Pathways to Enlightenment

By Pye, Michael | UNESCO Courier, May 1995 | Go to article overview
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Pathways to Enlightenment


Pye, Michael, UNESCO Courier


In Japan some pilgrimages involve a grand tour of almost a hundred temples. Others take only a few minutes' walk.

Pilgrimages in Japan usually combine a serious religious intention with a readiness to enjoy the journey as an excursion of recreational value. This has been true at least since the eighteenth century, when pilgrimage became popular as one of the reasons for which ordinary people could get permission to travel. Since then it has usually been difficult to distinguish between the touristic and the religious aspects of pilgrimage. Or rather, we should say that it is inappropriate to try. Leisure travel has often simply been combined with religious travel, with the more or less integrated purpose of maximizing individual and family welfare. It is therefore small wonder that nowadays even the rather serious long-distance Buddhist pilgrimages are performed with the help of a comfortable coach and pre-booked hotel accommodation.

In general two types of pilgrimage may be distinguished in Japan. One is what may be called "single-site" pilgrimage, that is, a religious journey, for special reasons, to one specific holy place. This is not different in principle from pilgrimage the world over. The second is only complete when a number of sites of equal importance have been visited. In a strict sense this type of pilgrimage appears to be special to Japan.

Single-site pilgrimages in Japan are important in several religions. Historically significant was the pilgrimage to Ise Jingu, the great Shinto shrine to the sun-goddess Amaterasu. In the eighteenth century this was immensely popular and became something of a mass movement. Today the visitors to Ise Jingu are again very numerous, though they are relatively restrained, being satisfied with a short prayer and a commemorative photograph. The journey itself is not difficult, though it is a little complicated from major centres such as Tokyo or Osaka. Other major Shinto shrines draw their own special public. Izumo is one of several shrines where prayers for a good marriage are thought to be specially effective.

Dawn on Mount Ontake

In some cases there is a kind of division of labour according to region. Inari-sama, a divinity of commerce, is visited at the Fushimi Inari Shrine near Kyoto by residents of western Japan and at Kasama Inari Shrine, north of Tokyo, by those living on the eastern Kanto Plain. Since visits to these shrines nevertheless involve considerable journeys they may be regarded as pilgrimages in a general sense. After all, it is usually possible to say prayers to Inari-sama much nearer to home, as many business areas or even individual businesses have their own shrine to this Shinto god or kami. Pilgrimage is the deliberate traversing of a route to a sacred place which lies outside one's normal habitat.

Buddhism in Japan is organized in several different strands or denominations, and in most cases it is the historic head temple which provides the natural focus for pilgrimage. Some of these temples are relatively difficult to reach. The centre of Shingon Buddhism, for example, was purposely set up by its founder Kukai on remote Mount Koya. Nowadays the neighbourhood can be reached by rail or road and there is a cable car to master the difficult ascent to the top.

Other Buddhist denominations have centres in urban areas. Shin Buddhist believers, for example, flow regularly to the two great temples in Kyoto, namely Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji, which are both within walking distance of the railway station. Visits to these temples are not meant to be arduous. Rather they are understood as an act of loyal devotion and gratitude, for the believers rely on the saving power of Amida Buddha rather than on any merit of their own.

Another famous centre of Buddhist pilgrimage, an extensive temple area known as Zenkoji, is jointly cared for by two Buddhist traditions, the Tendai and the Jodo (Pure Land) denominations.

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