Monday, March 9, 2020

Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples for Disease Protection and Good Health

Buddhist temples

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

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 

Arai Yakushi of Baisho-in (courtesy
Address: 5-3-5, Arai, Nakano-ku, Tokyo, 165-0026
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

Yakushi of Tokyo Betsu-in (courtesy Tokyo Betsuin)
Address: 5-15-17, Higashi-gotanda, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo, 141-0022
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)

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

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.

Shinto shrines

Sukunahikona Shrine (courtesy Osaka Heritage Navigation)
Shinto has many kami and praying to any number of them may have some efficacy in curing disease but there is one that is immediately identifiable as a kami of medicine: Sukunahikona (or Sukunabikona) no kami. The small amount of information on this kami comes from the Kojiki, the Izumo and Harima fudoki, and Nihon Shoki. It is a curious and complex tale, so I will let Kokugakuin tell it.

The appearance of the smallest god in Japanese mythology, Sukunabikona, is filled with mysteries.

One day, a small god clothed in the feathers of a wren crossed the sea on the sheath of a metaplexis vine to where Okuninushi was. Okuninushi, wanting to learn the truth behind this mysterious deity, asked nearby gods. A toad told him that Kuebiko likely knew. Kuebiko is the ancient word for scarecrow. The knowledgeable Kuebiko said this small god was Sukunabikona, child of Kamumusuhi.

Kamumusuhi in heaven said that Sukunabikona was too small and fell through his fingers, and that now Sukunabikona should join Okuninushi as a brother in working to build the country. This was the beginning of their task to build the country.

The Kojiki does not describe the details of what they did to build the country. However, since the identity of Sukunabikona was revealed by toads and scarecrows in the fields, it can be assumed it had something to do with rice cultivation. This is pointed to by Harima no kuni no fudoki and Izumo no kuni no fudoki (works describing the geography and people of ancient Harima and Izumo, located in modern Hyogo and Shimane prefectures respectively), which both depict Okuninushi and Sukunabikona as carrying rice plants, together.

Also, in the Nihon shoki, these two gods are said to have established methods for healing people and farm animals. In other words, they spread knowledge of medicine. According to the remnants of Izu no kuni no fudoki (a work describing ancient Izu, located in the modern Izu region in Kanagawa Prefecture), Okuninushi and Sukunabikona pitied how quickly humans died and taught them how to use medicine and hot springs. The use of hot springs to improve health has been known in Japan since ancient times. The existence of these two gods attests to that. There are shrines to these two gods in hot spring areas around the country.

The tiny Sukunabikona who fell from heaven brought with him to Earth the advents of medicine and bountiful harvests. 

There are many shrines that worship Okuninushi. Many of them enshrine both kami. Two of the most famous are Izumo Taisha in Shimane Prefecture and Omiwa Jinja in Nara Prefecture. This kami is also called Omononushi and Onamuchi, the explanation of which is too complicated to get into here. I will say only that Okuninushi is worshiped for other things such as wishes for a good marriage and childbirth but, despite the strong agricultural connections, Sukunabikona is thought of as a god of medicine. Interestingly, the Chinese ruler Shennong (Jap. Shinno) is said to have taught the people agriculture and the use of herbs to concoct medicines. He is worshiped as  a god of medicine and often conflated (in Japan) with Sukunabikona.

Even today, many drugs are made from concentrating the active ingredients of certain plants. China has a very long history of using plants as medicine and much of this knowledge was transferred to Japan by Buddhist monks who traveled to China in search of doctrines and teachers. Almost coincidentally, they brought back the knowledge of using plants for health benefits. Many Chinese monks who came to Japan did likewise. These plants were often infused in hot water and drank as a tea. They were also mashed into pastes and dried and processed into powders. Along with this knowledge of medicines, the worship of Shennong came to Japan.

But since Japan already had a kami of medicine – Sukunabikona – Shennong (or Shinno), was conflated with this kami, which only served to strengthen his reputation as a kami of medicine. Thus it was that in the Doshomachi area of Osaka, which became the center of import and sale of Chinese medicines by the 16th century, also became the home of some of Japans largest pharmaceutical companies. It was only natural then that in 1780, a shrine to Sukunabikona and Shennong was founded which is commonly referred to as Shino-san. Today, the shrine is reached by walking through a narrow alley between two tall modern buildings, one of which is the shrine office that also houses the Doshomachi Pharmaceutical and Historical Museum on the third floor.

Sukunahikona Jinja (Shinno-san)

Haiden of Sukunahikona Jinja (courtesy of the above website)

Address: 2-1-8 Doshomachi, Chuo-ku, Osaka-shi 541-0045.
The Sukunahikona kami enshrined here was originally brought from Gojo Ten Jinja of Kyoto, and combined with the Chinese god Shennong. As I mentioned above, Osaka became the import-export capital of Japan, and this was likely due to its good access by ship, and its proximity to the capital of Kyoto. It also quite naturally became a hub of trade in Western medicine, or rangaku (Dutch medicine), as it was called at the time. The area gave birth to Takeda Pharmaceuticals in 1781. The company's main office is located a short distance away but it is now a multi-national company. Another company, which later became Tokyo Tanabe, was founded in Doshomachi in 1678 by a descendant of Tanabeya Matazaemon who was a trader in medicines appointed by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1604. For those familiar with Japanese history this may come as a surprise since we are taught that Japan was closed to trade with the outside world at this time except through the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki.

While you are in the area you may as well visit the Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma Historical Museum but be warned that reservations are necessary. Another point of interest in medical history is the Tekijuku of the famous rangakusha, Ogata Koan. Founded in 1838 to teach medicine, it is considered the ancestor of Osaka University. Guided tours are offered on their website.

Gojo Tenjin Jinja 

Haiden of Gojo Tenjin Jinja in Ueno Park. Tokyo (from Wikipedia)

Address: 4-17 Ueno Park, Taito-ku, Tokyo. Sukunhikona of Doshomachi is said to be divided from Jojoten Jinja in Kyoto, but as many times as I searched the internet for the shrine, is is the Goto Tenjin-sha in Tokyo's Ueno Park, which always shows up first. For that unreasonable reason, I have listed it first here. Onamuchi no mikoto is also enshrined here. According to shrine legend, the foundation date is 1486. Apparently the shrine was moved several times due to expansion of neighboring Kanei-ji Temple, during the Edo period. Unfortunately, its current location near the Ameya Yokocho entrance, is a little obscure. To confuse matters further, it seems that the kami of learning, Tenjin, was also enshrined here in 1641, hence the name.


  1. Interesting blog, it reminds me of Tokyo at Asakusa Temple, the complex resembles the Edo-period site, with several imposing gates, including the Kaminarimon or the Thunder Gate, with its iconic giant red lantern, and a five-story pagoda.
    I tried to write a blog about it, hope you also like :

  2. Stenote,
    Thanks for your comment. Took a look at the URL you sent. Nice article. Would like to reprint in on this blog along with a link. Let me know what you think.