Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Preview: Kiyomizu-dera

For the unfamiliar, Buddhism can seem quite confusing, and like Hinduism features lots of people with very long names. Therefore, to make it easier, I find it easier to think of it as a superhero cartoon, kind of like a spiritual version of Superman. Therefore you have Buddha himself, on his mission to free the world from suffering, with superhero powers such as super-hearing, mind-reading, and remembering his past lives. By his side is his trusty sidekick Avalokitesvara (the name may need to be made punchier for the adolescent audience of today: it actually means "Lord who looks down".) Avalokitesvara is an all round good guy, and is one of the most popular characters for the comic book cognoscenti, and helps fight world suffering when Buddha is busy meditating and plucking his hairs out. He is one of a special team, a team of boddhisattvas, who are sidekick superheroes motivated by pure love and compassion, devoted to helping others and striving towards helping all beings attain enlightenment. It's a different tone of comic from your average Marvel kick-fest, I admit. Avalokitesvara pops up quite a bit, no doubt with a spin-off series of his own, and appears in such monuments as Borobudur, the Bayon temple in Angkor (where he is merged with the god-king of the time), and the Potala Palace. And if you equate spin-off comic book series with the various denominations of a religion, then in one popular serial we have Avalokitesvara reincarnated in modern times as none other than the Dalai Lama. He's quite a guy. Oh yeah, and he has a thousand arms.

This latter development - very tricky for comic book artists to fully draw - is one that appears in the Chinese remake, now popular across that part of Asia. They also turn Avalokitesvara into a woman, and call her Guanyin, and add ten extra faces for good measure. The thousand arms are said to have been given to her to allow her to help more people, and the total of eleven faces to be able to watch even more TV... oops, no, it's to be able to hear the suffering of the people.

Always one for a good comic, the Japanese are in on this too, calling their thousand-armed Avalokitesvara the impressive superhero name of "Kannon". Kannon appears all across Japan in the form of statues (one of them, in the city of Kamaishi, is taller than the Statue of Liberty), and has inspired a number of temples too. One of them, notably, is Kiyomizu-dera.


Kiyomizu-dera (literally meaning"Clear Water Temple", relating to the waterfall within the complex) is a temple complex in Kyoto, with the spirit of Kannon said to be enshrined. This dates from the origin of the temple, way back in 798 AD, when a monk called Enchin was given a piece of wood said to have the spirit of Kannon within it. Although a less cynical era, Enchin was not unlike you or I and didn't immediately presume this to be true, but when a series of circumstances made him realise that the person who had given him the piece of wood had been Kannon herself (albeit in male form and with regular arms and faces) he set straight to it and began carving the wood in the form of Kannon. Thus a shrine to Kannon was built, and this grew into the Kiyomizu temple.

Fire gutted the complex over the centuries on more than one occasion, and so the buildings we see today date from its last reconstruction in 1633. The entire complex is spread out over several acres on the hillside overlooking the city, and consists of eighteen buildings or temples. The most notable of these is the Main Hall. Wooden, like all the other buildings, it was built without nails, and is an example of "overhang" architecture with a large stage jutting over the side of the hill, supported by a complex system of pillars and interlocking beams. It is the "face" of Kiyomizu-dera, and is the most widely photographed part. It has also lent itself to a phrase in the Japanese language, with the equivalent of the English "to take the plunge" being "to jump off the porch of Kiyomizu". A tradition from the Edo period, which stretched from the early 17th to late 19th Centuries, was that jumping from the 13-metre-high stage would earn you a wish - if you survived. It's estimated that 424 people took this leap of faith, with 362 surviving, making an 85.4% survival rate. There's no record, alas, of what percent of wishes were granted. The practice is now, unsurprisingly, prohibited. Besides, there are much safer ways of getting a wish in the modern age - blow out birthday candles, chuck a coin in a fountain, see a shooting star - that don't involve a 14.6% chance of death.

Aside from the Main Hall, which appears to be the focal point for the four million visitors every year, Kiyomizu-dera boast a host of immaculately kept buildings, such as the three-storey Koyasu-no To pagoda, where prayers can be made for easy childbirth, and allows great view across the whole complex. There's the Amida Buddha Hall, which apparently contains the monk Enchin's carving of Kannon - I say apparently, because it's only shown to the public once every 33 years.


But that's ok, because there's another statue of Kannon around, in the form of the Koyasu Kannon (koyasu means "easy childbirth") in the picturesque Sanjunoto pagoda, where pregnant women can pray for a healthy child. Kiyomizu temple seems a handy spot to visit for expectant mothers. And in case mother or fatherhood is still a distant dream, Kiyomizu can even cater for lonely singletons, in the form of the Shinto shrine, Jishu-jinga. Its dedicated to the Shinto spirit of "love and good matches" and has a pair of love-predicting stones. These stones are six metres apart, and if the desperate bachelor or unlucky-in-love spinster is able to walk from one stone to the other with their eyes closed, then love will soon enter their life. But if they open their eyes: no love for you. If they can't find the other stone: no love for you. So as with the veranda-jumpers, it's a gambler's game. However, it sounds like the mass of tourists is so great in this part of the complex, that even walking from one stone to the other with your eyes open is quite a challenge.

Kiyomizu-dera was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994, as part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. For a thousand years, Kyoto was the capital of Japan, and remains its historic and cultural heart, despite modernisation still being packed with ancient temples and shrines. Kyoto itself would surely be a contender for a "Wonder city", with its highly distinctive look and charm, although is clearly too big and spread out to be a single Wonder. Thus Kiyomizu-dera is one of two locations within it I think stands out, and appears to be one of the most celebrated temples there, while being commanding enough to inspire an appropriate amount of "awe". Of course, photos and descriptions can only go so far, and so I await a visit eagerly.

I will visit Kiyomizu-dera in Feburary or March, and will give a fuller account of its history as well as my own impressions then. I've got a number of wishes - either financially-related or simply obscene - and if the coast if clear I might try a few plunges from the Main Hall.

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