Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Japanese Pilgrimage

by Oliver Statler

NEILL says:

Kobo Daishi was a Buddhist monk born on the island of Shikoku in 774 CE. He lived a remarkable life, travelling widely, overseeing many major humanitarian and public works projects, introducing Esoteric Buddhism to Japan and founding the powerful Shingon sect. Even more noteworthy than his life is the figure he became after his death, deified amongst the beliefs of the common people by the evangelistic Holy Men; wandering lay preachers who came to exercise a powerful and highly pervasive influence throughout Japanese society in the middle ages. For centuries and to this day pilgrims known as henro have travelled from all over Japan and, latterly, the world, to pay tribute to the Daishi by undertaking the Pilgrimage to the Eighty-eight Sacred Places of Shikoku, a thousand-mile long round trip around the island, stopping at 88 numbered temples along the route. Statler uses the tale of his own experiences undertaking the pilgrimage as a framing device within which he presents a fascinating wealth of historical, religious and cultural detail. We learn of the disgraced 12th-century upstart emperor Sutoku, who returned from the grave to curse his enemies, and of modern-day shamanic mountain priests who cure with fire and can lift grown men above their heads. And we learn of some of the ordinary people who travel the henro-path; from successful businessmen thanking the Daishi for their success to disconnected young men striving for direction in their lives to the strange tale of Japan's greatest Kabuki actor who at the age of eighty-two completed his life's ambition by retiring, undertaking and completing the pilgrimage, and promptly committing suicide. It is a vivid, restrained and sensitive reflection on the diverse ends and manifestations of religious faith. And if nothing else, it contains the following tale, imparted to Statler and his companion by an elderly grandmother they meet along the road:

'"Once I was possessed by a badger', she began, badgers being notorious for their mischievous nature and magical powers. "It was when I was much younger, forty-six or forty-seven. I could foretell things, like the direction a tangerine tree would grow, and I could make dumplings faster than anybody else. People took me to the shrine near Number One Temple and the Shinto priest there said I was a person with miraculous powers, like a medium, and that the people of the village should consult me about everything. When I was counseling someone I felt as though I was simply repeating what a voice was telling me. But I grew tired of this role - it was hard on me - and I prayed to the Daishi to relieve me of those powers so I could go back to being an ordinary farm woman, and he did. Yet some people still call me sensei".


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