Ep. 093: The Upper Ghee Temple

Kami Daigo-ji in the mountains of Kyoto

When you visit Daigo-ji in Kyoto, you get two--or even three--temples for the effort of one. Find out what I'm talking about in this episode of--


Temple Number 11 of the Saigoku 33 Kannon Pilgrimage Route in Japan is named "Kami Daigo-ji." The kami is important, as it signifies that this is "Upper" Daigo-ji. Daigo itself means "ghee," the clarified butter used in Indian cuisine. In Chinese usage it's refined cream cheese, but both cultures use it metaphorically to signify the "crème de la crème," which in a Buddhist context is nirvana, the dharma (the Buddha's teaching), or Buddha nature.

Red leaves before the Two Kings Gate t Shimo Daigo-ji

If I understand this correctly, the idea is related to the greatest work by the Shingon founder, Kobo Daishi (also called Kukai), titled The Ten Stages of the Development of Mind, written in 830, as well as its simplified summary, The Precious Key to the Secret Treasury. In these Kukai set out (natch) ten stages: the first three are increasingly-aware levels of the "natural man"; four and five are Southern Buddhist teachings (the Shravakayana and the Pratyekabuddhayana of Theravada; see Episode 028.) The next five are all schools of Mahayana Buddhism, in ascending order of acceptability (to Kukai): the Hosso (Consciousness-only), Sanron (Three Treatise), Tendai (Tiantai), Kegon (Avatamsaka), and, at the top, the Shingon (True word, or Mantra) School.

Thus, the "crème de la crème," the Daigo, is in fact the Shingon School.

A Little History

The temple was founded in 874 (or 876) by one Rigen Daishi, known as Shobo (832-909), a Shingon priest who was ordained by Shinga, younger brother of Kukai. Shobo was quite an accomplished monk, serving during his relatively long life as abbot of both Nara's Todai-ji, home of the big Buddha (see Episode 089) and Kyoto's To-ji, which we'll take a peek into soon.

I don't know how I missed shooting the Daigo Sui spring, but thank Buddha for Japanese Wikipedia!

It seems Shobo was seeking a place for mountain meditation (he helped resurrect the shugendo tradition of mountain asceticism) and found the perfect spot: a spring in a hollow on Mount Kasatori. He was led there by the sight of a five-colored cloud hovering over the valley (the five colors are a Buddhist thing; see the story of the Edo Goshiki Fudo in Episode 064 for more information). As if that weren't enough confirmation, he also happened upon Yoko Myojin, the area's protective deity, who guided him to an oak tree in the area, suggesting that sitting under it would imitate the act of Shakyamuni Buddha under the Bodhi Tree. For some reason, Shobo chose to cut it down instead of availing of its shade, and carved an image of Juntei Kannon from it. (This is the Cundi Avalokitesvara, an esoteric form with 18 arms.) That statue, along with another of Nyoirin Kannon (see Episode 085), was the genesis of the temple.

The bell tower in Shimo Daigo-ji

In 930, the Emperor Daigo (born 885 with the personal name Atsuhito) abdicated due to illness and resided at Daigo-ji under the Buddhist name Ho-Kongo; he died that same year, and his posthumous name comes from the name of the temple. Today his grave--a keystone kofun (see Episode 026)--is an eight-minute walk away, also in Kyoto's Fushimi-ku. That of Daigo's son, Emperor Suzaku, lies off the trail between the two; both emperors, as well as the next--Murakami, son of Daigo and half-brother of Suzaku--were patrons of the temple.

A few other moments in history will show up as we tour the temple precincts.

The Temple Today

Walking fifteen minutes or so from Daigo Station into the mountains in southeastern Kyoto, we reach the Sambo-in, named for the "Three Treasures" of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings), and the Sangha (the assembly of his followers). This sub-temple of Daigo-ji was built in the 12th century, and reconstructed and expanded in 1598 by Japan's "Great Unifier" Toyotomi Hideyoshi (whose followers we learned in Episode 018 were beaten by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1600 at the Battle of Sekigahara).

It seems Hideyoshi was planning a grandiose cherry blossom viewing party for about 1,300 people, and personally designed the strolling garden with its pond and bridges. Five months after the party--apparently his last hurrah--Hideyoshi was dead at age 61.

Right on the roadside, the Sambo-in is a busy, touristy place, especially in cherry-blossom time. I don't think I entered; anyway, I have no pictures to prove that I did.


This brings us to Shimo (Lower) Daigo-ji, which I had to pass through to get to the trail up the mountain. It's laid out more like a typical garan (see Episode 032, about the one on Mount Koya), and has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. Some of the buildings in Shimo Daigo date to the 16th century; quite a few others were built in 1930, on the 1000th anniversary of the death of Emperor Daigo. It's entered by a grand Nio-mon (Two Kings' Gate) dating to 1605, when it was reconstructed by Toyotomi Hideyori, son and designated successor to Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It's also called the Saidai-mon or "Great Western Gate."

The five-story pagoda at Shimo Daigo-ji is the oldest documented building in Kyoto.

Lower Daigo has a 12th-century main hall, the Kondo, built elsewhere and moved here in 1599 as part of Hideyoshi's project. Inside are a Yakushi Nyorai ("Medicine Buddha") with his attendant bodhisattvas. Other buildings include a shrine to the mountain god; another to the immovable Fudo Myo-o, he of the five colors mentioned in Episode 064; the Reihokan Museum, alleged to hold around 100,000 treasures, and with a beautiful 180-year-old weeping cherry tree nearby; and several others. The 1930 Daikodo ("Great Lecture Hall") has (sadly) gained in importance since my visit; I'll tell you why later.

The Daikodo in Shimo Daigo-ji is now serving as the Kannon-do.

But knowing I had a climb ahead, I rather hurried through the lower precincts, pausing only to appreciate two little gems: The pagoda and the Benten-do.

Shimo Daigo-ji's five story pagoda is no prettier or uglier than the many others I have seen, but it has this distinction: Built by Emperor Suzaku in 951, it is the oldest documented building in all of Kyoto, and the only "original" building of the temple remaining. It's 125 feet tall, and the 10th-century paintings inside are National Treasures (the temple boasts eighteen buildings and artworks so designated). One of these, a portrait of Kukai, is said to be the oldest extant painting of the Master.

Monks at the Sun Mon Gate in Shimo Daigo-ji

I encountered a handful of monks in full regalia at the ancient-looking (but less than 100 years old) "Sun Moon Gate" on the way to my next destination, and passed the equally-not-old bell tower; both dated to 1930.

As does the Benten-do. But beauty does not depend on age! This small hall is dedicated to the only female among Japan's popular Seven Lucky Gods (see Episode 024). It's reached by crossing a bridge over a pond (as with many of Benten's shrines, like the one in Ueno Park, the launching point for the Yanaka Seven Fukujin trail, also visited in Episode 064). Lucky for me I was there in late November--the perfect time for the red leaves extravaganza.

The Benten-do is at the rear of Shimo Daigo-ji.

The pond is at the far rear of the Shimo Daigo complex, just where the trail begins its grueling ascent to the upper reaches of temple.


Having visited Mimuroto-ji that morning (see Episode 091), I was concerned with making it to Kami (Upper) Daigo-ji--and back--in daylight. My guidebook told me that the "street lights" placed along the rough, treacherous trail didn't work.

So I had to shake a leg, as it were. The available information said it would take about an hour; I didn't keep notes, but you can bet it took me more than that!

The Kami Daigo Fudo Waterfall is halfway up the trail to Kami Daigo-ji.

On the way up, I took a blessed break at the Kami Daigo Fudo Waterfall, a little rill with a small be-hutted statue of--you guessed it--the immovable Fudo looking down on it. From here, the trail gets so steep that the Powers have placed ropes along some portions, to be used in pulling oneself up the steps. Unlike many such tempular trails, there are remarkably few features--statues and steles and whatnot--along this one.

Finally, plateauing at the top, I was delighted to find another spring, the Daigo Sui or "Ghee Water" near which Shobo built his first hut a-way back when. For this is the origin--the "wellspring," as it were--of the entire temple. The lower precincts were built after this one.

Nearby is a 1599 wooden shrine building dedicated to one of the mountain's gods, Seiryu Gongen, or the "Pure Dragon Incarnation," said to be a Buddha appearing in the form of a local god; there was another such shrine near the pagoda in Shimo Daigo. The name Seiryu in Japanese is Qinglong in Chinese, meaning "Blue (or Green) Dragon." This is the name of one of the temples where Kukai studied in Chang'an (modern Xi'an), China. (See Episode 047.) I have read that Kukai brought that temple's "guardian deity" back with him. I've never heard of such a feat before!

How this aligns with the name Yoko Myojin, the entity Shobo met, I cannot say, but there is a shrine to Yoko next to the one to Seiryu. Just above is another, dedicated to a fox god, the Kashiwa (Oak Tree) Inari (remember Yoko, Shobo, and the oak?). The presence of shrines to all these gods hints at quite a story!

Above most of the upper precincts (but below the fox shrine) stands--or stood--the Juntei Hall, named for the Cundi Avalokiteshvara mentioned above. Sadly, this was struck by lightning and burned down in August 2008. That's why the honzon (main statue) has been moved down below, to the former Daikodo. It is now the focus of this 11th stop on the Saigoku Pilgrimage.

The Juntei Hall at Kami Daigo-ji was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 2008.

Google Maps at this writing shows a cleared space where the hall once stood. The other buildings seem untouched. These include the Yakushi (Medicine Buddha) Hall; the shrines already mentioned; and the Kaisan (Founder's) and Jizo (Kshitigarbha) Halls up near the end of the trail.

Also standing is a hall of great interest to me... now. One of the disadvantages of linear time is that we often have experiences that only make sense much later, after we have other experiences. On this mountain, and of no interest to me at the time, was something called the Godai-do, which I now read is the "center of the Godaisan Faith, faith in the holy mountain of Monju Bodhisattva, in China."

That is, Wutai Shan, which I have visited, and is indeed the mountain dedicated to Wenshu (Chinese), Monju (Japanese), or Manjushri (Sanskrit), the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. It can be no coincidence that that mountain is dominated by Tibetan ethnic influence, and that Tibetan Buddhism is a branch of the Esoteric Sect--the same as Shingon, a version of which founded and still operates this temple. Oh, to be able to go back and explore this matrix of connections!

But at this stage in my life, with so much left to process and write about, I'm not sure I'll ever find the time.


And that, my beloveds, is 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: Well, we've passed it a half-dozen times since arriving in Shanghai. I guess it' s time to finally stop in at Jing'an Temple, which has lent its name to a subway stop and the district my hotel is in!