8th Temple: Seiren-ji

In 1977 Seiren-ji’s head priest, Joichi Nishioka, began planning the construction of a traditional wooden three-tier pagoda. Its model was one of the oldest surviving wooden structures on earth, the five-tier pagoda at Horyu-ji in Nara. The Horyu-ji pagoda dates from the Akusa period in the 7th century, at the introduction of Buddhism to Japan. Nishioka’s goal was to employ the traditional building techniques used in constructing this national treasure, but his ambitious project was found to have structural problems and had to be entirely dismantled, the work begun again.

On the second day of 2016, shielded behind dusty grey screens, the work continues. Fundraising efforts are ongoing, and we do our part by having our go-shuin books signed and buying another book: an English translation of the Heart Sutra from 7th Century Japanese (as opposed to a translation from the original Pali) done by American-Japanese writer Hideo Levy.

In the 7th Century, at the time of Buddhism’s introduction to Japan, the pagoda was the central structure of most Buddhist temples. Pagodas originated in China as an interpretation of the Buddhist stupa. The stupa, a reliquary, was a heap of stones meant to mark the grave and store the bones and other sacred relics of the Buddha (and also meant to symbolize the mind of Buddha). Pagodas originally served the same purpose. Unlike Chinese pagodas, the Horyu-ji five-tier pagoda is built around a single pillar, the shinbashira, the trunk of a cypress tree felled in the year 594, a thousand years before Shakespeare. This “heart pillar” is what has allowed an ancient wooden structure to survive 1300 years in a country that sits on “the ring of fire”, one of the earth’s most active fault-lines. The pagoda is anchored by this central pillar, allowing it to survive earthquakes that have flattened modern concrete buildings. The shinbashira is now used for “earthquake-proofing” modern structures such as the Tokyo Skytree, built around a central concrete pillar. I recall condominiums built this way in the Westend of Vancouver.

And so it was that on January 2nd, 2016 we purchased a translation of The Heart Sutra to help pay for the heart pillar for this auspicious and ambitious pagoda, an ancient modern visualization of the form of Buddha’s mind. The goal was to unveil the pagoda in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. I’m writing this in 2021, so I know now that those Olympics were cancelled by a global pandemic. So far as I know, the pagoda has also not yet been completed.

Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.

Despite all the bustle of construction and fundraising going on at Seiren-ji, it is its neighbor, Kogen-ji, that we remember best from our visit. This area of Tokyo, Bungkyo, is dense with temples, and there is no fence to separate Serien-ji from Kogen-ji, so we don’t even need to walk back to the street to pass from one to the other. Kogen-ji is not part of our pilgrimage, but Seiren-ji’s small Kannon holding a lotus, the image related to the pilgrimage, is housed in an outer building that isn’t even open today, while Kogen-ji’s special treasure happens to be open to public viewing for the New Year.

Kogen-ji dates from 1589 and in 1697 they erected a spectacular eight-metre tall figure of Kannon on the site. This was destroyed in the WW II Allied bombing raids, but was re-erected as a six-metre, eleven-faced golden Kannon in 1993. Marcus Powles calls this the most beautiful Kannon statue in all of Tokyo. Housed outside the main hall, in a building much like a small chapel, this majestic Kannon is regal and awe-inspiring. He (for this is definitely a male Kannon) holds a golden Pilgrim’s Staff that stretches from the ground to higher than his head, though he is twenty feet tall. His eleven heads are surrounded by a huge golden filigreed halo.

The top of his Pilgrim’s Staff holds six rings, symbolic of the six karmic realms of existence: damned in hell, hungry ghosts, animals, asura (semi-blessed beings, partly good and partly evil, who exist in a realm of constant war), human, and heavenly beings.

I take a photo of Ranjini with Kannon over her shoulder and leave her to pray and to sit with Kannon. A small boy comes and gazes up at Kannon as she rests in the doorway of the chapel.

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