The Temple was erected at the end of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) by Do-un Nikaido (1267-1334), a high-ranking and intelligent military commander of the Kamakura Shogunate, naming Priest Muso as the founding priest.
Entering the Muromachi Period (1336-1573), the Temple continued to receive patronage from the Ashikaga family, who controlled the Muromachi Shogunate. In fact, the Temple once had a sub-temple for mother of Takauji Ashikaga (1305-1358), the founder of Muromachi Shogunate. The Temple was so closely associated with the family that remains of four Kamakura Governors and other members of the Ashikaga family were buried here.
Founding priest Muso-Soseki was born in Ise, Mie Prefecture. As a Zen priest, he came to Kamakura in 1295 at age 20. After studying Zen further in Kyoto, he came back to Kamakura in 1299 at the invitation of
Takatoki Hojo (1303-1333), the 14th Regent, and joined Kenchoji.
In 1327, he was enrolled in Jochiji, while helping Nikaido to found the Temple. Engakuji nominated him to be its 15th chief priest. Obai-in sub-temple in Engakuji was built solely for him, where he educated quite a few young priests, and later they were called Muso-school priests. So influential they were that it was no exaggeration to say their dogma was the mainstream of Zen Buddhism in the Muromachi Period.
In addition to Zen, Priest Muso also had an excellent talent as a garden designer. Famous gardens designed by him include those of Saihoji, a.k.a. the Moss Temple, and Tenryuji in Kyoto. Most notable among the temples he founded will probably be the
world-famous Ryoanji, and Rokuonji, generally known as Kinkakuji (Gold Pavilion) in Kyoto. (Picture above
shows the back yard garden of the Temple.)
One of Priest Muso's disciple was a priest by the name of Gido-Shusin (1325-1388), who once lived in the Temple, though mostly active in Kyoto serving Yoshimitsu Ashikaga (1358-1408), the Third Ashikaga Shogun, as a Zen master. When Yoshimitsu and Ujimitsu Ashikaga (1359-1398), the Second Kamakura Governor, were on the verge of crash, the Priest Gido stepped in as a mediator and settled the dispute amicably. Priest Gido was once chief priest of Kenninnji and Nanzenji in Kyoto.
In its golden days, the Temple had more than 10 sub-temples. In the late Muromachi Period, however, the Temple's fortune began to wane with no specific patrons or sponsors. Engakuji helped the Temple in the Edo Period (1603-1868) sending chief priests from time to time. Mitsukuni Tokugawa (1628-1700), one of the most powerful and well-known members of the Tokugawa family, often came to Kamakura, and donated a wooden statue of Senju (One-Thousand Armed) Kan'non, or Sahasrabhuja in Skt, which is now enshrined in the main hall.
Main Hall (Picture, right)
Rebuilt in 1935, it is a typical Zen style structure called Hogyo zukuri with its roofs curved upward and rafters spread radially. On top of the roof is a peach-shaped Hoju, or mani in Skt. A similar structure is also seen at the main hall of Tokeiji.
Enshrined in the center as the main object of worship is a statue of Shaka Nyorai (Sakyamuni in Sanskrit), and that of Senju Kan'non at its right. Also enshrined at the left of the Shaka statue is that of Priest Muso. All are rather small, perhaps less than 1 meter tall.
Senju Kan'non is listed as the sixth of the Kamakura Thirty-Three Kan'non Pilgrimage.
A statue of Shaka Nyorai at TNM, and a panel of Senju Kan'non at MFA.
A small structure standing at the left of the main hall is Kaisando, or the hall for the founding priest. It is now a repository for the valuable assets and the following statues are preserved:
Unfortunately, the Kaisando hall is not open to the public.
Dokomoku Jizo (Picture, below)
Next to the Kaisando Hall stands a small hall, in which a statue of Jizo Bosatsu, or Ksitigarbha-bodhisattva in Skt. is enshrined. It was fashioned during the latter half of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), and was first installed at another Zen temple called Chiganji (no longer exists) located at Ogigayastu, northwestern part of Kamakura. When Chiganji was financially drained to the extent of dilapidation, a caretakers of the statue tried to run away. But a Jizo Bosatsu appeared in his dream one night and told him, "No matter where you may go, there would be no change." Following the divine suggestion, the caretaker stayed at the temple and continued to take care of the statue all the rest of his life. This is a story told probably in the Edo Period. Without any financial support from parishioners or other institutions, many temples had to make ends meet selling temple assets such as Buddha statues and bells, and some of them were forced to just disappear. Dokomo means everywhere implying the condition will remain unchanged no matter where you may choose to go. The statue was relocated here in 1916.
Garden (Picture; top)
Behind the main hall lies the garden Priest Muso designed. It was restored to its original condition after the excavation in 1969 and 1970, with the help of the ancient blueprint. It has a 36-square-meter space with a pond in the center. Unlike the gardens of other Zen temples, this one uses no stones. Though visitors are not permitted to go into the garden, a bridge spanning the pond leads up to the top of a hill where a pavilion called "Henkai Ichirantei" is located near the overhanging cliff. This was the spot Priest
Muso loved to visit and many of his disciples gathered to study Buddhism.
Surrounded three sides with mountains, Ichirantei command a beautiful view of Mt. Fuji to
the west. On September 30, the day Priest
Muso passed away, the sun is said to set
right on top of the mountain.
Relatively new made in 1965, the bell was cast by Masahiko Katori (1899-1988), and its reverberation is said to continue to sound for a minute and a half. He was a Living National Treasure designated by the State Government, and known as the caster of the Peace Bell at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.
Stone Monument for Sho-in Yoshida
Near the Temple gate stands a stone monument for Sho-in Yoshida (1830-1859), one of the most influential patriot in the mid 19th century. Back at the time, Japan was under tremendous pressure from Western powers to open up the country to the world. Priest Chiku-in (1796-1867), the 25th chief priest of the Temple, was his uncle and Yoshida visited here once in a while to see him. Shortly after Commodore Matthew C. Perry (1794-1858) of the U.S. Navy came to Tokyo Bay in March, 1854 to force
Japan sign the Convention of Kanagawa, Yoshida slipped aboard USS Mississippi staying near the shore of Shimoda of Izu Peninsula in an attempt to smuggle
himself to America. Yoshida plotted the attempt with his disciple. At the
time, Dutch was most widely used foreign language since Holland was the
only Western country Japan had trades with. Few people did understand English.
Communication between Perry and Shogunate were made via Dutch. How did
Yoshida and his disciple make communications with crews of Mississippi ?
The night before the attempt, he had visited the Temple and met with the uncle. His plan, however, turned out unsuccessful. Perry turned him back. and he was imprisoned. Later, he was executed in Tokyo at age 28.
A memorial service for pictures
On the first Saturday of November every year, the Temple hosts a unique service called "Shashin Kansha Kuyo", that translates as "A thanksgiving and exorcising ritual for pictures."
Japanese people like to take pictures and have too many pictures thanks to technology developed by such companies as Fuji Film and Canon, etc. The longer we live, the more pictures we have. If we really want to keep them, all of them can be stored in computer's hard disk by using scanners. In my case, they are countless and I never saw many of them even once. Most of them needed to be disposed of, but how?
Religious people do not tolerate throwing away pictures, in particular those that their family members or close friends appear in, or treat them like rubbish or wastepaper. The Temple serves those people by burning them in a Buddhist manner.
I joined this ritual on November 5, 2005 carrying a full knapsack of pictures with me. When I arrived at the Temple shortly after noon, some 50 people were already waiting for their turn in a queue at a corner of the Temple's grounds. At the reception, each participant was paying a 1,000 yen bill. I followed suit. They brought so many pictures that my turn didn't come soon. I had to wait for more than half an hour.
There was a fireplace like a frying-pan in the center of the ritual place and fire was blazing up. Three, four people in a circle were tossing their pictures into the fireplace, while a priest was chanting a sutra in front of them. Some time the priest offered incense sticks. Temple's staff were around the fireplace and stirring up pictures in the fireplace to help them burn, shouting "Toss in four, five sheets one time, Otherwise, they don't burn."
An old woman next to me with a cane was tossing her pictures. She was looking at them one by one before tossing. Faded pictures seemed to show her dear husband and family members. She looked as if she had been saying good-by to them.
Ashes of burned pictures were carried to the other side of the ritual place and buried respectfully in the ground. According to a local newspaper, some 400 people join the service every year, some from as far as Hokkaido.
A number of beautiful flowers can be viewed in the Temple and it earned for the Zuisenji the name of "The flower temple of Kamakura." Most remarkable among them may be plum blossom and narcissus. Plum trees are planted in a garden spreading right behind the entrance. Listed below are flowers in bloom by month:
Early to mid January: Japanese allspice or Chimonanthus praecox, Yellow plum or Jasminum nudiflorum (a Precious Natural Product designated by the city of Kamakura
Early January to mid February: Narcissus or Narcissus tazetta
Late January to early March: Japanese apricot or Prunus mume
Mid February: Amur adonis or Adonis amurensis
Mid February to early March: Daphne or Daphne odora and Cornus officinalis Japanese rose or camellia
Mid to late April: Japanese rose or Kerria japonica
Mid April to Early May: Shaga (fringed iris or Iris japonica)
Late April: Peony or Paeonia suffruticosa
Early May: Styrax obassia
Early to mid May: Wisteria or Wisteria floribunda
June: Hydrangea or Hydrangea macrophylla
Mid July to late August: Chinese bellflower or Platycodon grandiflorum
Mid August to early September: Indian lilac or Lagerstroemia indica
Late August to mid September: Cotton rose or Hibiscus mutabilis
Mid September: Cluster-amaryllis or Lycoris radiata
Mid September to early October: Bush clover or Lespedeza bicolor
Late October to early November: Winter cherry (a Precious Natural Products designated by the city of Kamakura)
Mid November to early December: Japanese maple or Acer palmatum
Mid November to mid December: Sasanqua or Camellia sasanqua.
(Updated June 2010)