|Yakushi Nyorai of Horyuji in Nara courtesy Horyuji' website (Note that not all Yakushi representations include a medicine jar in the left had, especially older statues.)|
At a time of heightened concern about the corona virus, I offer this short list of shrines and temples where you can pray for good health and protection against disease. The idea of praying at a specific shrine or temple for a specific purpose dates in Japan to at least to the 6th century and the assimilation of a mountain kami known for its healing powers, into the Buddhist cult of Yakushi Nyorai: commonly known as the medicine Buddha. This is according to the book Practically Religious by Ian Reader and George Tanabe. The concept of genze riyaku, which is the subject of this informative book, is usually translated as "this-worldly benefits".
Naming the concept may make it seem like something particular to Shinto and Buddhism. But if we consider prayer as a sort of dialog, with whoever we conceive of as a God who can answer our prayers, it is clear that all prayer is a plea for help. That plea may be as vague as asking for "guidance" or as specific as praying for relief from pain or debt. In fact, it is probably impossible to think of prayer which does not involve asking for something or thanking God for benefits already bestowed. Bhaiṣajyaguru – the original Sanskrit name of Yakushi (Nyorai basically means Buddha), was transmitted from India to China in the 4th century with the translation of the Sutra of the Master of Medicine (Bhaiṣajyaguru vaiḍurya prabha rāja sūtra). This according to the website of my old friend Mark Schumacher http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/yakushi.shtml.
Regardless of any amalgamation with Shinto deities, Yakushi was always a Buddha who vowed to bring care to the sick. This is by way of the above mentioned sutra, in which Yakushi makes 12 vows. Vow number 6 says:
I vow that, after my reincarnation and having attained Perfect Enlightenment, those beings who are physically inferior, with imperfect senses, such as... leprous, lunatic, or sick in many respects, shall all of them, when they hear of my name, regain their normal appearance and become intelligent. All their senses shall be perfectly restored, and they shall not suffer from disease.
Yakushi's statue usually depicts the Buddha with a small pot of medicine held in the left hand. Perhaps the oldest temple for praying to this Buddha is Horyuji temple in Nara. But Yakushi-ji, also in Nara, is usually considered the most famous. Built in the Asuka period in the capital of Fujiwara-kyo, by Emperor Tenmu to pray for the recovery of his consort (the later Empress Jito) it was moved to Nara around 718. The massive building, located not far from the more famous Buddha of Todaiji, (457 Nishinokyo-cho, Nara City, 630-8563) is flanked by two pagodas (gojunoto) in a symmetrical layout. The temple hosts a Yakushi Triad with the main figure flanked by two bodhisattvas, Nikko and Gakko.
Arai Yakushi Baisho-in Temple https://www.araiyakushi.or.jp/en
|Arai Yakushi of Baisho-in (courtesy jalan.net)|
This temple in Tokyo's Nakano area, is accessible from Nakano Station on the Chuo-line. The temple has information in English at the website above. One interesting feature of this temple is their hidden Buddha statue which is displayed only in the year of the Tiger (a substitute is always on display). The next Tiger year is 2022. This Yakushi is historically linked to efficacy in curing diseases of the eyes.
Yakushi-ji Temple, Tokyo Betsu-in https://yakushiji.or.jp/tokyo/
|Yakushi of Tokyo Betsu-in (courtesy Tokyo Betsuin)|
Information about this temple comes from the website of Akadama Japan. According to that site the interesting thing about this temple, a branch temple of Yakushi-ji in Nara, is the chance to do shakyou. Shakyou is the practice of sutra copying. Copying sutras by hand was once the only way to reproduce them. These concise and terse expressions of received wisdom are the Eastern equivalent of scripture. Normally the practice of monks, it is believed that anyone can gain merit by copying sutras. No appointment is needed and the temple is open for shakyou from 9 to 5, 365 days of the year. The cost is 2,000 yen and apparently your copied sutra will be saved at Yakushi-ji in Nara. Tokyo Betsu-in is a short walk from Gotanda Station
Hinata Yakushi Temple (Hojobo Temple) http://hinatayakushi.com/
Hinata Yakushi (courtesy ANA's website)
Address: 1644 Hinata, Isehara, Kanagawa, 259-1101 (300 yen admission)Get out of the city and travel to Mt. Oyama in Kanagawa to visit what, a number of other websites have called, one of the three greatest Yakushi temples in Japan. Whenever I hear "three greatest" something or other, I run for cover. So lets take one thing at a time. For one, it is said the temple was founded in 716 by Gyoki. This would make it one of the oldest temples in Kanagawa. This is not the place to get into it but Gyoki is a very significant figure in the history of Japanese Buddhism. I will just say that he may rightfully be considered one of the chief proselytizers of the religion, wandering throughout the country at a time when monks were mostly cloistered, ostracized by the elite, until he was recruited by Emperor Shomu to save the failing construction of Todai-ji.
For another, the main building (hondo) sports a large thatch roof that was rebuilt in 2016. An excellent site to read about the restoration (and many other topics) is Japan - Insights. A small quote from one of this site's excellent writers, Alice Gordenker, relates to another aspect of the temple.
"Although many temples in Japan preserve ancient Buddhist images, Hinata Yakushi houses an unusually high number of rare and important wooden statues of Buddhist deities, including six that are nationally designated Important Cultural Properties. Because the statues are so valuable, they have been moved for safekeeping into a fireproof building next to the main building, where they can be viewed for a small fee."
A final reason to visit Hinata Yakushi is the location. Mt. Oyama, considered one of the principle sacred mountains of Japan, is a traditional destination for worshipers of both Buddhism and Shinto. The natural environment is spectacular and at least as conducive to good health as prayer.
Nihon-ji Temple http://www.nihonji.jp/index.html
The Great Buddha of Nihon-ji (courtesy ANA's website)
The Great Buddha of Nihon-ji (courtesy ANA's website)
Address: Nokogiriyama, Kyonan-machi, Awa-gun, Chiba, 299-1901 (600 yen admission)
A Yakushi temple that has several things in common with Hinata Yakushi: another of the oldest temples in the Kanto, another temple founded by Gyoki, and another opportunity to refresh mind and body in spectacular nature. According to the temple's website, Nihon-ji was founded by order of Emperor Shomu, 1300 years ago in 725. While Gyoki had no choice but to walk everywhere he went, several interesting methods for getting to Nihon-ji are available to you. Drivers can cross the combination bridge and tunnel called the Tokyo Aqua Line, which lets out relatively close by. The other is a ropeway from JR Uchibo station that brings you up the mountain.
As the photo indicates, the temple itself may be the least of the attraction here. Mt. Nokogiriyama, where the temple is located, has a fantastic view of Tokyo Bay and the mountain side is peppered with devotional sculptures – such as the 1,553 rakan – culminating in the 31 meter, carved stone, seated Yakushi. The original dates from 1783, restored in 1969.
Finally, there is Jigoku Nozoki, "hell lookout", an overhang that affords a 360 degree view. The lookout is typical of Shugendo sites, such as the Three Shrines of Kumano (Kumano Sanzan), where pilgrims hang over the edge held by the ankles, while they confess their sins out of fear of imminent death. Gyoki and his followers are usually referred to as ubasoku (layman) rather than bo (monk). The most famous ubasoku is En no Gyoya, considered the founder of Shugendo (mountain asceticism) and a contemporary of Gyoki.