Photo: VICKI L BEYER
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A tale of two temples: The historical competition between Enryaku-ji and Mii-dera

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By Vicki L Beyer

Mt Hiei, the mountain that separates Kyoto from Lake Biwa, has long been regarded as one of Japan’s three holiest places. Enryaku-ji, the temple complex scattered across the mountaintop, was once a massive monastery and religious training center. So many of the founders of Japan’s various sects of Buddhism were trained there that Enryaku-ji (or Mt Hiei generally) is often referred to as the mother of Japanese Buddhism. Yet, this “mother” has a sister temple, Mii-dera, at the foot of the mountain, on the shores of Lake Biwa, with which it has a long-standing sibling rivalry. It is difficult to get a clear picture of this fascinating bit of history without visits to both temples.

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Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Mii-dera was founded with the name Onjo-ji in 672AD by Emperor Tenmu in memory of his brother and predecessor on the Chrysanthemum Throne, Emperor Tenji. Two centuries later it took on the colloquial name Mii-dera, meaning temple of three wells, because of springs on the temple grounds whose protective sacred waters had been used to bathe imperial newborns.

Enryaku-ji was not founded until more than a century later, although Mt Hiei was a popular ascetic training ground for Buddhist monks long before. In 788, a monk named Saicho (767-822) carved a statue of Yakushi Nyorai (the Buddha of healing) and placed it in the temple he founded.

From his new mountaintop temple Saicho developed Tendai Buddhism, a relatively liberal form of Buddhism that flexibly incorporates most Buddhist teachings. Ultimately, his temple became the Enryaku-ji complex: 150 monastery and temple buildings spread across 500 hectares of mountaintop with 20,000 to 25,000 residents. Tendai Buddhism is so comprehensive and all-encompassing in its teachings that many of the priests who started other Buddhist sects over the ensuing centuries first completed their training at Enryaku-ji. Images of these men are displayed inside the Daiko-do.

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Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Throughout its history Enryaku-ji has had periods of power and times when it was out of political favor. In 1571, the soldiers of warlord Nobunaga Oda (1534-1582) razed the complex to the ground in order to undermine the power of the sohei warrior monks (more on them below). As a consequence, most of the current temple buildings were built in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and the temple never fully recovered its old power.

Even much diminished, the Enryaku-ji complex is enormous, now consisting of three clusters of buildings scattered across the mountain. Part of the UNESCO World Heritage listing for Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto since 1994, the temple complex can be accessed by cable car from either the Kyoto or Lake Biwa sides of the mountain or by bus or private car. There is also a shuttle bus that can carry visitors from one cluster to another (walking between them takes from 30 to 90 minutes). An Audioguide app called “Hieizan Enryakuji Temple” in English, traditional and simplified Chinese, Korean and Japanese is an informative aid.

The star of the Enryaku-ji complex is Konponchudo, the main temple building. In addition to Saicho's Yakushi Nyorai and a number of other historic pieces of Buddhist statuary, Konponchudo is especially known for its “eternal flame.” First lit by Saicho himself in front of the Yakushi Nyorai, it has been burning constantly for more than 1,200 years. The building is currently under restoration, but can still be entered by visitors. One unique aspect of the Konponchudo is that the floor area for praying in front of the altar is elevated above ground level as a kind of gallery so that worshippers are on the same level as the altar itself.

Enryaku-ji’s massive bell can be heard ringing across the temple grounds, contributing to the magical feeling of the place. For a small donation, visitors can ring the bell and there is frequently a long line of people waiting for this privilege.

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Photo: VICKI L BEYER

In the decades after Saicho’s death, there were disputes over who should lead the Tendai sect by becoming abbot of Enryaku-ji. In 891, the dispute was so heated that two separate factions formed, those favoring an adherent to the interpretations of Ennin (794-864), the third abbot, and those favoring the teachings of Enchin (814-891), the fifth abbot. While both followed the Tendai teachings of Saicho, the jealousies between the two factions became highly politicized, particularly whenever a new abbot was to be appointed.

At the same time as this rivalry was brewing, the curious phenomenon of the sohei warrior monk also arose. Suddenly monks were in a position to physically manifest their disputes and the Enchin and Ennin factions came to blows. Their first battle was in 970; by 993 the enmity between the two was so strong that Enchin’s followers decamped, or were driven, down the mountain to make Mii-dera their home. Ennin’s followers remained atop Mt Hiei at Enryaku-ji.

In spite of the physical separation, the rivalry continued for several centuries. First one faction and then the other found imperial, and later shogunal, favor. Occasionally the two joined forces against other rival temples, particularly those of Nara, whose fortunes had declined since the capital had been moved to Kyoto in 794. But it seems more often the two factions warred on each other, including raiding and plundering each other’s temples, usually also setting them alight.

In 1081 Ennin adherents came down the mountain three times to attack and burn parts of Mii-dera, returning to Enryakuji with various Buddhist artifacts plundered from their sister temple. Indeed, Mii-dera was burned — including by Nobunaga Oda in the late 16th century —and rebuilt so many times over the centuries that its nickname is the “Phoenix Temple.”

Around the third quarter of the 12th century (the date is uncertain) Benkei, a warrior monk of Enryaku-ji renowned for his size (said to be over two meters tall) and strength claimed Mii-dera’s large bronze bell as his booty during a sohei raid on Mii-dera and dragged it up the mountain. Legends vary as to what happened next — he was chastised by the abbot for the theft and casually kicked the bell back down the mountain, or the bell made itself so heavy that even Benkei couldn’t get it up the mountain so he kicked it back down, or the bell refused to ring or would only ring with the sound of “return me to Mii-dera” so it was sent tumbling back down the mountain — but in any event the bell was returned to Mii-dera with a huge crack in it. Benkei’s theft is so well known that it has been depicted by a number of famous artists and renditions of those works can be seen at both Enryaku-ji and Mii-dera.

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Photo: VICKI L BEYER

The cracked bell is now housed in a special building at Mii-dera called Reisho-do, with an illustrated version of the Benkei theft story told on a signboard nearby.

Mii-dera feels smaller and quieter than Enryakuji, but its gently sloping hillside grounds are deceptive, with lots of nooks and crannies to explore. The venerable temple remains a significant powerhouse of Tendai Buddhism.

Consider starting or finishing a visit with a shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian) lunch at Fugetsu, a restaurant in the visitor center just outside the main gate of the temple, a delicious way to enhance the mood of the visit.

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Photo: VICKI L BEYER

The largest building in the Mii-dera complex, known as the Kon-do, curiously sits at a right angle to the approach from the main gate. It houses a huge collection of Buddhist statuary, much of it unrestored and resplendent in its shabbiness. The collection is arranged in a gallery inside the perimeter of the Kon-do, all of it close enough to reach out and touch (don’t, of course).

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Photo: VICKI L BEYER

The spring of sacred water that has given the temple its name sits just to the west of the Kon-do; Reisho-do and the cracked bell is on the hillside just above it.

A three-storied pagoda and myriad other temple buildings tucked behind massive ancient stone walls and under equally massive and ancient trees create a magical effect. Time slows nearly to a halt and it is hard to believe that anyone who worked, studied and prayed in a place like this would ever have thought of jealous warfare against mountaintop rivals.

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.

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3 Comments
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it is hard to believe that anyone who worked, studied and prayed in a place like this would ever have thought of jealous warfare against mountaintop rivals.

To say nothing of purporting to follow a religion of peace and compassion.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Fascinating article.

Tendai (Tien-tai) Buddhism recognized the supremacy of the Lotus Sutra so this cradle of Tendai Buddhism is a special place.

Tendai Buddhism, a relatively liberal form of Buddhism that flexibly incorporates most Buddhist teachings.

At the same time, it could not quite pinpoint the exact method to lead all people to enlightenment, therefore the teachings of Tendai Buddhism are still provisional teachings.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I only visit temples, and shrines like a tourist and not like a devotee. I love the temple architecture with the beautiful wood structures and pagodas. Love the sound of those temple bells. The lunch looks very tasty and enjoyable.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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