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This is the only temple in Kamakura that belongs to the Shingon Ritsu sect. Founding priest Ninsho (1217-1303) is well known for his devotion to philanthropic activities throughout his career. He was born in Nara Prefecture. At the age of 13, he was already a vegetarian honoring one of the Five Buddhist Commandments and studied Shingon Ritsu Buddhism at Saidaiji in Nara. In 1252, he came down to Ibaraki Prefecture to propagate Shingon Ritsu doctrines in the Kanto region. At age 44 in 1261, he settled in Kamakura, where he built the open-cut path now called Gokurakuji zaka (slope), linking the western part of Kamakura to the central district. Back then, Shigetoki Hojo, the third son of the Second Regent Yoshitoki Hojo, was building his residence in this vicinity. The open-cut path greatly helped transport lumber and other building materials. Priest Ninsho's efforts led to a closer relationship between the two. He even performed invocations and prayers for Tokiyori Hojo (1227-1263), then the Fifth Hojo Regent and nephew of Shigetoki, at the time Tokiyori fell seriously sick in 1261, and also at the time Mongol troops tried to invade Japan in 1281. Through these cooperative actions for the Hojos, Priest Ninsho gradually gained their trust.

gokurakugateShigetoki Hojo had lived in Kyoto as a military commander for 18 years, and was called back to Kamakura in 1247 at the request of Tokiyori. While stationed in Kyoto, Shigetoki had already known Priest Ninsho. Moved by Priest Ninsho's preaching and his energetic activities in Kamakura, Shigetoki financially helped Priest Ninsho to build the Temple, but he had died in late 1261 shortly before the construction was completed. His sons Nagatoki (1230-1264) and Naritoki (1241-1287) continued to support the priest and the temple construction was finished in 1267. (Note the founding year was 1259.) Naturally, Priest Ninsho was named the founding priest.

Priest Ninsho never stopped his religious activities as well as civil engineering work serving the public at large for nearly four decades until his death in 1303 at age 87. He constructed hospitals and nursing homes for the sick and the poor. Records show that no fewer than 60,000 sick and poor people were treated in the 20-year period. Most distinguished among them was a sanitarium he built for those suffering from Hansen's disease. Physical deformities of the patients that result from the disease and appear on visible body parts such as fingers and faces were the cause of the extreme discrimination against the sufferers. With no cause of the disease known those days, people thought it was inheritable, and resulted in strong bias against even sufferer' blood relatives. They were ostracized and people did not want to get close to them. Even in the Old Testament, the Lord says "an open sore means a dreaded skin disease and are unclean" (Leviticus 13-15). He was the first human rights advocated Japan had ever produced.

In modern Japan, discrimination against those with the disease still continued and the government maintained a policy of isolating the patients, forcing them to stay, for example, in sanatoriums located in a small island off Takamatsu city, Kagawa Prefecture. Not until March 1996 did the government annull the law, although it was known well before World War II that the disease was curable. A group of former patients filed a lawsuit in March 1999 against the National Government demanding compensation for long-term mental anguish they claim to have suffered as a result of the government's discriminatory policy. In May 2001, the District Court in Kumamoto ruled that the policy was illegal and ordered the state to compensate the former patients, nearly 4,500, followed by Prime Minister Koizumi's official apology to them.

Seeing those patients in predicament, Priest Ninsho took the initiative in rescuing them. A large stone pestle and mortar standing today near the Temple's main hall are reminiscent of old days. They were used to grind herbal medicine for the sick. In addition to the medical practice, he undertook civil engineering such as road and bridge construction. To be specific, he built 83 temples, 189 bridges and 71 roads. Included among them was the aforementioned excavation of an open-cut on the hill lying just east of the Temple to connect the Gokurakuji district to central Kamakura. With no bulldozer, no truck, no power machines available, it must have been a tremendously hard work.

After his demise, Emperor Godaigo (1288-1339) conferred him in 1328 with a title of Bosatsu (Bodhisattva in Sanskrit.) in praise of his humanitarian works and virtue. People admired him as a living Bodhisattva. If he were living today, he might well have been Japanese Mother Teresa or a Japanese Good Samaritan. Some criticized him, however, like Priest Nichiren, the founder of Nichiren sect Buddhism, pointing out that Priest Ninsho was too close to the Hojo regime and hunting for concessions. There was constant antagonism between the two religious leaders. Priest Ninsho asserted that Buddhist priests should take actions for the sick, the poor and the weak rather than delivering sermons at street corners. "A Buddhist should be a man of deeds, not a man of words" was his philosophy.

(Note: With regard to discriminations, the issue of Buraku (boo-rak) has to be mentioned, which is secretly ongoing in today's Japanese society and few foreigners know about. Simply because one's or one's ancestors are from the specific villages or towns hinting Buraku, their employment and marriage, to name a few, are sometimes treated unfairly. The World Press Freedom Index released by Head of Media and Public Relations in Paris ranked Japan 61st in 2015, way behind the developed countries partly due to the fact that there are taboos in the Japanese mass media. One of them is Buraku, which is too sensible to report and they rarely cover it in fear of losing readership. One more recent example. Diplomatic relationships between Japan and Korea are at odds for quite some time and the main contentious issue is the comfort women (also referred to as sex slaves) before the War or August 1945. Asked about it in a press conference of February 2015, the new president of NHK (Japan's national public broadcasting organization), who was appointed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said "With the official view of the government not available yet, NHK would not report or comment on that". The Asahi Shinbun, a major daily, criticized him in its editorial. The mass media claim loudly the "right-to-know", but seem to be forgetting the "obligation to report".)

According to an ancient sketch map, the Temple had at its heyday a huge complex. About 800 by 900-meter-area was originally within the confines of the Temple. In the compounds were seven main buildings and as many as 49 sub-temples. Together with Saidaiji in Nara, the Temple was the headquarters of Shingon Ritsu sect covering eastern Japan. Unfortunately, however, the warfare in 1333 when Yoshisada Nitta (1302-1338) attacked Kamakura and brought the collapse of the Hojo regime, ruined most structures of the Temple since the district turned fierce battleground. (See History). Although the complex was restored afterwards to some extent, the Temple was no longer able to obtain such a powerful patronage as had been given by the Hojos. Fires in 1425 and 1572, and earthquakes in 1433 wreaked havoc on them. In the late 16th century, there were reportedly only four structures.

Most of the current structures were reconstructed after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. The size of present temple premises measures only 5,000 square meters or so. The playground of Inamuragasaki Elementary School lying due north of the Temple was part of the ancient Gokurakuji premises, to mention just principal ones. Nevertheless, the Temple keeps many valuable statues and Buddhist fittings.

Sanmon Gate
The Sanmon Gate with thatched roof, made in 1863, stands just behind the Gokurakuji Station of the Street Car Named Enoden {eh-NO-den}. A notice written in Japanese at the gate reads that only worshipers may enter. The 100 meters or so long paved path leading to the main hall are lined with cherry trees (picture; below) and beautiful in late March to early April as they are in full bloom.

Main hall
Straight ahead of the cherry-lined path is the main hall, wherein is enshrined a 98-centimeter-tall wooden, sedentary statue of Fudo-myo-o (Acala-vidyaraja in Skt.) or the Immovable, made in the late 12th century. It used to be the main object of worship in a temple in Shimane Prefecture, but was brought here in 1926. He holds a sword in his right hand and a rope in his left. His teeth are bared and eyes glare angrily, standing threateningly in order to destroy the devils who try to do harm to the Lord Buddha's teaching.
A statue of Fudo-myo-o at NNM.

The Fudo-myo-o statue is flanked by a statue of Yakushi Nyorai (Bhaisajyaguru vaiduryaprabha in Skt.) at its left and a 56-centimeter-tall wooden, sedentary statue of Monju (Manjusri in Skt.) Bosatsu, known as the Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Intellect, at its right. It is believed to have been carved in the latter half of 13th century, most probably in 1273, and reflects influence of the Sung style sculpture in China.
A Yakushi Nyorai statue at e-Museum.

Also enshrined in the hall are the following statues of leading priests of the Temple:

Unlike the case of Zen priests, these statues do not sit on chairs but sit directly on the floor with their clothes skirts draping out both sides and each holding a Buddhist flapper.

Treasure Hall (Tenborin-den)
In the foreground of the main hall and to your right is a mini-museum called "Tenborin-den", built in 1968, where dozens of ancient statues, Buddhist fittings used in religious rituals and services are exhibited. When I visited here on a weekend of June 1997, the entrance door was locked. I went to the temple office at the left side of the foreground where there was a notice telling that the museum would be open upon request. I told the receptionist that I would like to see the exhibits. A woman came out of a door behind the receptionist and she led me into the museum. At the entrance, I paid 300 yen and took my shoes off. At the right-hand corner of the display is a sedentary statue of Shaka (Sakyamuni in Skt.) Nyorai measuring 91 centimeters tall, believed to have been made in the latter half of the 13th century. It is an ICA. Take a look at the Nyorai's left hand and you will find its palm turned outward in front of chest. The Lord Buddha's statues have various hand positions. This one here is called "Tenborin (Dharma-cakra-pravartana in Skt.) style", and the namesake of Tenborin-den (hall). The Lord Buddha showed this style at his very first preaching.
A Nyorai statue in Tenborin style at TNM.

Also on display are statues of the following Ten Great Disciples of Shaka, the Buddhist counterpart of the Apostles, who were engaged in the missionary works after the demise of the Lord Buddha:

Daikasho (Mahakasyapa in Skt.), Anaritsu (Aniruddha), Furuna (Purna), Kasen'nen (Katyayana), Ubari (Upali), Ragora (Rahula), Sharihotsu (Sariputra), Mokukenren (Mhamaudgalyayana), Ananda (Ananda), Shubodai (Subhuti). All were devout disciples and It seems that there was no disciple like Judas Iscariot.

Those Ten Great Disciple statues measures 83 to 87 centimeters tall, and some of them were carved in as early as 1269. Their faces are like real human beings and as if to show that they have endured every kind of austere disciplines. All of these statues are ICAs.

The main object of worship and the masterpiece owned by the Temple is, however, enclosed in the feretory placed in the center of this hall. Enshrined inside the feretory is the famous statue of Shaka Nyorai, or Sakyamuni in Sanskrit, an ICA, fashioned circa 1268. Originally, it was dedicated by Priest Ninsho in 1297. The 158-centimeter-tall statue is called Seiryoji {say-ryo-gee} style ( Seiryoji is a Jodo sect temple in Kyoto) and unique in that its canonical dress covers up to the neck and its hair is like rope-tied. Regrettably, occasional visitors are not permitted to view it. It is unveiled only once a year on April 7, 8, and 9 around Shaka's birthday. (In Japan, Shaka is believed to have been born on April 8). The Seiryoji Shaka Nyorai statue at e-Museum.

Buddhists' ritual-objects characteristic of Shingon Ritsu are also on view. The Shingon Ritsu is an offshoot of the Shingon Sect, and is called Esoteric Buddhism with its elaborates manner of incantations and prayers, which are not specified in any sutra and are secretly inherited generation after generation. Ritual objects used by the priests of Esoteric Buddhism are grouped into three categories: Weapons to destroy human lusts and desires, objects to make sounds for awakening for the seed of enlightenment, and objects for burning whereby purifications are conducted. On display here are weapons called Dokkyosho or single-pronged pestle and Gokosho, or five-pronged pestle. Also exhibited is a ritual bell with a single-pronged handle called Tokkorei. All three are roughly 20 centimeters long and were made during the Kamakura Period. Naturally, they are ICAs.
A picture of Dokkyosho and Gokosho at NNM. Various Buddhist fittings can be seen at KNM.

Daishi-do Hall
Halfway through the paved road leading to the main hall and on the east side is the Daishi-do sub-temple dedicated to Priest Kobo (774- 835), a.k.a. Kukai, the founding father of the Shingon sect The Shingon Ritsu sect was derived from the Shingon Sect. Enshrined inside the hall is a lacquered statue of this great priest.

Also enshrined in this Daishi-do is a statue of Nyoirin Kan'non or Cintamani-cakra in Skt., which ranks 22nd of the Kamakura Thirty-Three Kan'non Pilgrimage. Legend asserts that it was owned by Lady Tokiwa (date of birth and death unknown), mother of Yoshitsune Minamoto (1159-1189), as her guardian deity.
A statue of Nyoirin Kan'non at NNM.

Gorinto and Hokyo-into
About 300 meters north-northwest of the Temple over Inamuragasaki Elementary School is a clearing where huge Gorinto and Hokyo-into are standing. The Gorinto measures 355 centimeters in height, the tallest of its kind in the Kanto region (Tokyo and its outskirts prefectures) and is also called Ninsho-toh since it was built in commemoration of Priest Ninsho.

The 310-centimeter-tall Hokyo-into is said to be the tomb of Shigetoki Hojo, the founder of the Temple. Only Shingon sect Buddhists makes such a big stone cenotaph or tomb. In addition, those up here are made of andesite which is far harder than tuff. Since neither andesite nor sculptors for such hard rocks were available in Kamakura, the raw rocks are believed to have been brought from the Izu Peninsula and sculptors from Nara. This backyard is open to the public only on April 8, Shaka's birthday.

As of April 2010, the Teasure Hall is open only occasionally on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday during one month period starting April 25 and October 25. Admission: 300 yen.

The Temple popularity partly owes to a Kabuki play entitled "Shiranami Gonin Otoko", or 'Five Thieves', one of the most popular numbers in Kabuki repertoires. A scene where five thieves line up on the stage and each delivers seven-five-syllable messages to introduce themselves, which are rhythmical and beautiful. In the end, however, Benten-Kozo, one of the five, commits seppuku suicide on top of the Temple's roof. A woodblock print of Nippondaemon (kabuki player), one of the Five Thieves, at MFA.

Unique apricot flower near the Treasure hall is an old Japanese apricot tree or ume which is unique in that blossoms bear single and double petals on the same stalk. Incidentally, Gokuraku means "paradise" in Japanese, and therefore, Gokurakuji Temple can be called the Temple of Paradise.

Taking pictures inside the Temple is strictly prohibited. (The picture above was taken at the gate of the Temple)

Kanagawa University has a program called "Lifelong Learning Initiatives" and offers local peaple chances to learn culure, literature, businesses, language, etc. just like those of Tsurumi University at Sojiji. Anybody can take part for a small fee. In early 2015, I apllied for one of them: Heaven and Hell in Buddhism. The lecturer was Prof. Masumi Shimizu of Aoyama Gakuin Women's Junior College with a Ph.D in Literature, and expert on temples and shrines in Japan. In one of its eight 90-minute lectures, she picked up "Gokurakuji in Kamakura". (Meantime, "Gokuraku" of "Gokurakuji" means Heaven in Japanese.) Referring to the Seiryoji style statue, she told us the following fact that I never knew before: When the original statue in Seiryoji was investigated in 1953 by the Cultural Agnecy to decide if it really deserve to be a National Treasure, they found five pieces of paperbag- like objects inside the statue, which were supposed to show internal organs, or lung, heart, liver, spleen and kidney. The statue was fashioned in China and brought to Japan in 985. Buddhists at the time had already had an anatomical knowledge of human body. It is thought to be the world's oldest homunculus.

(Updated February 2015)