Podcast Script

Reincarnation or What? The Gripping Tale of Stone-in-Hand Temple

The Pilgrimage of Shikoku is the most celebrated in Japan. The temple chronicle of Ishite-ji or Stone-Hand Temple purports to tell how the pilgrimage originated. This gripping tale of a stone in a hand seems to prove reincarnation, and the temple claims to have the stone. Listen to the podcast or read the story and consider what the real intent of the legend may be.

Long ago there lived in this neighborhood a man called Emon Saburo. He was very rich, but all he wanted was to be richer still.

One winter day a wandering monk came to his gate, prayed and held out his begging bowl to appeal for food. Saburo coldly refused him. The next day the same priest came again, but Saburo angrily drove him away. But the priest kept returning. On the 8th day Saburo went at him with a stick, struck him, dashing his bowl to the ground.

The priest came no more. But on the next day the eldest of Saburo's sons died, and the next day another. Eight days passed, and every one of his eight children was gone, to his grief and horror.

Saburo then realized how wrong-headed and evil he had been. What he had to do, he determined, was to go and find that holy man and beg absolution. Soon he was following the monk's trail, asking for alms, begging for food himself every day.

He went around and around Shikoku Island for four years, but in vain. Having already made 20 rounds, he decided to make one more round in the reverse direction, instead of trying to catch up with the monk. His health was failing, but he had to keep searching. On his way to Shozan-ji (No.12) deep in the mountains, Saburo fell down, ready to die.

At that moment, Kobo Daishi, the priest he had been searching for, appeared before him. The saint, knowing everything, forgave Saburo, saying his sincere repentance had washed away his sins.

Greatly relieved, the man was about to close his eyes. Then Daishi asked if he had a last wish. He answered that he would like to be reborn as the lord of Iyo, his home province, to have the power to do great good for his people. Daishi picked up a small stone, wrote something on it, and pressed the stone into the dying man's left hand.

Some time later the wife of the Lord of Iyo gave birth to a baby boy whose left hand would not open. They tried everything but they could not open it. At last they called in the head priest of their family temple Anyo-ji. He chanted powerful prayers and finally the baby's hand opened. Inside was a stone and on it was written "Emon Saburo Reborn."

To memorialize this mysterious event, the name of the temple was changed to Ishite-ji or Stone-Hand Temple. Believers can see that stone in the temple's Treasure House.

Emon Saburo, who went around and around Shikoku searching for Daishi, is considered to be the first to have made the Shikoku Pilgrimage.

Now can you see why we call this a gripping tale? But do you think the great Buddhist saint Kukai or Kobo Daishi would kill the man's sons or approve of this story? Hundreds of years after Kukai's time, holy men set out from their mountain headquarters to spread the religion based on Kukai, and they spread many miracle stories about Kukai. Notice that Emon Saburo is punished most severely for refusing to give anything to a wandering monk. So do you think the purpose of the story was to prove reincarnation after all? If there were other purposes, what were they, and who benefited from the message of the legend?

Sources: Takemoto/McCarty, Shikoku Bilingual Guidebook; and McCarty, S., "Shikoku, the Pilgrimage Island of Japan" in the Encyclopedia of Monasticism (the online version also includes a photo of the temple).

Web page by Steve McCarty, Professor, Osaka Jogakuin College, Japan;
President, World Association for Online Education. Uploaded on July 4, 2005.

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