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A Photo Journal of Tantric Buddhism at Kenbisan

Kenbisan, or Sword Tail Mountain, is a popular hiking spot near Osaka. It is an easy climb not far from the city and may be connected with a visit to the nearby Nose Onsen. What may be of particular interest to Buddhists are the ruins and relics left behind by the temple Geppō-ji, once standing on the mountain. According to records, the temple was built by Nichira in the 7th century, destroyed by war fire in the 16th century and was rebuilt somewhere in its present location at the bottom of the hill in 1664.

At about one kilometer from the peak, a stone carving of about two meters high caught my attention. The carving was a depiction of a Buddha in sitting position, with hands in dhyāna-mudra, eyes closed in meditation. On top of his head was a crown engraved with three Siddham characters: hūmvaṃ and hrīḥ which represented Akṣobhya, Vairocana and Amitābha respectively. Judging from the central placement of the letter vaṃ, one may tell that the carving was a depiction of Vairocana-tathāgata.

The Tathāgata Vairocana was mentioned in a number of Mahāyāna sūtras such as the Avataṃsaka and Brahmajala, and was given particular importance by the Flower Garland School in China. Other Chinese schools also interpreted Vairocana as Dharmakāya of the Buddha. Details of the Vairocana as a faith system was given in the tantric texts, and in particular, through the Śubhakarasiṃha’s (637-735 C.E.) Chinese translation of Vairocana Sutra. This text is known also as Mahāvairocana-abhisaṃbodhi-vikurvita-adhiṣṭhāna-tantra. The Sanskrit version of the text is no longer extant and only Chinese and Tibetan translations are available.

Depictions of Vairocana are somewhat rare in China since Tantric Buddhism had not gained popularity in China since Tang Dynasty. The recent construction of a 128m tall Vairocana statue (Spring Temple Buddha) in Lushan, reputedly the tallest statue in the world, may be seen as an attempt to revive Tantric Buddhism in mainland China. In Japan, Vairocana enjoyed greater popularity especially amongst those under the Shingon and Kegon Schools, though somewhat eclipsed by Amitābha in the later age. The Big Bronze Buddha in Nara’s Tōdaiji is Vairocana, and so is the recently stolen wooden statue in Kinyōji, Osaka, in fact not far from Kenbisan.

Now one may ask why one would write alphabets on the crown. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, dhāraṇī, a kind of mnemonic was used to help one to memorize various Buddhist doctrines. For example, “a” represents “non-arisen” (anutpanna), “i” represents “faculty” (indriya) and so on. Later, there appeared another theory of likely other Indian origins, that the letters themselves represent a Buddha or a deity. The letters are known as seed characters (bīja) and their application in various meditation or visualization practices were explained in great details and complexity in various Tantric texts. To put simply, Tantric Buddhists believe in a kind of special potency embedded within a particular seed character. By working with the characters through various means one activates the sacred energy of a corresponding Buddha or deity, deriving various merits and benefits from it. While not all Buddhist schools share such belief, dhāraṇīs as well as mantras of various kinds appear to be of ancient origin and are attested in the very early stage of Mahāyāna Buddhism. As such, in Buddhist iconography, these Siddham characters serve not only the function of identification, but carry also significance in terms of belief and worship.

The Sacred Alphabets

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