Friday, September 08, 2006
The photo accompanying the introductory remarks shows a temple of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. Shingon was founded in the early 9th century by Kobo Daishi, also known as Kukai. Today, Shingon and its 47 sub-sects maintain some 12,000 temples and number 12,000,000 adherents. The inscribed pillar beside the gate informs us that Shijiin, as the temple is named, is one of 21 such temples in the Echigo region, an ancient province that comprises Niigata Prefecture. While there are probably hundreds of Shingon temples in Echigo, I suspect that Shijiin Temple (as well as the other 20) claims its special status by virtue of its impressive size, as well as from its collection of statuettes representing the 88 temples of the famous Shikoku pilgrimage. Each statue is inscribed with a number, 1-88, which indicates the order in which its corresponding temple appears along the pilgrimage route. Furthermore, the Buddhist deity or saint associated with each temple is carved on the statue in relief. Each year thousands of Buddhist faithful and non-believers alike undertake to complete a stage, or some few stages, of the pilgrimage route. The especially devout or determined may don the traditional white robe of a Buddhist pilgrim and, with the pilgrim's staff for support, set off on foot. Others dispense with the garb and staff, opting to save time and shoe leather by traveling on two wheels. For those of infirm body or purpose, there are charter bus tours available.