Lately, I’ve been watching a series of DVDs about Buddhist temples in Japan called hyakuji junrei (百寺巡礼, “100-temple pilgrimage”) which my in-laws gave me years ago. I watched about 1/3 of the videos years ago, but stopped for a long time. Lately, I’ve been continuing where I left off and watched a great video about a small, ancient temple in Shiga Prefecture called Ishidōji (石塔寺). The Japanese character tō (塔) means “stupa” as in the ancient Buddhist monuments from India. This temple is the “temple of the stone stupa”.
Typically in Japan, temples are wooden like most structures, but this temple’s main feature is a stone stupa called the ashoka ōtō (阿育王塔) or “Stupa of King Ashoka”. It was modeled after the Pillars of Emperor Ashoka of India:
According to legend, the stupa at this site was unearthed during the reign of Emperor Ichijō as a kind of Buddhist “miracle”, but according to modern research it was likely built centuries earlier in the 7th or 8th century by refugees from the fallen Korean kingdom of Kudara, better known as Baekje.
Japan historically had close ties with, and a vibrant immigrant community from, Baekje in particular, but even after it fell, the Baekje people living in Japan built this stupa based on a similar ones in Korea. You can still find three-tiered (sanjū no tō 三重塔) stupas in the countryside of Korea,1 and in such famous temples as Bulguksa (불국사, 佛國寺) in Gyeongju City (경주시, 慶州). Compare the stupa above with the Seokgatap (석가탑, 釋迦塔) stupa at Bulguksa built around the year 751:
The Korean stupas in turn are modeled off the original Pillars of Ashoka via China, Persia and the Silk Road.
This is not the first time I’ve seen the Pillars of Ashoka in Japan, but the one I saw was a modern import, a gift from India. The stupa at Ishidoji is something far more ancient, and shows how far Buddhism had progressed from its humble origins in northern India.
Pretty amazing. I would love to visit these stupas someday, not to mention the originals in India. 😉
P.S. You can find some more nice photos of Ishidoji here.
1 This photo blog by a Japanese traveler visiting Bulguksa, including the three-tiered stupa.