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Nara was the center of Japanese politics and culture in ancient times.
We would like to introduce the historical figures of ancient Nara here.
- Gyōki preached the teachings of Buddhism widely to people mainly in Kinai (Kinki) District, and conducted various community works in various areas in the Nara Period when the Imperial Court prohibited any missionary works of Buddhism for people, so he was worshipped by people.
Later, he collaborated in the construction of the Great Buddha by Emperor Shōmu, by whom he was appointed as Daisojo (A Buddhist priest of the highest order) for the first time in Japan.
Let’s read the life of Gyōki who was worshiped as Gyōki Bosatsu ( Bodhisattva).
- ■Gyōki 【668 – 749】
- He was a priest of the Nara Period who was born as a son of Koshi-no-Saichi, his father, and Hachida-no-Konihime, his mother, in Hachidago of Ōtori-gun of Kawachi (Sakai City of Osaka Prefecture). The Koshi Clan is allegedly descended from Wani, a prince of Kudara (southwest of Korea).
Portrait of Gyōki Bosatsu (Bodhisattva):courtesy of Sakai City Museum
- 1.Sadhana and learning in his young days
- In 682, Gyōki entered the priesthood at the age of 15. Entrance into the priesthood, which means tonsure and initiation into Buddhism, was limited to those older than 12. In 691, Gyōki was ordained as a Buddhist priest by receiving the commandments of Buddhism at the age of 24. To be ordained means to receive the commandments of Buddhism from a Buddhist priest in charge of bestowing them. While he worked on sadhana in the mountain forest under his mentor, he also worked on learning Buddhist sutra in Asukadera Temple.
In 704, Gyōki left the life of coming and going between the mountain forest and Asukadera Temple to go back to his hometown. From 705 through 712, he nursed his mother, and after her death, he mourned for her in Mt. Ikoma, seeking how to live thereafter.
Asukadera Temple:courtesy of Asuka Village Board of Education
- 2.Commencement of missionary works and oppression by the nation
- As a result of reading of Buddhist sutra as well as meditation in Mt. Ikoma, Gyōki commenced activities including construction of temples. He commenced missionary works for people a little earlier, such as the construction of Fuseya. Fuseya was a facility that provided lodging and food to temporary visitors who carried taxes to the capital and were gathered for construction of the capital, many of which were built around the time of construction of the capital.
In April of 717, Emperess Genshō condemned Gyōki and his followers for misconduct. There were two acts of misconduct, including (1) that they spread the teachings of Buddhism to people outside the temples, though priests and nuns had to stay in the temples, and teachings of Buddhism had to be taught by the mentor to his/her disciples and (2) that they conducted Takuhatsu (or begging) without permission, though it was required, and moreover they requested something other than food.
In July of 722, the administration of Prince Nagaya, the minister of right, declared a new law in which it was provided for that any priest or nun who breached the law should be punished and sent back to his/her hometown. Gyōki who was against this ban could not help but go back to his hometown, though no record of his punishment has been found. We can see it from the fact that Gyōki’s activities were limited to Izumi and Kawachi in his hometown till February of 729 when Prince Nagaya fell from power.
1st scroll of Gangōji Gokurakukubō engi emaki (Illustrated scrolls of the Karmic Origins of the Gokurakubō of Gangōji Temple) (part):courtesy of Gangōji Temple
- 3.Authorization of Gyōki’s group and construction of the Great Buddha
- After the downfall of Prince Nagaya, the system managed mainly by the Fujiwara Clan was established, in which among believers who followed Gyōki, any male believers at the age of 61 and older and female believers at the age of 55 and older were admitted to become priests and nuns in 731. Though these believers had conducted tonsure without admission and followed Gyōki, Emperor Shōmu forgave these illegal conducts and authorized their entrance into priesthood.
The record that seems to have been made in 741 includes the names andlocations of 6 bridges, 1 straight road, 15 ponds, 7 ditches, 2 ports, 4 canals, and 9 Fuseyas. These were the fruits of social activities that had been accomplished by Gyōki and his group by 741, of which official record was made by the Imperial Court in order to lift the ban against Gyōki and authorize his activities.
In 743 when Emperor Shōmu issued an Imperial edict for construction of the Great Buddha, Gyōki called for cooperation of people for construction of the Great Buddha. For this contribution, Gyōki was appointed as Daisōjō (A Buddhist priest of the highest order) in January of 745.
In February of 749, Gyōki died in Sugawaradera Temple. According to his last words, he was buried in Mt. Ikoma and his biography made by his disciple was placed in the silver jar in which his remains were consigned.
Four Saintly Founders of Tōdaiji (Eiwa-bon version):courtesy of Nara National Museum:courtesy of Kyosuke Sasaki:courtesy of Tōdaiji Temple
- 4.Development of religious faith in Gyōki
- Also, after Gyōki’s death, his achievements were honored by authorizing his disciples and protecting the temples built by him.
In 1235, Gyōki’s grave was excavated, and as a result, the silver jar in which his remains were consigned was found. Later, Chikurinji Temple was built on the grave site.
In March of 1259, the memorial event for Gyōki’s remains was held in the hall of the Great Buddha of Tōdaiji Temple.
On November 7th of 1998, the memorial service for the 1250th anniversary of Gyōki’s death was held in Daibutsuden (the hall of the Great Buddha) of Tōdaiji Temple by 642 “temples with some mythology on Gyōki”.
At present, religious faith in Gyōki still continues.
Historic site of Gyōki's grave (Chikurinji Temple):courtesy of Nara Prefecture Regional Development Department