Noilly Prattle: On the road to the deep north -- Hieizan (比叡山)

Saturday, August 15, 2015

On the road to the deep north -- Hieizan (比叡山)

Amida Hall
      Japan has a unique history in terms of religious development. Unlike the religious wars in Europe between Islam and Christianity, clashes of religion did not occur in Japan between the native animistic Shinto and Buddhism, but rather a sort of peaceful merging or amalgamation of religious beliefs and practices evolved into the present day syncretic culture of Shinto and Buddhism. That is not to say that there have not been religious conflicts, but they tended to be among different interpretations of Buddhist texts and doctrinal differences not unlike the internecine wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe over similar differences. Of course, political considerations were never very far from religious motives 

Kyoto in summer haze from Hiei-zan
        Travel destinations in Japan almost inevitably include the many temples and shrines one can find all over the country from the famous ones to obscure local ones crumbling away into disuse and ruin as rural depopulation takes the young away from the countryside. Accordingly our winding road trip to the deep north took us to several temple/shrine complexes, where it can be difficult to distinguish where a shrine ends and a temple begins the syncretism is so seamless and well established. Our first stop was the Hiei-zan complex between Kyoto and Lake Biwa.

Main Temple
        Enryaku-ji Temple (延暦寺) was founded by a monk named Saicho who went to China in the 8th Century to study Tiantai Buddhism (Tendai in Japanese) and returned to Japan and established a Tendai branch temple on Mount Hiei in 788. The temple complex was razed by fire by a warlord named Oda Nobunaga in 1571 to check the rising power of Tendai warrior monks. After the Tokugawa clan consolidated power and established the Edo Period Shogunate in 1603, they rebuilt the Hiei-zan temple complex and it is still the mother temple of the Tendai sect today.

courtyard of the Main Temple
young monks' work is never done it seems

monks if the Tendai Buddhist sect

Benkei no Ninaidō (with a bridge between
the two temple buildings)
the powerful Benkei pulling a heavy temple bell

        The most charming building on the complex (I thought) was called the “Benkei no Ninaidō” (Benkei holding up the temple bridge). Benkei was a Tendai warrior monk. There is a well known story about Benkei related to a fratricide, again over a power struggle, between two brothers named Yoshitsune and Yoritomo. Benkei is said to have been an unusually big and strong man who was loyal to the heroic warrior Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune was used by his clever scheming brother Yoritomo to fight the clan's battles and then had him pursued to Chūson-ji (a temple we later visited) and forced him to commit seppuku to preempt a power struggle, while his loyal retainer Benkei stood guard at the temple door to preserve the sanctity of the ritual suicide and was pierced by arrows and killed à la St. Sebastian by Yoritomo's hit men. In spite of the fraternal blood on his hands, Yoritomo was victorious over his rival warlords and founded the Kamakura Bakufu (Shogunate) system of government in Japan in 1196. This system was continued by the Tokugawa clan to rule Japan from 1603 to 1868--the Tokugawa Bakufu (Shogunate) of the Edo Period. 

portico capturing the evening sun's glow

legend says that Benkei held up this (broken) bridge
 so that other monks could cross to their prayers

cleanliness is next to godliness I suppose

looking a bit the worse for wear after a long day of driving
and walking around the Hiei-zan complex 

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