National | MUSEUM MUSINGS

8,000 relics of Tibetan Buddhism might not all appeal to faint-hearted

by Hiroshi Matsubara

The area around Tokyo’s Meguro Fudoson Temple has traditionally been a site for the city’s faithful.

Among the area’s cluster of temples and shrines is the prominent Anyoin Temple in Shinagawa Ward, one of the oldest in the area, dating back to the ninth century.

Over the past decade, the temple, which belongs to the Tendai sect, one of Japan’s mainstream Buddhist groups, has become known for its museum devoted to Tibetan Buddhism, a distinctive form that evolved in Tibet in the seventh century.

The basement of the temple’s main building, where people pray just like at any other temple, houses nearly 8,000 treasures from Tibet, including some that may appear a bit grotesque to unaccustomed eyes.

“Tibetan Buddhism has been greatly misunderstood in Japan as being a primitive and vulgar form of Buddhism,” head priest Kaicho Urata said, pointing to golden statues apparently depicting sexual intercourse.

“Such secular interests as desire for sex or social fame are an essential part of the human soul, and Tibetan Buddhism has a unique and brave attitude, squarely facing them and turning them into positive energy to pursue a more spiritual life,” he said.

Urata opened the museum in 1991 on the wishes of his late father, Docho, who wanted to eradicate the negative perceptions of Tibetan Buddhism.

All the items displayed, valued at several hundred million yen, were collected by Urata’s father, a known reformer of the Tendai sect and researcher on Buddhism.

They include hundreds of statues of Buddha and other divine figures, items and clothing used for the practice of Tibetan Buddhism and mandalas and other paintings that give clues to the Tibetan understanding of the world and the human body and soul.

Included are such grotesque items as decorated skulls of famous preachers and ornaments made of their bones, which, Urata said, depict the primitive, shamanistic nature of the sect.

Urata added that the items, some more than four centuries old, are valuable both from the religious and artistic perspectives.

“People with strong spirituality can feel something from this museum,” he said, adding that famous fortunetellers and others claiming to have psychic powers frequent the museum to “heal their spirituality.”

The interior is also designed to imitate Tibetan cave temples, with dim lighting, a low ceiling and walls made to look like they’re made of rock, adding a scary feeling to the atmosphere.

Urata said that these primitive aspects of Tibetan Buddhism serve as a good lesson for Buddhism Japan-style.

“Buddhism in Japan lived in harmony with secular society for centuries and has lost the primitive spiritual power that Tibetan Buddhism apparently maintains,” he said.

“Providing moral lessons is a prime function of a religion, but to give people courage to face their instinctive greed or desire is another.”

The museum’s visitors are not limited to those with interest in religion and Buddhism, but Urata noted that it may not be the most entertaining place for children.