Ep. 032: Marvelous Mount Koyasan, Center of Shingon Buddhism

One of my favorite places--ever

My journeys have taken me to so many amazing places, from the Colorado Plateau ruins of the Chaco Canyon Native American complex, to the "summer resort" of the Manchurian emperors of the Great Qing Dynasty.

But none has a grip on my heart like that of what Japanophile Oliver Statler describes as "the next world revealed in this world" and "a certain gateway to paradise." And Ed Readicker-Henderson, author of The Traveler's Guide to Japanese Pilgrimages and another of my virtual "travel companions," wrote that if he had one day to spend in Japan, he'd spend it here. (For experienced Japan travelers, I think Ed's right, but newcomers should spend the day in Kamakura.)

A priest walks past the Garan’s Daito

"This holy mountain" as Statler calls it is Koyasan in Japanese or "Mount Koya" in English. As a redundant means of clarification, it is not unusual to hear it called "Mount Koyasan." It is a "high plain" (the meaning of Koya) surrounded by eight peaks said to make it resemble a lotus flower, meaning that the visitor is in the center of a giant religious symbol.

Although the foundation of this massive complex was laid around 1200 years ago, it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. Few buildings are more than two or three hundred years old. Yet the notion that people have been "doing religion" here for so long pervades everything. This place has never not been a center for the development of spirituality, as long as humans have occupied it.

Sure, it overflows with natural beauty, but the "draw" for most of us is its association with Shingon Buddhism, an esoteric sect that made its way from India through China to Japan in just three generations. Shingon is the Japanese rendering of the Chinese zhenyan or "true word," which itself represents the Indian word mantra, now familiar to most Westerners as a sort of "magic word" used in meditational exercises.

Student monks on the main street of Mount Koyasan

Shingon, in fact, utilizes three techniques, all happily rendered alliteratively in Sanskrit: Mudra, Mantra, and Mandala--gestures, chants, and images--which give the body something to do, the voice something to express, and the mind something to contemplate. Reversed, that's thought, word, and deed.

The topic of Shingon and the man who brought it from China--the monk Kukai, whose name can mean "Sky Sea," but who is fondly called Kobo Daishi, the "Great Teacher Who Spread the Buddhist Teaching"--could fill, and has filled, volumes. In this episode, I'll share what you need to know to understand what we see on Mount Koyasan, but I'm sure we'll return to this topic again and again.


The Rise of Kukai

In the days when the Daishi lived (774-835), the seat of Japan's Imperial court moved from Nara, where it had been centered for the better part of the century, to what we now call Kyoto. Kukai became a priest at very roughly the same time, in 796, practicing primarily as a mountain ascetic, but with connections to the court.

In a dream, a man told him that the Mahavairochana Tantra would answer all of his questions. Imagine his disappointment when, upon obtaining a copy, he found it full of incomprehensible untranslated Sanskrit terms.

Statue of a meditating Kukai (Kobo Daishi) in the Okunoin on Mount Koyasan

And so, having been ordained for just under a decade, he joined a government-sponsored expedition to China in 804. There, in the capital of Chang'an (modern Xi'an), he received the transmission of the Shingon teachings from a teacher who had learned it from an Indian. (I have been to a hall dedicated to his landing site in China, and to the temples where he studied in Xi'an. Watch for the upcoming "Kukai in China" episode!)

Returning to Japan with not only the teaching but also scriptures and artifacts, he rose in the esteem of his countrymen until in 810 he became head of Todai-ji, the most prestigious temple in Nara, and home to the Great Buddha of Nara.

For the next decade he consolidated his power: performing a successful esoteric healing of the sick emperor, writing many of his most important works, and heading the government office that oversaw Buddhist priests--all this while starting his own order.

At last, in 819, ground was broken for the complex that has become Mount Koyasan.


Mount Koyasan

Kukai himself was unable to spend much time on Koyasan because of his government duties (adviser to the Secretary of State) and the efforts to raise money for this enormous project. In fact, the complex wasn't "finished" until after his death in 835. Certainly the so-called finished project bore little resemblance to what we see today, which includes around 120 temples. Never fear: We'll not try to visit all of them, but the two most interesting sites on the mountain lie at opposite ends of the main road. It is to these that we will turn our attention.

The funicular railway to Koyasan

Travelers typically approach Koyasan by rail. It's around three hours from Kyoto to tiny Gokurakubashi ("Bridge to Paradise") Station, whence one boards the half-mile long funicular for the mountaintop. (It's also possible to drive up the mountain, but weekend traffic is said to be horrendous.)

The main disadvantage of rail travel is that you land well inside the complex, missing the spectacular entryway. So let's pretend we're made of sterner stuff, and hike the 15 miles or so from Kudoyama Station on the Nankai Koya Line to the mountain's entrance (something which, alas, I've never done--but it's never too late!). You can also start closer to the mountain's base, but however you do it, there's quite an elevation gain--about 5,000 feet from Kudoyama!

The Daimon, formal entry to Mount Koyasan

Having sweated through our socks, at last we reach Paradise at the Daimon, the "Great Gate" to the mountain (around which those arriving by automobile must swerve). As we enter, the ladies in the group might whisper a special prayer of thanks: had you been born before 1872, you would have been denied entrance to the mountain. Period. (Perhaps to prevent distraction of the young men studying there?)

Anyway, things are more equitable today. As our co-ed group passes under the stupendous gate, a version of which has been located here since the 12th century--though this one dates "only" to 1705--we note the two figures of the Kongo-Rikishi, Japanese cousins to Heng and Ha whom we met previously, in Episode 027. About 4/10 of a mile further along the road, we reach the Chumon (Central Gate), entry to our first destination: The Danjo Garan.


The Danjo Garan

I've known the word "Garan" since my first visit to Koyasan, in May of 2000. And for most of the years I lived in China, I knew that the martial hero Guan Yu was known to Buddhists as "Qielan." But it wasn't until I started researching this episode that I discovered that those were the same word.

Sangharama is a Sanskrit word meaning literally "Garden of Monks" (the sangha is the followers of the Buddha), but in fact it denotes "a monastery." A more complete transliteration into Chinese makes it sengqielanmo, where sengqie means sangha (you can almost hear it); lanmo is also a phonetic approximation of rama. Garan/Qielan is the middle two syllables. (How the word for "monastery" became the name of a minor bodhisattva who guards monasteries is a story for another time. But let it be stipulated that the "Garan" on Mount Koya is the same word as the name of "Qielan.")

Danjo is easier; it simply means "on an altar" or maybe "upper altar." So this is "the monastery on an altar," or maybe the "lofty altar monastery."

As mentioned, we reach the Chumon and turn into the Garan. Straight ahead now is the Kondo or "Golden Hall," the main hall of the monastery. Compared to some of the other glories nearby, it's a fairly simple, though quite large, wooden structure.

Koya Myojin Shrine in the Danjo Garan

To the far left is a beautiful Shinto shrine dedicated to the gods who inhabited this mountain before Buddhism arrived. Legend says that, while studying in China, Kukai threw his sanko (a ceremonial implement looking for all the world like a little dumbbell with tridents on the end) as far as he could, and it landed in a tree on a mountain in Japan (!). After returning to Japan, he requested use of that same mountain from the Emperor, and was granted the area we now know as Koyasan.

On his way to the mountain, he met a gigantic red-bearded hunter, with two dogs, one black and one white. (Red, black, and white--a motif to be discussed another time.) This was in fact Koya (or Kariba) Myojin, who--along with his mother, the goddess Nibu (or Niu) Myojin--is the Shinto god of Mount Koya. He guided Kobo Daishi to the sanko in the pine, where the Daishi established his monastery, and later built this Shinto shrine to propitiate the Myojin for the land-grab.

The bare wood of the Saito exhibits the impermanent feel of wabi-sabi.

Further back, in the back left corner of the compound, is the Saito or Western Stupa. It was built in 887 and rebuilt in 1834, and is a match for the Toto (Eastern Stupa) in the back right corner. The Saito has the look known as wabi-sabi, an aesthetic that prizes beauty which is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is achieved in this case by weathered bare wood, where the Toto's exterior bears subdued red paint. It was built in 1127, burned in 1843, and rebuilt in 1983.

The Toto (Eastern Stupa) balances the Saito (Western Stupa).

Follow me here: There are nine buildings across the back of the compound. The West and East Stupas anchor either end. Next to each there are three much smaller halls with various purposes. And dead center, more or less (but not exactly) behind the Kondo, is the Konpon Daito, the Principle Great Stupa, dedicated to Mahavairochana, my personal Buddha.

The Daito (Great Stupa) dwarfs them all. Note the people in the foreground.

And it is great. It's 160 feet tall, and is believed by Shingon practitioners to be the very center of a mandala or sacred image that encompasses all of Japan. Although shaped similarly to the other two stupas, it's distinguished not only by its size, but by its bright vermilion paint job.

Incidentally, all three of the stupas exhibit the characteristics of the tahoto or "Treasure Stupa," typically found only in the esoteric traditions of Japan (Shingon and the allied Tendai sect). Most pagodas are built with an odd number of levels--three, five, seven, nine, and so on. The tahoto has only two.

Despite the number of stories, the tahoto has far more than two features. The lower story is a cube; the upper is a cylinder. The two are conjoined by a dome or semi-circular section (reflecting the original dome-shaped stupas of India). Around the upper portion is a circular railing, and the roof is pyramidal or triangular. It is topped by a tall, ringed finial. In a way, it resembles the stone gorinto (see photo below), the five parts of which represent the Five Elements of Chinese/Japanese "science": the square base of the gorinto is the earth; above that, a sphere represents water; a roof-shaped triangular or pyramidal section is fire; the "cup" or hemisphere above it is air; and the jewel shape on top is "ether" or the Void.

The contents of the Garan are completed by a few other small halls, and a garden with a bridge in the southeast corner. No temple in Japan has affected me the way this one does--and folks, you ain't seen nothin' yet!


The Okunoin

Back out the Chumon, on the main road, we walk a little over a mile and a half further east and reach the Okunoin or inner sanctuary. We'll still have a half-mile or so to go before reaching the real "holy of holies," but along the way we'll walk through one of the most evocative cedar forests imaginable.

Because this is the largest graveyard in Japan--a land rife with graveyards--and it has tombs over a thousand years old, one of which we're heading for.

A collection of gorinto. See description above.

But along the way we'll see moss-covered stones of all sizes, some shaped like the gorinto just described. We'll see company-sponsored tombs--a stone rocket ship, an over-sized stone cup of coffee engraved "UCC"--and personal markers, such as a stone man seated in a well-upholstered stone chair with his stone wife standing next to him. We'll also see stone mausoleums with stone fences around them. Yes, a lot of stone.

A mausoleum in the Okunoin

You see, virtually everybody in Japan wants to be buried here (or so the tourist literature says). When the day comes that the Daishi--whom we'll meet in a moment--comes out of his "eternal meditation," a sort of Buddhist-style resurrection will occur. And anyone who's nearby gets raised first! In Japan, a person can have many tombs: a lock of hair here, a piece of bone there, so the companies referred to above maintain mausoleums here to stick a chunk of their employees in! Insiders say it's quite a source of income for the mountain.

At last, we reach our goal. When Kukai died in 835, at the age of 62, he was not cremated, as is the custom in Japan. Instead, as he prescribed in his will, he was placed in a cave in seated meditation. And, as we have heard about the mummies of Jiuhua-shan in Episode 015 (whose disciples seem to have cheated), the tomb was later opened, and he looked as if he were simply sleeping. Even his hair and nails had grown (creepy, but scientifically possible). He is waiting, they say, for the arrival of Maitreya, the next Buddha, as described in Episode 003.

Faces of the Okunoin

Now, when one commits to the Shikoku pilgrimage dedicated to Kukai, as I did in 2001, etiquette requires that you visit the Daishi before and after--before, to request his assistance and support, and after, to express gratitude for his giving it.

No photos are allowed past a certain point when approaching his tomb, which helps maintain the sacred ambiance. A hall in front of the tomb is filled with more than 10,000 eternally-lit lanterns donated by devotees, which also lend a special atmosphere. Both times I placed myself in this incredibly haunting place--both before and after my trek--I followed the same routine, as described in the journal of my trip: "I went into the main [lantern] hall, dropped a coin, then went around back and prayed in front of the crypt. And wept uncontrollably, I don't know why." What I neglected to mention is that both times I chanted with (or at least near) groups of pilgrims, innumerable older people in white, who were either going to or coming from the same experience on Shikoku. (Boy, did they give me the eye!) Something about the place, the environment, and the group energy really got me by the lump in my throat.


Wrapping Up

And that brings to an end our quick visit to the holy mountain of Koyasan. I have had other experiences there, visiting numerous temples and staying in a couple of them. Notably, I was able to attend ceremonies, including the goma, a fire ceremony in which the priests use fans to manipulate the flames in a most spectacular way, sometimes reaching several feet high (in a very small space), and incidentally, send our written prayer requests out into the ether. I can't wait to take my wife and go back again.

So, 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: Come along and visit some small temples in the Nanshan District of Shenzhen, China, where I lived for over a decade. Chief among them are sites dedicated to Tianhou, also called Mazu, a folk "goddess of the sea."