Five Hundred Buddhas

'Through My Lens' - by Surendra On the Go

Surendra recalls his journey setting out to find a legendary site in Japan called ‘Go Hyakyu Rakan’.

On a bright, sunny day, while staying with Amrapali’s family, in Hyogo prefecture, I set off early on a train journey to find one of the legendary sites of the Go Hyakyu Rakan or Five Hundred Buddhas. The story is told that when Buddha died, five hundred disciples began to gather a record of the master’s sayings and organise ashrams in his name. Around Japan, often in obscure places, are many collections of carvings representing some or all of these disciples. The Rakan depict both awakened bodhisattvas and disciples on the path, struggling with desires. It is said of the larger collections that the visitor can expect to find their own face lurking amongst the crowd. The skill of each carver to create a proportional human visage and body varied as did their ability to convey the presence of meditation. Either crudeness or sophistication can be part of the charm.

My journey involved starting with a sleek and fast train and transferring several times to slower, more ordinary trains. Eventually, I was in one of two carriages trundling along a single track through a lush, green valley. There were about three other passengers who, like me, went to the small town of Hojo at the end of the line. After his break, the driver goes from the front carriage to the rear carriage, which has mirrored controls, and drives the train back again. I had not travelled that many miles but it had taken me well over three hours and I still had to find my venue. The comment in tourist leaflets that occasionally took the trouble to mention this site of the Rakan said ‘difficult to access’ and this proved to be the case. But a thirty minute walk with a few detours got me to my tucked-away destination in the end.

Photographers are often fussing about light and we are all aware that, sooner or later, that ol’ sun is going down. Without additional lighting, it will be the end of the shoot. Even when it is bright, the sun keeps moving and the casting of glare and shadow is not always where it is wanted. On this day, the worst was the division of faces into half black and half white. Taking pictures required patience and a lot of figuring out in terms of exposure. The season was the hot and humid Japanese summer and I had finished my supply of water by the time I arrived. Luckily, all over Japan are drink vending machines and they are even refrigerated. The name of one drink, Pocari Sweat, was not one to mess with. I was not sure who this Pocari was but never fancied drinking any of their bodily fluids. No worries, there was plenty of green tea, oolong cha and barley tea for the likes of me. In the sweltering heat I worked my way through each of them and back again while the attendant at the site smiled on inscrutably.


Squashed between a school and other modern buildings was a motley collection of two to three hundred carvings gathered over time. Some were around five hundred years old and others more recent. I spent about three hours at this location shooting several rolls of film but I was drawn again and again to what was probably the oldest group of sculptures. They were not full statues but reliefs protruding from, small flat, stone backgrounds. The carvings were skillful and some of the expressions conveyed innocence and light. I suppose we all have our own ways of trying to describe our indescribable experiences of meditation. I could venture: as an anchor into being becomes more apparent, what was solid fades and shimmers into thin air. For me, these slowly disintegrating stone figures were good examples.

Recently, many years after my visit and printing of these photographs, I found an article about Go Hyakyu Rakan that helped to clarify my captivation with these images and ageing subjects in general, including weathered rocks, decaying tree bark and dying plants. It was by Clark Lunberry. 1)

“The original rakan have been gradually re-created, and are indeed re-creating, as time and nature incessantly interact with the statue’s material, its surface and its form.”

The author goes on to quote Zen master Dogen.

” …the very impermanence of grass and trees, thicket and forest, is itself the Buddha-nature. The very impermanence of men and things, body and mind, is the Buddha-nature. Nations and lands, mountains and rivers are impermanent because they are Buddha-nature.”

Text and photos by Surendra

1) Clark Lunberry is a Professor in the Department of English at the University of North Florida, in Jacksonville, Florida, USA. Along with his interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship, Lunberry creates site-specific ‘writing on water | writing on air’ poetry installations, placing large-scale poems on water and windows.

SurendraA former Reichian therapist, British Surendra took sannyas in 1976. He lived in Osho’s communes in India, USA, UK and Japan from the early 1980s on. In Pune 2 he looked after the painting work in Lao Tzu House, and then worked in Osho Publications. From 1991–1997 he taught at Ko Hsuan in Devon, UK, and after a sojourn again in 2001 he also became a passionate photographer. In 2013 he relocated to the Japanese Alps with his partner, Amrapali. All articles by this author on Osho News.

Other collections of photographs of Buddhist sculptures by Surendra can be found on his website:
Jizo on Sado Island

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