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SeirenMHLittle is known of the Temple's background prior to the Edo Period (1603-1868). According to legend, Priest Kukai (774-835), better known by his posthumous title Kobo-Daishi, founded the Temple when he was travelling Kamakura in 819. Tradition further states that he stayed in Kamakura for 17 days and performed Goma (Homa in Sanskrit) rituals (burning cedar sticks for invocation) in a temple here to exorcise evil spirits. The next day, a beautiful and blue lotus flower appeared in a nearby pond. Consequently, he named the Temple Shorenji, or Blue Lotus Temple. Priest Kukai is well known of his energetic missionary work making a pilgrimage all over Japan and left his footprints throughout the country. The Temple was among them. It was Priest Zenkai (?-1460), however, who re-established the Temple and made it a full-scale monastery. Entering the Edo Period, it was protected by the Tokugawa Shogunate and ranked one of the 54 Shingon Seminaries in the Kanto (Tokyo and its neighboring prefectures) region.

A Goma ritual at Jindaiji in Tokyo.

Priest Kukai, a.k.a. Kobo Daishi
He is well-known as the founder of the Shingon Sect, or the Esoteric Buddhism (also referred to as Tantric Buddhism) in Japan. Born to a local aristocracy's family in Kagawa Prefecture and highly gifted from childhood, he was sent to Kyoto for study at age 14, and entered a college at 18 majoring in Chinese thought such as Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. However, he dropped out before long, and focused on study for Buddhism. What he did soon afterwards was to practice ascetic self-discipline in the mountains of Tokushima and Kochi Prefectures. Later in Nara, he came across the Mahavairocana (The Great Sun) sutra, which led him into the Esoteric Buddhism. In 804 at age 31, he was enrolled as a member of the Japanese envoy to China under the Tang dynasty, the first of the official diplomatic mission. Arriving at Ch'ang-an, then the capital of China, by way of Fujian Province, he became a student of Priest Hui-Kuo (746-805) (Keika in Japanese) at Ch'ing-lung temple, the mecca of the Chen-yen (Shingon) sect of Esoteric Buddhism in China.

A fluent speaker of Chinese language and master of Sanskrit, he was well accepted by Priest Hui-Kuo. Within a year or so, Priest Hui-Kuo ordained Priest Kukai to the master of the Esoteric Buddhism just before his demise, conducting an initiation ceremony called Abhisecarna in Skt. In 806, he returned to Japan as a specialist of the Esoteric Buddhism and brought in a great deal of Buddhism-related artifacts made in China including graphic arts and ritual implements. The same year, he joined Jingoji in Kyoto, where he was engaged in spreading the Esoteric Buddhism. It was so influential and appealing to those who had been rather tired of the stereotyped Buddhism that he won the Imperial Family's and court nobles' patronage. Backed by their support, Priest Kukai founded Kongobuji in 819, the head temple of the entire Shingon Sect, at Mt. Koya in Wakayama Prefecture under the patronage of Emperor Saga (786-842). In 823, the same emperor granted him Toji (its official name is Kyo-o-gokoku-ji) located near Kyoto Station as a seminary for the Esoteric Buddhism. It was the Japanese equivalent of Ch'ing-lung temple in Ch'ang-an. In commemoration of his dedicated performances, the Buddhist honorable title Kobo Daishi was conferred on him. Daishi is literally a great master, an honorific title given by the Imperial Court to prelate-like priests with high virtue.

Besides his role as a religious leader, Priest Kukai was also a great calligrapher, a poet and an artists. The fifty one hiragana, or the Japanese phonetic symbols we Japanese widely use today, were invented by him simplifying Chinese characters (Kanji). The first thing today's school children have to learn are those hiragana. Before hiragana was invented, all Japanese wordage had been written or expressed in complicated Kanji.

There are two pieces of popular saying related to his skilled penmanship. The first is "Priest Kobo chooses no pen," which corresponds to "A bad workman quarrels with his tools." The other is "Even Priest Kobo misspells," which is equivalent to "Homer sometimes nods." Incidentally, Emperor Saga was as good a calligrapher as Priest Kukai.

Another achievement accomplished by Priest Kukai was the Shikoku Eighty-eight Temples Pilgrimage. Even today, the pilgrimage is quite popular and honored by tens of thousands of people. It starts at a temple in Tokushima Prefecture, Shikoku Island, and make the the rounds of the total 88 holy temples clockwise to Kochi, Ehime and Kagawa Prefectures. To complete the 1,400-kilometer-circuit on foot requires usually two months. In Shikoku Island, you can spot those white-clad pilgrims with straw hat and wooden staff. Although many are making the round by air-conditioned bus or car in a week or so, real pilgrims finish the circuit on foot chanting the Heart Sutra at each temple. They regard the wooden staff as Kobo Daishi himself and believe they are always with the Daishi.

Shingon Sect and Esoteric Buddhism

Teachings of Esoteric Mahayana Buddhism originate in India and flourished from the 6th to the 10th centuries. In Japan it was first introduced by Priest Kukai via China as noted above, and then by Priest Saicho (767-822), the founder of the Tendai Sect and Enryakuji at Mt. Hiei, Shiga Prefecture.

SerenMyooIt shares with other sects the dedication to achieving enlightenment, but takes the stand that its fundamental scriptures are the Dainichi-kyo sutra (Mahavairocana sutra in Skt.) and the Kongocho-kyo sutra (Vajrasekhara-sutra in Skt.). They are expounded by the cosmic Buddha Dainichi-Nyorai (Mahavairocana in Skt.), or the Ultimate Reality. Sakyamuni is interpreted as one of many manifestations of the Buddha Mahavairocana.

A sedentary statue of Dainichi Nyorai at e-Museum.

In the case of Shingon Sect, the formula that are repetitively declaimed are "Nam-daishi-henjo-kongo", which corresponds to "Nam-amy-dah-boo'ts" for the Jodo Sect and "Nam-myo-ho-ren-ghe'kyo" for the Nichiren Sect. Nam means adoration to something, Daishi is Priest Kukai himself, and Henjo-kongo stands for Dainichi-Nyorai.

The Sect puts more emphasis on elaborate and secret ritual practices such as mantras and mudras rather than theoretical doctrines. This purificatory and exorcistic rites are so elaborate and complicated that no other sect Buddhists can follow. In this context, the Sect has closer affinity with Hinduism and Lamaism. Best known among the services would be a sacred fire-ritual for invocation, or Goma as mentioned above, meaning a holy fire for invocation to exorcise evil spirits. To be specific, it is the rite of burning cedar sticks on the altar while chanting sutras and using many Buddhist implements. Fire is believed to purify or ward off the evil spirits. Not in the written scriptures at all, the method of rituals are handed down from masters to disciples by word of mouth. As a result, the Sect is said to be secret or esoteric.

Meditation is usually made in front of the altars on which two sacred mandala (which represents the universe pictorially with geometric designs of Buddha deities pantheon) are placed: One is the Diamond World (Vajra-dhatu in Skt. Kongo-kai in Japanese) and Womb World (Garbha-dhatu in Skt. Taizo-kai in Jap.). The Diamond World mandala represents the realm of transcendent and The Womb World the compassionate aspects of the Buddha. Mandala also serve as the object of worship as they represent the deities pantheon and the spiritual universe.

Shingon Sect temples usually enshrine statues of Dainichi Nyorai and Myo-o (Vidyaraja in Skt.) group. Unlike other Nyorai statues, Dainichi-Nyorai is represented in a princely costume and accessories similar to those worn by Bodhisattvas. All Myo-o are its attendants and are believed to admonish, by the command of Dainichi Nyorai, those who are reluctant to accept its teachings. Myo-o are warlike deities representing the luminescent wisdom of the Buddha, typified by Fudo-Myo-o (Acalanatha in Skt.). In stark contrast to Nyorai and Bosatsu statues, all the Myo-o statues take on a ferocious appearance with pugnacious aspect, with a third eye in the middle of their forehead, designed to frighten away evil spirits and threaten those who do not easily accept teachings. Among Myo-o, most often we encounter are Go-dai-Myo-o or the Five Great-Wisdom Kings. Shinshoji situated near the Narita International Airport is also a full-fledged Shingon sect temple. In Kamakura, there are 15 including the Temple, Fudarakuji, Manpukuji, Myo-o-in, etc.

In the early 9th century, Priest Saicho (767-822) also visited China and introduced to Japan the Tendai (Tian-tai in Chinese) Sect, another esoteric Buddhism. In Japanese, the esoteric Buddhism is termed Mikkyo and to distinguish the Shingon Sect and the Tendai Sect Mikkyo, we call the former Toh-mitsu (Mikkyo of Toji) and the latter Tai-mitsu (Mikkyo of Tian-tai).

Main Hall and Kusari Daishi

It would probably be the Statue of Priest Kukai, generally known as Kusari (chain) Daishi, that is making the Temple famous. The key feature of the statue is that its knees are jointed with chains to render them moveable. In other words, the statue can rest either in standing or sitting posture; hence the namesake of Kusari Daishi. In addition, eyes and nails are made of crystal to let the statue look realistic. It is a nude statue said to be carved in the late Kamakura Period (1185-1333), and is arrayed in priest's robes. Originally, the Statue had been enshrined in Togaku-in, a sub-temple at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine before the Meiji Imperial Restoration of 1868. Curious may it sound, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine had long been a huge complex of Shinto and Buddhism elements enshrining both Shinto and Buddhist deities. Back at the time, Shinto deities were thought to be manifestation of of Buddha, particularly those of the Shingon Sect. (The Sun Goddess at Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture, for instance, was believed to be a Japanese manifestation of the Mahavairocana or the Great Sun). After the Meiji Restoration, however, the government made Shinto the official state religion and employed the Abolish-the-Buddha-Policy, whereby many Buddhist cult objects were removed, lost, or sold overseas cheap. Fortunately, Kusari Daishi was one of the few that were saved. It is now enshrined deep inside the feretory of the Temple and made open to the public only occasionally, or the 21st day of January, April, December and August 16. An ICA.

Also enshrined on the both sides of the recess in which Kusari Daishi statue is enshrined are those of the Eight Great Shingon Masters, or the patriarch and seven successors of the sect to be precise. They are of mixed nationalities of Indian, Chinese and Japanese (Priest Kukai):

Nagarjuna (Ryumyo in Japanese), Nagabodhi (Ryuchi in Jap.), Vajrabodhi (671-741) (Kongochi in Jap.), Amoghavajra (705-774) (Fuku in Jap.), Subhakara-simha (637-735) (Zunmui in Jap.), Yi-Xing (683-727) (Ichigyo in Jap.), Hui-Kuo (746-805) (Keika in Jap.) and Priest Kukai. The first two are Indian practitioners in the early 8th century and introduced the Esoteric Buddhism into China. The next fives are Chinese priests who translated the original sutras into Chinese assimilating the Indian beliefs. Four statues are installed at the left-hand side of the recess and the other four on the right-hand side, all sedentary and about 40 to 50 centimeters tall. The statues were carved during the Edo Period (1603-1868), and can be viewed on request.

The following treasures are designated as ICAs by Kamakura City, and kept at the Kamakura Museum:

(Updated September 2013)