Of Kukai and mountains

Japan is a land of mountains, the most iconic, recognised and depicted being Mt Fuji. Formed from volcanoes and tectonic activity, the mountains are clothed in forest. They influence the weather and form catchments that provide water for life on the plains. Plains where most Japanese live and rice, the basis of the traditional diet, is grown. Earth, fire, water, wind, wood – the mountains are a significant feature of elemental Japan. It is no wonder that they are considered sacred and are a focus of spiritual activity.

The sacred mountains on Miyajima Island form a stunning backdrop to Itsukashima Shrine. On this special day five-coloured banners were displayed at the Shrine. Colours that most likely represent the five phases/elements (Gogyo).

The sacred mountains on Miyajima Island form a stunning backdrop to Itsukushima Shrine. On this special day, when a memorial ceremony was held for Empress Suiko,  five-coloured banners were displayed at the Shrine. The colours most likely represent the Five Phases/elements (Gogyo) associated with YinYang (InYo, Onmyo), or possibly derive from Buddhism. I am still working through that part of the puzzle.

Mountains have been a focus of my recent explorations on the elements in Japan. I am fortunate to be able to see the mountains of Kyoto from my apartment opposite Nijo Castle. It is a reminder of the importance of mountains (and water) in the selection of Kyoto as the capital of Japan through the practice of geomancy.  The elements have been a key component of the siting of cities, temples, shrines and other structures, as referred to in my previous post ‘Feel the energy’.

Being able to see the mountains surrounding Kyoto, as well as sky, water and trees, provides a constant reminder of the elements.

Being able to see the mountains surrounding Kyoto from my apartment, as well as sky, water and trees, provides a constant reminder and appreciation of the elements.

Koyasan, the Headquarters of Shingon Buddhism, is another place where mountains played a key role in selecting a site, this time for a temple complex. Kukai (posthumously called Kobo Daishi), the founder of the Shingon Sect, chose the site because the eight mountains surrounding the site resembled a lotus. Muro-ji Temple, another Shingon Temple also known as the Women’s Koya, is surrounded by nine peaks and eight valleys. In both cases the mountains surrounding the temples represent a mandala.  A few days ago I was privileged to visit Muro-ji, having been to the remarkable Koyosan on a previous visit to Japan.

The Muro-ji Temple complex in Nara Prefecture is surrounded by towering forest. The Five Element pagoda shown here is the smallest in Japan.

The Muro-ji Temple complex in Nara Prefecture is surrounded by towering forest. The Five Element pagoda shown here is the smallest in Japan. It was recently damaged in a typhoon and is now fully restored.

Sacred geography, as exemplified by these two Shingon temples, is something to keep in mind when exploring the elements in Japan. Books such as ‘Japanese Mandalas: Representations of Sacred Geography’ and the recently published ‘Mountain Mandalas: Shugendo in Kyushu’ provide detailed coverage for those interested in learning more. The website  ‘The A to Z Dictionary of Japanese Buddhist Statuary‘ (www.onmarkproductions.com) also has some useful material on mandalas. This includes an overview of mandalas (mandara in Japanese), and a description of those found in areas such as the Hakusan Mountains.  These and other sources have helped me view the landscapes of Japan in a new light.

The Tazokai (Womb World) mandala is one of two that form the Two World Mandalas, the most widely know mandala form in Japan. Both mandalas were on display at a special exhibition at Toji Temple in May 2016.

The Taizokai (Womb World) mandala is one of two that form the Two World Mandalas, the most widely known mandala form in Japan. Both mandalas were on display at a special exhibition at Toji Temple in May 2016. The Taizokai mandala represents the world of physical phenomena and ultimate principle (onmarkproductions.com).  It is the mandala that the lotus flower mountains surrounding Koyosan represents.

Mt Misen on Miyajima Island near Hiroshima is a sacred mountain that I have long wanted to climb. Last week that dream was fulfilled, as was my wish to experience the Eternal Flame on the top of the mountain. This was the flame used to light the Peace Flame at the Hiroshima Memorial Park. The heavy rainfall the day before my walk gave a voice to the streams and refreshed the earth, air and vegetation. It was a special experience and very elemental. Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism thought Mt Misen was special too. He spent 100 days on the mountain undertaking ascetic practice in 806, lighting what has become the Eternal Flame at that time.

The view from the top of Mt Misen is spectacular on a clear day. One gets a sense of the sacred geography that attracted Kukai in 806 AD.

The view from the top of Mt Misen is spectacular on a clear day. One gets a sense of the sacred geography that attracted Kukai in 806 AD.

Kukai has turned out to be a feature of my recent explorations as well as mountains, although that was not planned. Toji Temple in Kyoto was entrusted to Kukai in 823 by Emperor Saga. It continues to this day to be an active place of worship for Shingon Buddhism. Toji was another place I visited in the last week to attend the market. Held on the 21st of each month, it arose to service pilgrims to the temple. The elements, six in total, are a fundamental part of Shingon Buddhism and were represented in many ways at Toji. They are also an essential part of Shugendo, a religion of mountain ascetics. Another aspect of the elemental story of Japan to explore. As is the relationship between Shinto and mountains, one of the original places of worship.

The Founders Hall at Toji Temple was a focus for prayers on May 21st. The 21st is an important date for Shingon Buddhism as it marks the date that Kukai passed away. Some say he is still meditating at Koyosan, waiting for the coming of the next Buddha.

The Founders Hall at Toji Temple was a focus for prayers on May 21st, the day the large flea market was held. The 21st is an important date for Shingon Buddhism as it marks the date that Kukai passed away. Some say he is still meditating at Koyosan, waiting for the coming of the next Buddha.

3 thoughts on “Of Kukai and mountains

  1. How fascinating that the site for the temple complex at Koyasan was chosen because it is in the midst of eight mountains that resemble a lotus. As you mention above, I can imagine it would change the way you respond to these sites, as it has mine. I love the idea that a location is chosen for such reasons, as well as the way that the mandala is seen as a sacred pattern in so many cultures. Thanks for sharing these insights!

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