In the Nara Period, Sakai became the birthplace of one of the most famous monks in Japanese history, Gyoki [行基]. We mentioned Gyoki in our post about Nozaki Mairi as the primary founder of Nozaki Kannon. However, Gyoki built not only Nozaki Kannon but also many other temples throughout the Kansai region. In fact, Nara’s famous golden daibutsu was also built by him too. Moreover, Gyoki is responsible for having built of number of important pieces of infrastructure in the Kansai region. There are so many things that Gyoki helped build that it is impossible to enumerate everything, but easily the most famous of his creations is Owada no Tomari, known today as the port of Kobe. He also played a crucial role in building many irrigation ponds throughout the Osaka area, including repairing Sayama Pond, the oldest irrigation pond in Japan.
The question remains however: who is Gyoki, and why did a monk built ports and ponds?
The Life of Gyoki
Gyoki was born in 668 CE in what is present day Sakai City. When he was 15, he decided to become monk and studied Buddhism at Asuka-ji Temple [飛鳥寺] in Nara. There, he was taught by the prestigious monk, Dosho [道昭], who studied abroad in China where he learned from one of the most famous monks in China, Xuan Zang[三蔵法師].
At this time, it was common for monks to primarily pray for the protection of their country and their sermons were only conducted amongst the aristocracy. However, Gyoki realized that it was the common people who truly need salvation and started spreading Buddhist teaching amongst Japan’s commoners.
Upon his return from Nara, Gyoki converted his home in Sakai into a temple and named it Ebara-ji Temple [家原寺]. After that, he traveled throughout the Kansai region, preaching the teachings of Buddhism to the common man, giving them hope, and building small temples along the way. Gyoki also thought it was very important to improve the lives of the people he encountered on his journeys. He made free rest houses for those traveling to Nara—a long and tedious journey, especially for the average person. Gyoki also built ponds to help farmers suffering through droughts. Naturally, all this good-doing earned him the people’s respect, as well as many followers.However, things were not as easy. During the Nara Period it was prohibited to preach Buddhism to commoners. Gyoki and the government we constantly at odds because of this restriction. On multiple occasions, the government attempted to suppress Gyoki, claiming he was indoctrinating people to a false form of Buddhism. Despite their attempts, Gyoki did not give up. He kept helping people and building small temples, aiding the poor, and teaching them Buddhism. Through his kindness, the number of his followers grew by the day until he had more than a thousand followers. Slowly the government realized that Gyoki was not attempting start a coup as they had feared, but was in fact, contributing to the country by helping develop much needed infrastructure.
Building the Daibutsu
The big turning point was in 743 CE when pestilence and hunger ravaged Japan. In an attempted to appease heaven and ward off the people’s suffering, Emperor Shomu [聖武天皇] decided to build a golden daibutsu in Todaiji Temple. However, this task required many strong workers, something that was in short supply since many were dying from famine and disease. Short on options, Emperor Shomu decide to ask Gyoki to persuade his followers to help build the daibutsu. In exchange for his service, Gyoki received the rank of “daisojo”, the highest rank for a monk in Japan. Finally, Gyoki could practice freely to Japan’s commoners. Unfortunately, Gyoki died in 749 CE— three years before the completion of the daibutsu in 752 CE.
Gyoki’s First Temple: Ebara-ji Temple
Ebara-ji Temple enshrines Monju bosatsu[文殊菩薩], a kind of bosatsu [菩薩], which is strongly associated with wisdom. Ebara-ji Temple was actually the first temple to enshrine Monjubosatsu in Japan. Allegedly, Gyoki carved the statue of Monjubosatsu that stands in the temple himself. The locals of Sakai affectionately call this temple “Chie no Monju-san”, meaning “Monjubosatsu of wisdom”.
Today, Ebara-ji Temple is an especially popular location for hopeful students wishing to pass challenging exams, such as university entrance exams. During January through February these students flood the temple in hopes of receiving some of Monjubosatsu’s infinite wisdom.
Getting to Ebara-ji Temple
Ebara-ji Temple is far away from Sakai’s city center. To get there, take the JR Hanwa Line and walk 10 minutes in the direction of Senboku New Town.
Once you pass Sakai City Hospital (on left) you will turn left at a big intersection and walk an additional 3 minutes,
and the entrance to the temple is just behind this large white board.
Once you get close to the hondo, you will notice that is covered in white handkerchiefs, especially if you come at the start of the year.
Eager students pinned these handkerchiefs on the hondo, in the hopes of getting some of Monju-san’s wisdom for their exams. The word “合格” (pass) has clearly been written on many of the handkerchiefs pined to the hondo.
A long time ago, people would actually write their hopes directly on the temple building. Some of those messages still are still visible today.
If you do not need to pass an exam, then you might find it more interesting that Ebara-ji is very pretty in the spring and early summer.
If you are ever in need of a little luck on an exam, swing by Ebara-ji!
Coming next time,
Inexpensive food in and Edo Period Mansion. Ganko Hiranogo Yashiki.
The adventure continues…