Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Kiyomizu Dera... Almost a Wonder of the World

27th October, 2006 - The wet weather from the evening before had disappeared, and a fresh early-autumn day greeted us. We were heading to one of the most famous temples Kyōto, and for many people a must-see. That temple is Kiyomizu Dera - The Clear Water Temple. It is one of the oldest temples in Kyōto, dating from around 788 AD (some six years prior to the commmencement of construction of the city by Emperor Kammu).

During this time, there was a monk from Nara by the name of Enchin who proportedly had a dream that he would find a source of pure water at the head of the Kamogawa. On arriving into the foothills of what is now eastern Kyōto, he found another priest, Gyoei, who instructed him to carve a figure of the Buddha Kannon out of a piece of sacred wood. Having done as asked (obviously Enchin was pretty care-free), the monk Gyoei then up and disappeared, and Enchin came to believe that Gyoei was in fact a manifestation of the Kannon himself. Another part of the tale tells of how Sakanoue Tamuramaro, one of leading generals of the time, came upon Enchin after a (bloody) deer-hunt... for deer blood was apparently a good medication to ease child-birth. At this time Enchin set about to teach him the wrongs of his ways. Impressed with Enchin's arguments (or desperate for the dressing down to finish), the general set about to establish the temple proper by donating the hall that had been given to him by the Emperor. This went on to become the basis of the temple that sits there today - now one of the few remaining grand temples of the Hossō Buddhist sect.

Arriving from Kiyomizu-zaka (the street leading to the temple), one climbs steps to arrive at the Niō-mon (built pre-1478 AD). This two storey structure houses the mon, the guardians of temple.

Shame they aren't easy to see... very camera shy indeed.

After this is the Kyodo, or Buddhist scripture libraries.

The Sanju-no-to (three storied pagoda) was constructed in 1633. The painting of such temple buildings is typically in vermillion colour. The colouring comes originally from the tradition in China of painting temples with this reddish-orange pigment which originally derived from the very rare cinnabar (in natural form), and later by reaction of mercury with sulfur. This is the tallest 3-story pagoda in Japan - but to be honest, I'm not sure that this isn't due to being built on a mountain!

Nearby is the 11-storey stone stupa known as Juichi-ju Sekiso-To... (translation = the 11 storied stone stupa... of course). Ok... what it lacks in size, it makes up in numbers of stories.

The main hall (hondo), or Shishin-den was bequeathed by the Emperor to a general (Sakenoue-no-Tamuramaro), who gave the building (originally from the Imperial Palace in Nagaoka) to the Kiyomizu-Dera temple in 794 AD. There it existed until 1629 when it was destroyed by fire, and the building that exists now is a reconstruction of that original building.

Within the hondo you can also see this fine fellow below...Daikokuten (or Daikoku) of the seven Gods of fortune (shichi fukujin).  He's associated with, amongst other things, promotions at work. So.. needless to say he's one of the favourite sons of Kiyomizu Dera. There's always a lot of Japanese offering their hopes, and money, to him for a spot of help at work. When in Rome... however - I have to say... it didn't work for me! The poor god was at the mercy of over-zealous patrons that used to throw their coins at the statue (rather than in the offatory box)... he's recently been re-painted...

Whilst the main hall, or hondo, is fairly non-descript on the outside as you approach it, it's fairly cluttered on the inside. The main statue in Kiyomizu Dera is the eleven faced Kannon - the statue carved by Enchin way back at the start of the temple's history. Having said that... you've got to be quick - the statue is only brought out once every 33 years... and 2010 is that year. Back in 2006 when we visited Kiyomizu Dera, this statue was not visible. The number 33 is significant - and we see it often in Buddhist belief- supposedly it took 33 vows to save mankind. Even without this historic statue, the inner sanctuary was very interesting...if a little dark.

This building is unusual for a Buddhist structure, having a cypress thatched roof – a reminder of the fact that this building had originally been part of the Imperial Palace. The building is sited on the side of a cliff, and is supported approximately 13 metres above the floor, supported by a platform of 139 pillars.

The temple was historically aligned to the Kōfukuji temple, in Nara. With the rise of the Enryaku-ji temple, and the growing dissent between the two sects, a conflict erupted when the abbot of Kiyomizu Dera was given to a former monk from Hiei-zan (the mountain on which Enryaku-ji sits). Amongst the civil disturbance that ensued, the Kiyomizu Dera temple complex was largely burnt down by disgruntled monks from Enryaku-ji. This was one of the trigger points for the Court to send the Taira (Heiké) and Minamoto (Genji) warriors to settle the monks down in 1113 AD... and followers of Japanese history know how that plan eventually ended - all out civil war between the Taira and Minamoto clans.

It's easy not to realise when you're standing on the platform just what a marvel the temple is... from a distance it looks much more precarious. Indeed - so the legend goes - your wishes would be granted if one were to survive a jump from the platform of Kiyomizu-Dera. I suspect the #1 wish would go something like this: go back in time and DON'T JUMP OFF STOOPID TEMPLE. Apparently (according to sensei Wikipedia) about 234 jumps were recorded... of those, about 85% survived.  Those aren't bad odds... are they?

Kiyomizu Dera was in the shortlist for the new seven wonders of the world... but just missed out.

From the landing you can see the Amida Hall... The Amida Hall is a popular location to take in the sheer audacity of the temple structure (as seen in the photo above).

And within the Amida Hall (Amida-do), the golden Buddha sits serenely. Amida, the Buddha of the Western Paradise, sits in contemplation; surrounded by a golden aura of 1000 Buddha figures. It was here that the monk Honen first put forward the concept of the Namu Amida Butsu - the belief that recitation of the Amida Buddha's name alone could guarantee salvation.

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  1. It looks magnificent! Seems like you picked a great day to visit. Will you try going this year to view the statue? Plus, seeing as you didn't get a chance last time, you could always take a leap from the platform. =P

  2. Naw... we're only going to Hokkaido and Tokyo this year. As for jumping off the platform... believe me, somedays it has seemed like a good idea! ?;)

  3. some cool pics! i read somewhere that not one nail was used in the temple structure.

    jumping from the platform reminds me of the japanese equivalent of the english phrase "if your friends decide to jump off a bridge, would you?". i can just imagine japanese mum's all over the country saying "If your friends decide to jump off of kiyomizu, would you?"

  4. Yeah - that's what I read as well, that the whole thing is held together with skill, planning, and a whole heap of luck. It is an engineering marvel.

    As for the idea of following your friends over a cliff... I kinda suspect the sound of cracking bones and groans of excruciating pain would be good medicine against that fad catching on.