Jyosen-ji in Bunkyo-ku is not well known. In fact, I found it impossible to find any information about the temple at all, other than what Marcus Powles tells us in his guidebook: it was built in 1621 but destroyed, like most everything in Tokyo, in the Allied bombings during World War II. The main temple image, a small golden sitting Amida Buddha, did survive the bombing, but the golden seven-headed Kannon had to be remade after the war. Jyosen translates as “purification” or “decontamination”. When I Google it later I find many other more famous temples named Jyosen-ji, along with references to decontaminating sites (such as the Fukushima nuclear power plant) that have been exposed to radiation.
The white building is a mixture of modern and traditional, with sweeping hip roof eaves. As we approach through the lush peaceful garden, we have no idea that this temple will remain with us as a favourite memory of our pilgrimage. The front sliding wooden doors are flanked by windows in the shapes of bells. We ring the buzzer and are welcomed inside by a friendly monk dressed in blue jeans and a denim robe—unusual—with a face familiar from a million carvings. If he told us his name, I’ve forgotten, and we did not write it down. The name I give him now is Buddha.
In India, a traditional greeting is Namaste, which means “I bow to the god within you”, and in Hindu/Buddhist tradition there is a Sanskrit saying Atithi Devo Bhava, which means, “the guest is god”.
Buddha himself was more often a guest than a host as he travelled around the country, spreading the Dharma. Monks were instructed never to stay anywhere longer than two nights, in order not to take advantage of their hosts. They begged for alms and enabled their hosts to gain good karma through generosity.
However, during the monsoon season each year the Buddha would stop for three months in a park near an urban centre, such as Deer Park near Varanasi, and the monks would set up a community there for that extended period. Supplicants would come to visit the Buddha and learn the Dharma, thus becoming guests, and gods, themselves. This communal living became a central innovation of the Buddhist religion that has lasted 2500 years.
We are Buddha’s only visitors on this January 2nd morning. He shows us the beautiful altar room with the ancient Amida Buddha, the seven-headed Kannon, and countless other resplendent relics. Behind the bell-shaped window openings are stained-glass renderings of lotus flowers against a colourful checkered background, light streaming through, and nearby a painting of Honen, the founder of the Jodo-Shu school of Pure Land Buddhism. When the monk returns with our go-shuin book he invites us for tea at a table overlooking the garden. He wonders how we discovered Jyosen-ji and we show him Marcus Powles’ book, which he has never seen before, and which, like everything else, delights him. There is a wonderful warmth to the man that makes him feel like an old friend we are seeing after a long separation. The tea is hot, its flavors subtle, and looking out at the beautiful gardens we feel an exquisite peace and happiness.
Ranjini takes a photo of the monk and me, and he offers to take our photo together in front of the altar. Afterwards, he leads us up close to the ancient Buddha, showing us some painted panels stored in cupboards under the altar, one of the hell-lands and one of the Pure Land. Dream-like figures float in suffering and ecstasy against the plain brown background. I take a photo of Ranjini with Kannon. She says a prayer to the goddess before we return to finish our tea by the gardens. I study the guide book and our Buddha gives us directions to the next temple, Seiren-ji, and gives us some cookies to take with us. We thank him and go.
Outside, we stay a while in the gardens, sitting on a bench next to the fat Buddha, enjoying the lovely morning air, before we set off on our way.