In the beginning of November I went to the “Shariden”, which is the centerpiece and the oldest building in the whole Engakuji complex and the only building in Kamakura that is designated as a National Treasure. The original one, which no longer exists, was built in 1285, but ruined by a 1563 fire. The rebuild Shariden houses a “Shumidan” altar made by Kamakura wood sculptors, monks, who imitated the Chinese lacquerware “Choshitsu”, which developed into the unique technique of “Kamakura Bori”.
Only in the beginning of November and New Year’s time are you able to access the grounds and view the Temple’s treasures. But even then after paying 500 yen, there is a rope hanging around the structure and going inside it is not permitted. So, this is my picture and as close as I could get. So, I saw this altar only from far away.
This picture shows the Shariden in the snow and clearly the special architecture.
The existing structure was first constructed in the early 15th century as the main hall of Taiheiji nunnery. After the abduction of the head nun, the Temple took over the structure in the latter half of the 16th century. The steep slope of the two double-decks roof with shingles indicates a Sung-style Chinese architecture. This Shariden is the oldest Chinese-style building in Japan and that is the reason for being enrolled on the list of National Treasures. The principal object of worship is a statue of Birushana Butsu. Birushana is the transliteration of a Sanscrit word vairocana, meaning the sun and the light of grace. Vairocana Buddha is sometimes called the supreme Buddha, representing the wisdom of “emptiness”. He is considered a personification of the everything, unmanifested, free of characteristics and distinctions.
Shari denotes sacred ashes of Shaka (Sakyamuni). Shariden, therefore, means a hall that is dedicated to the ashes of Sakyamuni. However, there is no such ashes any more.
The Engaku-ji is one of the most important Zen Buddhist temple complexes in Japan and is ranked second among Kamakura’s Five Mountains. This is a system, a network of monastic offices, developed in China to bureaucratize and to control the Zen temples. In Japan it prospered thanks to the countries military rulers in Kamakura first and Kyoto later.
The temple was founded in 1282 (during the Kamakura Period) by a Chinese Zen monk at the request of the then ruler of Japan, the regent Hojo Tokimune after he had repelled a Mongolian invasion in the period 1274 to 1281. Tokimune had a long-standing commitment to Zen and the temple was intended to honour those of both sides who died in the war, as well as serving as a center from which the influence of Zen could be spread. According to the records of the time, when building work started a copy of the Sutra of Perfect Enlightment (in Japanese, engaku-kyo) was dug out of the hillside in a stone chest during the initial building works, giving its name to the temple.
(Also, see my blogs from May 14 and 16, 2006 or click on the tag “Temple”).