Gokuraku-ji (極楽寺, "Temple of Paradise"), officially known as Ryōjusen Kan'nō-in Gokurakuji (霊鷲山感応院極楽律寺), is a Buddhist temple of the Shingon Risshū sect (真言律宗) located in Gokurakuji, adjacent to the station by the same name along Enoden Line. It is the only temple of the Shingon school in Kamakura. Its first priest was Ryōkanbō Ninshō (良観房忍性, 1217-1303), a disciple of Eison, and its principal image of worship is a statue of Shaka Nyorai (釈迦如来). Gokuroku-ji is part of the Bandō Sanjūsankasho (坂東三十三箇所), a pilgrimage dedicated to Kannon. The pilgrimage consists of 33 temples, Gokuroku-ji is the 22nd temple on the itinerary.


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History


Gokuraku-ji was founded in 1259 by Hōjō Shigetoki (北条重時, 1198-1261). It is said that the temple was originally built in Fukazawa (modern-day Fujisawa) and then moved to the current location in Gokurakuji. The valley where the temple was built used to be called "Hell Valley" (地獄谷 Jigokudani) as the corpses of the deceased were abandoned there in ancient times.

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Sanmon Gate (山門)

Hōjō Shigetoki


Hōjō Shigetoki was the third son of Hōjō Yoshitoko (北条義時, 1163-1224), the second Hōjō regent (執権 shikken), and the younger brother of the third regent Hōjō Yasutoki (北条泰時,1183-1242). Shigetoki served 17 years as Rokuhara Tandai (六波羅探題), the Hōjō military commander in Kyōto. In 1247, he returned to Kamakura at the request of the fifth regent, Hōjō Tokiyori (北条時頼, 1227-1263). Shigetoki whose pseudonym was Lord Gokurakuji (極楽寺殿 Gokurakuji-dono) built his residence in the vicinity of the temple. To transport building material for his new residence through the mountains of western Kamakura, Shigetoki used a path that had been cleared by Ninshō. This led to a deep friendship between the two men.

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The sango (山号, "mountain name") of Gokuraku-ji from right to left, 霊鷲山 (Ryōjusen).

Shigetoki knew Ninshō from his days in Kyōto and was deeply impressed by the priest's teachings and charitable deeds. He decided to support Ninshō's plans to construct a Shingon temple in Kamakura. When Shigetoki died in 1261, his sons Nagatoki (北条長時, 1230-1264) and Naritoki (北条業時, 1241-1287) continued to assist the priest financially. Gokuraku-ji was finally completed in 1267, and Naritoki invited Ninshō to become its first abbot.

Ryōkanbō Ninshō (Ryōkan)


Ryōkanbō Ninshō, also known as Ninshō Ryōkan (忍性良観), or simply Ryōkan (良観), was born in Nara in 1217 and studied Shingon Risshū Buddhism at Saidai-ji (西大寺) Temple. At the age of 13, he became a disciple of Eison (叡尊, 1201–1290), the founder of Shingon Risshū. In 1252, Ninshō moved to Kantō to spread the teachings of the small sect and settled in Kamakura in 1261. Ninshō was a great philanthropist who was known for his generosity, skills, and kind-heartedness. He constructed hospitals and infirmaries for the poor and the sick, 17 of which were located outside the temple. Temple records show that the hospitals of Gokuraku-ji cured some 46,800 patients and treated 57,250 sick. Ninshō showed particular compassion towards the lowest social strata of Kamakura society, namely those afflicted with leprosy. In addition to the construction of medical care facilities, bathhouses, and hospices, Ninshō had 83 temples repaired, 189 bridges and 71 roads constructed, and 33 wells excavated.

In 1261, the temple of Gokuraku-ji was promoted by imperial order to chokuganjo (勅願所) which authorised it to pray for the welfare of the imperial family. Along with Saidai-ji, the temple became the eastern headquarters of Shingon Risshū. In 1281, at the behest of Hōjō Tokimune (北条時宗, 1251-1284), the eighth shikken, Ninshō held special prayer services for victory over the invading Mongols. On more than 20 occasions, he was asked to pray for rain in times of drought, and his invocations were requested when the Hōjō regents fell sick. Through his social and religious activities, he was able to gain the trust and the support of the Hōjō. In 1328, Emperor Go-Daigo posthumously bestowed the title of Bosatsu (Bodhisattva) on Ninshō, a title conferred on someone who has attained a state of enlightenment just below Buddhahood itself (comparable to a Catholic saint).

Ninshō had an ardent critic in Nichiren who accused the priest of being too close to political power and of seeking benefits from his good standing with the Hōjō. Ninshō believed that it was a priest's duty to work for the weak and the poor, and he retorted that men of faith should be measured by their deeds, rather than by their words.

The temple


In the days of Ninshō, Gokuraku-ji consisted of over fifty buildings, with a shichidō garan (七堂伽藍) structure in its centre. Shichidō garan denotes the ancient architectural concept of seven halls that an ideal Buddhist temple compound should be composed of. Back then, the temple complex measured some 900 by 800 metres and had 49 subtemples. The area was also known as "Babagayatsu" or "Babangayatsu" (馬場ケ谷) which translates to "valley of the horse-rising ground". It may refer to the horse hospital Ryōkan established in 1298 to cure and pray for sick horses which were very dear to him.

Flames consumed Gokuraku-ji in March 1275, but it was later restored to its former glory. In 1333, when the troops of Nitta Yoshisada (新田義貞, 1301-1338) attacked and destroyed Kamakura, the temple was reduced to ruins. In 1425, another fire occurred, in 1433 an earthquake struck, and in 1572 a conflagration destroyed the temple once again. Without the support of the Hōjō, the temple could not recover from the chain of disasters and consisted of only a few buildings. The current structures were all constructed after the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923.

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Sanmon Gate


The Sanmon Gate (山門) with its beautiful thatched roof was constructed in 1863. It is located just a stone's throw away from Gokurakuji Station along the Enoden Line which connects Kamakura and Fujisawa. Beyond the gate, a long stone-covered path leads to the Main Hall and the other temple structures.

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Main Hall


Nowadays, Gokuraku-ji temple appears quite unimposing, but it is the treasures and artefacts that make it unique. The main building houses an image of Buddha attributed to Kōshō (興正), the second abbot, and an effigy of Fudō Myōō (不動明王), the god of wisdom, allegedly brought from China by Kūkai in 807. Other artefacts allegedly include a war drum (陣太鼓 jindaiko) used by Nitta Yoshisada, a saddle of Ōdate Muneuji (大舘宗氏), one of Yoshisada's generals, a letter written by Ninshō, a banner presented by Hōjō Tokimune, four statues of former abbots, including those of Ninshō and Eison, which are depicted sitting on the floor rather than on a chair, as well as several other objects of historical and religious value.

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Main Hall

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The Hōjō family crest on the roof of the Main Hall.

Daishidō Hall (大師堂)


Located to the right of the Main Hall is the Daishidō, a small sub-temple dedicated to Kūkai, the founder of the Shingon sect. The Shingon-risshū (真言律宗, "The Shingon-Vinaya school") is an offshoot of Shingon Buddhism. The small temple houses a lacquered effigy of Kūkai and a statue of Nyoirin Kannon (如意輪 観音) ranking 22nd of the Kamakura Thirty-Three Kannon Pilgrimage allegedly the guardian deity of Lady Tokiwa, mother of Minamoto Yoshitsune (1159-1189).

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Daishidō Hall (大師堂)

Tenbōrin-den Hall (天法輪殿)


The Treasure House next to the Main Hall was built in 1968 and contains the main object of worship, a statue of Shaka Nyorai (釈迦如来, Skt: Sakyamunī) made around 1268 and donated by Ninshō in 1297. It is 158 centimetres tall and in Seiryō-ji (清凉寺) style (which a typical tuna-like dress that covers Shaka's neck and rope-tied hair). The statue cannot be seen by visitors and is only displayed every year between 7 and 9 April (8 April is the day when Shaka's birthday is celebrated in Japan). On display is also another statue of Shaka Nyorai (釈迦如来, Skt: Sakyamunī) dating back to the 13th century. The palm of the statue's left hand is turned outward in front of its chest; this position is called tenbōrin (天法輪). Other objects are statues of the Ten Great Disciples (十大弟子 Jūdai Deshi),1 all carved and over 80 centimetres in height as well as several liturgical objects used in Shingon Risshū services. The Treasure House is usually closed and will only be opened to visitors on request (see the information box below).

Opposite Tenbōrin-den Hall, on the left side of the footpath, are a Kyakuden (客殿, Guest Hall) and Kuri (庫裏), the living quarters of the priests. Close to Inamuragasaki Elementary School, about 300 metres northwest of Gokuraku-ji are two giant pagoda-like cenotaphs, a 355-centimetre tall gorintō (五輪塔), commemorating Ninshō (hence also called 忍性塔, Ninshōtō), and a 310-centimetre tall hōkyōintō (宝篋印塔) marking the grave of Hōjō Shigetoki. Both cenotaphs are made of andesite from the Izu Peninsula. They can only be visited on 8 April.

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One of two stone mortars that were used in the dispensary for the preparation of medicine.

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1 The Ten Great Disciples (十大弟子 Jūdai Deshi) - often likened to the Christian apostles - are Sharihotsu (舎利弗, Skt: Sāriputta), Makamokkenren (摩訶目犍連, Skt: Mahāmoggallāna), Makakashō (, Skt: Mahākassapa), Shubodai (須菩提, Skt: Subhūti), Furunamitaranishi (富楼那弥多羅尼子, Skt: Puṇṇa Mantānīputta), Makakasenen (摩訶迦旃延, Skt: Mahākaccāna), Anaritsu (阿那律, Skt: Aniruddha), Ubari (優波離, Skt: Upāli), Ragora (羅睺羅, Skt: Rāhula), and Ananda (阿難陀, Skt: Ānanda).

Access: Right next to Gokurakuji Station on Enoden Line (turn left at the ticket gates, walk up the road and traverse the bridge across the Enoden tracks).
Address: 3-6-7 Gokurakuji, Kamakura, Kanagawa 248-0023; phone: 0467-223-402.
Admission: free; open daily 09:00-16:30; Tenbōrin-den Hall: 300 JPY, open on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturday and Sundays between 25 April - 25 May and 25 October - 25 November.


References:

  • Baldessari, Francesco, Kamakura: A Historical Guide, 2016
  • Cooper, Michael, Exploring Kamakura, Weatherhill 1979
  • Mutsu, Iso, Kamakura: Fact and Legend, Tuttle 2012
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