By Bill Roberts
I will always remember Kumamoto for the water. Located in central Kyushu Island, the Kumamoto area has an aquifer which courses through ancient lava beds from Mount Aso, an active volcano, producing some of the purest, coldest water in Japan.
Whatever destruction Mount Aso’s eruptions might have caused over the millennia, the volcano’s gift are the lava beds that filter the water into a pure essence and help nurture the region’s fertile valleys.
The Kumamoto branch, which sits on a spit of land overlooking rice paddies and other crops, about thirty kilometers from downtown Kumamoto City, makes the best possible use of the local water.
Two beautiful ponds dominate the branch’s garden, which was full of hydrangeas in blossom when I visited for the monthly service in late June 2007, one of five branch visits that summer.
The Kumamoto branch has more area than most Oomoto branches. On the front of the property sits a large pond with a mound behind it representing Mount Fuji.
Mount Fuji is sacred to Oomoto followers. The Spiritual Leader and many Oomoto members made a pilgrimage to the top of Fuji in the summer of 2007, just a few weeks after I visited Kumamoto. The Kumamoto model of Fuji is about two meters high, or 3,774 meters (about 12,380 feet) shorter than the real mountain. There’s a shrine at the base of Kumamoto’s Fuji.
At the back of the garden sits a larger pond, pure and serene, with many koi and a Buddha sitting on a stone in the middle. Beyond that is a statue of Izunome Kannon, a kami — god — with an interesting history; more about it in a minute.
Two outdoor prayers
After the ritual inside the shrine, the branch holds two prayers outside. The first is held in front of Izunome Kannon. The second prayer is held at the shrine at the base of Fuji. After that, we return inside the building for the sacred lunch, called naorai.
The day after the Kumamoto Tsukinamisai, Eiji Kino, the branch chief, took us on a sightseeing tour. The color green barely begins to describe this lush corner of Japan, which has rugged hills surrounded by rich farmland. Besides the many rice paddies and vegetable plots, there are many fields of tobacco, an important cash crop.
The highlight of our tour was a stop at the base of Miroku Iwa, which had tobacco fields spread in front of it. Miroku Iwa figures in “Reikai Monogatari” (“Stories from the Spiritual World”), written by Onisaburo Deguchi, the Co-Founder of Oomoto.
During his travels in the spiritual world, which are the basis for his 81-volume “Reikai Monogatari,” Onisaburo saw a rock in the Rocky Mountains of North America. Years later, he saw a photo of this same rock in Kumamoto – Miroku Iwa — and immediately recognized it as the one from his travels in the spiritual world in 1898.
According to Oomoto mythology, as told by Onisaburo, an angel created this rock in North America. How it came to stand in Kumamoto is not explained. But Onisaburo was clear that this was the same rock.
Later, when he visited in person, he wrote five tanka poems about it. The gist of one of these poems was this: “I am very happy to see this rock which I have longed to see again for a long time.” His wife, Sumiko Deguchi, the Second Spiritual Leader, declared that the face of Miroku Iwa to be the face of the supreme god, or Miroku.
The story of Izunome Kannon
There’s a small shrine across the road that runs in front of the rock. And from that shrine you can see the rock above. Right next to the shrine is another version of the Izunome Kannon. Izunome Kannon has an interesting history.
The statue near the base of Miroku Iwa arrived in Kumamoto by boat in the early nineteenth century. The boat captain had orders to deliver it to Kumamoto, but did not know who had built it or to whom he was to deliver it. So, the villagers took it and put it in a prominent place where they would visit to pray, not knowing who sent it or why.
In 1923, when Onisaburo visited the area to see Miroku Iwa, he also discovered this statue. When he stood next to it, he found it to be exactly his height from head to foot. He proclaimed it to be “Izunome Kannon.”
The statue was filthy when Onisaburo saw it, so he enjoined the local members to keep it clean. And so they have for 95 years. Oomoto eventually acquired the Izunome Kannon and the land near the base of Miroku Iwa.
The second Izunome Kannon, on the grounds of the branch shrine several kilometers from Miroku Iwa, was sculpted by an Oomoto follower and placed on the branch site in 1929.
Kannon is the Japanese name for the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, known in Chinese as Kuan-yin and in Sanskrit as Avalokiteshvara. The bodhisattva is female and widely associated with childbirth.
“Izunome” was the distinctive name that Onisaburo gave this particular Kannon near the base of the rock. Izunome is a reference to the Oomoto teaching that Onisaburo and Foundress Nao Deguchi were the spiritual polar opposites necessary to lead the work of reconstructing the world: fire (izu) and water (me, a shorten version of mizu). The warp and weft of weaving is also an analogy in Oomoto’s writings used to describe their relationship.
The Buddhist Kannon has also been appropriated by other Shinto sects. To understand this, it is useful to note that throughout the mostly peaceful coexistence of Buddhism, which came to Japan about 1,400 years ago, and of the traditional practices known as Shinto, the two religions have evolved together, influencing each other in many ways. Over time, many Buddhist bodhisattvas came to be recognized as Shinto kami, and many kami were recognized as bodhisattvas.
For Oomoto, the Izunome Kannon has the additional trait of representing the spirits of Nao and Onisaburo.