Kumano Magaibutsu: immoveable in more ways than one

In last week’s blog post, I introduced a temple founded to house a statue of Fudo Myo-o, the great immoveable deity, carved by no less than the great Kobo Daishi (774-835). But Kobo Daishi is not alone in his admiration of Fudo Myo-o, whose image is found and worshiped across Japan.

Even the earliest Buddhist ascetics, hermits who removed themselves from society to worship and meditate to achieve enlightenment, honored Fudo Myo-o. In those early days of Buddhism in Japan, nearly 15 centuries ago, these ascetics often lived in remote areas where, during their meditations, they carved Buddhist images into local stone. Kyushu’s Kunisaki Peninsula, remote and mountainous, was especially popular with these hermits, with the result that Kunisaki is the home of more stone Buddhas (sekibutsu) than any other area of Japan. There are more than 400 sekibutsu in Kunisaki, many of them so-called magaibutsu, Buddha images carved into living rock.

The Kumano Magaibutsu is an 8 meter tall image of Fudo Myo-o carved onto a rockface above Taizoji temple. Even in our modern times, it is not an easy place to get to. Rented car is easiest, although taxi and infrequent buses will also get you there.

After arriving at Taizoji and paying the JPY300 admission, there is a bit of a hike to the site.  First there is a pleasant walk up a wooded valley, a stream of bubbling water in the ravine on your left, and woodland beyond that.

After about 100 meters or so, cross a small footbridge followed by some stone stairs and a stone torii (the gateway to a guardian shrine further up the mountain from the magaibutsu). Visitors like to try to toss stones onto the top of the torii. If the stones stay, it is a sign that your prayers will be answered.

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After passing under the torii, there is an ascent into the forest on a stone littered path.  The way is straight and steep, the stones serving as stairs without having been arranged as stairs.  There is an ancient legend that this path was created by a demon in a single night, which is to say, the demon is supposed to have scattered the stones but ran out of time to arrange them properly. Watch your step!

Eventually you come to a clearing on your left; the 8 meter tall Fudo Myo-o towers above you, carved on the cliff-face. There is no question that this Fudo Myo-o is immoveable.

The image is rough-hewn and simple, but it is unmistakably Fudo Myo-o, with his devil-subduing sword clasped in his right hand and a hint of fangs protruding from his mouth. Although Fudo Myo-o is regarded as a stern deity, this one has just a hint of a smile on his weathered face.

Near the Fudo Myo-o is another magaibutsu, this one an image of Dainichi Nyorai, the cosmic, all-encompassing Buddha. Dainichi Nyorai stands 6.6 meters tall and is believed to have been carved around 718AD, earlier than the Fudo Myo-o image, although the workmanship is far more sophisticated. This was also a couple of generations before Kobo Daishi; truly the early days of Buddhism in Japan.

The Dainichi Nyorai’s head is surrounded by a circle of light, with mandalas and other inscriptions nearby.

It is interesting to note that Fudo Myo-o, a lord of light whose job it is to guide spiritual travelers past temptation on their way to salvation, is widely considered to be an earthly messenger of Dainichi Nyorai.

The exact history of these two magaibutsu is uncertain. The Buddhist ascetics rarely left any records beyond what they carved in stone. Looking up at the images, one cannot help but wonder how anyone could get up the cliff to carve in the first place. Did the monks build a scaffolding on this uneven mountainside, or suspend themselves by ropes from the top? It is a mystery that may never be solved. Perhaps the stones that were chipped from the cliff-face were used to create the “stairs” you just ascended. Among the speculations about this site, there is a theory that the Fudo Myo-o was carved by a relative novice, perhaps a disciple of the man who carved the Dainichi Nyorai.  As theories go, it would certainly explain the crude styling of the Fudo Myo-o.

The mysteriousness of the site is probably enhanced by its remote location, deep in a forest. Perhaps you can speculate for yourself based on the photos, but your imagination will be even more inspired if you can manage to visit for yourself. It’s a sure bet this immoveable Fudo Myo-o isn’t coming to you!

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