It was a very tough winter for the priests working at Keishin-in temple on the top of Shichimensan. There was so much heavy snow that it snapped the utility poles. Repairs couldn’t be done until the spring. Chief Priest Kochi Uchino described the scene. “We were without power and pumps for running water. All we could do was scoop up the snow and melt it over the wood fire. We had never experienced anything like it.”
Nothing in recent memory prepared them for an endless string of natural calamities: unusually heavy snow, multiple typhoons passing directly over the mountain, torrential rains washing out huge swaths of the upper trail, the main path to Keishin-in temple for pilgrims and supplies, a holy mountain for Nichiren Buddhists with a history dating back more than 800 years and roots as a holy place of practice for wandering Shugendo mystics.
It seemed like cruel irony, all this after the Edo era Keishin-in main hall had undergone a long restoration, 100 years of grime and soot were carefully removed with new gold leaf applied so that the main altar enshrining a statue of the protective goddess Shichimen glittered again in the dim light. There was also a magnificent new painted ceiling. The old soot covered painted ceiling with its protective Dragon dating from 1802 was carefully removed. Each 4 meter board was wrapped and taken down the mountain to a safe warehouse in the Kuonji temple compound in Minobu, where plans were made to do something with it eventually.
The calamities continued. The popular Monk’s Race Trail Run was cancelled due to the washed out roads, then washed out trails, then nearly undone by the COVID pandemic. But the faithful pilgrims who continued to climb told Uchino, “You should not have removed the old Dragon ceiling, it was a ‘kekkai’ protecting the mountain.”
Kekkai is a tricky word to translate from Japanese into English. It originally comes from Shinto, as do all esoteric Japanese Buddhist practices do from Shingon to Tendai. Some of the Tendai esoteric lineage can still been seen in Nichiren Shu practices. It’s a kind of spiritual barrier, to protect or to keep ‘bad things’ out, or sometimes keep humans out. The definition of what constitutes a bad thing also varies because it depends on how humans define bad, in their very limited and selfish ways, at any given moment. Protective deities see things differently. Nevertheless the old Dragon ceiling was not only protecting pilgrims and priests, it was also protecting Shichimensan.
A simpler explanation came much later from a friend who was raised in a Shinto household, “You mean to tell me the priests of Keishin-in didn’t know that? I guess the ignorance of Buddhist priests knows no bounds. The Japanese dragon is a completely different creature from the Chinese dragon, far back in Shinto lore. Priests used to know these things.”
With no respite from endless calamities Uchino thought about asking for the old ceiling back but didn’t know how to take up the subject with Kunon-ji Temple, the most important temple in Nichiren Shu. Maybe they had already made plans. Then a terrible electrical storm hit.
“It was the worst, most intense lightning storm I’ve ever experienced,” Uchino said. “Cloud to ground, bolt after bolt, dirt flying in the air. That’s when I make up my mind to call Kuonji. I was just about to dial when the phone rang. It was Kuonji…they wanted to return the old ceiling.” The carefully wrapped Dragon ceiling boards were taken out of storage and back up Shichimensan, half-way by a small wire lift, then carried by hand.
But there was no way to put it back, the new ceiling was in place. Uchino consulted with the Miya-daiku. Miya-daiku are a special breed of Japanese carpenters, shrine carpenters, the nobility of their craft. Only they know how to construct traditional wooden shrine and temple buildings in the traditional manner, without nails or other modern techniques. As chance would have it the miya-daiku had re-hung a big new main hall re-dedication sign from the left wall to the front. “The sign was mostly hidden by the big paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling on that side. We decided to move it to the front but it was a difficult job, just barely fitting.
“As luck would have it, when the old ceiling boards came back the miya-daiku pointed to the now vacant left wall and said, ‘It will fit there.'” And it did, a perfect fit, ” As Rev. Uchino explained, “the moment they finished installing the old ceiling, the weather returned to peace and quiet like somebody had pressed a button.” The kekkai Dragon ceiling was back on the job, completing a mysterious chain of events. After it was all over, having served a longer term than usual, nearly 4 years instead of the normal 3 years, he reflected on the adventure. “I don’t want to criticize the former Chief Priest but there wasn’t any thought about preserving the classic art of the Keishin-in main hall when repainting the ceiling.”
It is a very nice story, just like a lot of Nichiren Shonin legends, but they are important beyond being true or not. It’s not superstition either. Nichiren Shonin put enormous energy into teaching the power of belief. Belief in the Dharma, belief in the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, belief that Eternal Buddha is always with us and in us. I think it’s the power of belief, belief in the Dharma, belief that there is a Buddha in you, that brings people to Shichimensan where they are watched over by the Goddess Shichimen, and protected by the Dragon of the Dharma.
Special thanks to the Chief Priests of Keishin-in Temple Shichimensan for their time and special permission for taking pictures inside of the Keishin-in main hall and the Dragon wall. The pictures of the temple interior may not be shared without their permission.
The day after Christmas 2019, a priest noticed a broken temple door. Inside the hall one of the Buddhist altar statues, Many Treasures Buddha, was missing. The temple is deep in the hills of the Boso peninsula, accessed by a single narrow private road with a locked chain at the entrance. “Only the locals know about the temple,” said the caretaker priest Rev. Gensho Baba who tends the temple and the small community of some 20 temple families on a part-time basis in addition to his temple in Tokyo Edogawa ward.
He called the local police who duly recorded the crime scene and started an investigation but to date (July 2022) they have yet to find any trace of the statue or any lead at all. It’s a difficult job you see, searching for an object with only a written description to go by as there was no picture or detailed measurements of the missing statue.
An isolated temple in a remote rural area, with no resident priest, with no regular visitors, and only the most rudimentary of door locks protecting the contents are the perfect conditions for the theft of Buddhist statues and other temple treasures according to Tomoyuki Ohkouchi, associate professor of Culture Property Studies at Nara University.
“The most important thing to remember is that an antique Buddhist statue is like leaving a diamond in the open. A diamond that can be exchanged for money.” Professor Ohkohchi outlined the challenges of protecting the culture property of temples without resident priests, in isolated areas with a shrinking population.
The biggest problem is the time it takes for a theft to be discovered and reported to the police. In remote rural areas is may be days or even weeks before a caretaker visits a temple or shrine for cleaning and discovers the theft. After the police are called there is the challenge of collecting evidence, the most important being what the object looks like. There is very little police can do when they don’t have pictures and measurements of a missing statue. Unfortunately this is often the case.
In 2008 local papers in Shizuoka reported a rash of 18 thefts in remote rural temple and shrines in the upper Oi river valley. There were more. Ohkohchi explains, “Prefectural police are poorly integrated when it comes to cultural theft. In that case there were similar thefts in neighboring prefectures but no coordinated effort to pursue the thieves.” There was a similar but much larger string of temple statue thefts in Wakayama prefecture in 2015, 60 in all. Fortunately the thief was caught and some of the treasures returned.
Because of this event Professor Ohkohchi works tirelessly with local communities in Wakayama promoting simple security measures to protect sacred objects. He explains, “Temple and shrine treasures represent the cultural history of these local communities, theft not only robs the temple of a state, it also robs communities of their history and identity.” The lack of coordination and sharing of information on a national level is a big problem. The Agency for Cultural Affairs made a small step in 2018 by setting up a web site that lists stolen religious items, but there is a long way to go.
Ohkohchi’s program is a simple one: the cataloging of cultural assets by photographing and measuring them, and setting up surveillance cameras of unattended temples. For important cultural objects that are hard to protect in open temples, he promotes creating accurate replicas using 3D printer technology for altar placement while keeping originals in a safe place.
But why is this happening now and why the relatively sudden increase? Ohkohchi thinks it is due to the rise of internet auction sites like Yahoo Japan Auction, “The internet makes it easy for anyone to steal and profit.”
“Basically you have a two year statue of limitations under the law (antique goods sales law of 1949)”, he explained. If returned in the first year the owner does not have to pay anything when recovering a stolen item back from a dealer, in the second year the owner pays some costs to cover dealer losses. After that the only choice is buying it back or taking the shop/dealer to court, which can take years at enormous cost because in a court trail dealers let themselves off the legal hook saying, “I didn’t know it was stolen.”
Even during the first year it’s sometimes faster to simply purchase the item. Indeed a recent high profile case was solved when the stolen statue was offered for sale on Yahoo Auction, quickly recognized and removed. Rev. Daiun Miki of Ryuhonji temple in Kyoto explained the chain of events.
The person who did it knew the area and planned it. The hall where the statue was enshrined was the only building in the temple compound without a surveillance camera, he also knew what time the gate was opened and when nobody would be around.
He seems to have kept it for a while then sold it to a local dealer who had it professionally cleaned. The local dealer in Kyoto then sold it to a dealer in Oita prefecture (Kyushu) who then put it for sale on Yahoo Auction.
Thank goodness we had given pictures of the statue to police. If it wasn’t for that, the police can’t really do much.
Rev. Miki explained that the Kyoto Prefecture police were very cooperative and have a section well versed investigating with stolen antiques. The statue is back in its rightful place with a security camera guarding the entrance.
Professor Ohkouchi continues to work with police, communities, temples and shrines to protect and preserve local religious cultural history for future generations. “Priests and temple members should never feel embarrassed or like it’s some kind of divine punishment when a statue is stolen. It’s all about money, so protect it like you protect your money. It’s that simple.”
I had not been to Mt. Shichimen since golden week vacation 2020, during the very first COVID pandemic ‘state of emergency’. It was a surreal trip to say the least. Shinjuku station and the Chuo Expressway were completely deserted on a Saturday as I rode all alone, the only passenger on the Keio Highway bus to Minobu.
This time, golden week 2022, there were people thank goodness, at Shinjuku station, on the bus and in the highway rest areas. Even Minobu looked somewhat lively with day tourists enjoying a vacation day drive in the countryside. But there were signs of decay from two years of COVID restricted travel. A shop closed here, a vacant lot there. There were visitors, but few pilgrims. The temple inns for them (shukubo) were mostly empty at a time they should have been full.
And because they were mostly empty the staff were generous with food and drink. When I ordered a cup of sake to go along with dinner, the head priest of Chijaku-bo brought an opened sake bottle urging me to finish it off saying, “I don’t drink now and this will go to waste.” I obliged but drank far more than bargained for. I took a bath then stood outside in the cool evening air to let my head settle, listening to the sounds of the river as a crescent moon slid into a black outline of mountain peaks.
Next morning I took the early bus to the Shichimen trail base. The climb is recorded in the video. I tried to capture all 50 ‘chome’ point markers but missed a few. The video is a kind of experiment to see what works and what doesn’t in preparation of another climb to record the protective dragon legend of Mt. Shichimen. Until then…
The “Nichiren Shonin and Lotus Sutra Culture” exhibit that ran from October 2 until November 23 at the Yamanashi Prefectural Museum was one of the last Nichiren Shu events in connection with the celebration of the 800th Anniversary of Nichiren Shonin’s Birth. The exhibit is co-hosted by the Niigata Prefecture Museum of History in Nagaoka City and was on display there during July and August.
Shinji Ebinuma, Assistant Curator of Yamanashi Prefectural Museum, who is also a part-time lecturer at Minobusan University, gave me a tour and explained the importance of the items on display. The exhibit also honors the 750th anniversary of Nichiren Shonin’s Sado Exile and there were many rare, and rarely seen, pieces including many in Nichiren Shonin’s own distinctive handwriting. The most moving one for me was well preserved humble pilgrim’s ‘Goshuin book’ with the page open to stamp of Keishiin temple on Shichimensan.
Ebinuma san explained, “It belonged to a Sado woman believer in the Edo. Iems that illustrate the spiritual life of ordinary people are extremely rare.” It’s impossible to imagine a person in this day taking the journey from Sado to the top of Shichimensan and back, on foot. The most amazing things is that those kinds of pilgrimages were extremely popular enough to support some 180 shukubo in the Minobusan area alone, spread out far and wide compared to what you can see today clustered around Kuonji temple. In the Edo period pilgrims did not hike to the top of Shichimensan and stay at Keishiiin Temple like they do today. Instead they stayed at a pilgrim’s temple/inn (Shukubo) near the base of the mountain and a priest would climb to the top lugging the pilgrim stamp books, perform a ceremony, get the books signed and stamped, then go back down, do another ceremony for the pilgrims and the stamp books, then finally hand them over.
I asked Ebinuma san how he would explain this exhibit to a visitor from abroad with no knowledge of Nichiren Shonin or the Lotus Sutra. “I would first show them the statues of Shakyanumi and Many Treasures Buddha and the 4 Bodhisattvas from Underground and explain the background. Then I would show them Nichiren Shonin’s Gohonzon Mandala and what they mean.”
He also explained the preparations necessary for the exhibit. There are 175 items that cannot all be displayed at once, either due to space restrictions or the short loan time from temples. “We would go to each temple to assess handling and transportation issues. Sometimes it took two on site days to get the job done.”
When asked what his personal favorite item was Ebinuma san looked slightly apologetic saying, “Niccho Shonin’s books impress me the most. His output was tremendous.” In addition to producing hundreds of books, Niccho Shonin also moved Kuonji temple from its old location, now the Gobyosho, to the current one we use today by cutting and clearing the mountain. His effort is amazing when you consider he did this in the Sengoku period when Japan was in constant civil war.
From famous mandalas of great priests to household Goshuin books of ordinary followers, the Lotus Sutra culture of Nichiren Shonin was a special sight to experience.
History Lost: Fire destroys Myoshoji Temple
Two weeks after the Nichiren and Lotus Culture exhibit was over, a disaster struck: on December 6, 2021, Myoshoji Temple in Ichinosawa Sado, Niigata Prefecture was destroyed in fire. This temple has particular importance to all Nichiren Buddhists as this was place that Nichiren spent the 2nd year of his Sado exile (1271~1274), where he first inscribed the Mandala Gohonzon in the familiar form that we see replicated today, and where he wrote his most important treatise: the Kanjin Honzon Sho, A Treatise Revealing the Spiritual Contemplation and the Most Venerable One. None of the treasures were lost but the Edo period temple structures were all destroyed and cannot be rebuilt.
The temple itself has not had a resident priest for some time, a growing crisis for temples in rural areas with declining populations. The preservation of Japanese Buddhist culture is becoming more difficult and challenging with each passing year.