Tales of Echizen
January 1, 2005 · 11:38pm EST · Posted by Fujiyama Dojo
Fujiyama Dojo
P.O. Box 20003
Thorold, ON, Canada
L2V 5B3
(905) 680-6389

It has been told that long ago, a swordsman with no name came to Echizen from the north. He traveled far with his family in search of peace. With him, he carried the memory of Bandaisan, Inawashiro ko (lake), and other places of his youth. He did not begin the journey alone, but his friend and his friend's family had decided to go to the mountains of Ettchu, while he pressed on, towards the place he had been advised to go. A place where he could bury his swords and find peace.

One day, close to sunset, he looked ahead and saw the mountains before him. The swordsman with no name realized that he had found home. He was in Echizen.

The Temple of Eternal Peace

In 1244, a group of men arrived to Shii-no-Sho, in Echizen. Their leader was a man named Dogen and their purpose was to build a mountain temple.

Dogen was born in 1200, and when he was twenty-four years old, he traveled to China for the purpose of studying Zen. He had been instructed by Nyojo Senji at Mt. Tendo. Later, he had lived at Kenninji temple and eventually founded his own temple, Kosho-Horinji, in Uji.

This time, however, Dogen and his followers felt that they had finally found the right place to build their mountain temple. After a long search, Dogen felt that in no other place could the temple be constructed. "It is already here," he said. "It just must be brought forward." As he walked among the trees, he counted his steps, spread his arms wide, then pointed to the ground and said, "Here is the main gate."

Today, in that very spot, tradition tells us, stands the Sanmon, or mountain gate, which is the oldest of Eiheiji's buildings.

A samurai named Hatano Yoshishige donated the land and a great deal of help, and before long, Eiheiji, the temple of eternal peace was founded, deep in the mountains, not far from the coast. There, Dogen devoted himself to teaching his followers the way of Zen. The practice of Shikan Taza (just sitting in meditation, entertaining no vagrant thoughts) is still observed in much the same way as Dogen taught it.

Dogen kept himself away from men in influential positions, abhorred flattery and idle talk, and seemed to have found a way to give reason and meaning to every moment of his life, to every activity. To him, the purity of Zen was all consuming.

Dogen died on September 29th of 1254. He left behind a number of books in which he recorded his teachings. Among them are the Shobogenzo, the Yoshinshu, and Eihei Dai Shingi.

Eiheiji Today

Eiheiji is still a sacred place, a working monastery where priest-trainees are taught. It encompasses several structures such as the Sanmon (mountain gate), Butsuden (Buddha hall), Hatto (Dharma hall), Sodo (Priests' hall), Jyoden (Founders hall), Shidoden (Memorial hall), etc. In them, all time stands still. There is an overwhelming sense of history as one walks through the halls.

The Jyoden is the mausoleum of Dogen Zenji. The main altar contains the image and the ashes of Dogen Zenji, and the images of some of his successors. On a secondary altar, the memorial tablets and ashes of all of Dogen's successors, the head priests of Eiheiji, are found.

The Sanshoaku is a beautiful reception hall, used for lectures and zazen, whose ceiling is covered with 230 paintings, the work of 144 Japanese artists. The tokonoma displays a large painting of Mount Fuji.

The Hatto, or Dharma hall, is used for daily services and important ceremonies. Its altar is fronted by the "a-un no shishi", or lions, which depict the proper breathing method, also symbolizing teaching by words ("a", or opening the mouth) and teaching by actions ("un", closing the mouth).

For the trainees, not only zazen is a spiritual discipline, but so eating, sleeping, bathing, and doing menial chores are also considered to be religious practices. All the food prepared at Daikuin (kitchen) is vegetarian, and rather frugal. Dogen wrote, "A dish is not necessarily superior because you prepared it with choice ingredients, or a soup inferior because you made it with simple greens," so the Soojiki kyuuhai (offering a formal meal) becomes an exercise in discipline.

Dogen's legacy, however, surpasses Eiheiji. His teachings are the most highly valued inheritance for his followers.

"Refrain from all evils, not clinging to birth and death," he wrote, "working in deep compassion for all sentient beings, respecting those over you and pitying those under you, without detesting or desiring, worrying or lamentation."

The Thieving Monk and the Upturned Tree

Osuke was optimistic when he began his journey, because it was a tai-an (lucky) day when he decided to travel to Echizen. He wished to be accepted as a trainee at Eiheiji. Surely he came from pure samurai stock. His family had once been part of a powerful fief from the north, but now they were no longer favored by fate. The mountains of Ettchu were now his home and his humble clothes did not reflect his once honored kamon.

He knew that some said, "Rinzai shogun, Soto domin" ("Rinzai for the shogun, Soto for peasants", meaning that, while the practice of Rinzai Zen was for high ranking samurai, Soto Zen was for the commoner), and although he was a samurai at heart, he felt attracted by the teachings of the Soto Zen.

At the end of his journey, Osuke felt it had been a tai-an day indeed. He was admitted as an apprentice, and he labored diligently to deserve his position. He might not have been the best apprentice, but he did not care to be the best. He wanted to do his best, and that he did well. He was a son of a samurai, who was also a son of a samurai, and he was determined to protect his name, even though it was a name no longer uttered. To remind him of it, he kept a single one of his belongings from the outside world. It was a black lacquered inrou bearing his kamon in gold. Its netsuke was a masterfully carved ivory kappa. He knew it was forbidden to keep any belongings from the outside world, but somehow he could not bear to part with it.

All went well for Osuke, until the arrival of his second winter, when, on one of the few gathering trips he and a few other apprentices took outside the temple, he became aware of the hardships that the peasants had to endure. Food had become painfully scarce, and he saw many starving. He was carrying a heavy bundle of rice, as were his companions, but he felt the hunger in those he saw along the way.

He thought he ought to look in another direction, and remain strong. After all, he was the son of a samurai. But his family had also known hunger and hardships, and his spirit could not regain composure.

A few days later, Osuke sneaked out of the temple carrying with him a bundle of rice, which he distributed among those he saw in need. On his way back, he saw an old man, dressed in rags sitting by the side of the road and looking rather cold and forlorn. Having nothing left to give him, Osuke gave him his valuable inrou. "Perhaps you could exchange it for some food and warm clothing," he said. The old man accepted it, but it was easy to see that he was quite surprised by Osuke's gesture.

Apparently, Osuke's absence had not been noticed, since he was not reprimanded. And three more times, the young man sneaked out of the temple carrying rice for the needy. He had to walk long distances and the snow was getting deeper, but Osuke's spirit could not find rest unless he did something for the hungry people.

One a particularly cold day, an exhausted Osuke attempted to sneak out again, but this time he was greeted on the pathway by two senior priests with stern gazes. Osuke knew he had been discovered.

He was taken before the head priest, and as he approached, Osuke saw that, in the palm of his hand, the head priest held his beloved inrou. Osuke fell to his knees.

"I am sorry, teacher!" he pleaded. "I know I am but a thief."

"Do not condemn yourself before you are accused," responded the head priest. "What you have taken had a good end. We are fortunate to have more than we need, and even if we did not, the reasons are proper. The beggar to whom you gave your inrou felt unworthy to keep it and came to return it, but also told us of your actions, since he saw you giving rice to the people.

"I am unworthy to be here, teacher," cried Osuke. "I could not resist temptation. I have broken sacred principles."

The head priest looked at the inrou quietly for a moment, then gently lifted Osuke's head from the ground. "If our principles mean more than our compassion, nothing we do is real, nothing we are is real, and what we do has no meaning at all. Such a thing would be like a tree that tries to live upturned, so only its roots show, while its foliage and its fruits remain hidden under the soil. It will not only be unsightly, but its beauty and usefulness will cease, and it would have no more reason to exist. Perhaps every one of us should have been tempted in the same way you were."

"What will happen to me, teacher?" asked Osuke.

The head priest put the inrou into Osuke's hand. "You must return to the outside, and seek your path beyond these walls. This is not a punishment, but advice. What your heart longs for, you will find there. Perhaps some day you may return and find peace."

Osuke departed at the end of that winter. But he did not go far. He remained in Echizen, where he found favor with a prominent family, becoming its official Bujutsu instructor, and was later adopted into it. He continued being a kind man and a philanthropist, never resisting temptation to help those in need till the end of his days.

No one has ever attempted to explain Osuke's motives. But, why should anyone? Enku was a priest born in Hashima, who spent over fifty years wandering through the mountains, where he carved religious statues and left them behind, so people who could not afford them could still worship. Enku did not request any payment, nor did he seek converts. More often than not, he slept in the old weather-beaten shrines he found along the way. Most of what we know about him is through his carvings and the remaining accounts of those he blessed with his kindness. Does anyone need to explain Enku's motives? Of course not. The day a man thinks that he has to have a reason to exercise compassion, that day he has become like an upturned tree.

Osuke was absolutely right. It was a tai-an day when he began his journey. There is nothing more auspicious than sincere kindness.

A Brief History of Echizen

In the 5th year of Keicho (1600), Tokugawa Ieyasu's second son, Hideyasu Yuuki, inherited Kitanosho Castle and the Echizen domain, which lasted 270 years, with the castle remaining the central part of the city;. In 1838, Matsudaira (Yoshinaga) Shungaku became the castle lord.

Although Echizen was already home to various reputable families who settled there from as far away as Aizu and Iwashiro and quietly cultivated several martial disciplines, Lord Matsudaira brought to the fief many individuals with talents and virtues who would contribute to its administration and development. Echizen would become the home of Sanai Hashimoto, Shounan Yokoi, Hachiro Mitsuoka (formerly Kosei Yuri), Suzuki Chikara, Nakane Sekko, and others. As a result, the domain's economy was thoroughly improved.

In the relatively isolated and peaceful history of Echizen, a few families discretely kept their traditions, arts and disciplines in anonymity, but several names became notable, such as swordmaker Shimosaka Yasutsugu; Honda Tomimasa, who built the Shibahara aqueduct; draftsman Iwasa Matabei; poet Tachibana Akemi; and renowned physician Kasahara Hakuo, who devoted his life to the development of a vaccine against small pox. (In 1849, Dr. Kasahara inoculated the castle town against small pox.)

Today, Echizen is better known as Fukui. Of the old castle, only its stone base remains, surrounded by a moat. And the modern structure of Fukui's City Hall stands where once stood the proud feudal castle.

But for some of the descendants of those who once traveled there searching for peace, time seems to stand still, and even the steep road to Asuwayama still evokes the feeling of finally reaching home after a very long journey.


It has been told that once upon a time a swordsman with no name buried his swords in his search for peace, and found that the hardest battle was just beginning: life. However, that is but a very small story among the many told of Echizen.


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