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Of This and That: Essays on Religion

The Legend of Emon Saburo

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February 9, 2005

Note: This article was originally written "on spec" for publication in Parabola, my favorite magazine.  Since it wasn't used, I decided to share it here with you.

Be sure to see the references at the bottom of this page for more on Emon Saburo.


Once, in the province of Iyo on Japan's island of Shikoku, there lived a rich and powerful overlord named Emon Saburo. To be rich and powerful is no sin, but Emon Saburo was also stone-hearted, utterly lacking compassion. The peasants who toiled on his land could count on one thing only: no matter how much they gave Emon Saburo, he wanted more.

And so, when a wandering monk came to the gate of his mansion one day and requested food for his begging bowl, no one was surprised that Emon Saburo turned him away. But the monk came again the next day, and this time Emon Saburo flung into the bowl a "donation"-of human filth. The next day and the next, the monk was rebuffed, until finally, on the eighth day, Emon Saburo attacked him with a cudgel, knocking his begging bowl to the ground and splintering it into eight pieces…

Aside from this legend, Emon Saburo is unknown to history. But the monk at the gate is as famous in Japan as Saint Francis in Christendom. He was Kukai, posthumously named Kobo Daishi, or "Great Teacher/Saint Who Spreads Widely the Buddha's Teaching." 

Legend says "The Daishi" established the pilgrimage to Shikoku's eighty-eight temples. Scholars dispute it; believers don't care. That he lived here and practiced religious rigors throughout the island is certain. Somebody--he, or the monks of his sect--established the pilgrimage, securing a place of honor for this smaller-than-New-Jersey island.

Kukai was born to the Saeki family on June 15, 774, in the province of Sanuki (now Kagawa) on Shikoku's northeast coast. Temple number 75 of the pilgrimage stands on the site of his ancestral home, a gift from his father after the young monk's return from China.

For, although his family was firmly dedicated to Japan's indigenous religion, Shinto, the boy formerly known as Mao became the monk Kukai ("Sky-Sea") at the age of 30. That same year he sailed to China, where he became the eighth patriarch of esoteric Shingon ("True Word," or mantra) Buddhism, whose six branches in Japan today claim more than 10,000 temples.

In his later years, Kukai was showered with Imperial honors, including the headship of Kyoto's venerable Toji temple, and the right to establish a major monastic complex on Koyasan, south of Kyoto. But he repeatedly returned to Shikoku, whether for ascetic practice or to help the people with public works projects (he was a first-rate civil engineer.)

Despite his love of Shikoku, upon his death at age 62, Kukai's body was enshrined on Mount Koya, which has been a pilgrimage site ever since. Less than a century after his death, Kukai was granted the posthumous title "Kobo Daishi" by Emperor Daigo, further increasing devotional visits to his tomb. From earliest times until today, pilgrims properly visit Koyasan both before and after undertaking the journey on Shikoku. The tomb is situated at the farthest reaches of a vast cemetery, where the faithful wait in their graves to join the Daishi when he awakens from his "eternal meditation."

This cemetery is one of the most evocative places in Japan: filled with carved tombstones of every imaginable description; situated among venerable cedars often shrouded in mist; and surrounded by Koya's eight peaks, like the eight petals of an open lotus…or the eight shards of a broken bowl…

With this final outrage, the monk came no more. Instead, on the day following the assault, Emon Saburo's eldest son, heir and successor to all that he had, was struck dead. The next day, as the family mourned for the eldest, the second son died. And so it went for eight days, until all eight of Emon Saburo's sons were laid in eight burial mounds in the same open field…

Oliver Statler, the Shikoku pilgrimage's premier English-speaking interpreter, complains that this part of the legend "pictures Kobo Daishi as vindictive." But I see it differently. In the person of a begging monk, a notoriously cruel man received a chance to do good. In rejecting this gift of grace, Emon Saburo "locked in" the karmic result of his previous actions, and all that he had accomplished came to naught: his line would die with him.

The number eight is the key. Buddhist "eights" include the Noble Eightfold Path to Nirvana; the eight causes and conditions that lead to greater discernment, necessary for a holy life; the Eight Precepts undertaken by pious laypeople at the full moon; the Eight Legions of sentient beings present when the Buddha expounded the Flower Sutra on Vulture Peak.

These Buddhist "eights" represent a completion that points toward a new beginning. This may be because eight indicates solidity, or the completion of a set: the eight directions, or the eight corners of a cube. Some Christians read "eight" as indicating the entrance to a covenant; tarot and kabbalah give it as both "strength" and "change, movement, new situation." Eight is the completion of one phase, and a strong position from which to begin anew.

But these are abstractions. On a very real, beautiful autumn day, I borrowed a bicycle and rode out of Matsuyama to the area where Emon Saburo is said to have lived. The temple which stands on the former site of his gate is well-to-do, and heavily visited, as befits a monument to the home of a great man. Not far away another temple, so small and forlorn it seems hardly a temple at all, occupies the legendary site of the hermitage where the Daishi stayed while petitioning Emon Saburo. 

Between the two, a small lane turns through rice fields. Approaching a cluster of farmhouses, you see two curious mounds, one on each side of the road, planted with trees. There are steps up each mound, leading to a statue of Jizo, Buddhist patron of those in hell, and more especially, of dead children. Beyond the houses to the right of the road, in the rice fields where three older people comb the stalks of the fall's last rice, stand six more mounds, each with its tree and statue of Jizo.

The eight burial mounds of the eight sons of Emon Saburo.

How could these be here, when Emon Saburo's story is "only a legend"? Statler says that archeologists have dated these mounds to the time of the Daishi. And he adds, rightly, "Farmers are notoriously unsentimental about land, yet these mounds remain inviolate." These eight lonely mounds "have resisted wind, rain, and man's encroachment" for 1200 years.

And after all those centuries, on a sunny day vibrant with color, a stranger can still feel the desolation. Imagine, then, the grieving father…

Emon Saburo was a broken man. In despair, he sought out the small hermitage where the monk had been staying, only to discover that he had departed. Leaving all he had to those who worked his land, with only a broad hat of straw and a stout staff of wood as his belongings, Emon Saburo set out to find the monk and beg his forgiveness. At each stop, he discovered that he was too late, and left a name card to mark his passing. Twenty times he circled the island, a journey of some four years…

As the first lay pilgrim, Emon Saburo set a tone for the pilgrimage, and established cherished traditions that survive today.

First, the Shikoku pilgrimage is well suited to lay practice. The monks sitting in Zen monasteries and chanting in Shin temples all across Japan have a practice appropriate to the "specialist of the sacred," but the Shikoku path requires no special training, no deep scholarship, no mastery of doctrine or technique. All that is necessary is a heart that seeks renewal, and a willingness to leave everything behind.

Next, the Daishi was always with Emon Saburo, even though he could not be seen. One imagines the unfortunate pilgrim at night, lying fitfully under a tree, wracked with guilt at the thought of his misdeeds. The mental image of the humble monk at his gate would be inescapable. Later pilgrims carry a stick, as did Emon Saburo, representing the presence of the Daishi. They also wear a straw hat, inscribed with their names, their hometowns, and the words dogyo ninin: "together-go-two- people." As Shingon Bishop Taisen Miyata writes, this poem "refers to the way of interiorizing the image of the Daishi on an inner screen in the mind of the pilgrim."

Finally, there are the name cards left by Emon Saburo, carried to this day by well-equipped pilgrims. These specially-made slips are placed in a designated box when one says prayers in front of the Main Hall (hon-do) and the Daishi Hall (daishi-do) at each of the 88 temples. In days past, they were handwritten on wood. People would nail them onto the temples' front walls (you can spot an un-restored building by the nail holes). Some pilgrims still paste the paper ones onto the buildings.

The slips are also given in return for o-settai, gifts given by local people in hopes of sharing in the pilgrims' merits. Over time, this exchange of oranges, persimmons, and even cash for name slips has taken on a ritual nature. The name slip (fuda) is believed by some to be a powerful talisman. It is so important that temples on major pilgrimages are often called fuda-sho, "name slip places," and the act of pilgrimage itself is sometimes called fuda-meguri: "name-slip journey."

So, stick in hand, hat on head, name-slips in bag, like Emon Saburo, the modern pilgrim seeks the Daishi--and, like Emon Saburo, fails to realize that he is always with us…

In failing health, and desperate to find the monk before he died, Emon Saburo decided to reverse his direction: instead of trying to catch the monk from behind, he would encounter him head on.

On his last legs, struggling up a steep mountain trail, Emon Saburo met with the monk who had stood eight times at his gate so many years before. Through his changed heart and great effort, he was forgiven; and the monk asked him if he had a final request. Reflecting on his life, Emon Saburo sought a most unusual boon: could he be reborn as the Lord of his province? This would put him in a position to do good for the people, and atone for his cruelty. So the monk wrote something on a small stone and placed it in Emon Saburo's hand. After Emon Saburo died, the monk buried him and placed Emon Saburo's staff as a marker. 

The gravesite still stands on the slopes of the mountain below Temple number 12. Like all legendary places on the pilgrimage, the site of Emon Saburo's death is marked by a temple. Next to its one building is a statue of a haggard man with unkempt hair, nearly prostrate on the ground, reaching up to take the left hand of a sweet-faced monk. The monk holds his vajra (an esoteric ritual implement) over the humbled man's head in benediction. In front of the temple is a gravestone and a lofty cedar-believed by many to be a descendant of one that grew miraculously from Emon Saburo's staff planted by the Daishi.

Much of the pilgrimage revolves around death. Many have actually died on the route, even in modern times. In the 1970's and 80's, Los Angeles-based Bishop Miyata experienced the loss of two tour members, even though they were traveling by bus. Imagine then the ancient past, when the hat and the staff were more than just hiking equipment; a pilgrim who died on the path would be buried, the staff driven into the ground and the hat hung on it as a marker. The information on the hat could also be used to notify the next-of-kin.

Even the pilgrim's clothing speaks of death: the modern pilgrim wears white, symbolizing death in Japan as black does in the West. The very name of Shikoku may reflect ancient attitudes toward it. Shikoku was mysterious to people on Honshu, a land of mists and dark crags; it was believed to be haunted by spirits of the dead. Through a well-known pun (shi is a homophone meaning both "four" and "death"), Shikoku could be "four countries," a reference to its four provinces, or "death country."

But universally, death--physical or spiritual--is the gateway to a new life. The pilgrim undertakes the journey to the country of death in order to come out of it changed in every way. Thus Emon Saburo's last request…

Nine months later, a baby was born to the wife of the Lord of Iyo-a baby with a clenched fist. Natural remedies failing to open the child's hand, a priest was summoned, who charmed it open with prayer and incantation. As the child's hand slowly opened, there was revealed inside it a stone bearing the words: "Emon Saburo reborn."

Modern scholarship has proven that a fixed pilgrimage route didn't exist during the Daishi's lifetime. Two shorter pilgrimages on Shikoku predated his life; important national temples (kokubunji) were established a few decades before his birth; and temples were built at significant sites from his personal history: his family home, the site of his enlightenment, and many places where, between birth and enlightenment, he performed ascetic practices. Centuries later, these were threaded together, like beads on a string, into the pilgrimage we know today.

So the story of Emon Saburo simply could not have happened.

But, the faithful point out, there are those mounds in the field. And the stone from the baby's hand can still be seen at Temple number 51 in Matsuyama, called today Ishite-ji: "Stone Hand Temple." Never mind that it is much larger than any newborn's hand could hold; to the believing eye it is tangible proof that Emon Saburo's story is true, evidence that anyone who undertakes the spiritual discipline of pilgrimage with a repentant heart can be "born again" into a life of compassion toward others.

The skeptic might see Emon Saburo's last request as a grab for power. But the pilgrims I met-students and retirees, businessmen and betrothed women-had reached, like Emon Saburo, a turning point in their lives. They were seeking entry into a higher state, in which worldly success would constitute the power to do good for others.

The people of Shikoku support the pilgrim in achieving this goal: housewives run out to offer the walking pilgrim fruit; old men hand him a few coins on a bus; children place hands together and bow toward him, wishing him a fruitful pilgrimage. Even the businesspeople who make a living from the pilgrims share in this spirit. The aged "master" of one inn where I stayed handed me a paper sack with two handmade rice balls and a can of tea on the morning of my departure. "O-settai," he explained, a gift for merit. Later, I discovered in the bag a long handwritten note filled with good wishes for my success. It ended with this idea: "Perhaps you will contract the 'Shikoku disease'"-the desire to return again and again.

Because pilgrims and locals alike know that the spirit of Emon Saburo lives on: in the pilgrims who make repeated rounds of the island; in the local people who--unlike the "old" Emon Saburo--show hospitality to the wanderer; and in the wild places and ancient lore of this most holy of Japan's islands.



All of these references are related to a 10-week journey through Japan, my Aki Meguri, which included the Shikoku 88-Temple Pilgrimage.

General references to the Shikoku pilgrimage may be found on my Shikoku homepage.

There is a page on the idea of o-settai

There are pages for several of the locations mentioned in the article:


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