Gorinto: a uniquely Japanese five element stupa

The gorinto is fundamental to my explorations of Elemental Japan. Composed of stacked geometric forms that represent earth, water, fire, wind and space this Buddhist monument embodies the interconnectedness of all creation in tangible form. It has deep spiritual symbolism and significance. Largely found as a grave marker in contemporary Japan, the gorinto has a long association with meditation, medicine, memorials, martial arts and use as a reliquary. In modern times the beautifully balanced and striking form of the gorinto has seen the imagery and elemental connections adopted more widely. From Koyasan – the Shingon Buddhist pilgrimage site that is the ‘home’ of the gorinto – to Kyushu, Kamakura, Zentsu-ji and beyond, my fascination with this form has taken me across the length and breadth of Japan, as well as tracking down related material wherever I can.

In 2016, when my interest in the gorinto began in earnest, I found this description at Koyasan, the Temple mountain complex and ecclesiastical headquarters of Shingon Buddhism, founded in 816 AD. Koyasan is the ‘home’ of the gorinto. The image  illustrates the seed syllables for the elements in Sanskrit (in white) that are usually found on the gorinto and the equivalent Japanese in black: representing Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Space – the ‘Five Great’ elements (Godai) of the universe in Buddhism.

The Okunoin is the resting place of Kukai (posthumously called Kobo Daishi), the founder of Shingon Buddhism. His mausoleum at Koyasan is surrounded by the largest cemetery in Japan. Located in old growth forest this sacred precinct contains tens of thousands of gorinto, ranging from small to very large, and new to old. The 2016 guidebook produced by the Head Temple at Koyasan, notes that the largest tombstone is 6.6 m high and the oldest tombstone, which has two gorinto, has an inscription from 997 AD. This grand, historic and sacred setting, with its towering trees, make visiting Koyasan and the Okunoin a profoundly moving experience.

During my travels in Japan I have taken thousands of photos of gorinto. While the basic form of five stacked geometric shapes remains the same, the size, shape, materials, age and context vary dramatically.  The ones I have chosen represent my strongest ‘ah ha’ moments and memories associated with this elemental symbol and monument. In the first instance these are from Koyasan and the related Shikoku pilgrimage. I have realised in writing the post that the story of the gorinto will have to be divided into at least two parts.

It pays to repeat that the gorinto has deep symbolism and spiritual significance. The Sanskrit syllables for the elements (A, VA, RA, HA, KHA) represented on the monument also symbolise the Five Buddhas of the Womb Realm, one of the two mandalas underpinning the teachings of Shingon Buddhism.

At the highest level, the monument is an expression of the Great Sun Buddha (Dainichi Nyorai, the central Buddha of Shingon) and the entire cosmic order, represented by the elements. Other symbolism associated with the monument includes the representation of the sixth element of Consciousness and the Diamond Realm, and the relationship between Knowledge and Principle. It is important to realise these intricacies exist, without knowing all of the detail, to appreciate the depth of meaning the gorinto holds.

Many families and individuals of renown are represented by gorinto in the cemetery at Koyasan.  The most numerous memorials however are small single-stone gorinto that appear to have no clearly designated space to stand on. Such anonymous stones, with no identifiable family connections, are categorised as muen-to, literally “no relation stupas.”

The numerous small gorinto add to the mystery of Koyasan. What a story each could tell. Each year hundreds of these memorials are brushed off, set upright, and clothed with colourful bibs. Smaller still, crystal representations of the gorinto, some only a couple of centimetres tall, have been found in reliquaries that are of great beauty.

Another story I would love to unravel relates to seven large and special gorinto I discovered at Koyasan with my friend Akiko Murakami in 2017. This close-up of three of the monuments shows the elements written in Japanese rather than Sanskrit. I have only seen this in three other places in all of my travels in Japan. What circumstances would lead the families to use kanji I wonder? This is one of the many questions I have about gorinto. Another is when they first appeared as a three-dimensional form, most likely in wood. Perhaps the answer lies in the pilgrimage described next.

The Choishimichi (mile stone route) pilgrimage  – that leads from Jison-in at Kudoyama to the Okunoin at Koyasan – was the original one marked by Kukai when he first established the Shingon sanctuary in the mountains of Wakayama. It has over 200 gorinto markers along the way, as illustrated below. These monuments were originally made of wood, in the form of a stupa. They were replaced by stone markers (kasatoba) in 1265.  The question I have is whether the wooden stupa on the Choishimichi were the same form as the stone ones? If so, this could reset the date of the earliest three dimensional form of the gorinto. Perhaps someone reading the post has the answer. 

The five Sanskrit syllables for the elements can be seen at the top of one of the stone markers on the Choishimichi pilgrimage route to Koyasan.

Most of the monuments are original, making them nearly 800 years old. 180 of the gorinto represent the Buddha Saints of the Womb Realm mandala. It is said that pilgrims clasped their hands in prayer at every Saint as they climbed to reach Koyasan. Some may maintain that practice today.

This gorinto-shaped amulet was purchased at Jison-in, at the start of the Choishimichi pilgrimage route to Koyasan.

Jison-in stands where Kukai’s mother spent her later years, as women were forbidden from entering Koyasan until 1872. A personalised ceremony at the Temple accompanied the purchase of the amulet. With a surface like a mirror, I carry this unique symbol with me as a reminder of the interconnectedness of all creation.

Not long after visiting Koyasan in 2016 I made a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Kukai  – Temple 75 on the Shikoku Pilgrimage (Zentsu-ji). The intention was to see how the gorinto and the elements of Shingon were represented. The experience was uplifting, informative and exciting, as written about here.

In 2018 I visited another two Shingon Temples on the Shikoku Pilgrimage with my sister Ruth. This gorinto at Chikurin-ji (on Mt Godai in Kochi City) was captivating. Such perfection.

I can understand why Patricia J. Graham includes the gorinto in her book on Japanese Design when discussing the visualisation of abstract Buddhist concepts. Helmut Brunker, in his book ‘Secrets of the Sacred‘ also identifies the gorinto as perhaps the best Buddhist symbol or form that epitomises the ultimate oneness of all existences and the transcendental unity of macrocosm and microcosm, of human nature and Buddha nature.

Along this vein, my most enlightening ‘ah ha’ moment related to the gorinto was when I saw it represented as a human body, in texts about Shingon Buddhism (The Symbolism of the Stupa; The Art of Japanese Tantrism; Secrets of the Sacred), Shugendo (Mountain Mandalas: Shugendo in Kyushu) and martial arts (a book currently inaccessible in Japan due to the coronavirus). This has opened up a whole new line  of enquiry where the human body in its entirety is identified with the five elements of the gorinto.

What an ‘ah ha’ moment this was – learning about the association between the five element stupa and human body, in this case in the book ‘The Symbolism of the Stupa‘ by Adrian Snodgrass. From what I can work out the original image was drawn by Kakuban (posthumously named Kogyo Daishi), a monk who reformed and reinvigorated Shingon Buddhism in the 12th century AD.

There is so much more to share about the gorinto: the fascinating relationship between the gorinto, and Shinto, and Shugendo; other special places where the gorinto are found such as the caves of Kamakura and the Kiyomizu Magaibutsu in Kyushu; the connections between the gorinto, meditation and other human activities; the colours of the gorinto and other correlations; the reinterpretation of the form in contemporary settings by artists such as Hiroshi Sugimoto; and that there is an elemental board game called ‘Gorinto’ in development that is seeking support through crowd-funding (as well as other commercial uses of the form). If the game comes to the market I will definitely buy one – it has excellent reviews. On a personal level, my interest in the gorinto led me to meet Keiji Okushima (also in 2016) and from there to join the Shugendo group Wani-ontakesan on several pilgrimages, including in winter.  I have much to thank this monument for.

These and other topics will be covered in greater detail in the second part of this post. In the interim, if you would like to learn more about the gorinto, I would recommend onmarkproductions.com as an introduction. The book ‘Sacred Koyasan‘ by Philip L. Nicoloff includes a wealth of information as well. My blog on the gojunoto, the five element wooden pagoda found in Buddhist Temples in Japan, also contains relevant and related material. (To learn about the complementary five Chinese elements/phases (Gogyo) in contemporary Japan please see here). Down the track, I look forward to reading and reviewing the book Hank Glassman is writing on the iconography of the gorinto. There is much to be shared about this remarkable expression of the ultimate oneness of all existence.

This contemporary and stunning gorinto by Hiroshi Sugimoto is a ‘teaser’ for the stories to come. Discovering it at Benesse House on Naoshima, where this photo was taken in 2016, was another ‘ah ha’ moment – one of many I have had in association with the gorinto. In 2020 Sugimoto was chosen to stage the first exhibition at the remodelled Kyocera Museum in Kyoto, an exhibition where his glass gorinto featured. Travel restrictions due to the coronavirus meant that I was unable to see them in person – on the upside there is a catalogue waiting for me when I am able to return to Japan.

8 thoughts on “Gorinto: a uniquely Japanese five element stupa

  1. The gorinto is such a pleasing shape! The addition of many insights you have discovered in your research and your travels adds to the overall appeal. I remember seeing these fine stone pieces during Peter’s and my visit to Koyasan and at the time wondering about the meaning behind them. Little did I know that it would be my sister who would be able to solve this mystery! Traveling with you in Japan in 2018, discovering gorinto in so many places, was such a fine way to cross the country. I’d love to return to Koyasan with you one day!

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    • I would love to travel to Koyasan together as well. Unlike you and Peter I have not had the experience of staying overnight at the Temple complex, despite trying to organise it a couple of times. My timing and the availability of accommodation did not align as it turned out. It would be marvellous and magical to sleep on the mountain and see the Okunoin and cemetery at night. What a remarkable place it is. Thank-you for taking the picture of me contemplating the beautiful gorinto in Kochi. We did see some amazing examples of this elemental symbol on our travels.

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  2. Thankyou Jann for sharing your passion and fascinating insights with us.

    Earth on the bottom, Heaven/space/metal on top. The embodiment of inyo (yinyang).

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    • Thank-you Jodi. I appreciate your comments, as well as the different perspective and experience that you bring. In my second post on the gorinto I will explore the relationship between the Buddhist and Chinese philosophies. They are more connected in Japan than many realise I feel.

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    • Thank-you Lonny. It means a lot when someone takes the time to comment. It helps knowing that people are reading the posts and getting some value from them.

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  3. Thank you very much Jann for the thorough explanation on gorinto.
    This article helped me deciding in getting a gorinto tattoo, as I wanted something that represented multiple meanings. And the gorinto is the one.

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    • Thank-you very much for your comment Celeste. I really like the idea of a gorinto tattoo and am pleased that my post helped you make your decision. 🌸💖🔥💦

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