Ep. 083: Tsubosaka-dera, a Taste of India in Japan

A unique site on the Saigoku pilgrimage

Come join me for a little "taste of India"--right smack dab in Nara, Japan!--in this episode of


An Indian carving of Dainichi Nyorai, the "Great Sun Buddha," my personal favorite

A friend (hi, Jesse!) once asked me something like, "After all the temples you've been to, don't they all sorta seem the same?" I carefully explained that, as with wine connoisseurs, after a certain amount of experience you start looking for the nuances, the gentle touches that set this temple apart from all others, and blah blah blah...

All that blather goes out the window when you visit Tsubosaka-dera, also known as Minamihokke-ji. We'll get to those names in a minute, but first, let's look at what really sets this temple apart.

The Indian Connection

For reasons we'll soon learn, Tsubosaka-dera is famous for the aid it gives to people with eye problems. In 1965, expanding their mission both medically and geographically, they reached out to the JALMA Institute for Leprosy and other Mycobacterial Diseases, located less than a mile from the Taj Mahal in ‎Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India.

In gratitude, the Institute arranged for marble statuary to be sent to the temple, and this is what gives the place its distinctive look.

The exterior of the "Great Stone Hall"

As we arrive, one of the first sights we see (to the right of a 33-foot Buddha that was added seven years or so after my visit) is the "Great Stone Hall," built to resemble the temple caves at Ajanta, India. The structure is used as a columbarium (a place to hold the ashes of departed loved ones) and Japanese Wikipedia says (in translation) it was "sculpted and assembled in Japan by a total of 120,000 Japanese and Indian people."

An altar inside the "Great Stone Hall"

I believe it. The exterior is exquisite (but in no way resembles the Taj Mahal, as many English web pages claim), and the interior is just dimly-enough lit to make one feel that it really is a cave. English websites also call this the Jogando; I can't find any kanji (Sino-Japanese characters) on any Japanese site to confirm this, and so cannot tell you what it might mean; though I did find one temple in Kyoto called Jogan-in, a mausoleum for an emperor, the name of which means something like "multiplying petitions"; that could be it.

One of ten carved marble panels depicting the Buddha's life. Here he attains Enlightenment, touching the ground in witness in order to defeat frightful demons and seductive women: fear and desire.

Up the hill, behind the "cave," is another touch of Mother India: ten carved marble panels depicting the life of the Buddha before and after his enlightenment, including some of the Jatakas, stories about the lives of the Buddha-to-Be before he was born into this life. The temple's website says the work required "57,000 stone carvers" (a bit hard to believe), based on a design by a Japanese college professor, and that it's ten feet high and 164 feet long (that's 3 x 50 meters). I photographed the whole thing (not always very well; remember, in the film days, we shot sparingly--and without a chance to review our work!).

The Kannon up the hill, with the "Sleeping" Buddha in the foreground

To the right of the main compound across an access road, a 66-foot (20-meter) statue of Kannon (Avalokiteshvara) stands on a hill at the top of a flight of steps. This too seems to have required an extraordinary number of carvers--70,000 according to the temple's page--and was cut in India in 66 separate pieces and transported to Japan for reassembly. "[T]ens of thousands of sutras and foundation stones are buried" in its foundation, which reaches down to bedrock. It's "eyes were opened"--the term used for the dedication of a newly-installed Buddhist statue--in 1983.

At the base of the stairs is another Indian sculpture, this one of the so-called "Sleeping" Buddha--that is, the Buddha at the time of his death or, as the Buddhists like to say, when he "entered final Nirvana." (The Nirvana he attained at age 35 was conditioned, since he was still in his body.) This statue is 26 feet (eight meters) long, and was dedicated in 1999, just a year before my visit in May of 2000.

This completes the Indian portion of our tour.

The Temple Proper

The 1497 pagoda

The main temple grounds are pretty, but not spectacularly so. There's a beautiful three-story pagoda reconstructed in 1497, and done up again sometime after my visit. The hondo (Main Hall) has an unusual set up: a typical rectangular worship hall in front is attached to an octagonal "sanctuary" containing the temple's main image behind. It's an Eleven-headed Thousand-Armed Kannon. (I couldn't see the layout of the halls from the ground.)

Several other buildings, including a small, exquisite tahoto or "Treasure Pagoda," rest on the temple's lower terrace, just above the niomon (the "Two Kings Gate"). But at the base of the temple's hill, right next to the parking lot, is a building from 1958 that reflects the temple's deepest tradition.

Sight for the Blind

The story of the temple's founding also explains one of its two names, Tsubosaka-dera or "Jar Slope Temple." (The other name, Minamihokke-ji or "South Lotus Temple," is more generic, though it may reflect a connection to Kyoto's famed Kiyomizu-dera, which Japanese Wiki says was called "North Lotus Temple" back in the Heian Period [794-1185].)

Anyway, the legend says that an ascetic monk named Benki Shami built a hut here in 703 and, while meditating, saw yet another bright light shooting out of the ground, accompanied by a voice chanting a dharani (kind of like a mantra) with the name of the Thousand-Armed Kannon. Grabbing a shovel (one presumes) he dug to the source of the chant and the light and found a jar made of lapis lazuli with a golden statue of the Kannon inside.

A very un-Indian set of the Shichifukujin (see Episode 024) in Indian marble

A few years later, his reputation as a healer firmly established, Benki was called on to heal an empress suffering from blindness. He held his beads to her eyes and recited the same dharani he had heard on the hillside, and voila! The Empress could see. In gratitude, she built the octagonal hall (or its forerunner, more likely) to house the image Benki had found. (I doubt either the hall or the statue we see today is the original. I read somewhere that the current image is a later replica of the original--but still quite old.)

A later legend says that a pair of thwarted lovers came to the temple in despair, because the boy was blind and thus unable to care for a bride. Though they prayed to Kannon for aid, there was no change, and at last, wishing to set the girl free, while she was praying at Tsubosaka-dera he leapt from a nearby cliff and BAM! he could see. Wedding on!

The Kannon in the main hall. A little blurry, you say? Yeah, it was dark in there!

At any rate, the temple has long been associated with the healing of visual problems, and sells a tea and a medicine that supposedly help. And, unlike most temples, this one keeps its main image of Kannon on view at all times, as just gazing on her is said to bring relief for eye problems. No wonder some call Tsubosaka-dera "The Temple of Eye Health."

Now about that 1958 building? It's a home for the elderly, especially those with vision problems!


And that just about covers that. 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: Continuing our day in China's Ningbo, we'll run into more Indian tradition: a temple named for the great Indian King Ashoka.