It was a very tough winter for the priests working at Keishi-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 Keishi-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 period Keishi-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 Kuon-ji 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 protecting Shichimensan too.
A simpler explanation came much later from a friend who was raised in a Shinto household, “You mean to tell me the priests of Keishi-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 Kuon-ji. I was just about to dial when the phone rang. It was Kuon-ji…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, the rest by backpack.
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 Keishi-in main hall when repainting the ceiling.”
It was 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 Keishi-in Temple Shichimensan for their time and special permission for taking pictures inside of the Keishi-in main hall and the Dragon wall. The pictures of the temple interior may not be shared without their permission.
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