Curious Homage to a Great Buddhist Scholar

On a hillside above Jionji, a 1,300 year-old Buddhist temple in the northeast of Saitama City, stands a red Chinese style gate and behind that, a thirteen-tiered stone pagoda-like tower. It is an anomaly in this semi-agrarian, semi-residential neighborhood.

I stumbled across this spot after visiting Jionji with some friends. A write-up we had of the temple included photos of the gate and tower and we wanted to see it. A kind priest at the temple directed us to this spot across the valley; it was nearly sunset and the waning light deepened the mystery.

Known in Japanese as Ganjo Sanzo Reikotsuto (The Sacred Bone Tower of Xuanzang), the central feature of the site is the stone tower that stands over the bones of a venerated Chinese Buddhist scholar named Xuanzang (602-664), known in Japanese as Genjo Sanzo. Although Xuanzang was widely travelled during his lifetime, he never made it to Japan. That rudimentary information only served to further deepen the mystery of this place.

Let’s begin at the beginning.

Xuanzang was born in Henan, a central Chinese province often regarded as the cradle of Chinese civilization. He was a studious child who showed an early interest in Buddhism, became a novice monk at the age of 13, and was fully ordained at the age of 20. Due to his scholarly nature he was interested in learning more and more about Buddhism and its sources. He traveled widely across China to acquire more and more Buddhist texts and finally, at the age of 27, decided he needed to travel to India, where Buddhism began, to learn more.

Xuanzang spent the next 17 years traveling across Central Asia, along a Silk Road route, and then traveling the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent. He visited the birth and death sites of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, as well as a number of other famous Buddhist sites, learning all he could about Buddhist teachings. He even visited the Bamiyan valley in present-day Afghanistan, then a major Buddhist learning center where a 55-meter image of a standing Buddha carved into a cliffside had only just been completed in 618. (Sidenote: I was privileged to visit this site in 1978; the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001.)

He was particularly in search of original Sanskrit texts explaining various tenets. Ultimately, he acquired, and eventually translated into Chinese, 657 Sanskrit texts, greatly contributing to Chinese understanding and interpretation of Buddhism, just at the time when Buddhism was being introduced into Japan.

As if this great feat of scholarship wasn’t enough contribution to people’s understanding of the world beyond their own, Xuanzang also penned a travelogue entitled Great Tang Records on the Western Regions which, although apparently containing exaggerations and inaccuracies to rival those of Marco Polo more than six centuries later, enjoyed wide popularity then and is still regarded as an early source on medieval India/Central Asia. Xuanzang’s travelogue went on to become the inspiration for the popular sixteenth century Chinese novel Journey to the West, still highly regarded today.

While Xuanzang never traveled to Japan, his contributions to Buddhist scholarship and his travelogue were well known in Japan as he even taught some of the earliest Japanese to travel to China to train as Buddhist monks. There is even a Japanese drawing of him, in his travel gear, that is believed to date to the thirteenth century. It was this drawing that appears to have been used as the model for the statue of Xuanzang standing in this little hillside park.

While we now understand a bit more about Xuanzang and his renown in Japan, how on earth did his bones come to rest on this Saitama hillside?

The answer to that takes us back to World War II, popularly known in Japan as the Pacific War. In December 1942, soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army captured the Chinese city of Nanjing. During the six weeks of looting and death that followed (the details remain controversial to this day), the Japanese soldiers opened an eleventh century tomb that turned out to contain some of Xuanzang’s bones (dividing the bones of eminent Buddhist personages among multiple burial sites is a long-standing practice). The bones (or at least some of them; this is not clear) were sent to Japan for “safekeeping” and originally went to Zojoji in Tokyo. When the Americans began bombing Tokyo toward the end of 1944, the bones were “temporarily” removed to Jionji. Jionji was selected because of its long history (founded in 824) and its convenient yet safe distance from Tokyo.

After the war ended, the fate of the bones remained uncertain, so they continued to be in the care of Jionji. According to Jionji’s history, in December 1946 Chiang Kai-shek, then President of China, agreed with the head of the Japanese Buddhist Association that the bones should remain in Japan as a symbol of the friendship between the two nations. Apparently he imposed the condition that a suitable memorial tower be constructed. By 1950, funds had been raised and the current site near Jionji selected so that construction of the thirteen-tiered tower could begin.

Later in the 1950s, the bones were further divided. Some were sent to Taiwan, on the request of the government of the Republic of China, and others were sent to Yakushi-ji in Nara, a temple apparently founded by a Japanese priest who had studied in China with Xuanzang in the seventh century. Nevertheless, this little park in Saitama still takes seriously its role as the keeper of Xuanzang’s bones.

The name Genjo Sanzo is also well known to twenty-first century manga fans, as it is the name of a character in a manga called Saiyuki, which is said to be loosely based on Journey to the West. This anime character appears to be nothing like the real-life Xuanzang and it seems pretty clear that his fan-base is also quite different, even though most fans apparently are aware that their beloved character was inspired by an ancient real life individual.

This little park, that my friends and I unintentionally stumbled on, has introduced me to another fellow travel writer and taught me some more interesting details of the puzzle that is Japan.

© 2021 and Vicki L. Beyer
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