Ep. 005: The Faces of Compassion

Every temple has its unique features, rarities, even eccentricities--like the one I'll tell you about today: the secret behind two statues at a small temple in Saitama, Japan.


A long, long time ago I read about a feature in old churches that few people ever see.


The Seldom-Seen Misericord

A flipped-up misericord in a Boston church (Wikipedia)

The priests sat in these sort of stalls, but the service also included long periods of standing, so a priest could flip up the seat, and on the underside there was a little ledge where he could rest his--uh--derriere. The ledge was called a misericord, meaning "mercy" or, perhaps, "compassion." It was seldom seen because, the only time it was "exposed," it was nestled into someone's...

Well, anyway, the coolest part of what I read was that the artisans who made them would sometimes add ornaments, including carving faces. And sometimes, if they had a grudge against a particular churchman for stinting on the wages or whatever, they would carve his face. So it might be some bishop's nose that was nestled... you know...

(Imagine my delight when I was visiting San Gabriel Mission near my home years ago, and, seeing a two-seat stall in the museum, flipped it up and--there was a face! I don't know whose, though, and the last time I visited, the flip-up seat was nailed down.)


Familiar Faces

This was one of the first times I learned that religious art could be modeled on a particular person. Oh, I knew that artists like Da Vinci and Michelangelo engaged models all the time; but I never realized that the painting of some saint might bear the face of the patron who paid for it!

The face of Empress Wu Zetian as Vairochana Buddha, Longmen Grottoes, Luoyang, Henan

I have seen this many times since. One well-known example is the colossal statue of Vairochana Buddha at the Longmen grottoes outside of Luoyang, Henan, bearing the face of the empress Wu Zetian--who did indeed pay for it.

But the coolest example of this phenomenon I have ever seen was found in a little temple in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo.

ASIDE: A friend of mine once asked, "Why so many temples, James? I mean, aren't they all pretty much the same?" No, Jesse, they're not. Every temple has its unique features, rarities, even eccentricities--like the one I'll tell you about today.


My Old Friend "Mr. Plum"

Ume-san in class, c. 2000

Kiyotada Umezawa was a student of mine at the Saitama Prefectural offices, by virtue of his employment in a government high school. But he was also a Buddhist priest ordained in the Buzan branch of Shingon Buddhism, the sect which would figure so largely in my last big pilgrimage in Japan (the 88 Temple Circuit on Shikoku).

At the time, as a non-practicing priest, "Ume-san" (as we called him, meaning "Mr. Plum") had the bowl cut and wardrobe of a typical Japanese high school teacher. He also had connections all over the place. For example, he used to take me for sake and sushi (vegetarian for me) at a place called "Five Generations" because, in fact, the "master" was of the fifth generation to own the place, and expected to change the name to "Six Generations" when his son took over. (How cool is that?)

The master and serving girls at "5G" called Ume-san Sensei, meaning "teacher," and kept his personal bottle of hooch behind the bar. (It's a fairly common system in Japan, at places where you're a regular: buy a bottle, and consume it on repeat visits until it's gone.) The place was so narrow, even a skinny person (which I'm not) had to uproot people from their bar stools to get to the toire in the back.


Tokusho-ji, Kazo, Saitama

Main Gate, Tokusho-ji (note statues deep inside)

Japanese Buddhism includes a bunch of hereditary temples, passed down from father to son (yes, the priests--as distinguished from monks--marry, something we'll talk about in our next episode). Ume-san's father owned such a temple, and when his father passed away, Ume-san quit his teaching job, shaved his head, got married (a sort of requirement in that kind of temple), and took over the "family business," Tokusho-ji ("The Temple of Moral Character") in Kazo, Saitama.

Before that, however, when Dad was still in charge, Ume-san took a friend and me to visit the place. This week I contacted another Japanese friend, Reiko Nagae Foster, my Best Friend In Japan (and one of my best friends ever!); she helped me discover that Tokusho-ji seems to have been founded at least as early as the late Kamakura Period (1185-1333), with one monument on the grounds dating to 1345. And the Sanmon (Mountain Gate), which looked to me like the only really ancient structure, was apparently built in 1763. (The main hall may be older than it looked to me.) There is also a ginkgo tree said to be over 300 years old. (Google Maps Street View also shows there was a phone booth out front in 2012--talk about furukusai--"stinking with age"!)

Anyway, it was a pleasant enough place, with a nice cemetery (the death biz is a primary source of income for temples in Japan, especially these little neighborhood joints), and really not much else to catch the eye.


The Faces of Compassion

Main Hall, Tokusho-ji

Except, in front of the main hall, there are two free-standing statues, open to the elements. The one on the viewer's left is of Kannon Bosatsu (Sanskrit Avalokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion. The other is of Jizo Bosatsu (Sanskrit Kshitigarbha), the Bodhisattva who has vowed to save all beings from hell.

These are two of the most popular Bosatsu (Bodhisattvas) in Japan, not least because they are steeped in compassion. The faces of these two statues radiate kindness.

Statues Kannon and Jizo Bodhisattvas, Tokusho-ji

Imagine my surprise when Ume-san dropped this little fact on me: When his father had commissioned the statues, he asked the sculptor to give one the face of his late wife (Ume-san's mother) and the other the face of his current wife (Ume-san's beloved step-mother).

Setting aside the minefield of placing a statue of your late wife where your current wife would see her every day, imagine how it must have warmed Ume-san's heart to see these two nurturing women's faces, a little larger than life, every time he passed between them to go into the Buddha Hall!

Lovely, isn't it? I've been pondering it for nearly two decades.


That’s it for today! I encourage you to look around for the "faces of compassion" in your own life--and be one yourself! Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: There are many "flavors" of Buddhism, within--and, especially, between--cultures. We'll take a look at one example of a "culture clash" in Buddhist practice--and have tea with a Master!