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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.