Japanese Buddhism

The Time magazine of May 26, 1997 (Asian Edition) ran a story about the Buddha in its Science page titled "Uncovering the Lord Buddha's Birthplace." It read, "Experts may have found in Lumbini, Nepal, the exact spot of Buddha's birth, and from all over Asia, the devout already were flocking to the site." Lumbini is now listed on the UNESCO's World Heritage Sites.

Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, or the Lord Buddha, who lived from c. 560 to c. 480 BC. Since he did not write a single word of his teachings, they were handed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth. After the Lord Buddha's demise, his followers split into a number of factions, each with its own interpretations. Roughly 500 years later, two main groups emerged; Theravada (also called the Way of Elders) and Mahayana (the Greater Vehicle). Theravada sought to preserve the pure teachings of the Lord Buddha, while Mahayana was more liberal and flexible. Mahayana holds that not only priest who took Buddhist vows but also the laity can attain enlightenment. In Japan, Mahayana was introduced in the mid sixth century via China, and spread fast under the patronage of Imperial Prince Shotoku (574-622). He institutionalized it as the state religion and Buddhist priests worked as civil servants employed by the Imperial Court.

EbgakujiIn the early 9th century,Priest Kukai (774-835) and Priest Saicho (767-822) visited China, both separately, to learn Buddhism, and later introduced to Japan theShingon (Ch'en-yen in Chinese) sect, and Tendai (Tian-tai in Chinese) sect, a form of Chinese Tantric Buddhism, respectively. Priest Kukai erected Kongobuji in Wakayama, and Tendai became a principal sect of Buddhism protected by the Imperial Court with its mother temple Enryakuji located on top of Mt. Hiei near Kyoto.

One of its traits was worship of Amida (Amitabha in Sanskrit) and the Pure Land Buddhism, which was systematized by Priest Honen (1133-1212) as the Jodo sect, and later as Jodo Shin sect expounded by Priest Shinran (1173-1262). Another Tendai trait was faith in Hokkekyo, or teaching of the Lotus Sutra founded by Priest Nichiren (1222-1282), who initiated missionary work in Kamakura. Today, there is a powerful lay Buddhist group called Soka Gakkai (Value-creation Society) forming a political party in the National Diet. This group is associated with Nichiren's Hokkekyo. Also introduced from China during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) was Zen (Ch'an in Chinese and Dhyana in Skt.) Buddhism.

To describe the characters of each sect in short, it is often quoted that the Tendai is for the Imperial Court, the Shingon for the nobilities, the Zen for the warrior classes and the Jodo as well as the Nichiren for the masses.(Picture; left, Engakuji)

With the Meiji Imperial Restoration of 1868, the supremacy was handed to the Emperor, and the new government proclaimed Shinto as the official state religion, establishing the Department of Shinto in its Administration. This led the government to employ restrictive policies against Buddhism and Christianity, whereby many valuable cult objects for Buddhism including statues of Buddha were destroyed, relocated or sold cheap overseas, until 1897 when the Old Shrine and Temple Protection Law was enacted. Nevertheless, priority still continued to be given to Shinto as it was Imperial Family's religion. Real freedom of religion was guaranteed as recent as 1947 by the Constitution.

In today's Kamakura, there are more than 100 temples and most of them belong to one of the following six sects listed according to the number of temples:

(1) Nichiren
Based on the belief that the essence of true Buddhism is found only in the Lotus Sutra, it teaches to chant formulary statement called 'Odaimoku' or 'Nam myo hoh ren gek'kyo', a simpler version of paternoster, meaning adoration to the Lotus Sutra for the true law, by which one receives the morality embraced in the Sutra and his soul becomes identified with the cosmic soul of the eternal Buddha. The main objects of worship are usually the tablet inscribed with the formula 'Nam-myo-ho-ren-gek'kyo' called Odaimoku, a statue of Priest Nichiren and a set of Buddha-related statues. The seven-letter Odaimoku denotes adoration to the Lotus Sutra. It is often placed in the center of the alter flanked by a statue of Shaka Nyorai (Sakyamuni in Skt.) at its left and Taho Nyorai (Prabhutaratna in Skt.) at its right. The set is called Sanbo Honzon.

There are 32 Nichiren sect temples in Kamakura including Ankokuronji, Choshoji, Daigyoji, Hongakuji, Jissoji, Jo- eiji, Jogyoji, Kosokuji at Hase, Myohonji, Myohoji, Myoryuji, Ryukoji, etc.

(2) Zen
It asserts that enlightenment can be attained through the practice of sitting meditation, self-reliance and intuition rather than through scriptures. For samurai who were always exposed to death, sitting meditation with which they trained themselves in moral asceticism helped calm down themselves, and was a good path to realization of the Buddhahood. In Zen temples, catechetical questions called ko-an are raised and must be answered to the satisfaction of the masters. As it stresses the importance of master-disciple relationship, plenty of statues and portraits of famed priests were carved and painted. Also, when Zen was introduced into Japan from China by Chinese priests, a great deal of Chinese culture such as sculpture, gardening, painting, calligraphy, cuisine, interior decoration, etc. were brought in.

There are 17 Zen sect temples in Kamakura. Included among them are: Chojuji, Engakuji, En-noji, Hokokuji, Jochiji, Jomyoji, Jufukuji, Kaizoji, Kenchoji, Meigetsu-in, Tokeiji, Zuisenji, etc.

(3) Shingon
The sect founded by Priest Kukai, a.k.a. Kobo Daishi, takes the stand that the eternal wisdom of the Lord Buddha is developed and realized through elaborate and secret ritual practices such as mantras and mudras. Hence, it is called esoteric Buddhism. The Great Sun Sutra (Maha-vairocana sutra in Skt.) is the ultimate reality, and Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana in Skt.) is believed to be the cosmic Buddha. Mandala represents the universe pictorially with geometric designs serving as the object of meditation and worship. The head temple of this sect is Kongobuji located in Mt. Koya, Wakayama Prefecture. Shinshoji situated near the Narita International Airport is also a full-fledged Shingon sect temple.

In Kamakura, there are 15 including Fudarakuji, Joju-in, Jokomyoji, Kakuonji, Manpukuji, Myo-o-in, etc.

(4) Jodo
Pure Land Buddhism focusing on Amida (Amitabha in Skt.). It offers easy salvation through belief in Amida. Everyone who say a prayer to Amida declaiming the "Nenbutsu" or "Nam-ahmy-dab-t'"(namo' mitayusebddhaya or namo' mitabhayabuddhaya in Skt.) the sect's paternoster, with genuine reverence is believed to be guaranteed to enter into the bliss of Heaven immediately after one's death, and to be ensured rebirth in the Pure Land (Sukhavati in Skt.). Back at the time, Buddhists believed that the world would come to an apocalyptic end, and therefore, this Pure Land concept was well accepted. The main object of worship are the statues of Amida trinity, or Amida with Kan'non Bosatsu (Avalokitesvara in Skt.) at its left and Seishi Bosatsu (Mahasthamaprapta in Skt.) at its right.

Later, Jodo Shin sect, an offshoot of the Jodo, was developed by Priest Shinran (1173-1262), and was even easier than Jodo to exercise. Whereas Jodo has to rely on self-effort, Jodo Shin assures salvation from the moment faith is first expressed. With East and West Honganji in Kyoto as their mother temples, the Jodo Shin is now among the most popular Buddhist sects in Japan. It was once so powerful that governments had difficulties controlling their revolts.

There are 13 Jodo and 1 Jodo Shin sect temples in Kamakura: An-yo-in, Eishoji, Kotoku-in (the Great Buddha), Hasedera, Komyoji, Kuhonji, etc.

(5) Ji (Pronounced gee)
Founded by Priest Ippen (1239-1289), it is another offshoot of the Jodo sect. Its head temple Yugyoji is located in Fujisawa, a neighboring city of Kamakura. Priest Ippen was commonly referred to as a holy priest of abandonment as he held belief in abandoning the self by trusting the Lord Buddha. Through ecstatic incantation of the holy name and folk dance, they believed Amida would assure them of salvation. His teachings required no faith at all. The devout needed just to chant Nenbutsu with the notion that salvation had been given to believers many eons ago. The Ji sect gained its position as one of the most popular ones as it was the easiest of all religions to practice.

Kamakura has 7 Ji sect temples including Betsuganji, Kosokuji at Juniso, etc. For further details on the Ji Sect and Priest Ippen, refer toYugyoji.

(6) Tendai
Introduced in the early 9th century by Priest Saicho it includes the basic Mahayana teachings, which are abstract and abstruse. At the Tendai's head temple Enryakuji, a number of pioneer Buddhists including Nichiren studied. Like Shingon sect, Tendai has mystic practice of esoteric Buddhism.

There are two Tendai sect temples in Kamakura, which are Hokaiji and Sugimoto-dera.

Buddhist Iconography

Buddhism is a religion based on the iconolatry, and statues of the Lord Buddha and its pantheon serve as the objects of worship. Buddha statues in Japan are grouped into the following five categories each having many sub-categories:

(A) Nyorai: Tathagata in Skt., the Lord Buddha who has attained Buddhahood or enlightenment. Nyorai statues usually wear plain priests' clothes, have no accessaries, hold nothing in their hands and their hairs are spirally curled. The lump on its forehead is a sign of wisdom and a reminder of Buddhism's origin in Hinduism.

The following are Nyorai statues which are enshrined in the temples in Kamakura.

  1. Shaka Nyorai, or Sakyamuni in Skt. Shaka is Siddhartha Gautama himself who attained the Enlightenment, the historical Buddha. As a representative of the Lord Buddha, the typical statue poses with a hand symbol, such as the right hand pointing at heaven and the left at the earth, by which Shaka expressed that He is the only holy one in and under heaven. Flanked by Monju Bosatsu (Manjusri Bodhisattva in Skt. meaning wisdom and intellect) at its left and Fugen Bosatsu (Samantabhadra Bodhisattva in Skt. Bosatsu of brightness) at its right, this group of three statues makes the Shaka Trinity or Shaka Sanzon in Japanese.

    Meanwhile, Monju and Fugen may remind us of the accidents at a nuclear power plant. Two fast breeder reactors located in Fukui Prefecture were named Monju and Fugen. However, Monju was shut down on December 8, 1995 due to a leak of sodium coolant. Ironically, December 8 was the day Sakyamuni attained enlightenment and the Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 (December 7, American time). It restarted in May 2010, but only temporarily. Three month later, another accident involving dropped machinery shut down the reactor again. The accident and cover-up created widespread public concern over the safety of nuclear power. Since then, has the reactor never been operational and it is most likely to be decommissioned. Fugen did not go operational as had been planned either. After series of accidents, it was forced to permanently shut down in March 2003. Experts says taxpayers' money the government spent for the project may have totaled 1.3 trillion yen so far.

    A picture of Shaka-Nyorai is available at Kumamoto City's official site. In Kamakura, Shaka Nyorai statues are enshrined at the main hall of Chojuji, Engakuji, Hokokuji, Jomyoji and Tokeiji, etc. (Picture, above left: Shaka Nyorai statue at Tokeiji).

    A Shaka Nyorai statue at NNM.
  2. Amida Nyorai, or Amitabha in Skt. The supreme Buddha of the Pure Land is believed to reside in the Pure Land of the far west. It was widely believed that the world was descending into the dreaded age of darkness and despair, and salvation could only be attained by placing one's faith in Amida. Promised to save all souls, Amida Nyorai is also believed to arrive at the moment of believer's death and accompanies him or her to the Pure Land Paradise (Sukhavati in Skt.). The statues of Amida is characterized by the special symbol known as the "Nine ways of having the rebirth in the Pure Land". To show these nine ways, there are nine hand positions. Most familiar is the type in which both hands are forming a circle with the thumb and forefinger, and resting on his folded lap like the Great Buddha Statue of Kotoku-in (picture, right). Also characteristic is its nimbus radiating like the spokes of a wheel, from which the Amida lottery, a popular method to draw a lot in Japan, originates. The Amida Nyorai statue is the main object of worship at An-yo-in, Jokomyoji, Komyoji, Kotoku-in (the Great Buddha), Kuhonji, Kosokuji at Juniso.

    An Amida Nyorai statue at e-Museum and welcoming descent of Amida at MMA.

  3. Yakushi Nyorai, or Bhaisajyaguru vaiduryaprabha in Skt. Yakushi means the Lord of Medicine and is popularly known as the deity of healing, who is believed to cure all ailments. Though Nyorai statues usually do not hold anything in its hands, Yakushi is an exception and a bottle of medicine is placed on its left palm symbolizing the merciful mission of the Lord Buddha. Usually flanked by two Bosatsu or Bodhisattva: Nikko (solar or sunlight) Bosatsu at its left and Gakko (Lunar or moonlight) Bosatsu at its right, making a Yakushi Trinity or Yakushi Sanzon. Yakushi Nyorai sometimes accompanies Twelve Guardian Deities. The statue is enshrined at Kakuonji, Kaizoji, Manpukuji, etc. in Kamakura.

    A Yakushi Nyorai statue at e-Museum.

  4. Dainichi Nyorai, or Great Sun Nyorai. Maha-Vairocana in Skt. This is not the historical Buddha but Buddha of the Great Sun or the cosmic Buddha, and is the principal object of worship for the Shingon sect. Unlike other Nyorai statues, Dainichi is represented in a princely costume and accessories similar to those worn by Bodhisattva. All Myo-o (see below) are its attendants and are believed to admonish, by the command of Dainichi Nyorai, those who are reluctant to accept its teachings.

    A Dainichi Nyorai statue at e-Museum.

(B) Bosatsu, or Bodhisattva in Skt. One who, out of compassion, forgoes nirvana or have postponed their own enlightenment in order to save others. One whose essence is enlightenment. However, its meaning developed into one who is on the way to attain enlightenment. Generally, Bosatsu statues are dressed like a prince wearing elaborate robes, accessories such as sash, scarf, jewelry and often put on a crown as Prince Siddhartha Gautama had been before he became the Lord Buddha.

  1. Kan'non Bosatsu or Avalokitesvara in Skt.: It is the Bodhisattva who looks down with infinite pity on all beings and is believed to be the incarnation of pity. Being spiritual son of Amitabha, Kan'non is often represented as an attendant to Amida Nyorai in trio together with Seishi Bosatsu, as noted earlier. Kan'non is popularly called the Goddess of Mercy with its female-like, tenderhearted expressions, though all Buddhist deities are basically asexual. With its nature, this Kan'non was often assimilated with Virgin Mary in Japan. Christianity was first introduced into this country in the 16th century by Spanish missionary Fransis Xavier (1506-1552). Entering the Edo Period (1603-1868), Japanese Christians were persecuted by the anti-Christian edicts under the Tokugawa Shogunate. Those Christians, mostly in western part of Kyushu, went underground, but did not give up their faith. To camouflage their Christianity, they hanged scrolls featuring Kan'non, which was, in reality, the Holy Mother. The Shogunate initiated a brutal crackdown on them and to detect those hidden Christians, they demanded suspects to step on a copper plate with a picture of the Holy Mother or a crucifix. When a person refused to step on it, he or she was considered to be a Christian and executed. It was a Japanese version of the Inquisition. However, those hidden Christians never gave in. Later in October 1637, farmers afflicted with heavy taxes and famines, thousands of whom had been converted to Christianity, launched a rebellion against the Shogunate. The leader was a 16-year-old Christian, Shiro Amakusa by name, who performed various miracles such as walking on water like Jesus Christ. After the four-month fierce battle, the Shogunate forces finally brought the rebellion to a tragic end. About 37,000 farmers including women and children were slaughtered at Hara Castle in Nagasaki Prefecture. Later in the mid-19th century, Japan had to end its isolation policy forced by foreign pressure and many foreigners began to live in Japan. Nagasaki city was among their favorite places and French Christians built the Oura Church (now a UNESCO's World Heritage Site) in 1865 originally for the French people living in the city. Shortly after the church was built, more than a dozen Japanese living in Urakami village in Nagasaki visited the church. They confessed to Father Bernard Petitjean (1829-1884), a French Priest, that they were clandestine Christians and asked him to let them worship the statue of the the Holy Mother. The group unveiled the number of Christians in Urakami counted 3,411, all of whom and their ancestors had been facing with the threat of persecution and torture for nearly 250 years. The Father reported the news immediately to the Pope in Vatican, and it astonished Christian society worldwide. However, the local Christians still had to undergo hardship as government officials continued to make them honor Buddhism in every conceivable means. Even the new Imperial Government formed after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 did not protect them but exiled to other part of the country to promote Shinto, then the state religion. Since the persecution in 1868 was the worst among the three prior ones, it was called "The Fourth Persecution". It was not until 1873 that the Japanese Christians were free to practice their faith. In 1925, the people of Urakami completed construction of a grand brick and stone church said to be the largest in the Orient at the time. The building was devastated, however, by a nuclear (plutonium) bomb dropped over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The church was located 500 meters northeast of the explosion epicenter. About 30 Christians in prayer in the church were killed instantly. Locals call it The Fifth Persecution. The church was newly built in 1959 and visited by Pope John Paul II in February 1981.

    A Kan'non Bosatsu statue at e-Museum.

    Kan'non has a broad variety of manifestations in shapes and forms, or 33 transformations to be exact in order to succor all suffering people. The following are the ones, of which statues are enshrined at the temples in Kamakura:

  2. Jizo Bosatsu, or Ksitigarbha in Skt. After the demise of Sakyamuni, Jizo Bosatsu was believed to save our souls for the 5.67 billion years until the future Buddha Miroku Bosatsu (Maitreya in Skt.) finally appears in this world. Like Kan'non, there are a wide array of Jizo statues. Without exception, they wear no accessaries and their heads are shaved. Usually holds a peach-shaped fitting, or mani in Skt. in one hand and a staff like the Christian crosier in the other. In Japan, Jizo Bosatsu is popularly believed to be the guardian deity of children including aborted fetus and is ubiquitous roadside icons, which are often clothed in red bib. In the book Memoirs of a Geisha written by Arthur Goldman and published in 1997, reads the story, a top geisha appearing in the story sometimes visit a nearby temple in Gion district in Kyoto (near today's Yasaka Shrine) to pray before the three tiny Jizo statues she had installed. They were for the three children she had aborted at patron's request. (The story was made into a movie in late 2005, produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Rob Marshall, under the title "Sayuri", the heroin's name. Sayuri is played by Ziyi Zhang, a Chinese American actress.)

    A fine statue of Jizo is on display at Los Angeles County Museum of Art in its Pavilion for Japanese Art, which was fashioned in the 12th century, though the staff supposed to be in his right hand is missing.

    Jizo Bosatsu statues are enshrined at the main hall of Kenchoji and Hokaiji. Other categories of Jizo statues include Koyasu Jizo, or the Patron of Pregnant Women, and Roku-Jizo or, Jizo of the Six Stages, with a row of half a dozen statues as referred to above.
    A Jizo Bosatsu statue at MFA.

(C) Myo-o {myo-oh}, or Vidya-raja in Skt. Warlike deities representing the luminescent wisdom of the Lord Buddha, were introduced into Japan in the 9th century. Worshipped mainly by the Shingon sect. 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. They are:

  1. Fudo Myo-o, or Acalanatha in Skt. Means the Immovable. The God of Fire, or Acala-vidyaraja. He usually holds a sword in his right hand and a rope in his left. He is standing up threateningly in order to destroy the devils who oppose the practice of Buddhist virtue, with his bare teeth and glaring down furiously. The background of flames is for the purification of the mind; the sword is to fight against the devil. The rope in his left hand is to bind the devils. The statue of Fudo Myo-o occupies the central position of the Five Myo-o and is surrounded by his four attendants. In Kamakura, Joju-in and Myo-o-in are consecrated to it.
    A Fudo Myo-o statue at NNM and a statue of Fudo Myo-o at MFA.

    The other four guardians for Fudo Myo-o are as listed below:

  2. Gozanze Myo-o, or Trilokavijaya in Skt. As the guardian deity in the east corner, Gozanze defeats destitution, anger and foolishness. It has eight arms and four heads with a threatening face. A Gozanze Myo-o statue shown at Fukui Prefecture's site.

  3. Gundari Myo-o, or Kundali in Skt. Being stationed in the south, it defeats internal and external devils. The statue usually has three eyes in the infuriated face and eight arms. Characteristic is the snakes wrap-coiling at its ankles or neck. A Gundari Myo-o at NNM.

  4. Dai-itoku Myo-o, or Yamantaka in Skt. Guardian deity for Amitabha in the west Pure Land. Believed to have the power to vanquish poisonous snakes and dragons. The statue has six heads with all menacing aspects and hands holding various weapons. With six legs, it rides on a white cow. Worshiped as the deity of victory. MFA has a precious statue of Dai-itoku carved in the 12th century.

  5. Kongo-yasha, or Vajra-yaksa in Skt. Guardian deity in the north having three heads and six arms or one head with four arms. As are other Myo-o, Kongo Yasha's face is full of anger and symbolizes strength.

    Shinshoji near the Narita International Airport enshrines a statue of Fudo Myo-o as its main object of worship, and draw as many as 3 million visitors during the first three days of New Year, second largest number after Meiji Jingu Shrine in Tokyo. On a upper hill behind the main hall, there stands a huge tower erected in 1984, in which a complete set of Five Myo-o are enshrined.

    Godai Myo-o statues at NNM.

    Other Myo-o

    Aizen Myo-o, or Ragaraja in Skt. Believed to be the manifestation of Buddha Vairocana or some Bodhisattvas depending on the sects. In Japan, it is highly revered in the gay quarters as the patron deity of love. A Japanese version of Cupid. Basically, the deity is believed to save people from the agony associated with love. The statue has three eyes and six arms, usually red-lacquered. Enshrined at Kakuonji in Kamakura.

    An Aizen Myo-o statue at TNM.

    Ashuku Nyorai, or Aksobhya in Skt. One of the five deities under the Kongokai mandala, or Vajra-dhatu in Skt., and guards the east corner to protect Dainichi Nyorai. Enshrined at Kakuonji.

    Ni-o {nee-oh}, or Deva in Skt. Ni-o is a pair of Deva Kings and guardians standing half-naked in terrifying postures at the temple gates. They flay away devils with their muscles like Herakles. The right-hand Ni-o has mouth open, saying 'ah', while the other's tightly closed saying 'um'. The two letters 'ah' and 'um' are the first and the last in Sanskrit alphabet, coincide with the Japanese syllabaries referred to as 50 sounds, which also start with 'ah' sound and ends with 'um'.

(D) Ten-bu, or Devas in Skt. Ten-bu are deities introduced into the Buddhist pantheon from the Indian Hinduism. Most deities of Ten-bu are guardians garbed in warrior dress with weapons in their hands. In accordance with Buddhist cosmology, each Deva has an assigned quarter of heaven to fulfill his specific mission.


  1. Taishakuten: Sakra-devanam in Skt. It is believed to dwell halfway up the Buddhist astronomical mountain called Sumeru, the center of the Buddhist universe, (Note. Nothing to do with the Biblical Sumer), as the mightiest god and is protected by the four guardians called Shiten-no. Daikyoji a Nichiren sect temple in Shibamata, Katsushika-ward, Tokyo is well known to Japanese. It is a favorite spots for the Japanese tourists because Shibamata is the hometown for the hero of the popular movies It's Tough Being a Man, which ran nearly 50 series, and the hero was performed by actor Kiyoshi Atsumi (1928-1996).
    A painting of Taishakuten at NNM.

  2. Shiten-no {she-ten-noh}, or Lokapala in Skt. The Four Militant Deva Kings. The quad deities were originally Indian folk gods but later consolidated with Buddhist faith and serve as protectors of the Buddhist realm, Taishakuten in particular. All of the Shiten-no appear like warriors holding weapons in their hands with threatening faces. Picture left taken at Choshoji, in which Shiten-no guard Priest Nichiren as if he were a Taishakuten.

    Taishakuten is the main object of worship at Taishakudo of Choshoji in Kamakura and Shiten-no can be viewed in its courtyard, where the statue of Priest Nichiren, the founder of Nichiren sect, was placed in the center instead of Taishakuten's.

(E) Others

  1. Juni Shinsho, or Twelve Guardian Generals (or Ministers). They are the Guardian ministers of Yakushi Nyorai and also are members of Ten-bu. In Kamakura, Yakushido hall of Kakuonji and Kaizoji house them. Paintings of Juni Shinsho at MFA.

  2. Shichifukujin {she-chee-foo-koo-gin}, or Seven Deities of Good Fortune: Tenshin (Kakuzo) Okakura (1862-1913), a famous art critic in Japan and the founder of Tokyo University of Arts, once said that Japan is the museum of Asian civilization. Seven lucky deities (the Group of Seven) may be a good example since their origins are multinational. To be exact, the god rings include one goddess and six gods originating in India, China and Japan. It is believed that making a circuit of those seven gods during the first seven days of New Year would give the worshipers efficacy of good luck. Members of Shichifukujin are as follows:

    The Seven Deities in Kamakura are rather new and were registered in 1982. In New Year holidays, religious people make a tour of these seven deities praying for their happy year.

    An Ukiyo-e woodblock print Shichifukujin at MFA.

  3. Rakan {rah-kan}, or Arhat in Skt. Rakan is the Lord Buddha's immediate disciples who attained Nirvana. At Kenchoji's Sanmon gate and Komyoji's inner gate, statues of Rakan are enshrined. A hanging scroll of Ten Rakan at MFA.

  4. Kishimojin, or Hariti in Skt., the Goddess of Children. Dedicated to guardian spirit of children and pregnant women. Childless women also pray to Kishimojin wishing to get pregnant. She was once child-devouring demons, but was rehabilitated by the Lord Buddha and began to love children. Since Kishimojin is considered to be the guardian deity of Lotus Sutra, she is venerated by Nichiren Sect Buddhists. In Kamakura, Nichiren sect temples like Myohoji enshrines it.

Annual Observances in Japanese Buddhism

There are many religious services performed in temples throughout year. The following are the main observances most temples honor regardless of the sect:

February 15: Nehan-e {neh-han-eh}
The Lord Buddha demised on this day in Kusinagaya, Nepal, and the memorial service is held. At the requiem mass, priests recite the sutra that the Lord Buddha preached just before his death. When the Lord Buddha passed away, it is said, he was lying on his right side with his head pointing north. In honor of this legend, we Japanese do not sleep with our head pointing to the north even today. Instead, on the occasion that we have someone dead, we lay the body with his or her head to the north. Pay attention to Japanese hotel rooms, for example, and you will find beds are placed so that your head never point to the north just like Western hotels often having no 13th floor. Paintings of Shaka Nehan at NNM and MMA.

April 8: Gotan-e also called Kanbutsu-e
In Japan, it is believed Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumbini, Nepal, on this day, which sometimes coincide with Easter and Passover days. (Some also say Jesus Christ was crucified on April 8). No sooner had he been born, than he uttered "Holy am I alone throughout heaven and earth," with his right hand pointing to the sky and left hand to the earth. At the same time, sweet liquor-like drink or amrta in Skt. began to fall from the heaven. In Japanese temples, they install a small statue of Buddha in an enclosure bedecked with flowers on this day, and celebrate the birth of the Lord Buddha, powering sweet tea made of hydrangea extract over the head of Buddha's statuette, and treat visitors with the tea. A statuette of Shaka used for Gotan-e at Myohoji in Yokohama.

Spring and autumnal equinox: Higan-e {he-gan-eh}
During one week of the equinox days, the sun sets exactly on the west wherein Amida Nyorai is believed to reside. Temples performs religious service to demonstrate that priests devote themselves to the study of the Lord Buddha's teachings. But, today's Higan-e is thought to be the days worshipers visit their family graves and pay homage to the souls of their ancestors. During the equinoctial week, many visitors are seen at the graveyards in temples throughout the country. Both spring and autumnal equinox days are national holidays in Japan. A picture of Higan-e at Myohoji in Yokohama.

July or August 13 to 15: Urabon-e {woo-rah-bon-eh}, or Ullambana in Skt.
A Japanese-English dictionary reads this is the "Buddhist All Souls' Day". Another translates as "The Festival of the Dead". Anyway, Urabon-e, or more popularly called Bon, is to console the souls of ancestors and departed family members. Temples hold mass requiem for the bereaved family. In the Buddhist world, it is believed that the souls of ancestors come down to this world at All Souls' Day every year, similar to the Assumption Day in Europe. August 15 coincides with the day Japan declared an unconditional surrender in 1945 and World War II ended.

December 8: Jodo-e: The word Jodo in this particular case is not the one that denotes Jodo sect, but it means the day Sakyamuni attained nirvana under a bo tree in Buddha Gaya, Bihar, India. All Buddhists swear that they will train themselves to attain enlightenment honoring the teachings of the Lord Buddha. It is also the very day when Japan went into the Pacific War, attacking Pearl Harbor (December 7 in America) in 1941. (Reminds me of the Yom Kippur War in 1973.) And yet, Japan had no Buddhist leaders to oppose the war like Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the German Lutheran pastor who was executed for his outspoken opposition to Nazis.


Teachings of Buddhism
Buddhism is the teachings of the Lord Buddha and these teachings are based on Buddha's personal experience of enlightenment, or awakening to truth. The core of the enlightenment was the realization of the Four Noble Truth, which are the bases of all schools of Buddhism. The first truth is that life is suffering (Dukkha). The second is that suffering is caused by selfish craving and attachment (Trishna). The third is that suffering can be ended by overcoming craving and attachment (Nirvana) and the fourth truth is that there is a path to the termination of suffering through the Eightfold Path of : Right views, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

Five Commandments
Like Moses' Ten Commandments, there are five basic commandments in Buddhism, which are: Do not; kill, tell a lie, steal, drink or commit obscene sexual acts. In Theravada countries like Thailand and Sri Lanka for example, the life of priests is ascetic and they have to honor stringent creeds. Becoming a priest is a difficult task. They have to devote themselves to religious and pious life with tonsure and are never allowed to marry, much less to eat meat or drink alcoholic beverage. In Japan under Mahayana Buddhism, it is far more flexible. Priest Shinran, the founder of the Jodo Shin sect, had at least seven children by different wives and did not tonsure. This apparent flexibility does not necessarily imply, however, that their training is easier than that of Theravada. Watering oneself with icy water under the bitter cold climate in the middle of winter, which is in no way possible in Theravada countries, makes them physically and spiritually strong, just to mention a few. With respect to priests' celibacy, Buddhist society is male-dominated, and it has long kept women from entering the temple grounds in fear that they may disturb priests' concentration. This discrimination against women seems to have disappeared, and now any women can join religious services and sit-in meditation. Nevertheless, it is still a male-dominated society.

Buddhist scriptures
Though the historical Buddha did not leave written scriptures, his disciples and followers compiled in later years huge scriptures, which were translated into Chinese mostly by Chinese priests Hsuang-Chuang (600-664) in the 7th century, and later they were introduced into Japan. As a Martin Luther was not born in this country, all scriptures available in Japan remain in Chinese. In other words, those scriptures are all written in Chinese characters, and lay people cannot decipher them at all. Unlike Christianity, there is no single and easy-to-read sacred book like the Bible. Buddhist priests recite sutras written in Chinese whenever religious services in such a occasion as funeral are performed. Again, lay people are unable to understand what they are shouting about. Chanting in deep undulating rhythms and unison continues for hours, and occasionally, wooden gong is struck in accompaniment. They are far from the hymns. Teaching of sutras is not important in this case. Emphasis is rather placed on the magical powers by chanting them. The only words we can hear out are "Nam-ahmy-dab't" (Jodo and Jodo Shin sect) and "Nam Myo Hoh Ren Gek' kyo" (Nichiren sect), both be heard at the end of long chanting just like "Amen". 'Nam' means to embrace the Buddhist faith and 'Amy dub't' Amitabha. You can here how chanting sutra sounds by opening the official site of Toji in Kyoto.
A statue of Hsuang-Chuang at Yakushiji in Nara.

Apart from those formula-chanting, the most popular sutra often memorized by lay Buddhists will be Han'nya Shingyo (Heart Sutra), which is composed of only 262 Chinese characters. However, few can understand what these words really mean. According to reference books on this sutra, it expounds the doctrine of emptiness or selflessness. Our lust for wealth, fame, love, etc. expands endlessly and never be satisfied and what we come to conclusion is the emptiness, free of greed and worldly attachments. You can hear Han'nya Shingyo sutra here at Shofukuji's website in Wakayama Prefecture.

Sect and sub-sect
There are 13 sects in Japanese Buddhism and nearly 100 sub-sects. According to the government statistics, there are 86,000 religious institutions nationwide with the breakdown of: Jodo including Jodo Shin; 30,000, Zen; 21,000, Shingon; 15,000, Nichiren; 14,000, Tendai; 5,000. For your reference, Christian institutions count 7,800.

Temple structures
A typical temple used to have seven structures in its compounds called Shichido Garan, (shichi denotes seven). Except for big and famous temples, however, rarely do today's temples have a complete set of Shichido Garan. It consists of:

In case of Zen temples, they have different naming as follows:

Prayer in Buddhist way
When worshipers say a prayer before the object of worship, they clasp their hands and bow with a string of beads or a Buddhist rosary called Juzu {jew-zoo} in their hands. Beads are made of rock crystal, seeds of lotus or Bodhi trees, and count 27, 54, 108 or 1,080. Juzu is also used as a tool to count when they say a prayer continuously. At the altar, incense is offered in the form of stick or powdered one. Sticks are made of sandalwood, clove tree, aloes wood, benzoin, and fixed with pine resin, while powdered incenses are of aloes wood, Japanese bead tree and barks of star anise. Burning stick-incense functions as a clock just like a sandglass. At the main hall of a temple, worshipers walk up the steps, ring the bell, throw money into a box, then pray. What do other religions (except Shinto) require money upfront before you pray? Wondered an American journalist living in Japan.

Faith healing
A 42-year-old businessman in Ontario, Canada had leukemia and his doctor declared that his chance of surviving was about 15 percent. Since he was a adherent Zen Buddhist, he practiced Zazen, or sit-in meditation, through which he cured the illness and is now back to normal work. His book entitled Lotus in the Fire: The healing Power of Zen, published in 1999, tells us the faith healing and the power of prayer.

Canonical dress for priests
In Theravada Buddhist countries, priests can be identified by their shaved heads and saffron cassocks made of unsewn cotton, but in Japan, they wear colored and sawn, kimono-type clothes. The colors are from the highest rank; purple, scarlet, blue, green and white in the traditional sects. Black one we often see is informal and casual. A rectangular cloth putting on from left shoulder to under the right arm is called Kesa {keh-sah} (Kasaya in Skt.) and it is the canonical cloth priests wear only when they are in service like the surplice worn by clergymen. Kesa can choose from any color except blue, yellow, red, white and black. What color they pick up depends on which sect they belong. There is a common saying in Japan "Hate a priest and you will hate his very kesa", meaning "Love me, love my dog."

Funeral Buddhism
Danielle Steeles' Silent Honor, which evokes anew memories of the Japanese Americans interned in Manzaner, California during World War II, depicted a scene that a Buddhist priest undertook a wedding ceremony between a Japanese girl form Kyoto and a Caucasian American. However, Japanese Buddhist priests are rarely engaged in weddings. As is often termed the Funeral Buddhism, they are mostly associated with the funeral service. For the most of Japanese, it is only at their death when they need the temples' help. If some one died today, for instance, his or her spouse would report to the city office with doctor's death certificate. If he or she does not have a particular religion as most of the Japanese do not, next thing the spouse would do is to call a nearby undertaker. Funeral service is getting increasingly prosperous these days and thought to be one of the blue chip industry with a rapidly aging population. Consequently, the number of funeral homes are growing. The undertaker would immediately start to arrange a funeral ceremony for the departed and the bereaved family, and contact a temple to provide the survived family with a priest for the requiem mass. The priest serves as the master of the ceremony chanting sutra, the Japanese version of "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" before the coffin. It usually ends within an hour (the longer the service, the more expensive), and then the body would be carried to a crematory. In Japan, cremation is compulsory under law. (The story of Romeo and Juliet would have been different if Shakespeare had lived in a country where cremation was mandatory.) Priest's service so far does not cost much. The expensive fee or the main source of income for the temple is the posthumous Buddhist name they give to the departed. Fee for the naming varies depending on whether one chooses a higher or a lower name in ranks. A survey made by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in 1996 revealed that the average total cost for a funeral including the posthumous name was more than 4 million yen, paying 1.6 million yen to the funeral home and 640,000 yen to the temple, of which 400,000 yen was for the posthumous name. We can't die cheap in this country, and money is a good master key even after we are dead. In addition, expensive is the cemetery plot, which is about 2.5 million yen on average in Tokyo, maintenance and regular memorial service included. Packed into territory the size of California, Japanese are suffering the scarcity of not only living spaces but also graveyard. Middle and low income classes can no longer afford expensive funerals. A growing number of people, therefore, are wishing that their ashes be scattered in nature rather than the conventional burials. The problem is worsened by the common practice of burying only first-born son in their family grave. Their brothers and sisters have to find out new grave somewhere else. Worse still, temples do not offer graveyard to singles, childless couples or divorced in fear that there would be no relatives to take care of the dead and to pay the maintenance fees after their death.

A movie"Okuribito" (Departure), an undertaker's story released in 2008, which won Oscar Best Foreign Language Film in 2009, shows exactly how Japanese are treated when they die, and what the funeral service is like.

The practice of funerals and cemetery burials under current Buddhism have rather recent origins. Back in late Edo Period (1603-1868), the Tokugawa Shogunate introduced a parishioner system called danka in an attempt to oppress Christians. It required that every person register at a temple and the temple took charge of funeral mass and other religious services for all those parishioners. They make monetary offerings for the services. Thus, temples were financially well maintained generation after generation. Back then, temples were powerful enough to control parishioners by threatening them to oust if they didn't follow temple's instructions.

Meiji Imperial Restoration in 1868, however, changed the power of balance among the religions, and Shinto took its place as the state religion. Faced with anti-Buddhist movements, temples lost many parishioners as well as precious cult objects. It was the time when a number of important cultural properties related to Buddhism such as sculptures and paintings are sold cheap overseas. Agricultural land reform after World War II further worsened temples' position as they lost their land property, and the temples' fortune waned.

Rich Temples, Poor Temples
HinataMHaToday, most people are getting increasingly indifferent to religion, or getting even atheistic. The less religious the people, the smaller the temples' incomes are likely to be. Famous temples with historic treasures such as famed Buddha statues can attract tourists and charge admission fee making it a good source of income to bolster temple coffers, which is, by the way, tax-free. (Thus, another common saying is that a "priest's is an income without investment.") Religious institutions do not need to file a tax return. The world famous Kiyomizu-dera, Kinkakuji and Ryoanji in Kyoto, among others, are big money-making machines having thousands of visitors every day, each paying an admission of 400 to 500 yen. Kinkakuji is a case in point. Adjacent to it was a five-story hotel, which decided to discontinue business at the end of 2001, and put the property including the land on sale. Kinkakuji was the first to bid, and bought out the property with 6,700-square-meter- land for 2 billion yen to keep others from constructing a similar building.

At some point in the summer of 1985, the mayor of Kyoto planned to impose a tax on the admission of 40 major temples to improve the city's deficit-ridden budget. The named temples fiercely opposed the plan citing as a reason that such a taxation might be against freedom of religion. The fact was, however, that they feared the admission revenues would have to be disclosed once the tax was imposed and would reveal how rich they are. They suddenly closed the doors to all visitors in concert. It was like labor unions going on walkout against management after bargaining failed. The mayor finally gave in, and was forced to withdraw the plan. Never again has Kyoto City tried to impose tax on them since then despite the fact that the City's coffers are almost empty like California, and is said to end up with a deficit of 36.6 billion yen for the year ending March 2011. If left as it is, the City will be on the verge of bankruptcy and may have to file for the Japanese version of Chapter 11. The City would very much like to make rich temples' income taxable.

Those rich temples are prosperous as well as powerful, and more of a tourist attraction than religious institution as some analysts say "Religion is one of the biggest service industries." All their structures are always maintained beautifully to suit sightseers taste. But, the temples are awfully crowded with tourists and you may be somehow disappointed at the congestion. Temples and shrines need to be quiet. If you want to enjoy real Kyoto atmosphere, I suggest you visit other great temples such as Tofukuji, Sen-nyuji, Ken-ninji, Chi-on-in, Nanzenji, Shokokuji, etc., all of which are less popular but far quieter.

Meanwhile in early 2000s, religious organizations desperately sought ways to protect more than 10 billion yen in cash they hold in donations from devotees. From April 1, 2002, time deposit account holders were guaranteed only up to 10 million yen each in the event of a bank failure. From April 2003, ordinary savings accounts were also excluded from full protection. According to the Asahi Shinbun, one of the largest dailies, some investment-savvy religious groups abandoned bank accounts with paltry interest rates and started moving their money into foreign bonds, securities and other financial instruments. Nishi-Honganji in Kyoto, the mother temple of the Jodo-shin Honganji-sect, diversified its investment portfolio in preparation for the change in the deposit guarantee system. The temple formed a committee consisting of economists, financial planners and others to come up with effective ways to protect the sect's portfolio.

Those who live in tax-free society such as religious institutions are likely to believe everything they do is tax-exempt, but they are wrong. In February 2011, chief priest of famous Shokokuji above, a Rinzai Zen sect, was charged by National Tax Agency with tax evasion not reporting 200 million yen personal income he had earned doing calligraphy for fiver years period. Buddhist priests are usually good calligraphers, Zen Buddhists in particular, and he had been selling his works to art dealers in Tokyo for sale to the public. He thought the money he earned was tax-exempt. Pointed out by the Agency that he was evading tax, he filed a correct income statement and was forced to pay 100 million yen back tax. Shokokuji is a prestigious temple founded in 1382 by Yoshimitsu Ashikaga (1358-1408) with founding priest Muso-Soseki (1275-1351). As an excellent priest (but tax illiterate), not only is he the chief of the entire Shokokuji school of Zen sect, to which world-famous Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji belong, but also president of the Kyoto Buddhist Organization. (Note. Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) met with Sir Harry Smith Parkes (1828-1885), British Consul-General in Japan, and Michel Jules Marie Leon Roches (1809-1900), French counterpart, in February 1868 at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. It was a historic event in Japan's history. Never before had any emperors met with foreign representatives. At the time, Roches and his group stayed at Shokokji, which was handsome enough to accommodate important foreign guests.)

Here goes another example. Kofukuji in Nara, which is on the World Heritage List, exhibited its Ashura and other related statues at Tokyo and Kyushu National Museums in 2009. This Ashura statue was enshrined at Kofukuji by Empress Komyo (701-760) in condolence of her mother's death. Since it was fashioned 1,300 years ago and has a unique figures, the exhibitions drew more than 2 million people, an unprecedented record. Revenues may have totaled over 2 billion yen, a big success for a business. Kofukuji secured enough fund to rebuild its structures. (As a matter of fact, Kofukuji is rebuilding Central Golden Hall or Chu-kondo with a total cost of 6 billion yen. Construction started in 2010 and is scheduled to open in 2018. This wooden structure needs big trees, as big as giant sequoia in California. No such trees are available in Japan, not in North America either where old growth forests are strictly protected. Kofukuji found them in Cameroon and imported Cameroon zelkova which may have been sourced from unsustainably managed forest. Once completed in 2018, it will be a landmark of Nara.) It was obviously exhibited as an object of art, and many may have watched it out of curiosity, to whom it was a freak show. The chief priest of Kofukuji referred to it in his lecture presented in April 2010 for NHK (Japan's primary public broadcasting network) radio, of which title was "Prayer and Heart". He said that the exhibitions gave many viewers a big chance to appreciate the beauty of the Ashura and at the same time helped create people's interest in Buddhism. However, there are some temples in Kamakura and probably anywhere else that expressly say "Buddha-related statues are object of worship, not for appreciation. The faithless are not permitted to enter". Really religious people may criticize Kofukji earning billions of yen by using Ashura as a business tool. I asked the chief priest of Kofukuji by e-mail, introducing the case of religious temples in Kamakura, if it might be against Buddhist teachings to put sacred Buddha-related statues on show. Several days later, Kofukuji answered my question on behalf of the chief priest as follows: QUOTE. Your comment that many people watched the statue out of curiosity is totally incorrect. The vast majority mast have felt in the face of the statue that they are themselves in the midst of dreadful scene and moved with deep emotion. Ashura in Buddhist world realized how empty it is to fight a battle. The Ashura statue is the embodiment of the truth and ethic in Buddhism and has a strong power to lead viewers to inner reflection. The exhibition last year gave a chance to a host of ordinary people to feel it. I never thought I'm exposing Buddha related statues to people's curiosity, nor do I think it is against Buddha's teachings. Rather, I warn you that you are treating people with derision. UNQUOTE. My question seems to have angered the priest, but some say he is an ambitious CEO of Kofukuji Co., Ltd.

Meanwhile, chief priest Hoin Takada (1940-) of Yakushiji, a neighbor and sister temple of Kofukuji, made a notable comment in his recent book Study Buddha and Know How to Live Without Being Obsessed, published shortly after the March 11, 2011 earthquake, which hit the Pacific Coast of north-east Japan followed by deadly tsunami. He said that Japanese Buddhism before the quake was mammonish. Referring to Yaushiji, it may remind the elderly in Japan of the 124th chief priest Koin Takada (1924-1998). Nara is the mecca for middle and high school students to visit on a school trip. When Priest Koin Takada assumed vice chief position in 1949, he started talking to those young visitors about Buddhism in an easy-to-understand manner filled with humor, which made him a famous priest in Nara. He is said to have spoken to over 5 million students. Gradually he gained in popularity and began to appear on TV show. His gentle and sincere speech with humor keeping a smile made him a popular TV personality in the 1990s. In his tenure as the chief priest, he made 800 lecture presentations across the country. Another achievement he made was to promote lay Buddhists to transcribe sutra called shakyo, usually han-nya shingyo made of 262 Chinese characters, for which he asked them to donate 1,000 yen per person. A great number of volunteers joined this program. Through these actions, Yakushiji saved money little by little. Many of the structures we see today at Yakushiji were constructed or rebuilt as a result of his untiring efforts for decades, whereas Kofukuji made a vast fortune in a month or two. (Yakushiji's spiritual contribution to the afflicted people in the disaster areas is just great. Eleven priests of the temple have frequently been visiting from place to place in Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate to help them mentally. They know they can do nothing physically. Instead, they thought they would be of help through listening attentively to many people in distress. At the same time, they recommended them to make shakyo. While writing the 262 letters, they concentrate on it and forget about the disaster. Those priests played a important role to liberate them from suffering, and are far better psychiatrists than famous shrinks. Yukushiji hosted a memorial ceremony on March 11, 2013, the second anniversary of the quake and tsunami, at the main hall of the temple, where more than 10,000 sheets of paper transcribed by them were placed on the altar. )

There are quite a few examples of rich temples. At the other end are many poor temples in rural areas, where the younger generations are leaving for metropolitan Tokyo or Osaka to get jobs. With fewer people, it is difficult for those temples to get by. Local governments cannot help them with tax-payers' money under the Constitution, which prohibit governments from supporting specific religions. Some already losing resident priests. I covered nearly 60 temples in this website, and there are temples which are financially poor but rich with valuable Buddha-related assets. A case in point is Hinata Yakushi (picture: above, right) in Isehara city, Kanagawa. It has more than a dozen ICAs but its main hall looks shabby and is desperately in need of repair.

The Eighty-Eight-Temple Pilgrimage
zentujiJapan's most famous Buddhist pilgrimage is a 1,400 km circuit around the Shikoku island, visiting 88 temples, all of which are said to have been founded by Priest Kukai. He was born in Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku and performed ascetic training in various places of the island. In ancient days when there were no means of transportation, pilgrims had to visit those temples on foot. It took them 40-50 days to complete full round of pilgrimage. It is the Japanese version of the Camino de Santiago pilgrim routes stretching across Europe and coming to the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain. The most popular route is said to stretches 780 km and the longest one 1,500 km.

The pilgrimage created a boom these days among many people, young and old, retirees in particular, to pray for the repose of or to mourn the departed family members. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the temples a year. Most, though, use cars, buses, trains. Even bus tours are available. Still today, however, really religious people make this pilgrimage on foot. It's tough to walk 1,400 km up and down the hills under any weather conditions. A friend of mine (a retiree) trekked along this entire route visiting all 88 temples in 51 days, which means he walked 27.5 km every day, rain or shine. Now, he is planning to challenge the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage at age over 75.

Formally, they wear a white coat and walk with a cane. However, all of them are not always walking pilgrims. I once witnessed a group of seven or so who apparently were pilgrims clad with white coats and chanting Hannya-shingyo sutra in unison at the main hall in one of the 88 temples, but found them getting on a mini bus at the temple's parking lot.

After prayer at the Daishi and Main Hall, pilgrims go to the temple's office, where a calligrapher-like person will stamp a red seal on a notebook specifically made for pilgrims, and write a few Sanskrit letters with ink brush in certification of the visit. Pilgrims have to pay at least 300 yen. By virtue of this boom, temples in Shikoku designated in one of these 88 are quite rich, all having gorgeous structures. Most of the temples are naturally Shingon Sect, but four Tendai, three Zen and one Ji sects are included.
Picture above is Zentsuji in Kagawa Prefecture, one of the 88 temples.

Swastika is nothing but a temple's symbol mark
You may see swastikas-like emblems in Japanese maps and signboards, but don't be surprised. The Swastika, the emblem of Nazi Germany, is a cross with the ends of the arms bent in a clockwise direction, while this one's arms bent in a counterclockwise direction. In Japan, it is a symbol to mark the site of temples on maps and has nothing to do with Nazi. In India under Hinduism, it is was a symbol of the whole universe. The very word  su-asti-ka means: the mark (tika) of all that is (asti) good (su)., and therefore, Nazi's swastika is fake. North American Indians also knew the swastika as a power symbol. Eimskipafelag Islands (The Iceland Steamship Company) used a pale blue swastika as its insignia until it changed the name to Eimskip.

(Updated June 2013)