In the story generally associated with Gyoran-ji, Kannon appears as a beautiful young maiden in a village market. The fish in her basket look so tasty that many people rush to buy them from her, to which she responds that she’ll only sell them to someone who will set them free. People laugh and no one buys her fish.
Each day she reappears in the market, her beauty driving the young men crazy. Many propose marriage to her, so she offers a challenge: in exchange for her hand, she will marry the man who memorizes the Heart Sutra, the dharma verse where Kannon was first introduced to the world. The next day twenty young men answer the challenge by reciting the verse. The young maiden congratulates them, but it is impossible for her to marry twenty men, so she tells the twenty that she will marry the one who can memorize the Diamond Sutra. The next day four men are able to recite the sutra, and she challenges these four to perfectly memorize the entire Lotus Sutra within three days time.
Only one man, a young scholar, is able to pass the test, and the young maiden agrees to marry him. However, on the morning of their wedding day, the young woman falls ill and dies. The entire community is overcome with grief, and the young woman’s body is buried. A few days later the grieving young scholar is approached by a monk who tells him that his betrothed was Kannon, and directs him to dig up her body for evidence of his claim. When the scholar and the villagers open her coffin they discover that the young woman’s bones have turned to gold. Mission accomplished, the monk disappears into thin air.
Two women wearing kimonos meet us at the gate to Gyoran-ji. We say the name of the temple and they nod and motion us inside. Ranjini tells them how beautiful they look and they nod and smile. Six stone sculptures at the gate have been dressed in bright red bibs and hats to match. These are Jizo statues. Jizo is a Bodhisattva usually depicted as a monk carrying a staff and a jewel or prayer beads. His principal role is to ease suffering and help those serving time in the hell realms. The statues are dressed in red bibs and hats because the colour red is associated with driving out illness and demons. There are six statues of Jizo to represent the six realms of suffering.
We enter the temple grounds and watch as a family approaches the main temple to ring the bell and clap their hands. We do the same, throwing a few coins in the box as an offering. Ranjini goes into the office to have our go-shuin books signed while I take photographs of three Jizo statues clad in red bibs and hats outside the doorway to the graveyard. There are two buckets of water before the statues and also plastic sacks of salt. It is traditional to offer salt to Jizo and to splash water on the statues as an offering. New Year’s Day is particularly important to the Jizo Cult: people petition the god for fertility, or recovery from an illness, or success in some endeavor, and tie a small piece of rope around the statue. On New Year’s Day the Priest cuts the ropes corresponding to wishes that have not been granted.
I walk through the graveyard, taking photos of the gravestones and the offerings that families have left to their ancestors, and watch as a father directs his young son to wash his hands before placing flowers on a grave. I think of my father, who died on the 6th of January, nine years ago, and of my Mom.
Ranjini returns with our go-shuin books, telling me that they are very busy with New Year’s preparations and the temple hall is closed. Ranjini tells the story of the fish-basket Kannon teaching dharma and we read in Marcus Powles’ book that her golden bones are also reputed to be a hidden relic of this temple.
Ranjini, I only realize later, is my fish-basket maiden.