Tokyobling's Blog

The Burning House Parable – Lotus Sutra

Posted in Japanese Traditions, Places by tokyobling on September 8, 2015

The Lotus Sutra (or 妙法蓮華経 in Japanese, full name being Sutra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma) is one of the most popular sutras of the largest branch of buddhism, Mahayana. A Sutra is basically a canonical text on the teachings of buddhism and in Mahayana buddhism there are about one hundred of them written in Sanskrit, Chinese or Tibetan. The Lotus Sutra is the main sutra of the Nichiren school of buddhism to which the famous Taishakuten in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward belongs. It was written within a hundred years before or after Year 1 A.D.

One of the great carved panels in the Taishakuten contains a scene taken from the Lotus Sutra’s third chapter, the Parable of the Burning House. It is the story of a wealthy man who is blessed with many children. One days on his way home he finds his children completely concentrated on playing games inside the house even though it has caught fire and threatens to burn down with the children stuck inside. Despite all his cries the children ignore him until he comes up with a clever idea: he calls out to the children that they should come out and have a look at the fun new cars he has brought them; pulled by a deer, a goat, and a bullock! The promise of these novel and unusual draught animals lure the children out of the house and to the safety of their fathers arms. But instead of giving him the novel carts to play with he has prepared on much better cart, gilded, draped in jewelry and pulled by two great white bullocks.

The parable is of course an illustration of the world (a house on fire), the clueless children being humanity and the three carts being examples of how the Buddha offers many neat and clever ways to reach enlightenment but that in the end they all lead to one big common, and much better path, the path to Nirvana. Buddha is like a kind father offering his children shinier toys to make them leave their old fun, but useless toys behind.

Of all the ten different boards of carvings, this one was my favorite. Both the details like the animals and the children, but also how the flames and smoke is rendered in carved wood! The carver who made this was one Master Kijima Koun.


The Shrines of Zeniaraibenten – Kamakura City

Posted in Places by tokyobling on July 7, 2015

The Zeniaribenten Shrine in Kamakura City is quite popular with tourists ever since since the 13th century when it was favored by the local nobility. Most people come to see the main shrine, the cave and holy spring, but there three more minor shrines within the precincts, the 上之水神社, and the 七福神社. When I visited last month the Ajisai was in full bloom and handsomely framed the Shishimai guardian lions at the entrance to the minor shrines. I have been here many times but this was the first time I noticed the very inconveniently placed tree, right in front of the Torii, the entrance gate to one of the minor shrines. I really wonder how it came to grow in that spot, as it is surely younger than the torii it almost blocks! Just another item on the list of things I have to investigate when I get the opportunity!






Fukusenji Temple – Yugawara

Posted in Places by tokyobling on May 28, 2015

On the western edge of Kanagawa Prefecture (which neighbors Tokyo to the south west) lies Yugawara Town (湯河原町) right between the Pacific Ocean and the glorious hot springs of the mountains. Even in Japan Yugawara is famous for being a town catering to old people, due to the many hot springs who specialize in the elderly and since 2008 the town has no high schools, although three elementary and junior highs. There are quite a few interesting temples in the town though, not least being the pretty little Fukusenji.

Although technically not in Yugawara Town, as the border to Atami City and neighboring Shizuoka Prefecture lies just about 50 meters to the east of the temple, along the Chitose River, it is for all practical purposes completely a Yugawara temple. The main temple building has a gorgeous straw roof which is getting quite unusual these days. Although being more or less loaded with beautiful statues the temple is mostly famous for it Kubi Daibutu, or Big Buddha Head, a rather crude statue of a buddha head! This ceramic head used to be located inside Nagoya Castle but was moved here in 1945.

There is an interesting story behind how the statue came to be, in a legend from the early 17th century. The Daiymo (Lord) of Owari (modern Nagoya) was passing through a town in his grand procession just as a rather deaf lady was taking her bath in front of the family house. Her horrified daughter pushed her mother complete with bath tub and soaps into the house. Seeing this very humble act of daughterly devotion, the Daimyo Tokugawa Yoshinao (1601-1650) forgave the family their indiscretion and commanded her to take up a position as a castle maid. However the Lord’s interest in her were a little bit more rustic, and a year later the poor girl gave birth to a son whom she promptly dispatched of with with the excuse that such a lowly born girl as herself could not possibly be the mother of a child from such an exalted lord. In pity on the girl and the child it was decided that the Buddha Head statue would be created, to remind both the Gods and the Lords of the tragic story (or, unconventional humbleness on the part of the girl).

I might have mistranslated the story, but I think this was what happened. The story was put in very vague terms to say the least! Another explanation, although much less colorful, is that the head was an offering to the spirit of the Daiymo’s favorite son who died at the age of nine.

In the middle of trying to make sense of the legend, I completely failed at finding out just how old the temple itself is!

Yugawara Town is just one stop on the train to Atami, a trip that takes between 90 to 140 minutes from Tokyo, depending on how fast you need to go (with ticket prices to match).















Graves of Gokokuji Temple

Posted in Places by tokyobling on May 14, 2015

The huge Gokokuji Temple in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward is interesting not least for its graves of many historically significant persons in Japanese recent history. Not least among them is the statesman and Imperial Court Noble Sanjo Sanetomi (三条実美, 13th March 1837 – 28th February 1891). More well known to Westerns might be the grave of Marquess Okuma Shigenobu (大隈重信, March 11th 1838 – January 10th 1922) whose grave is in the first picture. Both of these men were prime ministers of Japan, Okuma during the first years of the Great War, and both of them have huge stone Torii guarding the entrances to their graves. Okuma founded the schools that would become the famous Waseda University in 1882. He also spoke English and managed to remove the official ban on Christianity in 1873.

I took these photos in the winter a few months ago, but now in summer the cemetery is more spectacularly alive with trees, flowers and birds everywhere.






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