A thousand-year-old wooden hall that blends in with nature
Sanbutsuji Temple on Mt. Mitoku is situated 40 km east of Daisen in Tottori Prefecture. Its inner sanctuary is commonly known as Nageiredo, literally “the flung hall”; It’s said that the En no Gyoja, Ozunu, who founded this temple complex, flung this hall into a hollow in the cliff, relying upon some mysterious force. En no Gyoja was the founder of Shugendo, a practitioner of asceticism who aimed to acquire mystical power rather than attain enlightenment, before Kukai (774-835) introduced esoteric Buddhism from Tang China to Japan, and he inspired many legends. Exactly how the hall was constructed remains a mystery.
According to its recent dendrochronological (tree ring) dating, the hall is estimated to have been constructed in the late Heian period, around 1100 A.D. As one of the oldest surviving wooden structures in Japan, it is designated as a national treasure. The structure looks as if it might easily be blown away in a strong wind, but it is solid on its footings and has withstood the wind and snow over the millennium. The top part of the cliff is composed of hard andesite and the lower part of erosion-prone tuff breccia. It is said that the naturally formed depressions and favorable drainage paths have protected the building all this time.
While Sanbutsuji is a Buddhist temple, the Nageiredo is a Shinto shrine building. This symbolizes the religious view of the Heian period (794-1185), when Shinto and Buddhism were fused together based on the concept of honji-suijaku or manifestation of the Buddha through the appearance of a Shinto deity. Shinto is a uniquely Japanese view toward nature and the universe, born out of reverence for the miraculous quality of nature; since ancient times, giant rocks, or bedrocks, have been seen as yorishiro, or places from which deities descend. Here, a cave in the precipitous cliff was regarded as a yorishiro, and a special shrine was built in the cave.
On the way to the Nageiredo, there are two halls, Monjyudo and Jizodo, which are also built in the kakezukuri style (used to erect temples on steep slopes or rocky hillsides). The unfenced outer corridor is at a dangerous height, one from which a fall would likely be fatal, but perhaps because I’d just traveled along this steep and rugged path, I felt strangely secure on the flat wooden platform. The view of the mountains from here was exceptional, and I felt more in awe of the majestic nature itself than of the anthropomorphic gods and Buddha. The mountain is replete with this atmosphere of reverence.
Proceeding from the Jizodo, through the trees one spies the Kannondo (the hall of the bodhisattva of compassion and mercy). In the foreground stands the Nokyodo (sutra repository). Each of these buildings is serenely secluded in a hollow in the rocky terrain, but the way in which they are situated is magnificent. The Nokyodo, also built in the late Heian period, was carefully crafted down to the smallest detail, and its elegance is exquisite. The Kannondo was reconstructed in the Edo period (1603-1867), and is also meticulously set into a cave. After passing around the rear of the Kannondo and circumventing around a large cliff, one suddenly encounters the Nageiredo.
The blowing wind, the plants, the rocks, and the water trickling from above: all are objects of worship, and the Nageiredo exudes a certain brilliance as an architectural structure that embodies this ancient Japanese view of nature. I was again struck by the majesty of the kakezukuri style. Once enshrined in Nageiredo, but now enshrined in the inner sanctuary of Sanbutsuji Temple, is a wooden standing statue of the religion’s protective deity, Zao Gongen, stomping his foot and lifting one leg in a threatening gesture of rage. I was told by the chief priest of Rinkoin, the sub-temple, that the image was probably meant to protect Japan from foreign invasion.
It’s a mountain ascetic’s way, the path leading to the Nageiredo. This is not a question of the steepness of the slope; so far removed from the concept of a path, the way to the Nageiredo is more of a scramble and clamber up the mountain, grasping tree roots, branches and rocks as one climbs, using both feet and hands to make one’s way up. The path is slippery and shiny, made so by the grips of so many, and serves as a guide. And yet from time to time one comes across elderly climbers making the ascent, and fears for their safety. The sight of these people, single-mindedly following the path of the ascetics to reach the hall, struck me as an expression of the earnestness of human beings in their prayers.