Sunday, September 11, 2022

Benten Among the Leaves

 --Susan, every other Sunday

While sorting photos last week, I came across an image I'd forgotten taking, but which instantly returned me to a very special time and place:

Koi on Koyasan

I shot the image at the entrance to a Shintō shrine on Koyasan--specifically, a shrine dedicated to Benten (also known as Benzaiten), the Buddhist deity "of all that flows" - from water to money, music, and even words. She's one of the "seven lucky gods" (shichifukujin), and curiously the only one who has a dedicated temple on Koyasan (the heart of Shingon Buddhist worship in Japan). 

Seeing a Shintō shrine dedicated to her is not as unusual as it might seem. Like many Buddhist divinities, Benzaiten is worshipped as part of the Shintō pantheon, as a syncretic deity.

What is a bit unusual, however, is the location of this Shintō shrine--just down the street from the Great Gate that marks the official entrance to the Danjo Garan temple complex, and thus officially within the temple precincts.

Entrance to the Benten Shrine

(The koi ponds (there are two) sit directly to the left and right of the torii shown above, and are filled with koi of all sizes and colors.) 

Technically, this shrine is a subshrine--the primary site for worship of Benzaiten on Koyasan, and the site where the deity is actually "installed" is atop the small mountain behind the shrine (the worship site at this shrine sits on the hillside at the base of the mountain)--a mountain known as Bentendake (Mt. Benten) in her honor.

The shrine atop Bentendake

That shrine is reached by means of a trail--known as the nyoninmichi, or "women's route" that crosses over all of the peaks encircling the sacred mountaintop plateau of Koyasan. Before the 20th century, when women were barred from entering the sacred precincts, female pilgrims hiked along the route as a form of prayer--but it wasn't only a women's route. Travelers of all genders, holy and secular, used the trail for a variety of purposes, including stopping to pay respects to the deities enshrined on the holy peaks.

The entrance to the trail up Bentendake

However, since Benzaiten/Benten was considered a special protector and guardian of Koyasan, it was important to have an easily accessible shrine--something less distant from the primary worship areas than the little shrine atop the wooded peak.

This small shrine at the base of the mountain serves that purpose.

The entrance to the stairs.

Through the entrance torii and across a small, open yard, a flight of stairs curls up the side of the mountain about 100 yards, to a recessed area where the worship hall sits. Like many Shinto subshrines, the worship "hall" is small, but very well-maintained. 

Torii (shinto gates) along the way designate the visitor's progression into increasingly sacred spaces.

The shrine is small and quiet. Few of the many visitors who come to Koyasan know Benten's story, or that Kobo Daishi, the priest who brought Shingon Buddhism to Japan and founded Koyasan as a center of Shingon study and worship, traveled to nearby Nara to petition Benzaiten to "come" to Koyasan and protect his newly founded holy site. According to Koyasan's historical records, Kobo Daishi carried Benzaiten (in spirit) back to the holy mountain and installed her at her temple, where he asked her to watch over the entire mountaintop complex.

In return, the priests of Koyasan honor Benzaiten, both on the mountaintop and at this secondary temple.

The view from the worship site.

The view from the worship site makes it easy to imagine the deity watching over the people who pass below--both in ancient days and now, although it seems few people make the climb to visit her these days.

Which is too bad.

Subshrines near the worship site.

Standing on the mountain, looking down, time seems to flow a little slower, and life feels a little less frantic. The wind flows through the leaves, and their rustling sounds like music.

It's a peaceful, holy place, no matter what your faith (or lack thereof) believes.

So, if you find yourself on Koyasan, and if you visit the Great Gate, keep an eye out for Benten's little shrine. Head up the path, and let time cease to flow for just a minute.

Or just stop and let the world go by for a moment now. 

That works too.

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