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Radiant Hall Fantasia SUGIMOTO Sonoko

It's been about sixteen or seventeen years since I first visited Hiraizumi.

When I was a student, I was interested in Noh and consequently in Mōtsūji's Ennen no Mai, so before I went I was actually more excited to see Mōtsūji than I was to visit Chūsonji.

Now, there is nothing left of Mōtsūji but the Pure Land garden centered on a large pond. Rebuilt by Fujiwara no Motohira and expanded by his heir, Hidehira, to include more than forty halls and pagodas, and more than five hundred monks' dormitories, Mōtsūji is now completely lost to us.

To the right of the building I was told the Ennen no Mai was performed, I stood staring at the pond awhile. It was early summer, but not a soul was to be seen, nor even the voice of a bird calling out to be heard.

The water reflected nothing but the trees, and the cloudy, rain-soaked landscape felt dark and depressing. Even the scattered placement of the garden stones gave little impression of having been planned. It was as if countless years of exposure to the elements had drawn the garden's trees and rocks back to their natural state.

Unfettered from the strict rules of gardening, the lonely but relaxed and expansive temple grounds played a mysteriously beautiful harmony with the surrounding and overlapping greenery. Green water, green trees, green grass… Hundreds of greens, each different and unique. Though there were no flowers blooming, at Mōtsūji I enjoyed the depth and richness of nuance found in the single color green.

In contrast, Chūsonji was nothing less than gorgeous. The Konjikidō stood before me in all its splendor. The hall was being dismantled and restored when I visited, and I had chanced upon a time when the protective outer hall had been removed.

We call this hall the Sayadō, and saya means both the pod of a pea and the sheath of a sword. In either case, this outer casing shields the golden hall from the elements.

In Japanese we have a saying to ridicule and discourage excess and overkill. We call such extraneousness: "Roofing over the roof." But this case was different—I understood the desire to place a second roof over the Konjikidō to protect this golden jewel box from the ravages of rain and wind. Indeed, time had not been kind to the golden hall.

Of course, nobody thought to create the Sheath Hall until the glory of the Hiraizumi Fujiwara was a distant memory. Gold was once said to bloom like flowers in Michinoku, but over time that wealth dried up. When it did, the one great piece of evidence for that marvelous past became that much more important in people's eyes.

I had chanced upon a once-in-centuries glimpse of the Konjikidō in its original state, without the protective outer hall. Excited though I was by this rare opportunity, I also felt sharply the cruelty of time.

The hall looked cold and a little ashamed—like a woman stripped of her clothing. It was the body of an old woman, slowly drained of her beauty by the weight of years underneath her clothing, then laid bare. The only thing that made it bearable was the construction's firm fencing that hid the hall from the eyes of tourists and worshippers.

The temple was kind enough to allow me into the hall's interior, but the statues and ritual implements had been moved out, leaving the Konjikidō empty. Of course, this made it easier to observe the details of the building itself, and for that I considered myself lucky.

Gold, mother-of-pearl inlay, lacquer, and more of the finest materials available. The ruins of beauty are crueler to look upon. Peering into the holes in the hall's damaged pillars I could see how they were lavishly coated with layers of lacquered cloth, but the holes themselves were like wounds on the naked woman's body.

The principal image of the Konjikidō is Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light. In addition, the hall contains statues of the bodhisattvas Kannon and Seishi, the two Celestial Kings, and arrays of six Jizō statues. Given that, I wonder whether the Konjikidō should really be considered an Amida hall. The hall became known as the Konjikidō—literally the "Golden Hall"—and later acquired the second sobriquet, Hikaridō—the "Hall of Light" or "Radiant Hall"—for its sumptuous gold decorations and small but magnificent shining light.

The central dais holds the body of Fujiwara no Kiyohira, flanked by his son and grandson Motohira and Hidehira (and the head of his son, Yasuhira). All three bodies have been mummified and lie in stasis in gold-leaf coffins.

In other words, the Konjikidō is more a mausoleum than it is an Amida hall. The hall's construction was proposed by Kiyohira's mother, wife, and concubines. The hall was probably protected by these women, and by their successors in the second and third generations of the Fujiwara family right down to the fall of the dynasty. In other words, I imagine that the Konjikidō was additionally a women's hall. The hall's delicate shape and figure seems a testament to this.

The kingdom of the Fujiwara—judging from the stupendous amounts of gold used throughout its sphere of cultural influence, the Konjikidō was a small investment, a trifle. But because of its diminutive size it has managed to escape disasters both natural and manmade to live on today, nearly a millennium later. This, too, strikes me as womanly; the appearance of weakness masks strength and longevity.

The restoration efforts swept away the ravages of time and restored her to her youthful beauty. I hear that there will be an exhibition soon at Chūsonji. Chūsonji's Ichiji Kinrin statue, known for its uncannily lifelike appearance as "the Human Flesh Tathāgata," will headline the temple treasures on display. I cannot wait to be reunited with these artifacts as well.

Excerpted from the Mainichi Shimbun, 4/15/80

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