The Eighty-Eight Temples

Pilgrimages were among the earliest forms of historical travelling, and they remain popular in many parts of the world. Alex Koller tries Japan’s most famous Buddhist pilgrimage.

Shikoku means ‘four’ (shi) ‘lands’ (koku), as the island is divided into four prefectures. For most of its history, Shikoku has been remote, poor and slightly forbidding. Thus it was sought out by wandering hermits and ascetics. Shi is also a Chinese homonym for ‘death’, and being ‘dead to the world’ remains one of the central ideas of this pilgrimage.

Buddhism reached Japan from Korea in the sixth century. While the earliest sects were scholarly, and monks lived in large temple-monasteries, unlicensed and unordained Buddhist ascetics also wandered the country, subjecting themselves to severe religious practices in the mountains and proselytizing among the common people.

At the end of the eighth century, Kukai (774-835) and Saicho (767-822) started to propagate ‘esoteric Buddhism’. Though based on the idea of hidden knowledge and wisdom, this proved appealing to the common people. Kukai talked of ‘Enlightenment in this very nature’ and the seed of Buddhahood found in all of us. To aid assimilation, the native Shinto deities of Japan (kami)  were found a place in the extensive pantheon of esoteric Buddhism.

Kukai is the central hero of the Shikoku pilgrimage. A scion of an aristocratic family from northeastern Shikoku, he left home for the capital at the age of fifteen to become a court bureaucrat. After encountering esoteric Buddhism, however, he devoted himself to religious exercises in the mountains of Shikoku and gained enlightenment at Cape Muroto around year 804. Shortly after, he was sent on a diplomatic mission to China and travelled to Chang’an where he obtained initiation into the mysteries of Shingon Buddhism.

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