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Kannon, the god that protects you against senility

Going a bit doolally, doddering and ditzy? Despair not. Kannon, deity of mercy and compassion, can help you.

Kannon (観音) is based on an Indian god called Valokitêśvara, a Sanskrit term that can be translated as "the lord who regards all". The originally male god gradually assumed characteristics of both genders, and eventually became associated with the divine feminine or divine mother. Nowadays, in Japan, Kannon statues usually have female features. That's why, mainly for simplicity's sake, I will use a female pronoun to refer to this deity.

Kannon statues usually have a beautiful, serene face.

She's one of the most popular gods in Japan, but I had zero interest in her, probably because I've never had much time for girly or motherly things. No, my attention was occupied by Inari and his fox messengers; as well as Jizō in his role as protector of travellers; but then I discovered a modern form of Kannon that's related to Japan's rapidly greying society. She's called Bokefūji¹ Kannon (呆け封観音), and she's supposed to protect you against senility, dementia and Alzheimer's.

As such, she often appears at so-called pokkuri-dera (ポックリ寺), temples where you can pray for a sudden or painless death.

The possibility of senility is a serious and growing problem in Japan, where 20% of the population is currently 65+. It's estimated that 40% of the population will be 65+ in 2055. This change²  is taking place in a shorter time span than in any other country. I try not to think about it,³ but it's super-scary: never mind the increase in sharp-elbowed obachan, how on earth will Japan provide pensions and health care for these multitudes?

It's easy to recognize a Bokefūji Kannon statue: if often has an elderly pair kneeling at its feet in a plea for mercy. The four photos below were taken at Tōfuku-ji (東福寺) in Higashi-Kawaguchi.




Kannon pilgrimages have an old history in Japan and remain very popular. They often comprise a visit to 33 Kannon temples in a certain area, because it's said that Kannon can appear in 33 different forms. The three most famous pilgrimages are probably the Saigoku Junrei in Kansai, the Bandō Junrei in Kanto and the Chichibu Junrei in Saitama.

It's too time-consuming to do such an official pilgrimage; instead, I rather haphazardly visited a few Kannon temples that aren't necessarily linked to a bigger circuit. I'll include photos taken at Saikō-in (西光院) and Tōfuku-ji (東福寺) in Higashi-Kawaguchi, and Tōfuku-ji (東福寺) in Higashi-Tokorozawa.

Saikō-in

Tōfuku-ji in Higashi-Kawaguchi

Plethora of statues at Tōfuku-ji in Higashi-Kawaguchi

The two Kawaguchi temples, and to a lesser extent the Tokorozawa one, made me grin. It's almost as if somebody had a check list of "stuff that should be present at any temple that wants to cover all possible calamities".

We start with Buddha in various forms.


We should have Niō, the muscular guardians of Buddha, because Buddha himself needs protection, probably against sharp-elbowed obachan. The ones below were photographed at Tōfuku-ji in Higashi-Kawaguchi.


Kannon for mercy is important.



We mustn't forget Jizō for mothers and children; as a matter of fact, let's go for lots and lots and lots of statues of Jizō, because he's cute.

Jizō at Saikō-in

Jizō at Tōfuku-ji in Higashi-Kawaguchi (above and below)


Kōbō-Daishi because, well, he's Kōbō-Daishi.4 Reason enough. 

 

Emma, lord of the underworld, because we need protection everywhere. Especially, I guess, in the underworld.

Emma, lord of the underworld, at Saikō-in 

We can't go wrong with the seven lucky gods for health, wealth, longevity, etc etc etc. I've highlighted Hotei, the god of laughter and happiness, because he's my favourite; and Ebisu, the god of fishermen, because there's one specific fisherman who's rather important to me. The stone ones at the top are at Saikō-in; the bronze ones at the bottom are at Tōfuku-ji in Higashi-Kawaguchi.

The seven lucky gods at Saikō-in



What about the four heavenly kings, the guardians of the four compass directions? We should include them.

The four heavenly kings at Tōfuku-ji in Higashi-Kawaguchi

Let's add frog statues, thanks to a play on words. Kaeru is frog, but kaeru 帰る also means to return, in others words return home, return safely, return to youth, money will return to you, etc.

Saikō-in

Tōfuku-ji in Higashi-Kawaguchi

Finally, somebody at Saikō-in decided, "Oh, what the heck, let's throw in Ryōan-ji's tsukubai." This tsukubai or stone water basin is famous for its four kanji, 吾 唯 足  (ware tada taru shiru), which could be read to mean "what you have is all you need".

The tsukubai at Saikō-in

This statue at Tōfuku-ji in Higashi-Kawaguchi made me wince. It's a copy of the so-called Fasting Siddhartha (links here and here). He made me want to give him chocolate ice cream.

Fasting Siddhartha at Saikō-in

Tōfuku-ji in Higashi-Tokorozawa led me on a merry dance, which you can read about here. I finally hunted down the temple on my second attempt. It's a very quiet, slightly battered (or shall we say well-weathered?) temple that I found interesting mostly for its Fudō-myōō hill behind the main temple. All the photos below were taken at this temple.

  



Fudō-myōō (不動明王) means "immovable wisdom king". That "immovable" refers to his ability to remain unmoved by temptation, and his role is to teach self-control. He's a fierce guy who's often accompanied by 36 attendants called dōji (童子), and on this particular hill you can see statues of all 36. I didn't count them, but if the temple says there are 36, I bet that's exactly how many there are.







I've startled rambling in seven different directions, as I tend to do. Let's stop right here with a reminder that if you want to remain compos mentis, Kannon is the go-to guy. Girl. I fear it's too late for me, but you young 'uns should consider a little pilgrimage.

Important question

Why are Kannon statues so often so big? Does anybody know? Incidentally, if I made a mistake in identifying any of these statues, please yell. I'm not an expert!

Reminder to self

Maybe each temple deserves its own post. They're quite quirky.

Notes

1) Bokefūji roughly means "Alzheimer's containment".

2) It's referred to as kōreikashakai (高齢化社会) in Japanese.

3) So, apparently, do politicians, who are doing everything possible to protect pensions and hence the elderly vote instead of making it easier for younger people to have children. Sometimes I look at my students, and I shudder when I think of the world that awaits them.

4) These statues, ubiquitous at temples, are referred to as "warding off evil" or "good luck" Daishi statues (厄除大師像 yakuyoke Daishi zō). 

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