An inside look at the O-eshiki commemoration of Saint Nichiren

I find the Ikegami area of Tokyo historically fascinating and generally interesting as a microcosm of residential Tokyo.  I’ve written elsewhere about the neighborhood and about the o-eshiki ceremony that commemorates the life and death of the Buddhist saint, Nichiren (1222-1282) every year on the night of October 12.

But this year, I was privileged to have a “back stage tour” relating to the o-eshiki, which deepened my experience as well as my appreciation of the event.

My “tour”, an event arranged by the Ota Ward Tourist Association for the past 5 years, began at Eiju-in, a subordinate temple within the hilltop grounds of Ikegami Honmonji temple, the center of Nichiren Buddhism in Japan today.  The tour attracted more than 40 participants, only about half of whom were adherents of Nichiren Buddhism.  The rest presumably came for the “cultural experience”, just like us (we were the only non-Japanese).

Yoshida Shoei, a senior priest of Eiju-in, gave us a brief talk about the life of Saint Nichiren, who was born in Chiba in 1222 and became a Buddhist monk at the age of 15. We learned how Nichiren developed his philosophy, ultimately resulting in the sect that bears his name. We also learned how he was persecuted, almost put to death and instead exiled to Sado Island for a substantial period, and finally met his demise very near the spot where we were sitting.

At the conclusion of the talk, we were each given a sheet of paper with an illustration from the life of Nichiren and the mantra Namu Myoho Renge Kyo—the central mantra chanted by Nichiren Buddhists—written down the side.  We were asked to trace over the mantra with a calligraphy brush and then write our names on the paper. These were then laminated and shaped into tubes, which we would later place over candles in the temple garden.

Next we moved to the temple sanctuary for a religious service. Yoshida-san had changed into ceremonial robes and led our worship after matter-of-factly explaining the order of worship to us.  We each had a pamphlet of text to follow. The worship began and ended with a single high clear bell tone—the very embodiment of purity. Yoshida-san then chanted a sutra alone, and led the congregation in chanting the next sutra in classical Japanese while a nun (literal translation: lady monk) read out a beautiful translation of the sutra in vernacular Japanese. The two different languages intoned in different melodies simultaneously was almost operatic. Yoshida-san later told me that he himself had prepared the translation. I think he was pleased to hear that I found the words he used quite moving.

During the final sutra, incense was lit and as its sweet aroma filled the air row by row the congregation approached the table holding the censer to offer their own private prayers.

When the service was finished, Yoshida-san—who is a talented teacher—explained some of the features of the sanctuary. He also explained about the garments on the temple’s statue of Saint Nichiren (placed high above the altar), which had just been changed today for the o-eshiki.  The statue’s head was draped with a heavy quilt-like cape.  Yoshida-san explained that Saint Nichiren had once sustained a scalp injury during an attempt on his life, and the resulting scar pained him in cold weather. Accordingly, it is a kindness to the saint to keep the statue’s head warm.

After we enjoyed a delicious Japanese boxed meal containing 9 different dishes, there was a bit of time to spare before we needed to move to our next destination, so we returned to the sanctuary where Yoshida-san brought up the lights so that we could see that on either side of the altar along the walls were archeological exhibits. “Archeological exhibits!”, you say? Yes, it turns out that in 2005 the temple was doing excavation work to expand their cemetery and came upon Yayoi Period relics more than 2,000 years old. Their work had to stop while archeologists studied the site and preserved what they could, which took about 5 years. I wasn’t completely clear from his explanation whether what was found was a burial site, or remnants of a village and a burial site. But the relics on display included metal burial items (a few gold-plated) and potsherds, many reconstructed into pots. There were also lots of photos of the archeologists at work on the site.  It was an interesting and unexpected diversion from the main point of the day.

After this we received a small gift from the temple, a single tulip bulb each. Yoshida-san explained that if we planted the bulbs now, they would come up in spring and be blooming around the time of Buddha’s birthday (April 8). We were also given our laminated tubes and a light wand that had been decorated with tissue paper flowers to emulate cherry blossoms. The tall mando lanterns we were about to see at the o-eshiki are similarly decorated with “weeping” branches of paper blossoms.

Cherry blossoms are relevant to this occasion because of the legend that when Saint Nichiren died at 8 am on the morning of October 13, the cherry tree in the garden of the house where he was staying flowered in mourning.  That tree (or its offspring) still sits in that garden, and we visited it later.

As we left Eiju-in, we each put our laminated tube over a candle to make a lantern.  Many lanterns were lit around the temple yard; our lanterns added to the awe-inspiring mood.

We made our way past Honmonji’s famous 400-year-old pagoda–the area around it now packed with people and food stalls–and through a little of the cemetery to reach the front steps of Honmonji’s Great Hall, where the mando parade and ceremony had already begun.

More than 90 groups representing temples from across Japan had brought mando and were parading with their mando and matoi (poles topped with canvas stips spun around to purify the air), some playing wooden flutes and banging on cymbals and drums. They began some distance from the temple and processed slowly, especially when carrying the heavy mando and its accompanying generator up the massive stairway of the main temple approach.

We had to douse our light wands, put away our cameras, and take off our shoes to enter the inner sanctuary of the Great Hall, where the air was filled with incense, the sounds of chanting monks and the beating of drums.  In the tatami-matted area between ornately-decorated altar and the offering box near the entrance, we wove our way through others seated behind the chanting monks and joined them for about 10 minutes of chanting and drumming.

In front of us was the main altar, adorned with a statue of the saint carved shortly after his death.  This statue, said to be an exact likeness of Nichiren, had also had a change of clothing for today’s event.  I later asked Yoshida-san whether Nichiren’s likeness was obtained through the use of a death mask, but he answered that death masks were not in use in Japan at that time.  Rather, the sculptor was someone who know Saint Nichiren well enough to be able to render his likeness exactly.

Meanwhile, behind us outside the Great Hall, each group accompanying a mando was receiving its own special blessing.

Once we had completed our turn at chanting, we moved on to the courtyard behind the Great Hall, where the groups that had received their blessing were taking a break before moving on in their mando pilgrimage.  They were tired but exhilarated by their experience so far.  We were able to get a closer look at various mando and enjoy the atmosphere.

Yoshida-san continued to explain things to us when he could, but with so much noise and activity it was often difficult to hear him.  We visited the Buddha Hall and behind that, the octagonal structure where Saint Nichiren’s ashes are kept.  Yoshida-san solemnly reminded us that no one could say they had completed the o-eshiki if they failed to pay their respects at this spot.  We had a moment of silent prayer and chanted Namu Myoho Renge Kyo three times.

After this Yoshida-san led us across the street to one of the temple’s grave yards.  The entrance was crowded with vendors and food stalls and the walkway was strung with paper lanterns, giving the area a warm, friendly feeling that one doesn’t usually associate with grave yards at night.

Yoshida-san stopped to point out a large monument to Saint Nichiren that had been erected by Ikegami Munenaka, the local lord at whose house below us at the base of the hill Nichiren breathed his last. Munenaka’s grave sits next to this monument. We continued down the hill through the cemetery to Ikegami Daibo Hongyoji, the temple that now stands on the site of the former Ikegami family home.

Each group also brought their mando by this same route to pray and be blessed once more at what is arguably the most important location associated with Saint Nichiren and his death.  Here we could also see the famous grieving cherry tree, although it didn’t seem to be blooming this year.

Our final stop was the Hoto (lit. Treasure Tower), on the hillside just above Daibo. This elaborately decorated stupa, built on the site of Saint Nichiren’s cremation, houses his favorite prayer beads. The door to the opulent interior is opened only on this one night of the year.

While everything about this tour was conducted in Japanese, the Ota Ward Tourist Association’s talented volunteer guides were also available at various spots on the temple grounds to provide English tours and explanation for foreign visitors. When I stopped to say hello at their reception area they told me they were keeping pretty busy answering questions and showing people around. This left me optimistic that other foreign visitors were having as good a time at the o-eshiki as I was having.

The o-eshiki held at Ikegami is the largest in the country, but it is not the only one.  Many Nichiren temples across the country hold similar commemorations on other nights of the year, most of them in October or November.  Some others coming up in the Tokyo area are below (generally expect everything to begin on sunset):

Date Temple Name Nearest Station
October 16 Tenmyokokuji Aomonoyokocho
October 17 Oto Shofukuji Odawara
November 2 Myofukuji Oizumi Gakuen
November 12 Taishakuten Shibamata

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