Ep. 095: The Temple among the Rocks

Home of the Sweating Saint

Another temple, another mountain. Iwama-dera (also called Shoho-ji, meaning "Correct Dharma Temple") is located at an altitude of 1280 feet, which accounts for the misty atmosphere on the January day in 2001 when I visited. Come and see in this episode of--


Iwama-dera, meaning "The Temple Among the Rocks," is situated above Otsu City of Shiga Prefecture, but just across the border from the Kyoto suburb of Uji. It's in the same mountainous region as #10, Mimuroto-ji (see Episode 091) and #11, Kami Daigo-ji (see Episode 093), though there's no direct route between any of them. It's a comparatively short climb from the parking lot to the temple.


In this age of jet planes, GPS, and a web of ground transportation, it seems that much of the mystery has gone out of the world. But imagine life thirteen centuries ago, when, in a "wild" place such as Japan was then, the very mountains held mystery and, for some, terror. Mountains, the people believed, were the places where their ancestors' spirits went after death. They were nearer the sun, the sources of rivers, homes to wild beasts, and the apparent generators of thunderstorms. No wonder only the bravest would venture forth to tap into their spiritual power.

Hakusan (Wikimedia)

And so a person could stake his claim to fame by simply climbing mountains, and dwelling in them. One such was a monk of shugendo (mountain asceticism) named Taicho (682-767). Almost every reference to this hardy soul mentions the greatest of his many mountaineering feats: he was the "opener of Hakusan," the first to climb this dormant volcano on the borders of Gifu and Ishikawa Prefectures, which stands 6,224 feet above its base. Hakusan today is considered one of Japan's "Three Holy Mountains" (Sanreizan) along with Tateyama and the much-more famous Mount Fuji.

In the 33rd year of her life--an age considered in Japan to be "unlucky" for women--the Empress Gensho (reigned 715-724) fell ill, and such was the power of Taicho's mastery of the mountains that it was he who cured her by waving over her a Shingon ceremonial implement (the vajra or "thunderbolt") and reciting 1,000 times the mantra of Senju (Thousand-armed) Kannon. In gratitude, the Empress (who was a reigning monarch, not a mere consort) offered to build a monastery for Taicho.

"A dragon woman during the time of Empress Gensho." (Wikimedia)

While seeking a site, Taicho saw another of those purple clouds (there is a sameness to these accounts, isn't there?) hanging over Mount Iwama. He climbed the mountain, and heard singing coming from a large katsura tree--the voice of Senju Kannon. The villagers cut down the tree, and a fully-formed figure of Kannon sprang forth from it. Taicho placed the statue in a hall and, in 722, founded this temple below Iwama's peak. The resprouted tree is supposed to be alive and growing in front of the temple's hondo to this day. Or so they say.

In addition to its miraculous "birth," the statue has other interesting properties. A less-than-five-inch golden-bronze statue of Kannon, formerly belonging to the Empress, is hidden inside it. And every night, fulfilling Kannon's mission of compassion, the statue runs around helping others. Proof of this can be seen each morning, when the statue is said to be "soaking in sweat."

The Temple Today

"The gateless gate": free-standing Ni-O instead of a proper gate

The temple complex at Iwama-dera is relatively small, with only a few main buildings. Walking up from the parking lot, we pass through "the gateless gate" (a phrase from Zen literature). You see, this temple has not built the usual Ni-o or "Two kings" Gate, but rather has simply placed statues of the fiercesome figures on either side of the pathway.

The bell tower on a very misty day

The first proper structure encountered is the bell tower in its own little garden on the right (the side behind which the mountain rises). Further on, the Daishi-do dedicated to Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shingon sect, is on the left. We then reach the main attraction.

The not-so-old Fudo-do

On the right side of the path is a relatively small Fudo-do, built in 1993 and housing the "immovable" Fudo Myoo--Sanskrit Achala--a "wisdom king" with a ferocious visage who helps followers overcome obstacles to enlightenment. He is very popular in Japanese esoteric Buddhism.

The 1577 hondo

Across a space to its left is the hondo or main hall, originally built in 1577. The main figure is a Thousand-armed Kannon. I doubt this is the statue found (or more likely carved) by Taicho in the tree in 722; it doesn't matter anyway, as it's seldom seen.

The "Basho pond" lies between the hondo (left) and the Fudo-do (right).

A covered corridor connects the Fudo-do and the hondo, forming them into a sort of "u." Nestled into that space is a humble little pond that is one of the temple's greatest claims to fame: the Basho pond. Several times--as recently as Episode 091, but more fully in Episode 052--I have mentioned "the itinerant monk-cum-haiku-poet Matsuo Basho." Basho is said to have lived in retreat on the mountain near this temple for a time in 1687, and a seemingly inconsequential event here inspired him, in the way of all poets, to write one of his greatest works, one which has been translated scores of different ways. Here is D.T. Suzuki's version:

Into the ancient pond

A frog jumps

Water's sound!

That last line translates literally the Japanese mizu-no-oto. But more fanciful translations try to imitate "the sound of water": kerplop! kerplink! splash!

The pond where tradition--or danged good marketing--says this happened is right here, surrounded by the buildings and some rocks and bushes. It's a great place to sit and contemplate the "ripples" that roll out from the smallest of actions.


The tiny Eight Great Dragon Kings Hall. The Hokyointo (on the left) was built in 1722.

Two more things I shot on the grounds: One was a very small hall built in 1995 and dedicated to the Eight Great Dragon Kings, guardians of the dharma (the Buddha's teaching), one for each direction. The temple has a number of associations with dragons, through numerous folk tales reflecting Taicho's encounters with them. Remember how I said that thunderstorms develop in mountains? Dragons are said to be the lords of weather and water, so it makes sense that a mountain ascetic would have such connections.

One of these was Kaminarisan--a name that may sound familiar from Episode 061--the local god, who was seen in the form of a dragon and controlled the thunder. Taicho converted him to Buddhism, and even convinced him to dig a well for the temple--with his own bare hands!

The miniature 33 Kannon circuit

Also, there's a lovely area that has fairly new (back then, at least) statues of Kannon in 33 forms. Walking it is like doing the entire Kannon pilgrimage in miniature! Had I visited after the advent of digital photography, I'd have shot every one! As it is, I only have a couple. Alas.


And that, my dear ones, 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: Let's visit Jade Buddha Temple, my fifth and last in Shanghai, and the final stop on my ten-day, thirteen-temple (plus) trip, which was the first of nineteen in China--so far!