The Mystery and Tragedy of Kudaraji/Hyakusaiji


Hi all,

As part of this week’s Buddhist theme for Nirvana Day, I wanted to share an interesting story. I started watching an old documentary series in Japanese about Buddhist temples in Japan called hyakuji junrei (百寺巡礼). I mentioned it a long time ago, but haven’t watched it in years. For some reason, I started again where I last left it.

Anyhow, one of the temples featured in volume 9 was a Tendai temple called Hyakusaiji (百済寺), but according to the video, the temple used to be called Kudaraji. That’s very significant because the temple is associated with Prince Shotoku, and Kudara (百済) is the old Japanese name for the Kingdom of Baekje in Korea. It’s very interesting that Prince Shotoku founded a temple named after a Korean kingdom, but as research shows, Prince Shotoku’s ally was the Soga Clan (soga uji 蘇我氏), and the Soga Clan were descended from immigrants from Baekje. So there’s clearly a connection.

The image of the 11-faced Kannon Bodhisattva at the temple is said to have been given by Prince Shotoku himself.

Anyhow, the temple used to be much larger. It had 300 huts (bōsha 坊舎) that stood over the stone wall that exists today. But during the Warring States Period, the warlord Oda Nobunaga was worried about the Tendai sect and its warrior-monks (sōhei 僧兵), and after burning Mt. Hiei to the ground, he came to Hyakusaiji and did the same thing. In his journal, the nobunaga kōki (信長公記), he wrote (amateur translation by me):1

四月十一日 11th day of the 4th month

百済寺堂塔 伽藍 The temple grounds and the buildings of Hyakusaiji,
坊舎 仏閣 its huts and its temples,
ことごとく灰燼となる have been entirely reduced to ashes.
哀れな様 It is a pitiful sight
目も当てられず too terrible to behold.

The temple was so thoroughly destroyed, that none of the original buildings, or even their remains can be found. The host of the series, Itsuki Hiroyuki, commented that まさに「兵どもの夢の跡」という感じですね (masa ni [tsuwamono domono yume no fumi] toiu kanji desu ne), which I believe means something like “This feels like the legacy a warrior dreams of”.

According to legend, the only thing that Nobunaga did not destroy was a great big cypress tree (sugi 杉) that was left by Nobunaga because it looked like an arrow pointing downward. Also, recently it was discovered that a statue of Maitreya Bodhisattva survived intact and now is enshrined in the temple once again.

Ironically, Nobunaga was betrayed and murdered himself while in a Buddhist temple. The host of series, Itsuki Hiroyuki, asked the temple’s head priest what he thought about the tragic story of the temple, and the irony of Nobunaga’s death. Surprisingly, the priest didn’t criticize Nobunaga,2 but instead stated that he had been a great reformer of his time (lit. 大改革者). Nobunaga’s methods were brutal, but he brought peace and stability in Japan for the first time in centuries, and helped break the ongoing power-struggle between different forces in Japan (including Buddhist temples). Later, the Edo Period’s government used a similar system implemented by Nobunaga.

I was impressed that a Buddhist priest like this would avoid criticizing Nobunaga, even though it would have been easy to do so (Nobunaga’s been dead for 500 years) and still find something positive in the tragedy. To me, it felt like a great example of Buddhist forgiveness.

The temple of Hyakusaiji today is much smaller (and more non-political) than before, but it is a lovely temple with a very fascinating history. I would love to visit it someday if I could.

P.S. This is probably a strange post for Valentine’s Day, but I felt this was more interesting. 😉

1 Please let me know if know a better translation. I don’t think I did very well.

2 Another scene showed the priest reciting the nembutsu (the name of Amida Buddha) in front of the altar. I wasn’t aware that nembutsu is also actively recited in Tendai Buddhism as well. Though it seems that Amida Buddha is also the main Buddha of this temple too.


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.

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