Chinkokuji: preserving part of Kukai’s legacy

It was a dark and stormy night. A young Buddhist monk named Kukai was aboard one of four ships crossing the East China Sea from Kyushu to Tang China, fearing, as did all aboard, for his life. He prayed for rescue to Munakata Omikami, a goddess of the sea, and also invoked the help of various Buddhas and bodhisattvas. In response he saw the wrathful god, Fudo Myo-o, cutting through the high waves with his sword, ultimately calming the seas so that Kukai’s ship could continue its voyage. The year was 804.

1938 French postcard depicting Kukai’s 804 journey to Tang China

After two years in Tang China studying Buddhism with various masters, Kukai (posthumously known as Kobo Daishi) returned to Japan to spend nearly three decades spreading Shingon Buddhism across the country. One of the first things he did upon his return was visit Munakata shrine in present-day Fukuoka to thank the sea goddess for her assistance on that fateful night two years earlier. While there he noticed a nearby mountain, which he decided to climb, feeling it to be a good location for a temple dedicated to Fudo Myo-o. One central aspect of Kukai’s interpretation of Buddhist was a conflation of Shinto deities with Buddhist ones. In this case, while Fudo Myo-o is regarded as a personification (or sometimes the messenger) of Dainichi Nyorai, the central and most important of the five manifestations of the Buddha, Kukai concluded that the sea goddess Munakata Omikami was also a manifestation of Dainichi Nyorai. Thus he felt it was important to establish a temple near the Munakata shrine with Fudo Myo-o as the primary deity for worship.

Image from the official website of Chinkokuji:

As is often the case with early Buddhist temples in Japan, the original temple was consecrated inside a small cave about a 10 minute walk above the current site of the temple (ie, upper right hand corner of the above image). Now known as “Oku-no-in”, even the temple brochure refers to it as a “power spot”, presumably one reason Kukai chose it as the site of his temple.

The modern Chinkokuji is a major establishment halfway down the mountain, laid out similar to the above image. It commands an expansive view over the valley below. Although it is now possible to drive up the mountain behind the temple, the pedestrian approach from below is a long flight of stone steps, flanked by well-groomed azalea bushes.

The temple complex includes a number of buildings, as well as a delightful little pond fed by a spring protected by a statue of Fudo Myo-o and surrounded by 33 stone carvings of Kannon, the goddess of mercy.

Among the temple buildings are the Hondo, an Edo Period temple housing beautiful carvings of the five Nyorai Buddhas, and a larger, modern temple building known as the Gomado that is home to a Fudo Myo-o statue said to have been carved by Kukai himself. There are also a couple of smaller temples, including one containing an effigy of Kukai himself.

The Gomado is a large worship hall. In Shingon Buddhism, gomaku is a ceremony involving burning prayers (written on strips of paper or wood), sending the smoke heavenwards so that the prayers can be granted. The ritual is performed at Chinkokuji on the 27th and 28th of every month, including a brief ceremony at the Oku-no-in in the early afternoon of the 27th. The modern Gomado is a ferro-concrete structure, minimizing the risk of the ritual fire getting out of control. (Historically, temples being destroyed by fire seems to have been a constant problem.) Kukai’s Fudo Myo-o statue is a hi-butsu (hidden Buddha) that is only publicly displayed once a year (April 28).

Nearly every shrine and temple across Japan sells o-mikuji (fortunes) and Chinkokuji is no exception. What is unusual is the way in which those fortunes are left behind at Chinkokuji. In most places there is a special rack where people leave the fortunes, a way of ensuring that the good they contain will transpire while any negatives cannot follow the person home. Alternative, people tie the fortune paper to the small branches of a tree. But at Chinkokuji, they tie the fortunes to suspense cords.

Another distinctive feature of the temple courtyard is the proliferation of frog images. Frog images are not unusual, they are a visual representation of a pun: the word for “frog” sounds like the word for “to return”, so that an image of a frog is intended to evoke a “safe return”, whether from this place to one’s home or a return to this place again at some point in the future is unclear. I asked a number of people at the temple and no one could tell me for sure. It’s worth noting that the frog on the left below has the character for “fortune” on its round belly. Curiouser and curiouser.

In a small clearing below the central temple complex, a large bronze statue of Fudo-myo keeps watch. Once a year (again, April 28) a fire walking ceremony is held here.

In the ceremony, a number of priests in yamabushi (mountain ascetic) garb, together with the head priest, process from the Gomado to the fire site and proceed to conduct various purification and blessing rituals. Eventually a large fire is lit, smoke from green cedar boughs billowing into the air. The fire is carefully tended as the flames soar and it then burns down. Prayers written on small wooden tablets are added to the fire as it burns, again for the purpose of sending those prayers skyward. All the while, sutras are chanted to the beating of a drum.

Once the fire is reduced to embers, the priests beat the embers down and make a path through them. One of the priests recites further prayers and then the embers are doused with salt and raw rice, all part of the preparations for fire walking.

At last everything is ready and the first priest makes the crossing, taking four broad steps (perhaps in case there is still any heat left in those embers). He is followed by the other priests, one by one, most crossing a bit more slowly.

By this time, the onlookers (worshipers) have stripped off their footwear and lined up to walk as well. Each receives a blessing from a priest as they enter the sacred arena (delineated by twine on which is suspended purifying zig-zag strips of paper). They then walk across the embers (now reduced to little more than ash) to say a quick prayer in front of the bronze Fudo Myo-o statue gazing down at them.

While these rituals have doubtless evolved over the twelve centuries since Kukai founded the temple, they represent an effort to preserve Kukai’s legacy for all time. Even visiting when no such rituals are taking place is rewarding since this is doubtless one of the first temples Kukai founded and even the original cave temple site can still be visited.

© 2023 and Vicki L. Beyer
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