The Guide to Shikoku 88 Temples
About the Shikoku Pilgrimage
The Shikoku Pilgrimage or Shikoku Henro is a pilgrimage to the 88 temples on the island of Shikoku in Japan. It´s believed that all the 88 temples were founded or restored by the famous Buddhist monk Kukaki, also posthumously known as Kobo Taishi. The pilgrimage is traditionally completed on foot, but modern pilgrims use cars, taxies, buses, bikes or motorcycles. The walking course takes approximately 50 days to complete.
Around the year of 1140, the pilgrims were first mentioned in Konjaku Monogatari or ‘An Anthology of Tales from the Past´. It says that young ascetics willingly visited the coasts on Shikoku, consisting of 4 provinces of Iyo (the present Ehime Prefecture), Sanuki (Kagawa), Awa (Tokushima) and Tosa (Kochi). It was probably done in the asceticism to “Ne no Kuni” or Hades. In that era, the roads and areas along the coasts of Shikoku, remote from the capital, was called “Hechi (辺地) or an out-of-the- way place”. This Hechi (辺地) would be turned to Heji (辺路), Hen (偏), and finally to Henro (遍路).
Osettai or Hospitality
Osettai is our customs to support 88 temple pilgrims. Some people along the pilgrimage roads offer a rest place and foods for free. From ancient times, ascetics are even given donation, called “ofuse”, by people wishing to be blessed by Buddha through their actions of support. Some asked the ascetics to give a prayer instead of them and some believed the ofuse itself would be a kind of charity act.
In the Edo period (1603- 1867), the almsgiving services were firmly established as it got popular for not only the ascetics but also common people to take the pilgrimage. This would be the origin of “Osettai”. Since then, it's got a big support for the pilgrims on such serious distances and has much contributed to the sustenance of the Shikoku pilgrimage. For this background, it is not exaggeration to say “Shikoku is the only place where this tradition of Osettai exists so deeply”.
About Kukai (also posthumously known as Kobo Taishi)
Kukai was born on 15 June 744 in the present city of Zentsuji in Kagawa prefecture of Japan. At age fifteen, he traveled to the former capital and at eighteen, he entered the government university. While he studied the Chinese philosophy and ideology there, he began to doubt the careerism laid in the higher education. At the age of 24, he published a literary work Sango Shiiki, which states his idea “Buddhism is the highest teachings”. Then, he went into religion and sought out isolated mountain regions for ascetic training.
One night, Kukai had a dream which told him on ‘Dainichikyo or Mahavairocana Sutra' under the east tower of Kume temple locared in Yamato (modern day Nara). It's the scripture which contains the ultimate Buddhism doctrine “Mikkyo or Vajrayana Buddhism”. Tough he soon managed to obtain a copy of this sutra, he immediately encountered difficulty. Much of the sutra was very cryptic and he could find nobody who could explain the text for him. This resolved him to go to the capital of Chang'an (present day Xi'an) of Tang Dynasty China to study the text there.
In July 804, the 31-year-old Kukai took part in a government-sponsored expedition to Chang'an from the Tanoura port in Nagasaki. It took six months for him to arrive in Chang'an as the journey was not easy on stormy sea and painful distance by land. There, he visited from temple to temple to look for a master of Mikkyo. And eventually, he met Master Huiguo the man who came from an illustrious lineage of Vajrayana Buddhist masters at the Qinglong Monastery. Under Huiguo's guidance, Kukai received the final initiation in a few short months, and became a master of the esoteric lineage with named “Henjo Kongo”. As Huiguo instructed Kukai to return to Japan instantly and spread the esoteric teachings there for the nation's fortune, Kukai left off the 20 years studying plan in China and was back in Japan two years after his departure.
After the return to Japan, Kukai founded the Shingon or “True Word” school of Buddhism and acted based at the Toji temple in Kyoto and the Mount Koya retreat in Wakayama Prefecture. He was not only famous for the acknowledged master of esoteric Buddhism but also as a civil engineer, poet and calligrapher. On 21 March 835, Kukai died at the age of 62 on Mt. Koya and legend says he entered into an eternal samadhi.
*The posthumous name Kobo Daishi (means “Great Master”) was granted by the imperial court 86 years after his death, due to the efforts of Kanken, the 4th patriarch of the Mt. Koya retreat.
About the Shingon family of Buddhism
Buddhism is a family of beliefs and practices, based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha (born as a prince of Shakya clan in Lumbini, which is in present day Nepal).
About 2,500years ago, Siddhartha Gautama was spiritually awakened in the Indian subcontinent and became the Buddha; meaning “Awakened one” or “Enlightened One” in Sanskrit. Buddha's teachings provide instructions on how to understand the true nature of phenomena, end suffering, and achieve nirvana, which indicates to be a Buddha.
Two major branches of Buddhism are broadly recognized: Mahayana literally “Great Vehicle” and Theravada “the Ancient Teaching”. Mahayana traces its origin to Gautama Buddha in India. It spreads throughout East Asia and is practiced today mainly in China, Korea and Japan. It came to Japan in the sixth century. Shingon is one of Mahayana Buddhism schools. On the other hand, Theravada has been the predominant religion of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia like Burma and Thailand. Shingon, founded by Kukai, is also categorised as Mikkyo or Vajrayana Buddhism/ Secret Mantra. It's believed to instruct the secrets of Buddha's teachings.
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