Sanjusangendo (Rengeo-in), Kyoto

Along with its numerous compelling characteristics Kyoto is an intensely mystical place. The landscape and aesthetic design of its temples and shrines are primed to deliver a spiritual awakening. One of my friends who has lived and worked in Japan for three decades uses a visit to Sanjusangendo (also known as Rengeo-in or Temple of the Lotus King) to take the measure of a soul.

According to their response, he vets newbie Japan-o-files, family visitors and professional guests for their spiritual depth. Not that I’m recommending his method of divination. It rather reminds me of the time a sitter asked (through a medium) who was the most advanced soul in the room? The answer? The cat (asleep on the window sill). But I digress.

There’s something other-worldly and even spine-tingling about the sight of 1001 Senju Kannon (deity of mercy) statues with 1000 arms. These stretch along the 120 meters of hallway in Japan’s longest wooden building into what feels like forever. Seated on a lotus, the central deity rises just over 3 meters in height. Five hundred gilded, life-sized (165 cm) statues—remember people were shorter centuries ago—stand on ten tiered platforms on either side of the larger Kannon. From no spot in the hall can you see the beginning or end of the line.

In front of that impressive display stand 28 larger-than-life-sized guardian statues. These gaze fiercely at visitors and supplicants from crystal eyeballs. At the ends of the line stand massive statues of Wind and Thunder representing Ah and Ohm, the beginning and the end—as Alpha and Omega do in Western tradition.

In the Heian period (794 to 1185) temples of 1000 Buddha statues were not uncommon. Most, however, were lost to fire. Even Sanjusangendo’s original building was destroyed in 1249; however, monks saved 124 of the original statues from the flames. Afterwards, leading Kamakura period (1185–1333) Buddhist sculptors from Kyoto and Nara replicated the original statues and builders re-created the original hall which was completed in 1266. No surprise then that the building and statues are designated as National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties.

Just as the vaulted cathedrals of Europe with their stained-glass infuse the air with jewel tones and take the supplicant’s eyes heavenward, the numerous symbolic elements and long golden lines of Senju Kannon take the inner eye past the present to infinity. Life. Death. Ah. Ohm. Alpha. Omega. Reminders of how small and insignificant a human life is in the vastness of the all that is.

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