miyamoto musashi, reigando, gohyaku rakan


After a fine morning spent at Kumamoto Castle, Dirk, Nichole and I went down to the bus station to catch one of the hourlies that take you outside of Kumamoto proper to what is probably one of the most amazing, but lesser known, religious and historical sites in Japan. The bus that takes you there winds up into the hills that surround Kumamoto, into the forest, and then over the top of the hills into a relatively isolated agricultural valley. This site isn’t listed in any of the English-language guidebooks that I’ve had access to, and we wouldn’t have discovered it at all if the hotel that we were staying at didn’t happen to have a copy of Destination Kumamoto, the obligatory local tourism propaganda. Here’s what the pamphlet has to say about Miyamoto Musashi, Reigando, and the Gohyaku Rakan:

The famous Miyamoto Musashi was a warrior who spent his final years in Kumamoto. His stay in Kumamoto resulted in excellent books and paintings that he left in the town. It is said that Musashi once sat in meditation for 90 days at Reigando Cave before writing Gorin-no-sho, his treatise on the art of war. Sculpted from stone near Reigando cave are five hundred disciples of Buddha who attained Nirvana. Also on display are rows of Buddha’s disciples bearing a variety of expressions. Musashi died in Kumamoto. It is said that he was buried standing in his samurai clothing. The entire neighborhood around the graveyard has been made into Musashizuka Park.

The bus dropped us off at a barely marked stop by the side of the road, almost directly adjacent to a large sign, with an arrow pointing us up a steep and winding road, that said only “Gohyaku Rakan.” The Gohyaku Rakan, the 500 Arhats or enlightened followers of the Buddha, appear to be a fairly common theme in Japanese Buddhism, although the source for this thematic remains uncertain. In any case, Rakan are those followers of Buddhism who have attained the twin goals of slaying their greed, anger and delusions, and destroying the karmic residue built up from their previous lives.

You can read more about Rakan here.

After walking for about a half mile or so, we approached a small temple complex, paid our 500 yen admission fee to the lone monk working the gate, and then started walking up the small, forested path that led toward the Rakan statues. What you see when you emerge from this forested path is breathtaking — a steep stone hillside covered with hundreds of two-foot high stone statues depicting Rakan, all of them with individuated faces and expressions. The hillside curves around so you can’t see all of the Rakan at once, and some of them are hidden in the edges of the forest, or behind small boulders where you can’t see them unless you walk up into the hillside in and among the Rakan (highly recommended).

There are several temples in Japan where you can find stone statues depicting the 500 Rakan, but judging by the photos I’ve seen this is one of the most out of the way and least kept up. Many of the Rakan are missing heads, though some of them have merely been decapitated and their heads sit placidly on the ground next to them. Lichen is beginning to cover several of the statues and all of them are weather-marked. There’s actually something really special about this jumble with nature, however — it’s as if instead of deciding to artificially preserve the Rakan in some permanent state of perfection the carvers of the statues decided to place them outside where the elements could add marks of personality to their already individuated figures. But as the weathering process continues, the sculptural marks of human personality disappear and instead are replaced by the distinct, but inhuman, forms that time and natural forces produce.

Reigando, the cave that Musashi is reputed to have died in while sitting with his sword in one hand and his cane in the other, contains a shrine that is still cared for by members of the Miyamoto clan. There are pictures of current family members placed in front of the shrine, as well as ceremonial offerings of fruit, flowers, and sake, and several name markers have been stuck high up on the wall to mark the passage of pilgrims. This is the site where Musashi is said to have meditated for 90 days before writing the Gorin no Sho, or Book of Five Rings, his famous book of martial arts strategy and philosophy. Actually, and purely coincidentally, I was given a copy of Kenji Tokitsu’s Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings just before I came to Japan. I’m not really the kind of guy who’s dramatically “into” martial arts (I never wanted to become a ninja, as did so many of my junior high compatriots) but I did enjoy reading about Musashi’s invention of the technique of using two swords simultaneously, as well as his wily battle tactics which included (famously) showing up at duels really late in order to psyche the enemy out and, if I remember correctly, on at least one occasion throwing dirt into the face of an opponent in order to blind him. While some people might read this as cheating, or defiling some kind of ‘warrior code,’ I’m all for it.

Since the bus only came every hour or so, and since it was really cold in March, and since I misread the bus schedule so we had to wait for a long time outside in the cold, we ended up walking up to the local fire station to see if they had a bathroom. Not only did they let us use their bathroom, they also directed us to a local mini-museum up the road where we could see a couple of Musashi’s scrolls. This museum, which sort of resembled a log cabin, housed not only two Musashi scrolls, but also several stuffed and mounted examples of the local fauna, tons of maps and photographs of the area, and a watercolor history of Natsume Soseki‘s time in Kyushu. The women working at the museum were very kind and gave us hot tea to drink while we walked around and looked at the exhibits. At five the museum closed, and then it was back into the cold to wait for our bus.

While we were walking up to the mini-museum we met this super-cute group of girls who were determinedly excited about running into foreigners who they could practice their English with. The conversation went something like this:

All girls: Hello! Hello! Hello!
Us: Hello!
Bravest girl (very forthright): Where are you from?
Me: From America. The United States. Where are you from?
Bravest girl (hesitates at first): Where are you from?

And it went on from there.

And I’ll close this entry with this list of the 21 precepts from Musashi’s Dokkodo (“The Way to Be Followed Alone”), a work that he’s said to have written in the week before his death.

1. Do not go against the way of the human world that is perpetuated from generation to generation.
2. Do not seek pleasure for its own sake.
3. Do not, in any circumstance, depend on a partial feeling.
4. Think lightly of yourself and think deeply of the world.
5. Be detached from desire your whole life long.
6. Do not regret what you have done.
7. Never be jealous of others, either in good or in evil.
8. Never let yourself be saddened by separation.
9. Resentment and complaint are appropriate neither for yourself nor for others.
10. Do not let yourself be guided by the feeling of love.
11. In all things, do not have any preferences.
12. Do not have any particular desire regarding your private domicile.
13. Do not pursue the taste of good food.
14. Do not possess ancient objects intended to be preserved for the future.
15. Do not act following customary beliefs.
16. Do not seek especially either to collect or to practice arms beyond what is useful.
17. Do not shun death in the way.
18. Do not seek to possess either goods or fiefs for your old age.
19. Respect Buddha and the gods without relying on their help.
20. You can abandon your own body, but you must hold on to your honor.
21. Never stray from the way of strategy.

(Taken from Kenji Tokitsu’s Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings.)

2 Responses to “miyamoto musashi, reigando, gohyaku rakan”

  1. 1 Anonymous

    “the sculptural marks of human personality disappear and instead are replaced by the distinct, but inhuman, forms that time and natural forces produce.”
    first i read this as the marks of the individual sculpter’s craftsmanship, then on second reading, as the individual the statue is meant to represent.
    i like it either way.

  2. 2 Trane DeVore

    Hey Laurel! Actually, each of the statues is (apparently) supposed to represent a unique arhat. Thus the sculpters actually sculpted then with different expressions, some of them even representing mythic histories of particular arhats. So both the personality of the particular arhat, and the personality of the sculpter can be seen, slowly giving way to natural forms. So — you were right both times!

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