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Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2000

Pilgrimage to Chiba's stone daibutsu


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD

KYONAN, Chiba Pref. -- Finding the perfect, companionable Buddha can become an obsession. Foreigners living in Asia are often struck by this calm, enlightened face; its features contrast sharply with the figures of Western religious art and their often contrived depictions of the ecstasy of Christian saints or the agony of the cross.

"Wisdom. Compassion. Protection. Peace of mind! And for sheer devotional value, nothing beats a Buddha," Jeff Greenwald writes in his travelogue "Shopping for Buddhas."

The small, nicely oxidized Buddha that stands on one of the upper shelves (Buddhas should never be displayed at heights below their owners) in my own study, supposedly buried for over 400 years in the earth floor of a cave in the northeast of Laos, is frankly speaking, an inferior work, no doubt cranked out in haste and multiplied several times over to satisfy the needs of some enigmatic quota.

For those interested in such things, the search for a more perfect Buddha, one that is affordable, can take a lifetime, perhaps several.

The serene features of the Buddha were originally carved into the rock face of Mount Nokogiri in 1783.

Some Buddhas, however, are just too big to take home. Imagine what kind of hydraulic lifting gear or cutting tools would be needed to remove the daibutsu, Japan's largest figure of the Buddha, from the rock face at Mount Nokogiri on the Chiba coast.

From the base to the tip of the giant halo that stands behind the statue's head like a stone antimacassar, it measures an impressive 31.05 meters.

Decapitated Buddhas and bodhisattvas are a common enough sight in Southeast Asia, their heads mostly having been spirited away to antique showrooms in Bangkok or auction houses in London.

In the case of Japan, the headless statuary one encounters is more likely to be the result of religious violence -- art sponsored by one militant sect or order vandalized by another in the course of doctrinal or, often, economic dispute.

Some of the smaller statues, sitting in accessible niches dotted over the mountain at Mount Nokogiri, have not fared as well as its Great Buddha. Many were destroyed or left in ruins not by opposition sects, but by an anti-Buddhist movement that sprang up in the early Meiji Era.

The southern and western region of the Boso Peninsula is known as Uchibo. Visitors to Mount Nokogiri who arrive by train will have alighted at Kisarazu after crossing the Tokyo Bay Aqualine from Kawasaki, or come down the peninsula from the city of Chiba. The foot of Nokogiri is a short walk from Hamakanaya Station on the JR Uchibo Line, a 41-minute ride from Kisarazu.

This part of the journey is the most rewarding. Chiba's coastal towns are still scarred with high-tension wires and boxy, substandard 1960s architecture, and its beaches are cluttered with rubble, rusting chains and concrete tetrapods.

After Kisarazu, however, other more engaging components enter into the landscape: vegetable plots, weather-beaten farms, clumps of bamboo and women standing in flooded rice fields like fleshy egrets in bonnets and smocks.

The location of Mount Nokogiri might have been planned with the contemporary visitor in mind. A four-minute ropeway ride takes visitors halfway up the mountain. After that, a number of steep flights of steps provide enough physical effort to enforce the sensation of being a pilgrim, at least for the day.

The top of the mountain affords a fine panorama of Tokyo Bay and Mount Fuji. On exceptionally clear days, faraway Suruga Bay in Shizuoka Prefecture can also be glimpsed.

The holy mountain has quite an illustrious history, with enough sights to please everyone, including geologists and naturalists. Just as interesting as the Great Buddha itself is a 33-meter Kannon, Goddess of Mercy, carved into the rock face near the top of the mountain, and a cluster of 1,553 stone statues of rakan (arhats, or disciples of the Buddha).

The images were carved by the master mason and artisan Ono Jingoro Eirei, using stone brought by ship from Izu, before being placed in sacred caves and rock crevices on the mountain. Astonishingly, most of the statues have only been restored in the last few years. A similar, smaller, collection of rakan is said to exist in Huainan in China.

The daibutsu was originally carved in 1783. A combination of earthquakes, the elements and neglect battered and cracked the statue. The destabilization of its foundations resulted in a four-year restoration that ended in 1969. High on its windy plinth, the victim of sun and salt erosion, the Buddha, despite its face-lift, looks all of its 200 and some years.

No longer "the biggest in the Orient" (that honor now goes to a Buddha on Lantau Island, Hong Kong), Nokogiri's daibutsu still fills the eye.

The soaring daibutsu belongs to Nihonji Temple, a modest, well-appointed wooden structure that blends unobtrusively with the wooded, leeward side of the hill. The temple was founded in 725 by Gyoki Shonin.

The Indian government gave a tree to the temple a few years ago, a sapling that was grown from a branch of the original Bodhi tree. The tree stands in the daibutsu square, adding another touch of holiness to the mountain's sacred aura.



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