Tales of a Buddhist Pilgrim: me

So, readers of the blog know that whenever I go to Japan with my wife to visit her relatives (who in turn want to see their granddaughter), I never fail to make a trip out to this Buddhist temple or that. For someone like me, who grew up in Seattle and never even knew what Buddhism was before I was 16, let alone see a temple, it’s a very important experience. It’s hard to grow up and live in a non-Buddhist culture when you chose to walk the Buddhist path, and so it’s nice to reconnect whenever possible with Buddhist culture, bring back little items that are hard to obtain the West, and just soak up the good experiences.1

There are many famous pilgrimage circuits (or junrei 巡礼) in Japan, that have been tread by devout followers for many centuries, and now by non-Japanese too, but for someone like me, I just like to visit certain places in particular. I never fail to visit Sensoji in Tokyo at least once a visit for example. And since my first trip to Japan in 2005, I also try to bring my “pilgrimage book” too. These are something easily overlooked by tourists in Japan, but if you’re interested in Buddhism or visiting religion sites, it’s a nice way to record your trip there.

Pilgrimage books, or goshuinchō (御朱印帖) are sold pretty much at every Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine. I think they’re about ¥1000 ($11 US), but this may vary. Once you have a pilgrimage book, anytime you visit a famous temple or shrine, you’ll likely find a small office that will stamp your book and write some calligraphy on there for about ¥100 – 300 ($2-4 US). The stamps are almost always red, and feature a design unique to the temple, while the calligraphy can be quite exquisite or more mediocre depending on who does it. My wife grew up studying calligraphy and offers comments on my book whenever it gets stamped, but I can’t tell which ones are good or not as I lack her artistic eye.

The always excellent OnMarkProductions explains this in quite a lot of detail and it’s worth the time to read. Apparently, according to the online Japanese dictionary jisho.org, the term “shuin” (朱印) also refers to a red-seal, with implications belonging to the Edo Period, so the practice may date from them. I cannot confirm this though.

Here are a couple of pictures from my pilgrimage book:

Japanese Pilgrim Book 2

The stamp in the middle is from Todaiji where I purchased the book. The stamp on the left is from Kasuga Shrine, one of the most venerable Shinto shrines in Nara, Japan and object of Imperial visits in the day. It’s famous for the huge number of stone lanterns leading up to the entrance. Being the idiot tourist at the time, I had no appreciation of where I was until years later, when I read about Heian-era pilgrimages to this venerable shrine. The stamp on the right belongs to a small temple/shrine in Kanagawa Prefecture called Hōjōbō (Hinatayakushi) and is very close to where my father-in-law grew up. It is devoted to the Medicine Buddha, and it was here that I remember first really being impressed by the Buddhist notion of compassion (I had never heard of the Medicine Buddha before that moment) and sealed my personal conversion to Buddhism for good.2

Here’s another picture:

Japanese Pilgrim Book

The stamp on the right is the temple of Sanjūsangendō, famous for the many statues of Kannon Bodhisattva, and the middle stamp is of Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. The one on the left I believe is part of the large Rinnōji temple complex of Nikko near where my mother-in-law’s family. This particular temple, named Jōgyōdō (常行堂) had a rare statue of Amitabha Buddha riding a bird (a crane I think), and many tablets containing prayers to children who died too young.

Looking at the old pilgrimage book isn’t a chance to show off what a pious Buddhist I am. For me, each stamp is kind of personal and reflects my bumbling progress on the Buddhist path, beginning when I was 16, culminating into trips to venerable temples where many others like me sought the Dharma over the centuries, and then me carrying this back to Western audiences to help spread the knowledge. Anyone who has picked up one of these books may feel that same appreciation I hope. Critics may argue this is just another cultural accretion, but even the Buddha himself remarked that pilgrimages undertaken in sincere faith were an important part of Buddhism (Maha-parinibbana Sutta for example, chapter 5), and so from idiot tourist, to devout follower, my life has changed in the last 5 years due to these pilgrimages, and I can’t help but thank all the myriad people over countless generations who kept things working and available so people like me could also awaken to the path. Truly, a pilgrimage can be a humbling experience, and I am eager to take up the path once again on this new trip.

Namo Shaka Nyorai
Namo Amida Butsu
Namo Yakushi Nyorai

1 Which I believe also perfumes the mind in a positive way.

2 It was at Chion-in in Kyoto I saw Buddhist devotion for the first time, and being introduced to the Medicine Buddha at the temple above really drove home for me another side of Buddhism beyond sitting and meditation. Here’s something that struck me too as I wrote this: the Chion-in was a temple devoted to Amitabha Buddha, while the temple above is devoted to the Medicine Buddha. Between these two encounters, I eventually got into the Pure Land path. But the Medicine Buddha Sutra, a Buddhist text, also contains statements that the Medicine Buddha helps support those seeking rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitabha:

If their rebirth in the Pure Land [of Amitabha] is still uncertain, but they hear the name of the World-Honored Medicine Buddha, then, at the time of death, eight great Bodhisattvas, namely Manjushri, Avalokitesvara, Mahasthamaprapta, Aksayamati, Ratnacandana, Bhaishajya-raja, Bhaishajya-samudgata, and Maitreya will traverse space and descend to show them the way. They will thereupon be reborn spontaneously in jeweled flowers of many hues.

Coincidence? Maybe, but wow that’s freaky. Here’s another example of the two Buddhas working in concert.

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8 Comments on “Tales of a Buddhist Pilgrim: me”

  1. rory says:

    talk about synchronicity I was just reading about these pilgrim books, so its wonderful to see one. One day want to make the Kannon pilgrimage
    The Todaiji stamp has siddham script, probably the esoteric mantra. Really interesting.
    Posting this counts definitely ‘wholesome factors’ I am just reading chapter 5 about alaya consciouness in Living Yogacarya & now I feel just like you did!
    I got interested in Buddhism at 16 as well in NYC but it was all zen in those days, its taken me this long to reach and appreciate these kind of deep concepts, that are so practical. And going to the temple & having devotion to Amida, Yakushi Nyorai not either/or but both….
    So thanks Doug for perfuming the seeds (wonderful evocative phrase) I am making a big gassho over a continent and ocean in gratitude

  2. johnl says:

    Rory-san, you have good eyes to spot the Siddham letter! I wouldn’t have known. Doug, you have good fortune to have so many temple stamps. I didn’t know about this custom until recently, so my shuincho still has only a handful of stamps, but they are certainly wonderful. You can try to decipher the stylized letters of the stamps, try to decipher the cursive handwriting, but no matter what, a certain power and dynamism is noticeable in these images.

  3. Rory says:

    Heh, it’s my good myopia John-san. Since Hosso and Kegon sects also took up esoteric practice I’m guessing that’s why it is on the stamp. Looks like a bha

  4. Kelly says:

    Hey Doug! I had to look up your blog again b/c I’ve missed seeing your goofy face over on Facebook. Thought I’d say hi, apropos to nothing on this blog. :)

  5. Jonathan says:

    Wow, what a beautiful pilgrimage book. I actually didn’t know anything about this practice, so I appreciate seeing these images. Funny that I just happened to be reading about pilgrimage in the medieval Western (esp. pilgrim badges); seems like the red stamps/seals serve the same function as the brass/metal badges did…

  6. Doug says:

    Hi guys, sorry for the late reply:

    Rory/Johnl: yeah, I think this little tradition, while nt crucial to Buddhism certainly deserves more attention. :-)

    Kelly: great to hear from you again. :-) glad I left FB, but I do
    miss a lot of folks.

    Johnathan: and I had no idea medieval pilgrimages had brass badges either! Clearly we should chat again soon. :-)

  7. johnl says:

    I am a bit late here, but I just looked at one of the ‘liner’ sheets that they put between the pages to prevent smearing of the fresh ink. Often they are plain sheets of paper, but this one (from Sensoji, I think) had some explanation about the shuin, claiming that the custom arose from the ‘receipt’ that a donor would get when donating sutra copies to a temple. They suggest in addition to collecting the stamps, we should also copy a sutra from time to time to donate.

  8. Doug says:

    Hi John, thanks for the info. That actually makes a lot of sense. :-)

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