Encyclopedia entries on Japanese religiosity and syncretism

Bilingualism and Japanology > Shikoku > Mount Koya > Buddhist Syncretism

Shikoku, the Pilgrimage Island of Japan

by Steve McCarty

Originally published in the Encyclopedia of Monasticism,
pp. 1162-1164. Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers (September 2000)

Shikoku is best known for a pilgrimage of 88 sacred places, a thousand-mile clockwise circumambulation of the island. From the Seto Inland Sea southward to the Pacific Ocean, from caves in sheer mountain cliffs [see photo below] to city streets, the 88 temples hold historical significance and abundant treasures, and the offerings of pilgrims support many priests. Reflecting the mainly funerary function of Japanese Buddhism today, resident priests can be seen smoking cigarettes and watching television, before traveling by motorbike to perform services. In some monasteries priests are themselves pilgrims in search of what Shikoku represents, for the pilgrimage of Shikoku symbolically recapitulates the career of Japan's great saint, Kukai or Kobo Daishi (774-835), from birth to enlightenment.

Iwayaji (Cliff Hut Temple), where Kukai is thought to have practiced mountain asceticism,
is barely visible amid the autumn foliage and appears about to be swallowed up by a cave

The pilgrimage of Shikoku became popular long after Kukai's time, in the Edo Period, when restrictions on travel were lifted. Koya Hijiri, or wandering holy men from Mount Koya [see companion article], headquarters of Kukai's Shingon sect, were instrumental in magnifying the image of kukai as a savior whose homeland was sacred. They descended the mountain south of Kyoto and Nara, then crossed over to Shikoku so regularly that the first of 88 temples was changed from Kukai's birthplace of Zentsuji in present-day Kagawa Prefecture to Tokushima Prefecture near where the Koya holy men disembarked. Mount Koya is sometimes added to comprise a more complete pilgrimage including Kukai's chosen resting place.

A gripping tale of reincarnation central to the pilgrimage of Shikoku was told by Koya holy men wandering the countryside. Emon Saburo was a rich man who spurned the repeated plea of a mendicant priest until his sons died off one by one for a week. He went around and around Shikoku Island until he finally turned counterclockwise to catch up with that monk, who turned out to be the great saint Kukai. His dying wish was to be reborn as lord of the province to do the utmost good for the common people. Soon afterward a son was born to the Daimyo with one hand that would not open until priests were summoned to pray. The tiny hand, when it finally opened, revealed a stone that read "I am Emon Saburo reborn."

The temple that claims to have the stone proving Emon Saburo's reincarnation

This gripping chronicle of Ishiteji (Stone-Hand Temple) in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, implicitly warned the public to bestow hospitality on pilgrims. It was a self-serving subtext inasmuch as such mistreatment as the sons' dying would not have been condoned by the historical Kukai. Nonetheless, with such vivid tales conveying the idea that St. Kukai was present on the path, the celebrated pilgrimage of Shikoku gave new impetus to the faith, supporting the institutionalized monasticism of the Shingon sect through medieval strife to the present.

In accord with the ecumenism or syncretism [see companion articles] practiced by Kukai himself, the 88 designated sacred places include other Buddhist sects as well as Shingon. For although Kukai espoused the critical classification of Buddhist doctrines, he accepted all schools previous to esotericism as suitable for particular stages in the mind's development. Moreover, although Kukai's aristocratic Saeki clan, related to Otomo courtiers, had been among the first outside the main island to embrace Buddhism, Kukai allowed them to maintain their piety also for Shinto. Even after the forced separation of of Shinto from Buddhism with the Meiji Restoration, Shinto shrines still tend to adjoin Shingon temples [see Mount Koya article photo], all oriented to a sacred mountain, harking back to indigenous animism [see companion article on Buddhist Syncretism].

Since Shingon also needed to adapt to the popularity of devotional trends such as Pure Land Amidism to survive, pluralism without a sense of contradiction has gradually come to characterize Japanese religion.

Commemorating Kukai's birthplace, Zentsuji Temple has a long and relatively well-documented history. Zentsuji has remained the gathering place for Buddhism on Shikoku Island, a monastery as well as a mecca for pilgrims with faith in Kukai (Kobo Daishi Shinko). Buddhism entered Japan formally around 538, and at the Zentsuji site, which Kukai ostensibly completed in 813, an earlier temple with Horyuji-style roof tiles has recently been discovered to date from the Hakuho Period (645-710).

Around Zentsuji is an unusual cluster of temples dedicated to the Medicine Buddha Yakushi-nyorai. This might be because a disease was spreading in the late seventh century and a Yakushi image was was made by an ancestor of Enchin, Kukai's independed-minded nephew. Many of Kukai's relatives were instrumental in developing Shingon monastic institutions. However, among those later designated Daishi (Great Teacher), Kukai being the supreme example, Enchin studied longer in China but then headed a branch of the Tendai sect. Because the Tendai patriarch Saicho (767-822), having sailed to China with Kukai, returned earlier and reached the emperor as sole administrator of the esoteric rites then popular with T'ang dynasty courtiers, Kukai suffered fallow years on returning before gaining the imperial recognition necessary to establish the Shingon sect. Kukai had tried to transcend rivalry with with Tendai but came to tire of Saicho's dependency on esoteric scriptures and expertise brought back by Kukai. Thus, for Enchin to join Tendai where he could head an independent branch seems to stem from his own desire for autonomy. Yet in the small town of Zentsuji today, Enchin and the temple at his birthplace have ended up being overshadowed after all.

Zentsuji Temple has played a role of regional headquarters, spawning a town at its gates (monzen-machi). It administered branch temples and later a medieval fiefdom. Priests of the monastery itself have received little historical notice compared to eminent pilgrims there, such as Honen (1133-1212), who wrote in the Kamakura period that all Pure Land Buddhas would befriend pilgrims to Zentsuji. Saigyo came from Mount Koya, staying at Zentsuji in 1183 and writing the Sangashu based on his pilgrimage to Shikoku. Dohan was commissioned from Mount Koya to teach at Zentsuji from 1243 to 1249, and his Nankai Ruro Ki includes an inventory of the original temple. From 1278 to 1288 Emperor Go-Uda sponsored repairs, including the Golden Hall and the nearly 164-foot-high [over 50 meters] five-story Great Pagoda [still the tallest pagoda in Japan]. In 1344 the Muromachi period Shogun Ashikaga Takauji had Yuhan build a stone pagoda as a consolatium for his violent rule. However, in 1558 and again in 1575, Zentsuji served as a fortress in clan warfare and was burned down. Recently Abbot Hasuo Zenryu presided over a large monastery with over 200 employees, and his writings view the historical Kukai as sufficient to his faith.

Today in urbanized and secularized Japan, Shikoku maintains a tenuous balance with tradition, nature and religiosity. Three colossal bridge systems by way of Seto Inland Sea islets, including a train line, connect Shikoku with the main island of Honshu. Thus, the problem of accessibility is mainly the language barrier. Yet most recently it has become possible through the Internet both to plan an itinerary and to find bilingual assistance, as each locality publishes English-language Websites with e-mail links.

Research on Japanese religiosity and syncretism

Three entries in the Encyclopedia of Monasticism, edited by Prof. William Johnston (University of Massachusetts). Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. ISBN 1-57958-090-4 (September 2000).

Companion entries: Mount Koya, Japan | Buddhist Syncretism in Japan

These three entries are interrelated but can be read in any order. Encyclopedia sections after each article on Further Reading (mostly original sources in Japanese), See also (related entries), and Related Web sites are not included at this time. Some of the many photos by the author used in the encyclopedia are included in these articles, with assistance from Prof. Malcolm Swanson in Kita-Kyushu.

Related multilingual research, including Legend of the Woman Diver (English-Japanese), and guides are available at the Global Shikoku Internet Project (Japanese-English).

Full online library: Bilingualism and Japanology Intersection | Japanese version

Updated on 26 February 2017 | e-mail Steve McCarty