Ep. 048: The Great Kannon at Hase-dera

The Great Buddha's great neighbor

[Note: Many of the photos in this Episode were provided by my lovely wife Lila, taken on our Japan trip in 2006.]

Aside from the famed Senso-ji Temple in Tokyo's Asukusa--to which I could ride my bicycle from my home of over two years--probably no temple in Japan was more familiar to me than Hase-dera in Kamakura, home of the 30-foot wooden Kannon. Let's visit that gorgeous place in this episode of


We've discussed the Tokugawa Shoguns of Edo (Tokyo) before, but that was essentially the third government run by generals. The first, which we discussed in visiting the Great Buddha in Episode 020, was the one in Kamakura, which lasted from 1192 to 1333. (We'll probably never have cause to examine the second Shogunate, the Ashikaga, of 1336 to 1573. And there were indeed many shoguns before the Kamakura era, but not so much a dynasty.)

Anyway, keep that visit to the Great Buddha in mind as we walk less than 10 minutes to the south and west to reach the Kamakura Hase-dera Temple. We must be careful about naming the location; as we'll see in a moment, there's another famous Hase-dera down in Nara (where we visited "pyramids" in Episode 026), and a third major one--part of the same pilgrimage circuit as the one in Kamakura--in the same prefecture!

But this one is known far and wide as "Hase Kannon" for its most famous resident, whom we'll meet right now.

The Hase Kannon

The Great Hase Kannon (Wikipedia)

We've talked plenty of times about the Bodhisattva known in Japan as Kannon, in China as Guanyin, and in India as Avalokiteshvara. And in fact, we've also talked--very briefly--about another player in this story, the monk Tokudo Shonin.

Remember? In Episode 044, Tokudo fell ill and went to hell (literally), where Emma-O, king of that realm, encouraged him to found the Saigoku (West Country) pilgrimage so people could tread the path and avoid damnation--as hell was getting overcrowded. Emma-O also gave Tokudo 33 seals that people would use as proof that they had actually completed the pilgrimage, but Tokudo ended up burying the seals, which a retired emperor dug up and two and a half centuries later started (or restarted) the pilgrimage.

Well, that ain't all Tokudo is remembered for. He was the Abbot at that other Hase-dera, the one in Nara, and in 721 commissioned a great work. He had gotten his hands on an enormous camphor tree and ordered not one, but two statues of the Eleven-Headed Kannon to be carved from it. One he placed in his own temple; the other he had cast into the sea!

Lafcadio Hearn gleaned enormous amounts of Japaniana, from his travels and from his Japanese wife. Kwaidan may be his best-known work. (Wikipedia)

That Japan omniphage Lafcadio Hearn, though, wrote an "explanation" in Chapter Four of his Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan: First Series for this otherwise-inexplicable action. "Now at that time, in a valley in Yamato," he writes, referring to that ancient section of Japan that embraces Nara and Asuka,

Tokudo Shonin, walking by night, saw a wonderful radiance; and going toward it found that it came from the trunk of a great fallen tree, a kusunoki, or camphor-tree. A delicious perfume came from the tree, and the shining of it was like the shining of the moon. And by these signs Tokudo Shonin knew that the wood was holy; and he bethought him that he should have the statue of Kannon carved from it. And he recited a sutra, and repeated the Nenbutsu [a prayer to Amitabha Buddha], praying for inspiration; and even while he prayed there came and stood before him an aged man and an aged woman; and these said to him, 'We know that your desire is to have the image of Kannon-Sama carved from this tree with the help of Heaven; continue therefore, to pray, and we shall carve the statue.'

And Tokudo Shonin did as they bade him; and he saw them easily split the vast trunk into two equal parts, and begin to carve each of the parts into an image. And he saw them so labour for three days; and on the third day the work was done--and he saw the two marvellous statues of Kannon made perfect before him. And he said to the strangers: 'Tell me, I pray you, by what names you are known.' Then the old man answered: 'I am Kasuga Myojin.' And the woman answered: 'I am called Ten-sho-ko-dai-jin; I am the Goddess of the Sun.' And as they spoke both became transfigured and ascended to heaven and vanished from the sight of Tokudo Shonin.

And the Emperor, hearing of these happenings, sent his representative to Yamato to make offerings, and to have a temple built. Also the great priest, Gyogi Bosatsu, came and consecrated the images, and dedicated the temple which by order of the Emperor was built. And one of the statues he placed in the temple, enshrining it, and commanding it: 'Stay thou here always to save all living creatures!' But the other statue he cast into the sea, saying to it: 'Go thou whithersoever it is best, to save all the living.'

Now the statue floated to Kamakura. And there arriving by night it shed a great radiance all about it as if there were sunshine upon the sea; and the fishermen of Kamakura were awakened by the great light; and they went out in boats, and found the statue floating and brought it to shore. And the Emperor ordered that a temple should be built for it, the temple called Shin-Hasedera, on the mountain called Kaiko-San, at Kamakura.

Incidentally, the Shin of Shin-Hase-dera means "new" in contrast to the one down south; and Kaiko-San, still the mountain name of the temple, means something like "Radiance from the Sea."

Okay. Never mind that the nearest shoreline from the Nara temple is maybe 40 miles away; or that the place where the buoyant Bodhisattva fetched up is a couple hundred sea miles away. By golly, the story just has to be true! (wink, wink)

Anyway, the statue came ashore at Nagai in 736 (after 15 years, probably pretty waterlogged), on the Miura Peninsula (that at least rings true, as it sticks out into Sagami Bay like a little hook). From there it was taken to Kamakura, and the temple was built around it.

I know it's true because I've seen it! All 30 feet of its gilded glory. Alas, I can't prove it, because the hall is a no photo zone, but I've nabbed one from Wikipedia for this Newsletter.

An alternate version of the story tells how in 601 a great flood washed the tree trunk up at a village, and the people's failure to honor it brought suffering on them. At long last Tokudo came along, and the rest is "history." The power, you see, is in the wood.

Hase Kannon Today

After stopping for tea and cakes at the thatch-roofed teahouse just outside Hase-dera's gate, we buy our ticket and enter the grounds.

A swastika-shaped pond on the temple's lower level.

The temple is arranged on two levels, joined by stairs. The lower level is primarily gardens and ponds; it runs along the base of the mountain. The place is literally always in bloom: the temple's website even offers a "flower calendar" (it's a Japanese thing) to let you know what blooms when. There are also a couple of small halls. One features a statue of Daikokuten, one of the Seven Lucky Gods we met in Episode 024; the statue is said to have been carved by our old friend Kobo Daishi (see Episodes 032, 039, and 047).

Benten in her kutsu (cave)

Also on this level is a place that stands out as unique in all my temple visits. The Benten-kutsu is a complex of three small caves dedicated to Benten, the only female of the Seven Lucky Gods, and the featured figure at Enoshima just a few miles down the coast. The first cave has a figure of Benten and her sixteen attendant children; the second is dedicated to the mizuko, babies that have been miscarried or aborted, and has another Benten, an Amitabha (called in Japan Amida), and a Kshitigarbha (Japanese Jizo) for the "water babies," as we discussed in Episode 012, "On the Banks of the River of Souls." The third cave is simply bare walls, but the floors are covered with miniature Benten statues (and you, too, can put one there for a small contribution, and write your prayer request on it); I suspect this was an afterthought, a way to use an unfinished room. Interestingly, Iso Mutsu's 1918 book Kamakura: Fact and Legend gives a fairly comprehensive tour of the temple, but makes no mention of the caves whatsoever; Hearn's account, though not as thorough, was published in 1894 and also passes over the caves completely. Could they be a fairly modern attempt to cash in on an imitation of the similar Taya Caves in nearby Ofuna?

Each little statue of Jizo (Kshitigarbha) represents a baby aborted or miscarried, and thus a grieving family.

Ascending the stairs toward the terrace where the temple's main buildings are located, we pass a shrine to the same Mizuko Jizo, as well as a startling sight: hundreds of small Jizo statues, each dedicated by grieving parents. It's a gruesome industry; I have read that the statues are kept for only a year, and the turnover is such that some 50,000 have been dedicated (and paid for) since the 1940s. Seeing the little figures with bibs, knitted caps, toys, and favorite treats is absolutely heartwrenching.

Tearing ourselves away from this melancholy sight, we reach the terrace where the temple's main buildings are located. Incidentally, though the temple fairly solidly dates to 736, the buildings we see today were built "only" in 1459, at the behest of the eighth Ashikaga Shogun, Yoshimasa, but were thoroughly repaired by our buddy Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1607.

Nearest the stairs is an Amida-do, a hall to the Amitabha Buddha. This temple belongs to the Jodo Sect (Chinese Jingtu, meaning "Pure Land") which promotes the recitation of the name of Amitabha (the Nenbutsu mentioned by Lafcadio Hearn): Namu Amida Butsu, or "Praise to Amitabha Buddha." Devotees believe that sincere repetition of this Buddha's name will gain them admission to his Western Pure Land, called Sukhavati, whence they can perfect their practice and attain Nirvana.

And it is no coincidence that Kannon is considered to be an emanation of this Buddha, whose primary trait is compassion. Most representations of Kannon even show a small seated figure of Amitabha in the Bodhisattva's tiara.

The Kannon-do. The statue is under the high roof at the left end (back of the hall, as the front door is on the right).

And so, we enter the large hall containing the camphor-wood colossus who floated his way up from old Yamato. I won't try to describe the various smaller statues in the hall--they are legion. But I will say how grateful I am to have seen the main statue in modern times. Both Hearn and Countess Mutsu describe visiting a "dark chamber," and Hearn describes the raising of lanterns by a rope mechanism to reveal the statue little by little from bottom to top. Mysterious, I suspect, and awe-inspiring, but I enjoyed seeing the well-lit figure in full on numerous occasions.

Words cannot describe the sensation of craning one's neck to see that much gold shmeared over a chunk of wood. The Bodhisattva is often portrayed with plenty of feminine traits; this one, though sporting the usual open-fronted "dress" (with plenty of finery obscuring the breast itself), also has a decidedly well-defined mustache. The left hand holds aloft what is probably a willow sprig (for sprinkling healing ambrosia, a common symbol), and the right--quite unusually--holds a staff close to the body. The broad gold aureola behind the figure is adorned with cloud-like swirls and 13 Sanskrit "seed syllables" in gold-on-black. A smaller statue, of different appearance, stands directly in front of the full-sized one.

Now, a quick word about those eleven heads: this was mentioned very quickly in Episode 046, but in Sino-Japanese culture, there are ten directions, not eight: the eight usual compass points, plus the zenith and nadir--up and down. (The 2004 Hong Kong film House of Flying Daggers is actually called something like Ambush from Ten Directions in Chinese.) It's also quite common to add the center (five is very important for this reason--five elements, etc.). So the ten plus the center makes eleven. Kannon is looking in every possible direction for those who need help.

Next to the Kannon-do is a museum entered by separate admission; from what I can gather from old books, a number of items in the "treasure house" used to be in the Kannon-do itself. And past the museum is a small building housing a rotating sutra cabinet. Turning it doesn't take too much effort, and the reward is the amount of merit gained if one had chanted all of the scriptures in it! (A website says doing so is now restricted to certain days, including the 18th of every month--Kannon's day, as she was born the 18th day of the second month by tradition, though this was originally on the lunisolar calendar).

A view of the sea over roofs, from the temple's terrace.

There is an ancient cemetery creeping up the hillside behind the halls, but the terrace is so pleasant that one prefers to stay put. There's an excellent view of the bay to the south--presumably the one that washed away the Great Buddha's temple in 1498--and a trellis with wisteria, a real treat when the flowers are in bloom. In a small square, a fine set of the Shitenno or Four Heavenly Kings surround a statue of Taishakuten, the Indian god Indra, who is considered not only their leader, but the leader of a group of 33 gods (and 33 is preeminently Kannon's number: eight in each of the four directions, plus one at the center).

Food service was also available here in my day, though I couldn't swear to it almost 14 years after my last visit!

Two of the Shitenno (Four Heavenly Kings) that surround the statue of Taishakuten (barely visible at the left)


Hase-dera has a little something for everybody: food, beautiful gardens, excellent views, spelunking, and of course an opportunity to reverence the statues. If you're ever out Tokyo way, take the train down to Kamakura, drop in on the Big Buddha, and then walk down the street to see the gilded giant Kannon-Sama.

Until next time, then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: It's Missions Monday, and I'll share the rollicking tale of my visit to all 21 of California's missions, from the south end of the state to above San Francisco--in one day!