It is written in the Nakayamadera Yuraiki, “In 718, when Saint Tokudo was 62, he met Enma Daimao in hell who told him to inaugurate a pilgrimage to save people. He was returned to this world having received a written pledge and 33 sacred seals, and he designated holy sites according to these sacred seals.
The meaning of the number 33 is explained in chapter twenty-five of the Lotus Sutra called The Universal Gate of Bodhisattva Kanzeon. It describes how Kannon Bosatsu changes form into 33 different incarnations to save people from their mental anguish and sufferings. This gave birth to the belief that “whenever we encounter hardships in life and whatever they are, Kannon Bosatsu will always watch over us with a spirit of compassion, and we will be saved by visiting a Kannon temple and praying.” This belief in Kannon has continued to be a source of comfort and spiritual refuge for the Japanese throughout the ages.
The year 2018 will mark 1300 years since the inauguration of the pilgrimage to Saikoku Sanjusansho (the thirty-three Kannon temples in Western Japan.) Today, Saikoku Sanjusansho receives numerous visitors from Japan and abroad, and is now carving out a new history as one of Japan’s preeminent pilgrimage routes. On this occasion, we pray that Saikoku Sanjusansho will become widely known as the beginning of Japan’s Kannon and pilgrimage culture.
Ishiyamadera Temple Head Priest Saikoku Sanjusansho Society Director
Saikoku Sanjusansho (the thirty-three Kannon temples in Western Japan) is Japan’s oldest pilgrimage circuit possessing a history of about 1300 years. In 718, Tokudo Shonin, the founder of Hasedera Temple in Yamato Province, was given a divine message from Enma Daio and received a written pledge and hoin (sacred seals.) These sacred seals took shape as passport stamps to paradise as revealed by Kannon Bosatsu.
The pilgrimage route covers the Kinki region at a total distance of approx. 1000km, extending through Wakayama, Osaka, Hyogo, Kyoto, Nara, Shiga, and Gifu Prefectures. One third of these holy grounds are concentrated in Kyoto, the capital of medieval Japan and the center of Japanese culture, so a culture of worshipping Kannon and making pilgrimages to Kannon holy sites spread throughout the nation. The beauty of the Kannon Bosatsu has attracted attention from abroad and Saikoku Sanjusansho has now become a world-famous pilgrimage circuit visited today by a great many foreigners.
“Now is the time for a spirit of compassion”
When Tokudo Shonin (Saint Tokudo), the founder of Hasedera Temple in Yamato Province, fell into a state of apparent death due to illness, he met Enma Daio (the King of Hell) in the nether world who told him, “as there are a great deal of people who are sent to hell for their sins in life, preach to the people about the compassionate spirit of Kannon Bosatsu (the Bodhisattva of Compassion) so that they will gain merit by making pilgrimages to holy places enshrining him.” Tokudo Shonin was returned to this world carrying a written pledge and hoin (sacred seals). In 2018, it will be 1300 years since 718 when Tokudo Shonin first started to preach the belief in Kannon Bosatsu and to make pilgrimages to Kannon Bosatsu holy sites. Tokudo Shonin distributed these sacred seals—passport stamps to paradise—to miraculous places and temples that Kannon Bosatsu revealed to him in order to save all living beings.
This eventually became a belief in making a pilgrimage to Saikoku Sanjusansho (the thirty-three Kannon temples in Western Japan), which became Japan’s oldest and original pilgrimage circuit. Venerating the virtuous conduct of Tokudo Shonin, the Saikoku Sanjusansho Society is commemorating 1300 years since the inception of the pilgrimage to Saikoku Sanjusansho with the slogan, “now is the time for a spirit of compassion” by holding various events from March 2016 until 2020 at all temples in the pilgrimage circuit.
The figure 33 is described in chapter twenty-five of the Lotus Sutra called Kanzeon Bosatsu Fumon (The Universal Gate of Bodhisattva Kanzeon). It describes how Kannon Bosatsu changes form into 33 incarnations to save people from their suffering. Whenever we encounter difficulties and whatever they are, Kannon Bosatsu will always watch over the people with a spirit of compassion, and by reciting his name wholeheartedly with nenpikannonriki (invoking the power of Kannon Bosatsu) in mind, he will immediately respond to our wishes and save us.
We live in times of plenty in a rapidly changing modern society where different values intersect in a diverse historical and cultural backdrop. Irrespective of the country or the times in which we live, in so far as we are human, we must lead our busy lives hoping for the best while carrying our burdens and sufferings.
Visiting a Kannon Bosatsu at a Saikoku Sanjusansho temple and praying will still the sorrows and worries that afflict your heart and mind. Reflecting on yourself, you will become capable of empathizing with the feelings of others (gensei annon or “living with peace and security in this life”). Opening your heart in the presence of Kannon Bosatsu and reflecting back on your life will clear your heart and mind of sin and worldly thoughts, which is the first step to rebirth in paradise (gosho zensho or “reborn in good circumstances in the next life”).
This is the modern day significance of the Saikoku Sanjusansho pilgrimage. The route with a total distance of more than 1000 kilometers has been trodden on by men and women of all ages for 1300 years. It is a spiritual pilgrimage that each person takes together with Kannon Bosatsu in the course of living a fulfilling life.
Please take this opportunity to form a connection with Kannon Bosatsu. In the hope that you will lead a content and peaceful life, we have designated this period to celebrate 1300 years since the inception of the pilgrimage to Saikoku Sanjusansho with the slogan “now is the time for a spirit of compassion.”
We hope that all parties concerned appreciate the intent of this commemorative period, and we ask for your support and cooperation.
Clasp hands in prayer.