Origins of the Pilgrimage
There are several legends related to the beginnings of the pilgrimage on Shikoku Island. The most popular legend, of course, is that Kūkai walked to all of the sacred places on the island, founded many of the temples, and established the pilgrimage itself. While we don't know everything about his early life, we do know enough about what he did, where he lived, and where he traveled, that it is fairly easy to refute this and say that it can't be true.
Documents do show that Kūkai did travel to several of the mountains where temples are currently located. He did not, however walk around the island or perform the first pilgrimage. As will be described below, those first pilgrims were the hijiri, or wandering ascetics, that came from Mt. Kōya to visit the religious centers on the island.
The second most common legend says that the first pilgrimage was performed in the mid-eighth century by a man named Emon Saburō. Emon lived with his eight sons in the Ukaana area of Iyo Province (now Matsuyama City in Ehime Prefecture) and was a fabulously wealthy man, albeit selfish, greedy, and stingy.
One day, as the legend goes, an itinerant monk came to his door begging for alms but Emon refused and drove him off. Undeterred, the monk returned the next morning and was driven off again. For eight consecutive days the monk returned to Emon's house and each time he was driven off, a little more violently each time. Finally, on the eighth day, Emon's temper erupted and he beat the monk with a walking stick. While defending himself, the monk dropped his begging bowl and it broke into eight pieces. With that, he left and returned no more.
Soon after this incident, Emon's eight sons began to die, one after the other, from various causes. After the eighth and last had died, a devastated Emon realized that the cause must have been his ill treatment of the monk who had come to beg alms. Also realizing that the monk must have been Kūkai, Emon set off in search of him to repent and beg his forgiveness.
Emon walked around the island twenty times in the clockwise direction but was always just behind, and thus never able to meet, Kūkai. He decided, therefore, to walk around the island one more time, but this time to do it in the reverse, counterclockwise, direction. By doing this, he felt sure that his path would cross Kūkai's. Unfortunately, he still never managed to meet Kūkai and worn out and near the point of death, he fell down at the foot of the mountain trail leading up to Shōsanji (Temple 12) in Awa Province (now Tokushima Prefecture).
As he lay there dying, Kūkai appeared to him and forgave him for his past actions. He also granted Emon's last wish to be reborn as the son of a good family in his home province so that he might be able to do good and help others in the next life. When Emon died, Kūkai wrote "Emon Saburō reborn" on a small stone, placed it in the palm of Emon's hand, and buried him next to the trail.
As promised, a child was soon born into a wealthy family of Iyo Province (now Ehime Prefecture). For a long time the baby's hand was clinched shut and no one was able to open it. When a priest was finally called in, and he opened the hand, they found a small stone in the palm with the words "Emon Saburō reborn" written on it. As he grew up, he went on to do many wonderful and good deeds for the community, including building Ishiteji (Stone Hand Temple) in Matsuyama City. The stone that they found in his hand can be seen in a small museum at Ishiteji, Temple 51 on the pilgrimage.
We know that temples have been added to, and removed from, the pilgrimage route during our lifetime. Temple records seem to indicate that near the time of Kōbō Daishi's death there were at least 165 temples on the island, with 135 of them claiming Kōbō Daishi as their founder. Tanaka has written that in the 17th century, only 40% of all temples had a Daishidō associated with it, while all temples had a Hondō. Apparently, in the early stages of the Shikoku Pilgrimage, the main focus of worship was the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, not Kōbō Daishi. In addition, temple records and other published sources indicate that the location of at least fourteen of the current temples has changed since the middle of the sixteenth century.
Yet, having said that, in addition to Kūkai and Emon Saburō, two other names invariably come up when discussing the origins of the pilgrimage. The first was a wandering ascetic named En no Gyōja and the second was a man whose name is found all over the pilgrimage, Gyōgi Bosatsu. In fact, Gyōgi's name, if you take the time to notice it, is seen and heard around the pilgrimage almost as often as Kōbō Daishi's. A great many of the temples claim him as their founder. While there is little doubt that En did walk some of these trails and visited and meditated on some of the mountain peaks where temples are currently located, many scholars doubt that Gyōgi ever did.
Despite all of the stories, the pilgrimage, as it exists today, didn't take shape until sometime in the early 17th century — long, long after all these men had passed from the scene.
En no Gyōja
The first historical reference to him appears in a 699 record which explains that he had been exiled to Izu on charges of sorcery and misusing his mystical powers. At the time he had been practicing his religious activities mainly in the area of Mt. Kimpu and Mt. Katsuragi on the Kii Peninsula. The records indicate that the emperor pardoned him three years later but, remaining unrepentant and refusing to change his ways, he immediately recommenced his wanderings around western Japan and again began to preach his mixture of Shintōism and Buddhism.
It wasn't the fact that he practiced his religion outside of the formal Nara monastic institutions, or that his beliefs and teachings were not condoned by those same monasteries, that kept him in trouble with the government, but the fact that he preached it to the common people, the masses. Buddhism in 7th and 8th century Japan was still relatively new and was not a religion or a religious belief, as such, but a tool of the state used to protect the country, to aid and protect the personal health and material welfare of the aristocratic class and the imperial family, and to control the people.
In order to maintian control of the nation, the government needed to maintain control of the monastic institutions. To ensure that they maintained control of these, in 701 the government enacted the Sōniryō (Rules and Regulations for Monks and Nuns) as part of the Ritsuryō Code. Unlike the Jingiryō, which applied to Shintō Shrines and mainly addressed issues of festivals and celebrations, the Sōniryō was a system of administrative regulations and prohibitions that applied specifically to the Buddhist priests and nuns, with penalties for those that transgressed them.
Among its many regulations, the Sōniryō restricted priests and nuns to a life of scholarship in the large, government sponsored, city-based monasteries and limited any other activities to leading and participating in services for the country, aristocratic class, and the imperial family. En, however, neither lived at one of these monasteries nor lived a scholarly life. He divided his time between performing ascetic practices in the mountains of Kii Pennensula and wandering the countryside preaching to the people. Neither practice was approved by the government.
Aggravating this was the fact that he had, by the late 7th century, gathered a huge following. The imperial court distrusted him because of his insistence on preaching to the common people when this was strictly forbidden by the court. Fearing that his activities might cause dissension, the emperor finally decided that he needed to exile him.
There is an altar to En no Gyōja on the summit of Marozan, the mountain on which Temple 12 is located today. The alter is there because En climbed this peak at sometime in his life in order to perform the religious austerities that gave him his mystical powers. It was this practice of performing religious rites on remote mountain peaks that made En the important person he is for this pilgrimage. By government regulation, and personal inclination, Japanese monks at this time restricted themselves to the theoretical study of Buddhism in the monasteries of the capital city. En, on the other hand, was an outsider. He preached to the people and used his magical powers to tend their spirital and physical needs. He got these powers from the gods he worshiped on remote mountain peaks.
En was important because he founded the custom that others like him would continue — that of coming to Shikoku to perform ascteic rituals. He is important because he represents the ideal of mountain asceticism. He represents the ideal of the wandering priest criss-crossing the countryside preaching his religion to the people — for the benefit of the people, as opposed to for the benefit of the aristocrats. En's Buddhism was not the Buddhism of the priests overseeing ceremonies in temples, but the Buddhism of wandering holy men, of saintly laymen whose altars were the peaks of the sacred mountains.
When he was fifteen, he entered Asukadera but soon moved to Yakushiji. Nine years later he received the precepts and became an ordained priest. Although he studied with several other Hossō scholars, when he took the precepts he became a disciple of Dōshō. In 704 his mother became ill and he returned home to care for her, but transformed their house into a temple. He later went, with his mother, to a small hermitage on Mt. Ikomayama where they lived until her death.
After his mother's death, Gyōgi traveled widely throughout the countryside attracting, like En no Gyōja before him, thousands of followers. Gyōgi was a firm believer that the function and purpose of religion was to benefit and serve the people in their daily lives. He was adamantly opposed to the Ritsuryō system which restricted priests to a temple and forbid them from preaching to the people.
During his lifetime, Gyōgi is credited with building 34 temples for monks and 15 for nuns throughout Japan. In addition, he is credited with countless other public works projects such as boat landings, bridges, dams, irrigation systems, wells, hostels, etc. designed to ease the life of the people.
Also like En no Gyōja, it was because he was considered a friend of the masses, and because he preached spiritual freedom as opposed to the tightly controlled spiritual beliefs allowed under the Ritsuryō system, that he was considered a menace in the eyes of the government. Therefore, an edict was issued against him in 718, followed over the years by many others.
But, times and attitudes change. They do today and they did in the early eighth century. As the Ritsuryō system broke down and began to collapse, people like Gyōgi became more useful, and hence more acceptable, to the government. Because of his connections to the masses, and because of their willingness to listen to him and follow his leadership, the government found that he could become a tool for their use to control those same people. Therefore, in 721, he was invited to lecture to Empress Genshō and shortly thereafter permitted to officially ordain two followers. As government leaders got to know him, his teachings, and what he stood for, their respect for him grew. Emperor Shōmu regarded him very highly and, because of this, his star rose and he became an important figure in the capital throughout Shōmu's reign.
One of Gyōgi's crowning achievements was the significant role he played in the building of the Great Buddha at Tōdaiji in Nara. By this time his influence was vast and the government put that to use by pressing him into service to raise the funds needed to build the great statue.
In the end, Gyōgi's importance to the pilgrimage may be as much in what he didn't do during his life as what he did do. Continuing the tradition of En no Gyōja, he established the precedence of working with the people and living a life outside of the Ritsuryō system. Even after the government was forced to work with him, even after they were forced to accept him as a legitimate contributer to Buddhism in Japan, he remained outside the system — and this was novel for the time. En was always outside the system and never fully accepted. Gyōgi, on the other hand, went from being an unacceptable outsider to being an acceptable outsider; and while he never actually worked in the system, he may have been the first outsider able to work with the system and cross back and forth over the line that divides the system from the life of the wandering ascetics.
Gyōgi died in 748 and was buried at Ikomayamaji. He left behind more than 3,000 disciples and was the first individual in Japan to be posthumously given the title Bosatsu (Bodhisattva) by the emperor.
After Kūkai died, it was natural for these wanderers to begin making the trek to Mt. Kōya in order to visit his mausoleum. This became a pilgrimage in its own right. And once this became an established practice, it wasn't long before they started making a pilgrimage to Shikoku to visit the sites that were important during his life. These sites included Zentsuji where Kūkai was born, the mountain peaks above what are now Temples 12 (Shōsanji) and 21 (Tairyūji) where he performed religious rites and austerities, and the caves on Cape Muroto where he meditated and became enlightened.
Soon these pilgrims started to include in their wanderings the other already well established short pilgrimages found on Shikoku. For example, there already existed a short pilgrimage around the temples that are now numbered 1 through 10. Likewise, a pilgrimage already existed not just to Zentsuji, where Kūkai was born, but to other temples in the area and to the mountain peaks around the province. These smaller pilgrimages were incorporated into the larger pilgrimage that was taking shape as more and more holy men came to Shikoku after visiting Mt. Kōya.
The first written records mentioning the pilgrimage and the fact that monks and hijiri were walking around the island date from the mid-twelfth century. Both the Konjaku Monogatari (The Legends of Old and New) and the Ryojin-Hisho (Secret Excerpts of Songs and Music) talk about monks practicing ascetic disciplines and walking the peripheral roads of the island. Neither document, however, mentions anything more extensive than ascetics travelling along coastal roads. Neither document mentions the names of any temples nor their total number. It is highly unlikely that the pilgrimage of the mid-twelfth century was anything like it is today.
Even though more and more hijiri were coming to the island, it wasn't until Japan's internal wars of the 16th century came to an end and the peace of the Edo Period settled over the country that the pilgrimage took the shape that it still maintains today.
Edo Period Pilgrimage
The first such book is attributed to a priest named Yūben Shinnen (d. 1691). Records seem to indicate that he spent his life wandering the island of Shikoku, walking the pilgrimage, and aiding other henro by setting up sign posts and building henro lodges around the southern part of the island. In 1687 he wrote a small guidebook for the pilgrimage, the Shikoku Henro Michishirube. In 1689, he enlisted the aid of a scholar and fellow Kōya Hijiri named Jakuhon to write the Shikoku Henro Reijōki, a more comprehensive guidebook dedicated to the pilgrimage . In this book, the temples are in roughly the same order as they are today and it remained the standard guidebook throughout the Tokugawa Period. Copies of this guidebook are still extant. In 1689 Shinnen also wrote a book containing a collection of the various miracle stories he had heard from other henro, all attributed to Kōbō Daishi, and of the merits and benefits of walking the pilgrimage (Shikoku Henro Kudokuki).
With the availablilty of guidebooks, travel became easier in Shikoku. While previously the pilgrimage had been limited to monks and ascetics, by this time the number of commoners began to increase dramatically. There are several reasons for this increase. Firstly, bakufu policy had made farmers independent of their previous landlords. In addition, agricultural methods had improved greatly. For both of these reasons farmers now produced more than they needed for personal consumption and sold their surpluses in the major cities. This gave them the money required for an expensive pilgrimage.
Secondly, life for the merchants and artisans living in the bigger cities of Edo, Ōsaka, and Kyōto was also improving. As the Edo Period progressed they found that they also had the time and money required for the long trip to and around Shikoku.
Thirdly, even with money, prior to the Edo period travel in Japan was a difficult process. However, because the Edo bakufu required all daimyō to travel every other year under the Sankin Kotai system, all manner of transportation, including roads and lodging, improved dramatically.
While the process of travel became easier, most daimyō still frowned on the people of their domains travelling away from their homes. Travel, in general, was not allowed. Yet, because of the superficial religious purposes of a pilgrimage it was hard, if not impossible, to prevent travel for this one reason. If a commoner could show that this was the reason for their travel they were given the appropriate travel papers and allowed to go.
The next boom occured in the 1950's and 1960's with the economic renewal of Japan itself. As the economy picked up once again, railroads and highways that had been built in the Meiji period were repaired. As pilgrims started to filter back to the island temples and lodges began to rebuild.
In the early 1950's, a bus company in Ehime Prefecture, seeing the possibility of increasing bus ridership, introduced the concept of the henro bus tour. The idea was an immediate success with the people and bus henros now constitute the vast majority of all henro. Numerous other bus companies have now joined in offering package tours and most temples and inns near the temples cater to these groups.
Now, however, it is probably safe to say that the predominant henro is no longer the one there for religious reasons. Today the typical henro has come to the island for sightseeing reasons. Granted there is some sense of its religious roots in everyone's mind, but it would be hard to argue against the fact that the main reason most henro go to Shikoku now-a-days is for sightseeing. While there, they may pray for help in some personal or business matter; they may thank Kōbō Daishi for success in some undertaking; they may pray for the spirit of a deceased relative. But, this is not the main reason that most henro now go to Shikoku.
As for those that still walk the henro trail? That is more difficult to answer. I would think that the majority of these henro are more interested in the religious aspects of the pilgrimage. But certainly not all of them are. There are walking sightseers as well. But, those that walk, whether by design or just by daily exposure, are more involved in the historical roots and religousness of the temples and the trail.
Why Eight-Eight Temples?
The first theory is that this corresponds to the number of evil passions in man and the world, as explained in the Agon Sutra. By visiting each of the eighty-eight temples, you eliminate one of these evils at each temple. By walking the entire pilgrimage, you obtain absolution and redemption from your sins and by the time you finish you have cleansed yourself — maybe even attained enlightenment.
The second theory says that the number eighty-eight is the sum of the unlucky ages (yakudoshi) of men, women, and children. Japanese folk belief states that there are a number of ages that are particularly unlucky for people. When one reaches one of these special years, certain special religious practices need to be performed to guard against bad luck and other potential misfortunes. Of the several unlucky ages, though, the most dangerous are 42 for men, 33 for women, and 13 for children of both sexes. The total of these ages is 88. Hence, as the theory goes, this is an especially unlucky number.
Other explanations that have been offered are: the number eighty-eight represents a multiple of eight, the number of great sacred Buddhist sites in India; the three characters used to write the number eighty-eight, when combined, make the character used to write the word for rice; and, a historical pilgrimage route in Kumano consisted of visits to eighty-eight sacred sites and early pilgrims to Shikoku were influenced by this.
Which theory is correct? None of them, probably. Maybe eight-eight temples turned out to be all that someone could comfortably visit in the spring months when most of the people (then farmers) were free to walk the pilgrimage. So, people found a way to justify that number. No one will ever know the real reason, but in the end it doesn't matter. There are eighty-eight temples. One hundred and eight if you visit the twenty bangai temples as well. Visit them all, for whatever reason, and you will be a better person. Or so the theory goes.