Unganzenji: a legacy of swordsmanship and piety

On the outskirts of Kumamoto City sits an isolated Zen temple that guards over an historic cave and a hillside of rakan (arhat) statues. Rakan are devout Buddhists who have attained enlightenment and live in a state of Nirvana.

In Japan, collections of statues of 500 rakan, the number of disciples of Buddha believed to have gathered after his death to assemble the Tripitaka (Buddhist scripture comprised on the teachings of the Buddha), are popular.  Collections of rakan statues carved in stone during the Edo Period (1603-1868) by merchants and other wealthy patrons as an act of piety (effectively to receive the equivalent of an Indulgence), can be found across Japan.

One such collection can be found behind Unganzenji temple, an out-of-the way little temple on the flanks of Mt. Kinpo just a couple of kilometers from the Ariake Sea. But Unganzenji is much older than its rakan collection and has other interesting historical connections as well.

The temple was founded in 1351, when Reigando cave, behind the current temple building, was consecrated by a Chinese monk. The sacred cave was used to house the Iwato Kannon, a statue of a four-faced Kannon (Buddhist goddess of mercy) that was said to have washed ashore after a shipwreck nearby. Even today Unganzenji’s association with Kannon have made it the 14th stop on the Kyushu Saigoku 33 Kannon Pilgrimage.

From 1640 until his death in June 1645, Reigando was the  home of Miyamoto Musashi (c. 1584-1645), one of the most famous swordsmen in Japanese history. He secluded himself in the cave to meditate and to write.  It was here that he wrote his famous treatise on swordsmanship, “The Book of Five Rings”.  The “book of earth” is about strategy and tactics. The “book of water” details sword fighting forms, body positioning and mindset. The “book of fire” covers tactics in various fighting situations. The “book of wind” compares and contrasts various fighting styles, emphasizing the importance of knowing one’s opponent. And finally, the “book of emptiness” describes the state of mind produced by a life of training, study and discipline.

While living in the cave, Musashi also wrote “The Way of Walking Alone”, a short work outlining his personal life philosophy that he gifted to one of his closest disciples, just days before his death inside the cave surrounded by friends.

It is this connection to Miyamoto Musashi that appears to be the principle draw to Unganzenji these days.  Just inside the gated entrance to the area behind the temple is a gallery with various artifacts of the temple on display behind glass.  Among these are a portrait of Musashi, scrolls containing the Book of Five Rings, and a sword said to have belonged to Musashi.

Before reaching the cave, however, visitors walk past the 500 rakan, perched in various spots along the rocky mountainside.

The statues were carved between 1779 and 1802, commissioned by a wealthy local merchant named Gihei.  No two are alike; many have extremely expressive faces. It is often said that if you study the faces long enough, you may find your doppelganger among them.

Sadly, there are also many that have no face at all.  A major earthquake in 1889 toppled and badly damaged a number of the statues.  Although the broken statues were never repaired, they were re-placed in their mountainside positions to continue their meditations.

Even the broken statues have a dignity about them.  If the hillside below the statues were not so heavily wooded, they would have a magnificent view of the Ariake Sea.  It is particularly stunning at sunset.  A Buddhist priest once told me that the rakan facing the setting sun across the sea is the ideal position for them to await the return of their lord Buddha.  Personally, I just like the views.

Unganzenji is open daily, 8:00 to 17:00.  Admission is JPY200.

© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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