Ennin's Voyage Pastel on paper Akiko Hirano
Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong
838 AD. Ambassador Fujiwara no Tsunetsugu led a diplomatic mission from Japan to China, with over 600 people in four ships. It was the 19th and last of such missions since 630 AD. The entourage included officials, scholars, Zen monks, students and crew members. Among them was Ennin (posthumous name Jikaku Daishi), a 45 years old Zen monk trained at Enryaku-ji in Kyoto. The Chinese Tang Dynasty in the 8th- and 9th-centuries was the golden age of Buddhism. It was also an apex of classical Chinese literary development, with hundreds of famous poets like Li Bai and Du Fu producing a dazzling amount of literary works. Ennin spent 9 years traveling and studying in China, visiting Buddhist centers in Wutai San and the capitol Chang-An. During the latter half of his stay, he endured antagonistic policies of the new emperor Wuzong against Buddhism. He returned to Japan in 847, bringing with him books and paintings and made major contributions to Buddhism in Heian Japan. Seven years later, he became the Chief Abbot of Enryaku-ji.
During his travels in China, Ennin was undoubtably impressed by the magnificent temples and shrines built atop mountains like Wutai San. Back in Japan, he sought sacred locations for establishing branches of Enryaku-ji. One of those locations was Mt. Hoju, a mountain in Tohoku with sheer cliffs of volcanic rock. Ennin founded Risshaku-ji (Yamadera) there, noted for its spectacular setting on top of the mountain, accessible only via a steep path with over a thousand stone steps.
Spring, 1689 AD. At the age of 45, Japanese poet Matsuo Basho embarked on a long walk from Edo to the far northern provinces of Japan, a journey covering 2,400 km and 156 days. In his celebrated work Oku no Hosomichi (Journey to the Interior), he described arriving at Risshaku-ji on July 13 and found it well kept and quiet. He climbed to the top of the mountain but found the temple closed. In the summer heat, there were few visitors, only the wailing cry of cicadas. Moved by the solitude and silence of the temple, Basho wrote this famous Haiku:
Cry of a cicada
Sinks into stone
Fall, 2004. Kuro-e pushed open the window of her ryokan room and saw nothing but a sea of gray fog. She had traveled to Yamadera to see the ancient Risshaku-ji. When she arrived yesterday, hordes of tourists lined the roads leading towards the mountain. She imagined the temple would be swamped with visitors, a far cry from the quiet serene sanctuary in her mind. As luck would have it, a big typhoon hit the area overnight, bringing torrential rain and fierce wind. In the morning, visitors milled around the dining room, complaining about the terrible weather. Most of them decided not to venture outside. While having her breakfast - miso soup and rice with dried fish and marinated pickles prepared by the inn-owner - Kuro-e watched the empty street outside flooded by pouring rain. Perfect! She quickly finished her meal, pulled on her raincoat and headed for the mountain.
The rain was so heavy the mountain did not reveal itself until Kuro-e was standing right at its base. A long series of stone steps angled steeply up the cliffside and disappeared into the fog. She was greeted by a cast statue of Basho, sitting in the rain, next to an inscription of his famous haiku. As she climbed the steps, she could see no farther than 20 meters above or below, as if she were ascending a floating staircase without ends. She passed rockface inscribed with Buddhist sutras, nooks and crannies holding stelae of Bodhisattvas. Higher up, seemingly inaccessible caves were carved all over the cliffside for monastic ascetic practice. The steps ended at a sprawling complex of shrines and buildings. At the very top was the main hall Nyohodo. Wood carvings of dragons, lions, and elephants graced the woodworks over its entrance, indicating Chinese and Indian influences on the design.
Yamadera Pastel on paper Akiko Hirano
The rain and fog dissipated momentarily, revealing an imposing rock-spire with a long dark crack snaking up its sheer face. On its slanting summit perched a wooden shrine, like a floating beacon in a sea of white clouds. Standing in the rain, Kuro-e let her eyes trace the long fissure, thinking of those who had stood in her place before, separated by unbridgeable gulfs of time, awed and inspired. She thought about Ennin, who braved dangers and hardship to bring back knowledge from China, and the irony of recent animosity between the two countries.
By noon, the rain had stopped, the sky lifted its gloomy gray. Now and then, the sun broke through and lit up the temple ground. Voices could be heard coming up the stone steps. Kuro-e remembered a poem by the Tang Dynasty Chinese poet Wang Wei:
Empty mountain, no one visible
Only voices heard
Reflected sunlight penetrates the deep forest
Shining on a patch of green moss