One of the highlights of my trip was to visit the famous Buddhist temple in Tokyo called Sensōji (浅草寺), in the district of Asakusa (浅草).* According to Wikipedia, this is one of the oldest temples in Tokyo, if not all of Japan, and originally belong to the Tendai sect, though is more independent now. The temple revolves around a tiny statue of Kannon Bodhisattva, discovered in the 7th century by some fishermen. From what people told me, the statue is called issun Kannon (一寸観音), where “sun” (寸) is an old unit of measurement, but you can think of it as something like “one-inch Kannon”. Also, I’ve heard they only show that statue rarely, since it is a national treasure, but there’s a lot of souvenir artwork that gives you an idea what it looks like.
Anyways, I’ve been to Sensoji before, but at the time, my understanding of Buddhism wasn’t that good, and so this time around, I felt l like I was better able to take in the scenery and learn some things. Also, I took better pictures this time, now uploaded to Flickr. Granted, I am a terrible photographer anyways, so the pictures are not great (for some reason all of them are slightly off-center, which hurts my eyes if I look too long), but believe me, the previous ones were worse.
Also, I also came away with a nice souvenir, which I’ll expand on later.
The first thing you see when you get to Sensoji is the famous kaminarimon (雷門), or “Thunder Gate”:
In front of Sensoji is a large market called Nakamise-dōri (仲店通り), which is a big road with shops on both sides:
Since we just finished New Year in Japan, the street was much more festive than I remember last time (Oct. 2007). This being the year of the Ox, which is usually ushi, (牛), but for the purposes of the Chinese Zodiac, is depicted as (丑). Decorations related to this are easy to find at Nakamise-dōri:
By the way, the third-to-last shop sells deep fried manju which is really, really good. Manju are those soft, rice cake-like things, but these ones are deep-fried and warm. Very tasty. Anyways, when you get past the shops, you reach the second gate:
This is the Hōzōmon (包蔵門), or “Treasure House Gate”. From there, you get to the main worship hall itself, while the famous Pagoda sits to the left. This is inside the worship hall:
There’s a lot to describe here. You can see the statues on either side, which are of the Hindu gods Indra (taishakuten, 帝釈天) on the left and Brahma (bonten, 梵天) on the right protecting the Kannon statue hidden behind the red curtain. The mesh screen was there to keep money thrown into the collection box (o-saisen-hako, お賽銭箱) from getting into the inner sanctum. This may sound funny, but there’s so many people crowded around, people throw money into the box from a long-distance often, and I saw a few hit that fence, so it’s clearly doing its job. After I my mishap at Kawasaki Daishi, where my coin bounced off the grill into the inner hall, I know how easy it is to miss the target, even up close and when you’re the only one standing there.
Now what about that big red tapestry in the back, and what’s the symbol mean? Tendai Buddhism incorporates some elements of esoteric Buddhism, or mikkyō (密教), though it’s not a purely-esoteric sect like Shingon Buddhism. In Japanese esoteric Buddhism, they preserve an ancient writing script for Sanskrit called siddham, and use the letters as symbols of various things, and objects of meditation. After consulting Visible Mantra, I found that the letter shown here is the letter “sa” in Siddham Sanskrit, so I asked a very reliable source, who said that in Japanese esoteric Buddhism, the letter “sa” relates to “two-armed” form of Kannon Bodhisattva, and is the first letter of the Sanskrit word, satya, or “truth”. So now you know.
In the large hall, they also sell some Buddhist items like charms, images, rosaries and such. In the past, this used to bug me a lot, but after reading some stuff on Shingon Buddhism, which does the same, I now have a better understanding why. I hope to write on that in a later post as I digest some of the Shingon material I brought back. The great thing though was that they sold a little “Kannon Bodhisattva” devotional prayer book. The book came in two sizes: small and not-so-small, and sold for ¥500 and ¥1000 respectively ($7 and $12, or €4.50 and €9). The book actually turned out to be quite a lot for such a small book, as it contained some basic Tendai Buddhist liturgy, which I am trying to understand/translate, but also three different sutras:
- The Kannon Sutra (chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra), or “kannon-kyō” (観音經)
- The Heart Sutra, or “hannya-shingyō” (般若心經)
- The 10-verse Kannon Sutra, or “jukku kannon kyō” (十句觀音經)
As the temple is devoted to Kannon Bodhisattva, it stands to reason that all the sutras printed are related to Kannon.
Now, most people tend to walk back down the street at this point, but I decided to explore the temple compound more and found some other nice statues and halls. I couldn’t take pictures in one hall, which had a large array of Buddhist statues of various types. The hall was back and to the left of the main hall, so definitely go there if you can. Spanning between the two halls was a nice Japanese stream and bridge:
Also, I found a really great statue of Amida (Amitabha) Buddha:
Tendai Buddhism, at heart, centers around the Lotus Sutra as the central text of Buddhism, but early on, Pure Land Buddhist teachings gained a great deal of prominence. It’s no surprise that Honen and Shinran, both important figures in the Pure Land movement, were former monks of the Tendai sect. Genshin, a much earlier figure, also wrote a great deal on Pure Land teachings, including his famous work, the Ōjōyōshū (往生要集), or “Essentials of Birth in the Pure Land”. So, Amida Buddha is prominent at this temple, and just off to the left of the main hall. To the right of the main hall, I saw a really nice statue of Jizō Bodhisattva as well. Given that Tendai, like Shingon, is a pretty syncretic sect of Buddhism, it’s not surprising to see other figures there, even though it’s most devoted to Kannon. It’s all part of the Dharma.
Lastly, I wanted to show a picture of the Pagoda:
A pagoda in East Asian culture is the equivalent of the ancient Indian Buddhist “stupa“, which were used to contain relics of the Buddha, or his disciples, or store important sutras and such. This was a long time ago before you could mass-print important texts. So, if you could obtain a sutra back then, whether it was written on palm leaves, silk, whatever, you were really lucky. In medieval times, the Chinese made some really dangerous, but brave pilgrimages to India to collect as much as they could and bring back. The famous monk, Xuan Zang (玄奘, sounds like “shuen tsang”) wrote of his travels and adventures getting to India and back, while carrying a huge wagonload of important texts. In time, the Chinese stored these in pagodas, and later other East Asian countries adopted the custom.
For Sensoji, I don’t know what’s in the Pagoda, as they’re usually closed to the public, but like other pagodas, it probably contains some important artwork and other relics of earlier Buddhism.
So, that’s Sensoji in summary. While Sensoji is a big tourist-trap in a way, if you have an appreciation of Buddhism, you can really see a lot of great and inspiring things there beyond the surface-level touristy stuff. My impression both last time and this one, was that people loved the temple, and there were a lot of devout followers mixed in with sight-seers. Again, you can’t always judge by initial appearances.
Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu
* – Notice that both words have the same first two Kanji. “Sensō” is the Chinese-style “on yomi” for reading those Kanji, while “Asakusa” is the more Japanese-style “kun yomi” reading. To really understand, you have to be proficient in both.