Featured On the Go — 03 February 2017

Surendra continues his recollections of his search for ancient Buddhist and Shinto sites in Japan, visiting the island of Sado, Nara and Kamakura, and Kyoto.

This is Part 2 of 2. Read part 1: Five Hundred Buddhas

The religious statues in Japan still look exotic to me after an association with the country that goes back thirty years. A pair of lion-dogs, or komainu, stand on each side of the entrance to Shinto shrines. The one on the left has an open mouth and on the right is a tight lipped version of the same animal. They are supposed to guard against evil spirits. There is also a deeper significance. Out of the open mouth comes the sound ‘ah’ and from the closed mouth comes ‘um’: making a-um or om, the sound of the universe. With origins in sanskrit, this aspect of the komainu is rooted in India, the birthplace of Buddhism. Although in Japan Shinto and Buddhism are now totally separate organisations with different roots, they were sometimes intertwined. So komainu are obligatory at shinto shrines but a few Buddhist temples have them too, because that is where they originated from.

Komainu 1, Uga Shrine, Sado Island
Komainu 2, Uga Shrine, Sado Island
Diabutsu Todaiji Temple, Nara
Diabutsu, Kamakura, Nara
Kannon, Kamakura
Hotei with Turtle, Kanaimachi, Machida
Binzuru, Todaiji Temple, Nara
Zen Garden, Ryoan-ji Temple, Kyoto

Venturing into the beautiful Japanese island of Sado last July, my partner, Amrapali, suddenly crossed paths with a metre long snake. Trudging way behind her in the intense afternoon sun, up a massive flight of stone steps with my heavy camera gear, I was oblivious to her cry of alarm. She came down to remind me that, once again, like most knights, I had failed to come to the rescue. Soon the snake had disappeared into the undergrowth along with our thoughts of it as we realised that we had been trudging for fifteen minutes and were nowhere near the top. After another fifteen minutes, we reached the elevated and deserted Uga shrine. It commanded stunning views to the West over densely wooded hills and brilliant green rice paddies, to the East the sea sparkled endlessly far below. The komainu here were unusual: they looked like petrified cuddly toys. Probably anyone who managed the grueling steps was not going to be intimidated by a stone statue, however fierce looking, so why bother. Or maybe they just meant, “The joke’s on you!”

It is probably the statues that repute to be of Gautama the Budhha that have most appeal to Western sannyasins. The best radiate a sense of meditation. Japan has many of all sizes along with various Bodhisattvas, mythical saints and demons. Two of the most famous Japanese Buddhas are the great Daibutsu: one in Todaiji Temple, Nara and the other at Kamakura, on the outskirts of Tokyo. Both are cast in bronze. The Todaiji Daibutsu, a solid casting weighing some 500 tonnes, stands nearly 15 metres tall. Although it dates back to the 8th century it has always been housed in a temple building and still looks pristine. X-rays have revealed that not all is as it seems. Parts of the statue contain swords, jewels and even teeth suspected of belonging to the contemporary emperor. By insinuating his personal objects into the bronze, he must have hoped to gain protection from the great Buddha.

As far as I know, the hollow Daibutsu at Kamakura does not contain any personal items. After casting in the 13th century, it was also set within a temple. A tsunami in 1498 washed away the building and displaced the statue as well. After that, it was left in the open to be enriched by the weathering of sunshine, storms and snow for more than five hundred years. This Daibutsu is over a metre shorter than the Todaiji Buddha and being hollow, weighs much less – 120 tonnes.

There are numerous other smaller figures, especially of stone, to be found in Japan – not only in temples and shrines but dotting hill and roadside wherever you may travel. Less noticeable in cities, you cannot go far without encountering singular statues or groups of carvings in the countryside. One familiar figure is that of Kannon, the Goddess of Compassion. She always looks very relaxed and, although designated female, she is often portrayed androgynously, having united the female and male energies. She is also described as ‘one who perceives the sound of the universe’ (back to om again). As always, there are many differing stories, myths and legends. The one I like is that on her death, Kannon insisted on going to hell where she liberated many souls by playing beautiful music. I found the statue shown in a remote hillside temple outside Kamakura: a white gleam among the saplings as the sun began to set.

We can easily warm to the figure of Hotei, the Laughing Buddha. His round belly and big smile represent good fortune. There are the usual differing stories and depictions of Hotei. Sometimes, he is seen with a turtle, a symbol of longevity. In the Zen tradition, he is the Hotei who Osho spoke of, carrying a big sack of sweets and offering one to any child he encountered. He also demanded a penny from any monk or layman he came across to fund the enterprise.

One day a monk walked up to him and asked, “What is the meaning of Zen?” Hotei immediately dropped his heavy sack on the ground. “How does one realize Zen?” Hotei picked up the sack, threw it over his shoulder and went on his way.

When I lived outside Tokyo, I found his little statue in a nearby shrine. Only about 30 cms high, standing on dusty soil and tucked away in a corner of the grounds, it was hard to notice. Once discovered, the simplicity of the piece, the toothy grin and mischievous eyes called me to it many times.

On my visit to Nara, in the grounds of Todaiji temple was a strange wooden figure. At some time painted, it was now well worn by the elements and visitors’ hands. A wonderful, aged subject for black and white photography, with traces of paint and pronounced grain, it even had detailed, realistic eyes. This caused Amrapali and some on the internet to call it ‘the Scary Buddha’. Binzuru was one of the original disciples of Buddha known in sanskrit as Pindola Bharadvaja. It is said that he had mastered the occult realm and had special psychic powers. Hence, hoping for healing, many people touched the carving. As already implied, Japan, like most cultures, is embedded with superstitions. Shinto looks after the family functions of life while Buddhism deals with death and the afterlife. Everything taken care of by a peaceful territorial imperative. People spend time and money at Shinto shrines throughout their lives and Buddhist funerals are complex, expensive affairs with many follow-up appointments afterwards.

Although usually critical of organised religion, I was once impressed by a New Year event at a shrine in Kyoto. Three young Shinto priests in white robes and tall hats stood around a seated, smartly suited businessman. The priests, two male and one female, held something like long feather dusters in their hands made from trailing strands of fine, white tissue paper. They began waiving their wands in the air, swirling them closer and closer to the intransigent salaryman as they moved around him in careful choreography. ‘They are cleaning his aura,’ I thought as I felt the positive energy being invoked and enjoyed the precision and grace of the movements. Shinto is the pagan tradition of Japan connected with vitality and fertility. Kami, or, spirits good and bad, share our human world. All aspects of nature are animated by them: a river flowing, a mountain, a wind blowing. As for Buddhism, although not common, the Zen tradition still lives on in Japan. The Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto is world-famous for its garden of weathered stones seen by some as buddhas in their own right. They are placed skillfully amidst a lawn of carefully raked sand. This temple is home to followers of Rinzai who, when asked about the strange tradition of Zen masters hitting disciples with staffs, apparently said, “You cannot drive a nail into empty space.”

Read part 1: Five Hundred Buddhas

Surendra A 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. surendraphoto.com

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