Tennei-ji Temple

Tennei-ji Temple

Home to hundreds of very distinctive Buddhist statues

place Area: Hikone access_time Published: 2020.10.07

Name in Japanese: 天寧寺
Pronunciation: tennei-ji

Tennei-ji is a temple of the Sōtō Zen Buddhism sect, located on hillside overlooking Hikone. It’s one of the temples associated with the Ii family and it’s known for its five hundred arhat statues created in the first half of the 19th century.

Arhats, known as ‘rakan’ in Japanese, are people who have achieved a high degree of Buddhist enlightenment, although short of Buddhahood. They’re often presented in units of five hundred, symbolising a very large number, and they’re typically depicted in a demotic style bordering on the grotesque. This is to suggest the possibility of the average person achieving a similar degree of enlightenment. The arhats at Tennei-ji were carved by ten artists over a period of five years. They’re housed on stepped shelves arranged around the walls of their own building, the Rakan-dō. It’s said that those who have lost a child can be sure to find a rakan whose face resembles their child – assuming of course that the child was male and had a bit of a leer.

There’s a sad story behind the foundation of the temple. Ii Naonaka was the eleventh generation of his family, who ruled over the Hikone Domain. According to tradition, when he heard a rumour that Wakatake, a lady’s maid, had become pregnant with an illegitimate child, she was executed according to the law of the domain. When it was revealed that the father was his firstborn son, Naokiyo, he was advised to build the temple to appease the spirits of the mother and child. In 1819, Sōtoku-ji Temple was moved from near Hikone Castle to establish Tennei-ji. The main hall had been built in 1811, and the Rakan-dō was built in 1828.

In a recess in the back of the Rakan-dō is Japan’s biggest wooden statue of Budai, one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune. Between the Rakan-dō and main hall, there’s a fine stone garden. The central big brown stone represents the Buddha, while the stones around it represent his sixteen main disciples. The white gravel contains sand from the Niranjana River, one of the most sacred rivers of India. Facing the entrance is a large stone Jizō statue.

A stone pagoda stands as a memorial to Ii Naosuke, who was assassinated near the end of the Edo period. It contains some of his personal belongings. The grave of Nagano Shuzen, Naosuke’s friend and counsellor is also in the temple grounds. In addition, there’s a monument to Takajo, Naosuke’s mistress.