Chion-in Temple in Kyoto
By Jim Caldwell
The Chion in Temple, one of Kyoto’s other great Buddhist temples, resides in the Higashiyama district. Based on the teaching of Hōnen who lived from 1133 to 1212, the Jōdo Shū (Pure Land Sect) form of Buddhism has over 7,000 temples throughout Japan, with Chion-in being the head temple.
After a nighttime raid of the family residence at the age of nine and on his father’s deathbed, Hōnen (his given name as a child was Seishimaru) was told, “If you avenge hatred with hatred, there will never be an end to the hatred in the world of men. With a broad heart that has transcended hate, seek out the Buddhist path through which all people are saved.”
Over the next three and half decades Hōnen developed and refined what would become Jōdo Shū. During this period Japan suffered through political the battles and transition from Heian Era to samurai rule. At the same time, earthquakes, famine and disease beset the Japan. At the age of 43 Hōnen preached that one could achieve salvation through the simple chant, “Namu Amida Butsu” (I Seek Refuge in Amida) with all one’s heart, chanting the nembutsu.
Fifteen years after Hōnen’s death soldiers from Mount Hiei destroyed his gravesite. His disciples moved Hōnen from his burial spot of his original meditation grounds to Nishiyama Aono. By 1234 the new burial site had decayed from lack of oversight. Genchi, one of his closest disciples, restored the gravesite and began developing what eventually would become the Chion-in Temple (originally named Chion-in Ōtani-dera and derived from a service Hōnen preformed for his followers).
During the Edo period, Japan’s top military leaders, Tokugawa shogun, took the temple under its wing and became a benefactor from the 1600s to the late 1800s. The consistent stream of financial support enable the Chion-in Temple to hire master tradesman and become one of the most significant Japanese Buddhist temples.
Check out Chion-in Temple’s list of events. One of the most important is ringing of Chion-in’s bell on New Year’s Eve. This event is broadcast across Japan. Chion-in’s bell weighs approximately 24 tons with a diameter just under 9 foot. One monk, holding a rope attached to the front of the bell’s ram, leads the other monks holding ropes attached to the rear of the ram. The monks began to chant, barely audible at first and then increasingly loud as they pull their rear ropes, setting the ram into a swinging motion towards the bell. The main monk at the front of the ram, to this point, had been preventing the ram from advancing to the bell suddenly pulls on his rope with full force, sending the ram into the bell.
Chion-in Temple’s are known for its two gardens, Yūzen’en and Hōjō. While visiting the temple grounds is free, there are separate charges for seeing these two gardens.
Just an amazing bit of grace one would not expect to see at Japanese Buddhist temple.