Kyoto’s Mt. Potola, and the poor and vagrant’s entrance to the six realms of hell at Fudarakusan

The temple house a number of statues of the Heian and Kamakura periods that have been designated Important Cultural Properties, including a Kamakura period image of its founder Kūya, as well as a Heian Jūichimen Kannon that is a National Treasure

The temple house a number of statues of the Heian and Kamakura periods that have been designated Important Cultural Properties, including a Kamakura period image of its founder Kūya, as well as a Heian Jūichimen Kannon that is a National Treasure

The Rokuharamitsuji temple is located on Fudarakusan – Mt Potola (Kannon’s Paradise Island). In this temple, Kuya Shonin laid to rest the souls of the dead who had been dumped at the entrance to the cemetery, too poor to afford a proper burial. In naming the temple after the mythical heaven of Potolaka, Kuya clearly felt that his temple was Kannon’s Western Paradise for the poor of Kyoto.

About Rokuharamitsuji:
The name of the temple refers to the “Practice of Perfection in the Six Realms of Existence”. It is said that souls wander throughout these six realms – the realm of hell, the realm of the hungry ghosts, the animal realm, the realm of the titans, the human realm and the realm of the gods – until they reach a state of enlightenment. Nearby was the entrance to the great Toribe cemetery extending up the mountain side. Those who couldn’t afford a burial would be unceremoniously dumped at the entrance. The crossroads by Toribeno, were called the Rokudo no Tsuji – “Crossroads of the Six Realms”, a liminal space between this world and the next that was said to be the entrance to the underworld. It was next to this intersection that Rokuharamitusji was built.

Description English: portrait of monk Kūya(ACE930-972), total about cm height, wood, coloured, ACE13th century, Sculptor is Kosho(early 13th century), in Rokuharamitsu-ji temple, Kyoto, Japan

Portrait of monk Kūya(ACE930-972), total about cm height, wood, coloured, ACE13th century, Sculptor is Kosho(early 13th century), in Rokuharamitsu-ji temple, Kyoto, Japan


Kūya Shōnin, nembutsu monk, and son of Emperor Godaigo

Kūya Shōnin 空也上人 (903-972) was the son of Emperor Daigo and was tonsured as a monk at a young age. He rose through the clerical ranks to become the abbot of an important temple before forgoing all titles and becoming a wandering holy man instead. He became famous for his unique dance which he enacted as he chanted the Nembutsu. This dance is still performed and is called “Kuya’s Dancing Nembutsu”.

Until Kuya’s time, Buddhism was far too difficult for the common person to understand. So Kuya would travel around the countryside tapping a bell he wore around his neck, dancing to the beat and chanting “Namu Amida Butsu” as a way of bringing Buddhist practice to ordinary citizens.

He also built roads and bridges as well as digging wells for towns without water. He put his whole effort into helping the people of the villages and countryside. Always wearing shabby poor clothing and living a simple and frugal life, Kuya came to be revered as “The Marketplace Saint”, referring to his habit of preaching and dancing the Nembutsu in the village marketplace.

One year a terrible plague struck the people of Kyoto and one after another many people died. Kuya carved an image of Juichimen Kannon and mounted it onto a little cart which he pulled around Kyoto dancing the Nembutsu and giving medicine to the sick. In this way many people were cured of the plague. He stationed himself on a corner in the Gion district and dispensed a special tea made of pickled plums and kelp, called oyubukicha皇服茶. This tea became famous for its curative powers and sick people came from all over the city to drink it. Not only the poor people of the city came but also the nobility for the plague affected everyone regardless of rank. Gradually, the plague dissipated.

Thereafter the people commemorated the end of the plague by drinking Kuya’s tea ōbukucha on New Year’s Day, calling the tea “Prevention from Disaster Tea”. Nowadays people drink this tea on the third day of the New Year when it is considered to bring good luck for the year.

After the plague had run its course, he received Imperial permission to build a temple at the edge of Toribeno in order to continue praying for the souls of the dead.

One time, when Kuya was living amongst the beggars in Kyoto, a high-ranked priest named Senkan recognized him at the river side and asked Kuya, “Please tell me how I can be saved after death.” Kuya, recognizing the priest, humbly answered, “Surely it is I who should be asking you such a question. I’m just a poor vagrant who wanders around in confusion. I’ve never thought about such things.” But Senkan wouldn’t give up and very respectfully asked him once again. Feeling that an answer of some kind was due, Kuya replied, “Just discard your body anywhere,” and hurried off.

History of Rokuharamitsuji

After Kūya Shōnin’s death in 972, the temple he left behind prospered under the care of Nakanobu Shōnin中信上人, and the district gradually lost its gruesome reputation as the charnel ground of the poor. It even became fashionable when the all-powerful Taira clan, headed by Taira No Tadamori (1096-1153), established its mansions and military headquarters here, in the middle of the twelfth century. At the peak of its splendor, the temple complex covered the entire area from the river to the mountains, and there were over five thousand people living here. Unfortunately, when the Taira were destroyed by the Genji or Minamoto clan in 1183, after one of the most epic struggles of Japanese history, the whole district was destroyed by fire by the enemy. The temple was later rebuilt, but Rokuharamitsuji never grew very large again and remained a neighborhood temple. Japan’s first military ruler, Taira no Kiyomori平清盛 (1118–1181) became a monk and lived at the temple until his death.

From this time onwards the fortunes of Rokuharamitsuji went up and down along with the prevailing political and military winners and losers. Through the ascendancy and fall of the Hōjō and Ashikaga clans and later through the civil wars of the late 16th century, the temple and its buildings were regularly burned down and rebuilt by the subsequent winners. However, it was never able to rise to the glory it experienced in its heyday of the early 12th century. The temple was extensively renovated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi after the civil war, in early 17th century. However, when the Meiji Restoration implemented its State Shinto nationalist agenda, this Buddhist temple was attacked and ruined. It remained in a ruinous state until the thousand year anniversary of the founding of the temple in 1969, when the building was completely dismantled and renovated.

Pothigai Malai in Tamil Nadu, believed to be Mt Potola or Potolaka.

Pothigai Malai in Tamil Nadu, believed to be Mt Potola or Potolaka.

The origin of Mt Potala and the Six Realms is believed to be India:

Six Paths (Jp. = Rokudō 六道 or Rokudō-rinne 六道輪廻 or Mutsu no Sekai 六つの世界). Buddhist concept stemming from Hindu philosophies. Commonly translated in English as the “Six Realms of Karmic Rebirth.”

Long before Buddhism’s introduction to India, Hindu (Brahman) beliefs and traditions held sway. One important concept was “transmigration,” more commonly known in the West as “reincarnation.” It holds that all living things die and are reborn again. Your rebirth into the next life will be based on your behavior in your past life. This rebirth occurs again and again. When Buddhism emerged in India around 500 BC, it too stressed this Hindu belief in transmigration, one that still plays a major role in modern Buddhist philosophy. The modern Buddhist concept of Karma is also a byproduct of ancient Hindu beliefs in transmigration and reincarnation.

Among Buddhists, all living beings are born into one of the six states of existence (Samsara in Sanskrit, the cycle of life and death). All are trapped in this wheel of life, as the Tibetans call it. All beings within the six realms are doomed to death and rebirth in a recurring cycle over countless ages — unless they can break free from desire and attain enlightenment. Further, upon death, all beings are reborn into a lower or a higher realm depending on their actions while still alive. This involves the concept of Karma and Karmic Retribution. The lowest three states are called the three evil paths, or three bad states. The Japanese spellings of all six, plus brief descriptions, are shown … here, along with more the rest of the article “Cycle of suffering; Cycle of Samsara” (Onmark productions).

Where is Mt. Potola?

Mt. Potola aka Potalaka, Potikai, Potiyil, (Putuo mountain in Chinese) and the cult of Avalokiteśvara

The Japanese scholar Shu Hikosaka on the basis of his study of Buddhist scriptures, ancient Tamil literary sources, as well as field survey, proposes the hypothesis that, the ancient mount Potalaka, the residence of Avalokiteśvara described in the Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra and Xuanzang’s Records, is the real mountain Potikai or Potiyil situated at Ambasamudram in Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu. Shu also says that mount Potiyil/Potalaka has been a sacred place for the people of South India from time immemorial. With the spread of Buddhism in the region beginning at the time of the great king Aśoka in the third century B.C.E., it became a holy place also for Buddhists who gradually became dominant as a number of their hermits settled there. The local people, though, mainly remained followers of the Hindu religion. The mixed Hindu-Buddhist cult culminated in the formation of the figure of Avalokiteśvara.

In Tibet, the name of the Tibetan Dalai Lama’s Potola Palace (winter palace since the 7th c.)  stems from the same Indian-origined tradition pointing also, to an origin in southern India, and thus bears the above interpretation and theory out:

“From as early as the eleventh century the palace was called Potala. This name probably derives from Mt. Potala, the mythological mountain abode of the Bodhisattva Chenresi (Avilokiteshvara / Kuan Yin) in southern India.” —The Potola Palace

The compassion of Avalokitevara/Kuan Yin/Kannon for the poor and vagrant

An etymology of the Tibetan name Jänräsig (Jainraisig) is jän (eye), rä (continuity) and sig (to look). This gives the meaning of one who always looks upon all beings (with the eye of compassion).

The name Avalokiteśvara is made of the following parts: the verbal prefix ava, which means “down”; lokita, a past participle of the verb lok (“to notice, behold, observe”), here used in an active sense (an occasional irregularity of Sanskrit grammar); and finally īśvara, “lord”, “ruler”, “sovereign” or “master”. In accordance with sandhi (Sanskrit rules of sound combination), a+iśvara becomes eśvara. Combined, the parts mean “lord who gazes down (at the world)”. The word loka (“world”) is absent from the name, but the phrase is implied.

It was initially thought that the Chinese mis-transliterated the word Avalokiteśvara as Avalokitasvara which explained why Xuanzang translated it as Guānzìzài (Ch. 觀自在) instead of Guānyīn (Ch. 觀音). However, according to recent research, the original form was indeed Avalokitasvara with the ending a-svara (“sound, noise”), which means “sound perceiver”, literally “he who looks down upon sound” (i.e., the cries of sentient beings who need his help; a-svara can be glossed as ahr-svara, “sound of lamentation”). This is the exact equivalent of the Chinese translation Guānyīn. This etymology was furthered in the Chinese by the tendency of some Chinese translators, notably Kumarajiva, to use the variant Guānshìyīn (Ch. 觀世音), literally “he who perceives the world’s lamentations”—wherein lok was read as simultaneously meaning both “to look” and “world” (Skt. loka; Ch. 世, shì). This name was later supplanted by the form containing the ending -īśvara, which does not occur in Sanskrit before the seventh century. The original form Avalokitasvara already appears in Sanskrit fragments of the fifth century.

The original meaning of the name fits the Buddhist understanding of the role of a bodhisattva. The reinterpretation presenting him as an īśvara shows a strong influence of Hinduism, as the term īśvara was usually connected to the Hindu notion of Krishna (in Vaisnavism) or Śiva (in Śaivism) as the Supreme Lord, Creator and Ruler of the world. Some attributes of such a god were transmitted to the bodhisattva, but the mainstream of those who venerated Avalokiteśvara upheld the Buddhist rejection of the doctrine of any creator god.

According to Mahāyāna doctrine, Avalokiteśvara is the bodhisattva who has made a great vow to assist sentient beings in times of difficulty, and to postpone his own Buddhahood until he has assisted every sentient being in achieving Nirvāṇa.

The Lotus Sūtra (Skt. Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra) is generally accepted to be the earliest literature teaching about the doctrines of Avalokiteśvara. These are found in the Lotus Sūtra chapter 25, The Universal Gateway of Avalokitasvara Bodhisattva (Ch. 觀世音菩薩普門品). This chapter is devoted to Avalokitasvara, describing him as a compassionate bodhisattva who hears the cries of sentient beings, and who works tirelessly to help those who call upon his name. A total of 33 different manifestations of Avalokitasvara are described, including female manifestations, all to suit the minds of various beings. The chapter consists of both a prose and a verse section. This earliest source often circulates separately as its own sūtra, called the Avalokitasvara Sūtra (Ch. 觀世音經), and is commonly recited or chanted at Buddhist temples in East Asia.

When the Chinese monk Faxian traveled to Mathura in India around 400 CE, he wrote about monks presenting offerings to Avalokiteśvara. When Xuanzang traveled to India in the 7th century, he provided eyewitness accounts of Avalokiteśvara statues being venerated by devotees of all walks of life, from kings, to monks, to laypeople. Avalokiteśvara remained popular in India until the 12th century when Muslim invaders conquered the land and destroyed Buddhist monasteries.

In Chinese Buddhism and East Asia, practices for an 18-armed form of Avalokiteśvara called Cundī are very popular. These practices have their basis in early Indian Esoteric Buddhism. Cundī is also referred to as “Cundī Buddha-Mother” or “Cundī Bhagavatī.” The popularity of Cundī is attested by the three extant translations of the Cundī Dhāraṇī Sūtra from Sanskrit to Chinese, made from the end of the seventh century to the beginning of the eighth century. In late imperial China, these early traditions of Esoteric Buddhism are known to have been still thriving in Buddhist communities. Robert Gimello has also observed that in these communities, the esoteric practices of Cundī were extremely popular among both the populace and the elite.

In the Tiantai school, six forms of Avalokiteśvara are defined. Each of the bodhisattva’s six qualities are said to break the hindrances respectively of the six realms of existence: hell-beings, pretas, animals, humans, asuras, and devas.

In Shingon Buddhism, the mantra for Avalokiteśvara is:

おん あるりきゃ そわか
On Arurikya Sowaka
The Mahākaruṇā Dhāraṇī (Great Compassion Dhāraṇī), also called the Nīlakaṇṭha Dhāraṇī, is an 82-syllable dhāraṇī for Avalokiteśvara.

While the Avalokiteśvara has an extraordinarily large number of manifestations in different forms (including wisdom goddesses (vidyaas) directly associated with him in images and texts), the form it takes At the Rokuharamitsuji, is the eleven-faced Avalokitesvara. The additional faces manifested are meant to teach all the 10 planes of existence. (Source: Avalokitesvara)

The 11-headed Kannon with the four arms, and a lotus, of the Rokuharamitsuji temple, however, is closest in iconography to the Tibetan one., which also has a distinctive Four-Armed Avalokiteshvara, worshipped by all Tibetans as “Chenrezig”, the Holder of the White Lotus. However, unlike the Japanese form, The Tibetan one is in the male form which has two hands in the praying gesture while the other two hands hold his symbols, the Crystal Rosary and the Lotus Flower (see Kuan Shih-Yin). Compare the Japanese iconography with the Nepali one called the Mani Wall in Ghap, as well as the Tibetan one. Each of the four arms is said to represent a different aspect of his compassionate nature.


Hirosaka, Shu. The Potiyil Mountain in Tamil Nadu and the origin of the Avalokiteśvara cult



Images: Wikimedia Commons

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