Hakusan, a tradition that goes back all the way to their order’s founding. It seems that Japan’s first Zen proselyte had a debt to repay.

It happened like this. Just as Monk Dōgen was about to come home from five years of study in China, he discovered a crucial Buddhist text in a temple library. As his ship was due to leave the very next morning, it seemed impossible that he could transcribe it in time. But the goddess of Hakusan appeared to him in a vision, and helped him copy the scroll at a superhuman speed. In gratitude, he appointed her as the guardian goddess of Eiheiji.

There’s also a small figure of the Kannon (right) – she’s just over a metre high. The statue comes from Heisenji, which is only appropriate. For it was a vision of the Kannon in 716, in the forest glade where Heisenji would one day be built, that set Taichō on his way to the summit of Hakusan. It’s fair to say that Taichō’s own guardian deity was the Eleven-Headed Kannon, or sometimes the goddess of Hakusan (for the latter could represent the former in the syncretic Buddhist thinking of those times).

Out of the corner of my eye, I see the Sensei signalling to me. Could it be that we’ve inspected enough scrolls and statues for the day? Only when we step outside into the fresh air and the rain does it hit me, though. The exhibition had lived up to its title – we’d learned a lot about the Hakusan faith. But where was the religion’s founder in all this?

Somehow Monk Taichō seemed as elusive as ever…

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

In search of Taichō (1)

22/23 October, Fukui: typhoons are no respecters of anniversaries. The twenty-first of the season roars into town like a motorbike gang. All night, the Sensei’s house creaks and shudders in the gusts, as the trees in the garden lash to and fro.

Typhoon 21 seen from space
(courtesy Italian Space Agency)
Fukui gets off lightly: when the rain stops, one neighbour’s shrubs have taken on a rakish downwind tilt, and the house next door has lost a mosquito screen. Fortunately for our peace of mind, we haven't yet found out how high the river has climbed up the nearby embankment. At mid-afternoon, squalls still blot out the inland mountains while a rainbow stretches over the town.

The anniversary we want to mark is Monk Taichō’s. Thirteen hundred years ago, in the first year of Yōrō (717), he set off over high wooded ridges to climb Hakusan (2,702 metres). That much one can glean from Japan’s most famous mountain book.

According to the Hyakumeizan author, this made our local Meizan one of Japan’s first mountains to be “opened” for religious reasons. But the typhoon will have dumped a good few centimetres of new snow up there; and probably dropped some trees across the approach road too.

26 October: if we can’t climb Hakusan, we’ll commemorate Taichō Daishi by revisiting Ochi-san (613 metres), the hilltop west of Fukui where he first went to meditate. On a bright morning, the Sensei drives her van over a wooded pass into a deserted valley – not a soul is to be seen around the few houses – to the parking place under the ridge.

A signboard shows Ochi-san as it was in the heyday of popular pilgrimages, some centuries ago. It’s a quieter place now, with most of its sanctuaries and shrines vanished away.

The typhoon has carpeted the path in stripped-off pine-needles and shredded leaves. Half-way up the ridge, we meet a young couple coming down. They’ve turned back, they say, because fallen branches have blocked the path. This is true, but we manage to crawl or clamber through. More attention has to be paid to broken tree limbs hanging, Damocles-style, over the heads of the unwary.

Seeing the swathe carved through the forest, we wonder if we’ll find the priest still in residence at the summit shrine. No need to worry. Ōtani-sensei looks out as we come down into the grove in front of the shrine building. “Still together, I see,” he opens (we happen to be attired in matching blue hiking shirts). To which the Sensei rejoins, not missing a beat “Obviously, your blessing worked then.”

As last year, we’re invited to lunch. Ōtani-sensei shares his delicious cockleshell soup, and we bring out the Sensei’s industrial-grade onigiri, some fruit and a Swiss nut pie. We’re impressed to hear that Ōtani-sensei rode out the typhoon in this very house – the main shrine building went undamaged, but the nearby glass-fronted gallery for jizō figurines had a narrow escape when a red pine bough crashed down just in front, ripping off a roof gutter.

What was it like up here on that wild night, we ask. Ōtani-sensei brings out a large sheet of traditional Echizen paper on which he has ink-brushed his account of the storm. “Surely, this is a fair copy?” asks the Sensei, struck by the elegance of the script – no, he just wrote down his impressions as they occurred to him. He also gives us a copy of a local newsletter, to which he contributes a quarterly essay, one for each season.

From Echizen-cho's commemorative pamphlet
(courtesy of Echizen-cho)

The talk turns to Taichō. Ōtani-sensei reassures us that the 1,300th anniversary of his Hakusan climb is being celebrated all over the prefecture, in shrines, temples and museums. He hands us a brochure with a map that shows some of these places:

Echizen-chō, the township that surrounds Ochi-san, has even produced a commemorative pamphlet. Who is Taichō?, it asks rhetorically (in English), and one suspects the present tense is used advisedly. The narrative, rendered from the Japanese, begins like this:

Taichō was born in the 11th year of Emperor Tenmu’s reign (682), in the village of Asōzu in the province of Echizen (in the southern outskirts of today’s Fukui City). As a boy, he used to make Buddhist images out of clay, so that he grew up quite unlike other children. One day, a monk who was passing by to spread the Buddhist faith recognized Taichō as divinely inspired, and urged his parents to give special attention to his upbringing. At the age of 14, Taichō was commanded in a dream to carry out austerities on Ochi-san, and so he ran there every night (a distance of 15 kilometres, one way) to meditate, before running home…

I look up from the pamphlet – time is wearing on. We thank Ōtani-sensei for his hospitality, and he hands us two tickets for an exhibition on Taichō at the Fukui Prefectural Historical Museum. Those who are truly in search of the Daishi had better see it. Then we step out into the sunny afternoon and make our way up the stone steps to the summit sanctuary. To the east, Hakusan’s new snows glow numinously through the hazy air. This must be the very spot where Taichō first aspired to that distant summit.

On our way down, outside the storm-damaged gallery with its red-bibbed jizō statues, we meet two middle-aged men from Gifu. In this anniversary year, they are making a round of all the places linked with Taichō, they say. They'll be busy, then: the monk is said to have “opened” five mountains in Echizen alone. And this is to say nothing of all the temples, shrines, lakes and waterfalls that claim some association with him.

One thing is clear. Anybody who wishes to follow the master will have a lot of ground to cover.