Friday, February 20, 2009

Nyoirin Kannon

(This post on the statue of the Nyoirin Kannon is from Alexandra. Thank you Alexandra!)

This statue of the bodhisattva Nyoirin Kannon (Sanskrit: Cintamanicakra Avalokitesvara) dates back to ninth-century Japan and holds widespread esteem among devotees and scholars alike as a preeminent representative of Japanese Esoteric Buddhist art. It is housed in the Japanese Buddhist temple Kanshinji. In keeping with the tradition of secrecy and revelation of Esoteric Buddhism, the statue is kept hidden for the majority of the year, only being revealed to the public on two days. These special revelatory days, April 17 and 18, are thus times of widespread pilgrimage to the Kanshinji Temple when devotees trek through the mountains south of Osaka to beseech the wish-fulfilling powers of Nyoirin Kannon (Bogel 30).

The locus of Nyoirin Kannon’s power is considered to be contained within a jewel. This is the eponymous power to grant all wishes of devotees. Certainly the most bizarre incident involving this power of Nyoirin Kannon occurred in 1955 when a fanatic devotee of the bodhisattva became convinced the statue had somehow lost this jewel. Thus convinced the statue was void of power, the man hid himself in the main hall until nighttime when no-one was around determined to destroy the statue. Finding it too heavy to lift, the devotee crushed the statue’s two hands in his frustration and later ceremoniously burned them in a nearby rice field. Later the man turned himself into the authorities for his crime (Bogel 30). It would seem this is not only an example of aberrant religious behavior, but an indicator of the affective power this statue has maintained since its creation.

Within esoteric teaching there is the notion that religious implements, such as texts, relics and statues like the one in question, are not didactic aids which cannot fully convey the truth of the Buddha’s teachings, but are teachings themselves. All sights and sounds are thus the body of the Dharmakaya Buddha. Other traditions which reject this notion are referred to as “exoteric.” Kukai, the founder of the Shingon school of esoteric Buddhism, was explicit about this divide between exoteric and esoteric Buddhism, and the superiority of the esoteric path (Block and Starling 8). Many scholars consider this statue to have occupied the central position of worship (honzon) in the temple since its creation. If this is true then, the statue has been utilized by Esoteric Buddhist practitioners for more than one-thousand years in hopes of achieving the purported claim of esotericism—that the practitioner is capable of achieving full enlightenment within this present body. In fact, the jewel previously mentioned is also understood to represent this aspiration for enlightenment as well the wisdom which gives rise to its fulfillment (Jaanus).

In light of all this, one can potentially empathize with our quirky criminal devotee from before. If the Nyoirin Kannon statue had truly been considered to have lost its locus of power, then the devotee would have been left both without the path (since the statue itself is the teaching) as well as the fulfillment of the path. While the statue was repaired after its attack, one wonders how the devotee made amends with Nyoirin Kannon. Perhaps it was comforting that he could only see her twice a year.

~ guest blogger, Alexandra Prince