Tamonin Part 1 – Bishamonten-do
One of the readers asked if I could write more about Tamonin. It is a good day to do so, danka (sangha members) started showing up yesterday morning about 7:30 for a clean-up / work day. It’s funny that sangha members at Tendai Buddhist Institute are doing the same this last week-end. I guess I can’t dodge it regardless of my location.
In Japan a temple name ends in ‘JI’, such as Senzo-ji. The JI is the compound ending added to the name and it means temple. The name of the temple in Canaan New York is Jiunzan Tendai-ji, (Compassionate Mountain-Cloud Tendai Temple). Tamon-in, as you can see ends in ‘IN’. This compound ending is translated something like institute. This would indicate that the organization was something other than, or in addition to, a temple. The name of our establishment in Canaan, NY is Tendai Buddhist Institute, of which Jiunzan Tendai-ji is one component. It may have been a similar situation. Tamon-in literally means Many Sounds Institute.
Much of the actual history of Tamonin has been lost. We have some basic, though sketchy information, folk tales, and anecdotes. What we do know is that the temple itself is about 820 years old. It was originally a Shingon Temple that changed to Tendai some-time in the foggy past. The current buildings are about 300 years old, the previous ones having, probably, been burned down.
Temples burned down and were replaced with some frequency in days gone by, the consequence of buildings made of wood and paper, and lots of candles in use.
The grounds previous to the Great Pacific War (WWII to Americans) were fairly extensive. There are two main buildings on the grounds today. The buildings now sit on what I would guess is about five acres of land.
The two main buildings are a Bishamonten-do (Bishamonten Hall) and an Amida-do (Amida Hall). I’ll discuss the Amida hall in the next blog entry. They are separated by an open space, with small cemeteries, shrines, and memorial stones, interspersed around the grounds. Bishamonten-do is the Hondo, or main building. It is small, about 24′ x 24′ on the interior, and about 32′ x 32′ on the exterior.
Bishamonten, the honzon, is Guardian of the North, the most powerful of the Four Heavenly Kings (Shitenno), Protector of Buddhism, known for protecting holy places, especially where Shakyamuni Buddha gave discourses, he is also the deity of war and warriors, protector against demons, as well as dispenser of good fortune. He is considered one of the thirty-three manifestations of Avalokitśivara. In Hindu mythology he is a manifestation of Kuvera. “ . . . his Sanskrit name is Vaiśravana, which means one who hears everything in the kingdom.”i His associated virtue is dignity, and is also one of Japan’s ‘Seven Lucky Gods’. To the local people Bishamonten is the guardian deity of the village.
As point of interest Bishamonten is the statue to the left as we face Yakushi Nyorai honzon in our hondo in Canaan, NY. The next time you are in the hondo take a close look. This statue was carved by Rev. Kondo, of Tokyo.
The interior of the Bishamonten-do is taken up mostly by the Goma-dan (Fire Absolution Altar), shuma-dan (table on which an image typically sits or in front of the image), the images in a cabinet, and some storage space. This is the Mikkyo (esoteric) hall. The floor is tatami covered.
The statue of Bishamonten was commissioned to be carved by the wife of a village leader who went off to fight the Mongolians and never returned, presumably lost in service to his domain. Reportedly the visage of Bishamonten is reminiscent of the lost village leader. There is a statue on the right of Bishamonten that is a carving of the leader’s son, who became a monk, and his wife is on his left, she became a nun. They represent Zennishi Doji (the son) and Kichijoten, wife or sister of Bishamonten.
This small temple is nested in a rural village. All around are farmers fields. On the higher areas they grow diakon (Japanese large radish), carrots, cabbage, onions, lettuce, gobo (burdock root), etc. as well as fruit, especially, nashi (Japanese pear), apples and persimmons. On the lower areas there are rice fields.
Previously I wrote about the pattern of religious observance and the temple as a community center. When I step back and look at the role of the temple in the village from a macro perspective It is from within this rural farming village context that I think Tamonin becomes vital.
To the lives of the local people Tamonin is a center of the essence of how they define themselves. To mention Bishamonten as the protector, the guardian deity for this small community is easy to gloss over.
Japanese are at their core animists. As farmers the local people would have, and to a large extent still do, see Bishamonten as the force that influences the spirits within the earth that gives vigor to the crops, that brings the rains in the spring and dries the skies in autumn. As such then Bishamonten is the archetype to whom thoughts and prayers are sent. Nature in this context responds to solicitation and takes umbrage at intentional slights.
Bishamonten is a wrathful deity not intended to scare we mere mortals, but to bring order to the unruly kami, rei and gaki (spirits, demons and ghosts).
Do people today really believe that their thoughts and prayers will somehow persuade Bishamonten to intercede on their behalf – of course not . . . well – maybe – hmm, one can never be too sure.
At the basis of this belief system is the notion that there are forces in the cosmos that are at the least reactive to human intention, we might refer to it as consciousness. The least we can do is to honor that nature, of which we are a part.
When we gassho to Bishamonten, and share our intimate thoughts, hopes, wishes and prayers, we feel a greater connection to the forces around us, to the sentient beings that share this cosmos with us. We venerate not the statue of a fallen warrior, but a Buddhist archetype that can focus our purpose and provide us agency to the larger world around us.
Gassho . . . Monshin