Mark W. MacWilliams: "The Holy Man's Hut as a Symbol of Stability in Japanese Buddhist Pilgrimage" in Numen vol. 47, 2000, p. 387-416.

This article concentrates on medieval to eighteenth-century Pure Land Buddhism in Japanese tales and traditional portraits of hermits, huts, statues, temples, and pilgrimage.

The very notion of pilgrimage had a dualistic history in Japan. From medieval times, the eremitic hijiri or wandering holy men promoted the use of pilgrimage by identifying sacred places, dedicated to Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, benefactor of favors and securer of rebirth in the Pure Land.

On the other hand, another Buddhist medieval tradition maintained that pilgrimage had no value because ultimately there is no "place" or "space" that is free of suffering of the cycle of karma.


Reconciling these traditions was the idea of travel. Travel was an excellent metaphor for transience, emphemerality, and the passing of life to death. This sentiment is poignantly expressed by Ippen, the itinerant holy man of the 13th century:

While transmigrating through the six paths [of rebirth], there is no one for company; alone we are born, alone we die; full of sorrow is this road of birth and death.

Addressing this dichotomy of space and ephemerality (mujo) is the human dwelling exemplified by the hermit's hut. The representative example is found in Kamo no Chomei's 13th century essay, "Account of My Hut." Chomei describes the capital and its palatial houses as quintessential vanities of attempting to assert stability and permanence.

The flow of the river is a ceaseless and its waters are never the same. The bubbles that float in the pools, now vanishing, now forming, are not of long duration. So in the world are man and his dwellings. It might be imagined that the houses, great and small, which vie roof against proud roof in the capital, remain unchanged from one generation to the next, but when we examine whether this is true, how few are the houses that were of old.

Some houses were burnt last year and only since rebuilt. Great houses have crumbled into hovels and those who dwell in them have fallen no less. The city is the same, the people are as numerous as ever, but of those I used to know, a bare one or two in twenty remain. They die in the morning, they are born in the evening, like foam on the water.

Chomei's essay describes the results of a series of disasters that struck the city: fire, earthquake, storms, and floods -- all reinforcing the lesson of impermanence. In response, Chomei chooses to dwell in a modest hut not merely simple but even portable, small enough to disassemble with the prospect of disaster.

It is a bare ten feet square and less than seven feet high. I did not choose this particular spot rather than another, and I built it without consulting diviners. I laid a foundation and roughly thatched a roof. I fastened hinges to the joints of the beams, the easier to move elsewhere should anything displease me. What would be difficult about changing my dwelling? A bare two carts would suffice to carry off the whole house. Except for the carrier's fee there would be no expense at all.

Chomei's hut is a response to mujo, albeit a "utopian" one. This mobility is in harmony with the law of impermanence, affords a spiritual discipline, and ultimately, says author MacWilliams,

offers a life of spiritual freedom because it mitigates the negative effects of transmigration by flowing with change rather than struggling against it, as the traveling hermit follows the path of least resistance.

Kannon tales

But a second way of capturing the metaphor of life as travel is in the concept of pilgrimage. The Kannon temples along the Saikoku and Bando routes were founded by hermits as an alternative way of conceiving of place and space. Already hermits had built themselves huts as permanent dwellings, and by the eleventh century these huts were looked upon as sacred places, as dwellings erected in sacred places.

Thus the wandering hermit Shoku would find himself fed and kept warm in winter in his hut by miracles emanating from the beneficent Kannon. Similarly, Mount Shosha is made notable by the hermits who establish a temple to Kannon. By the eighteenth century, the miraculous character of the mountain is made explicit in folk literature and with the addition of a Buddha hall and Kannon image.

Author MacWilliam notes that there are

two important spatial motifs in the Saikoku and Bando pilgrimage tales. They suggest that the holy man's move is ultimately to a place beyond impermanence and instability. That the hermit's hut stands outside of this world of mujo, and not within it, is indicated in two important ways in the tales.

First, the Kannon statue that a holy man carries with him or carves displays a preternatural mobility or immobility, which results in his building of a hut/temple on the site in which it is permanently enshrined.

Second, the hut itself serves as a resting place for the ascetic where he can perform austerities for the greater good of those suffering in this world of mujo. Both motifs suggest that the holy man's hut (and later pilgrimage temple or reijo) with its spiritually powerful Kannon icon is a conduit for moving human beings off the rokudo -- from a life of painful instability to the Jodo, the Pure Land Paradise of Amida and Kannon.

Thus in this tradition of Pure Land tales, the holy men or hermits are not idle wanderers but simply traveling in order to find a suitable location for a Kannon temple. When the statue they carry becomes too heavy to carry any further (preternatural immobility), the hermit realizes that the bodhisattva has chosen the temple site.

In the Rokkaku-do tale of Prince Shotoku, Shotoku rests in a forest from his travels and places his small Kannon statue in a willow tree. Later he tries to take it and cannot for it is too heavy to life. That night in a dream, Kannon reveals her intention that he build a temple on that spot.

A mysterious old woman appears, who leads Shotoku to a sacred cedar tree and tells him to use its wood in constructing the temple.

Similarly, the priest Dokyo carried a Kannon statue in search of a suitable place for it, having rescued it after becoming an exile. In the village of Chiyo, the statue becomes too heavy to bear. Dokyo prays to Kannon asking for a further sign confirming this miracle of immobility, and at once the statue flies into a tree, emitting light.

As MacWilliams points out, "preternatural immobility" has a long history in Indian Buddhist tradition, where even stories of the immobility of the Buddha's body occur. But in Japan, folk tales of the Shinto kami may be a likelier source of the Kannon statue stories. The kami wander until they find a place to dwell, usually a grouping of rocks, a tree, a pillar, even flowers; their dwellings become "god seats" or sacred sites. The kami (and their locations) are then venerated as local deities or tutelary guardians. The presences of Kannon as permanent spiritual temple resident, have more in common with these Japanese folk traditions than with the abstractions of Buddhist divinities in India.

Further, the Kannon statues are portrayed as escaping disasters such as fire, in vivid contrast to the capital palaces and structures Chomei describes as succumbing to flames. Several tales related how Kannon statues flee to safety during temple fires, easily relocating in nearby trees or caves, where they are effortlessly restored to rebuilt temple precincts. These examples of "preternatural mobility" represent the converse power of immobility. They confirm Kannon's fidelity to her decision of where to reside. The sites are indeed sacred, say the tales, but as MacWilliams notes, the sites also compensate for the absence of sites like India's directly associated with the historical Buddha. The Japanese sacred site become Japanese equivalents.

Though Kannon has chosen the sites as sacred (in line with kami folk tradition), the sites then become paradisal gateways (in line with Pure Land thought). The Saikoku and Bando tales illustrate this confluence of traditions by having the wandering hermits observe auspicious signs around the locale. Miraculous clouds, (purple or multicolored) are one common sign. Wonderful fragrance, celestial music, beautiful nature sounds of water, trees, and birds, and mystical light are other signs. Thus

holy men discover that the places where they build their huts emit mystical light. In the "Jiko-ji-engi," when meditating on a mountain, Jikun Washo saw an "ascetic forest emitting light of lapis lazuli, and when a perfumed wind blew through the leaves and branches, there was a sound of the tinkling of jewels and magical incantations."

These signs would naturally attract pilgrims. But further, the Pure Land sites are described (based on the Lotus Sutra and the Avatamsaka Sutra) as mountainless plateaus easy to access, where no Mt. Sumeru exists. As MacWilliam notes, all these characteristics "mark the hermit's hut as a heterogeneous soteriological space, a Pure Land beyond the everyday spaces of the six courses."


A final motif in these Kannon stories of wandering ascetics is that of a holy man or hermit leaving the metaphoric road of suffering and impermanence to definitively enter a sacred space. We have already seen examples of hermits resting from their day's travel only to find their Kannon statue's immobility a sign that the hermit's travels have ended. The hut the hermit constructed along the way had been temporary, but the hut he now constructs to house the Kannon statue is but his last, the initial version of a temple.

To illustrate these stages, MacWilliams offers the example of the scholar-monk Gensan Shonin, who lived on an isolated spot on Mt. Hiei. One day he descended the mountain to attend to his mother's funeral. Afterwards he reflects:

Now I am returning to Mt. Hiei. Even if I am called a great religious scholar, what's it for anyway? ... He felt the impermanence of life keenly, and lost any inclination to return to Mt. Hiei. He immediately built a thatched hut, chanted only the nembutsu, and contemplated the world.

One day he was looking up at [Mt. Yoshinine] peak and noticed the strange appearance of a purple cloud floating around it. When he climbed up to see, there was neither a buddha nor a hall. However, because of the auspicious sign of the purple clouds, he thought, "This, then, is a reichi," and he lived at that place thereafter.

The reichi is sacred space, that space filled with divine presence or spiritual intelligence. Gensan Shonin's path went from simple reclusion as a scholar-monk, to eremitism as a hermit, to holy man in a hut/temple. (Note that this story has no Kannon incident, except, perhaps, the purple clouds). Gensan had departed the path of atonement and suffering to enter the Pure Land path.

There is a duality to Gensen Shonin's new abode, however, a "paradoxical symbolism." The hut still resides (says the tale) in the valley of death and along the dark road -- suggesting pre-Buddhist Japanese imagery) -- but the hut is nevertheless on the boundary of light, transcendence, and stability. As MacWIlliams states:

It is important to note that the sacred stability of the hut/temple's location reflects not only Buddhist cosmological and paradisiacal notions, but also reflects an essential trait of Kannon, a trait that marks the bodhisattva off from the suffering sentient beings traversing the six courses. ...

For the hermit lives in the duality of here and not here. The hermit is accessible, and his hut is made of bamboo and thatch, a real hut. He eats, sleeps, hauls water, and chops wood, we might say. The hermit of these traditions is of the Pure Land school but illustrates important aspects of Japanese Buddhist culture.

Further, as MacWilliam concludes

Even Chomei, in his "Account of My Hut," finds himself abandoning his transient hut on occasion. ... He gets off the sorrowful road of birth and death [to visit temples built by ascetic predecessors]. It is these temple sites, which became the popular focus of Kannon Japanese Buddhist pilgrimage in Chomei's time, that continue to serve as stable centers of the bodhisattva's salvation from transmigration to the present day.