Day One in Kyoto: Chion-in Temple

As the first temple we visited in our three-day tour of Kyoto and Nara, we came to the temple of Chion-in, which is the home temple of the main Chinzei branch of Jodo Shu Pure Land Buddhism. Readers may recall I had something of a religious experience the first time I came here five years ago, that turned me on to Buddhism. So, I was eager to come back and see it again with more experienced eyes, and to pay respects to the founder, Honen, whose 800th Memorial is coming next year.

I forgot how big Chion-in was. Many Japanese Buddhist temples have a main gate or sanmon (山門) which means “mountain gate”. The idea, I imagine, is the notion of coming up to the mountain to retreat from the hubbub of the world, and devote one’s self to the Dharma. The Sanmon Gate of Chion-in is huge:

Chion-in Sanmon Gate

And here’s inside the gate:

Inside the Sanmon Gate of Chion-in

Also, the cherry blossoms were blooming nicely at the gate:

Cherry Blossoms at Chion-in

The stairs behind the Sanmon Gate were not a trivial climb, and there’s an easier climb off to the right, but I decided I had some bad karma to burn off, as well as calories, so I hauled myself and Baby up those steps.

At the top of those steps we were greeted by a statue of Honen, as a young boy when his given name was Seishimaru. Sadly, I have no suitable pictures of that, but if i find one, I’ll upload later. Anyway, once you’ve ascended the steps, you come to the main plaza of Chion-in:

Main plaza at Chion-in

This is the Mieidō Hall (御影堂) or “Founder’s Hall”. The temple looks especially festive compared to previous years, due to the upcoming 800th memorial to Honen. Here’s a closer view:

The Main Hall of Chion-in

My little girl got in the photo accidentally while posing in front of Mommy’s camera. She’s quite silly sometimes. 🙂 Also, here’s a view to the east as well from where I stood:

Chion-in plaza 3

Anyway, as with all temples in Kyoto, you have to take off your shoes before going in, so we did. Also, pictures are almost never allowed inside,1 so I can’t show any photos. But I will say it was a huge prayer hall in the Mieidō. There was the big centerpiece in the middle devoted to Amida Buddha, but also huge taiko drums to the left and right. Further on both ends were images to Honen and (I think) Shan-tao whom Honen admired greatly. To left side of the altar area, a lone priest was chanting something while hitting a wooden fish. My wife and I went in while the little one stayed outside with her grandparents. We knelt down in the congregation’s area, recited the nembutsu, and I thanked Honen mentally as well. Had I not been to Chion-in five years ago, things would be rather different for me, I imagine. Sadly, I overlooked Honen’s mausoleum just around the corner, otherwise, I would have paid more respects.

Instead, we went up the hill to the large bell or Ōgane (大鐘):

The Great Bell of Chion-in

The bell is far larger than this picture shows, and is well-known in Japan. It takes multiple men to properly raise the striking log and give it a solid strike. Here’s another view to the side:

Great Bell of Chion-in 4

Unfortunately, instead of coming back down to enjoy the rest of Chion-in, we took the wrong path down and came to a lovely garden:

Garden behind Chion-in 2

And instead of trying to come back where we started, we thought to find a shortcut down which only made us more lost. On the way, we found a small Shinto shrine, which I stopped to pay respects at:

Shinto Shrine behind Chion-in

We continued until we reached all the way back to the Sanmon gate, and by this time, my wife’s parents were tired and we had to move on. So, the trip was cut short in unexpected ways, but as we were about to leave, I noticed this sign at Chion-in’s entrance, which I felt was a fitting ending, even though the translation is a bit awkward at points:

Sign at Chion-in 2

I really felt this conveyed the beauty of the Pure Land Buddhist path nicely, so I will end the blog post there. It was great to come back and pay my respects to Honen after all these years, and I certainly hope to come back again in the coming years.

For our next hop, I will cover the Silver Pavilion, or Ginkakuji.

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. More pictures on Flickr, though I posted most of the “good ones” here.

1 Jodo Shinshu temples seem to be the only exception to this rule, not sure why.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

9 thoughts on “Day One in Kyoto: Chion-in Temple”

  1. The biggest event held at Chion-in is Gyoki Daie held April 18th-25th, so because of preperations you took great photo’s of Chion-in in full coloured banners. I have never seen that before, thank you.
    Stephen

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    1. Ha ha ha, I am glad to be helpful even if unwittingly. 😉

      I clearly misunderstood the point of the banners but thanks for the correction. Do you have more info on this holiday do I can update this post? 🙂

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  2. Actually your post is correct. The banners are out for the 799th memorial for Honen. Chion-in holds the memorial in April, in part so more Priests and followers can attend.
    Stephen

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  3. Beautiful photos. I don’t know if I ever told you this, but we were actually at Chion-in years ago on New Year’s Eve (really just ended up there randomly – by following the crowds of people) and we were able to witness the huge bell being rung. And yes, it did take a whole group of men pulling in unison! Hard to believe that was over a decade ago now…

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    1. Jonathan: Awesome! I saw the bell-pulling service on TV once but not in person. Small world indeed! We keep running past each other. 😉

      Rory: yeah, make no mistake it’s a huge complex, so I am not surprised. 🙂

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  4. love the beautiful banners, it made the temple seem alive, not just a work of art, thank you Doug!
    Stephen posted back over at the Jodo Shu group links to Sanji Chionji 三時知恩院 a nunnery at Chion-in, Chion-in must be a huge complex
    (cut and past for the kanji, for some reason I can’t find the right microsoft Japanese input, does anyone know what it is called, where you type hiragana & kanji appear?}

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  5. Thank you for the lovely, evocative site. Maybe you could write the “awkward” translation of the last sign? I am only human and cannot read that small, but would love to hear it.

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  6. Hi JMa and welcome to the JLR! Please note that you can click on the picture and see a close-up too. I’d do a translation, but I think the one there is plenty. 🙂 If you still have trouble, let me know, and I’ll transcribe it here.

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