Once upon a time there was — well, actually there wasn’t, but people thought there was, and what people think there is influences more behavior than what is — an island. Many set sail for it. No one returned.

Its name in Japanese is Fudaraku; its location, somewhere in the southern seas. That’s precise enough. Not geography or seamanship but faith guided the pilgrim to it. He set sail alone in a sealed boat. To the skeptical modern mind it’s suicide, but this story is neither skeptical nor modern, and the reward — rebirth in the Buddhist Pure Land — was, to the devout, worth many deaths.

The priest Konko, abbot in 1565 of the Fudarakusanji temple on the Kumano coast of today’s Wakayama Prefecture, was insufficiently devout. He was a tragic victim of a tradition linking his temple to Fudaraku Island. As abbot, he was expected to make the voyage sometime in his 61st year. Novelist Yasushi Inoue (1907-91) makes him the central character of his 1961 short story, “Passage to Fudaraku.”

A “Pure Land” is one of the fundamental longings of the human soul. What does “pure” mean? Different things to different people, but essentially goodness, happiness and life unsullied by their inevitable earthly concomitants — evil, suffering and death. The Pure Land sect of Buddhism has Indian roots at least a thousand years older than its advent in early medieval Japan. The two pivotal figures are the priests Honen (1133-1212) and Shinran (1173-1262).

Japan was changing. The leisured, hyper-refined, elegantly effete culture of the Heian Period (794-1185) was dying. Military lords and ruthless warriors were seizing the inheritance. Their code embraced death — battlefield death, inflicted with gusto and received with serenity. This too was a kind of rebirth.

Buddhist scripture had foreseen such a time. The religious term is mappō, the decline of the Buddhist Law. It would set in, scripture prophesied, some 2,000 years after the Buddha’s death. The Law would lose its force, faith would falter, salvation would recede.

The timing was right, and signs of decay were everywhere. Classical Buddhism is difficult. Salvation demands deep learning, intense meditation, rigorous asceticism. How many even in the best of times were capable of such discipline? Was salvation reserved only for a tiny minority? Honen and Shinran thought not. Together they elaborated a doctrine based on the “original vow” of Amida, the Buddha of Boundless Light, who had refused salvation for himself unless all human beings could be saved simply by calling on him. They did so by uttering the nenbutsu — “Namu Amida Butsu” (homage to Amida Buddha) — repeatedly in Honen’s teaching, not necessarily so in Shinran’s.

Once is enough, said Shinran. Sincerity was all. Shinran sought to open the gates of the Pure Land as wide as possible. He knew — intimately — the cravings of the flesh. We have a vivid picture of his soul’s struggles with his body in the 1956 novel “The Buddha Tree” by Fumio Niwa (1904-2005), himself early in life a Pure Land priest. “Shinran,” wrote Niwa, “had come to the point where he felt himself to be so hardened and steeped in sin that he was beyond even the hope of being saved — but it was this very despair of self that proved to be the beginning of his salvation.”

Tormented by lust, Shinran saw he could not rely on himself. On another, then — on Amida. The human condition is the human condition; a human being cannot overthrow it — but can invoke divine assistance. To do so sincerely is to receive it.

At peace with himself at last, Shinran married and fathered six children. He departed this world content, confident of his ultimate destination. Niwa quotes his cheerful farewell to mankind: “If a man finds joy alone, he shall know then that another is with him; if two rejoice together, a third shall ever be with them — I, Shinran, their companion unseen!”

We return now to the story of Konko. Fudarakusanji is of Tendai, not Jodo (Pure Land) Buddhism, and the presiding deity of the Pure Land represented by Fudaraku Island (Mount Potalaka in Sanskrit) is not Amida but Kannon, goddess of mercy — but such doctrinal fine points need not trouble us. The year is 1565. Konko has turned 61.

The tradition’s origins are obscure. Inoue traces them back to the 10th century. Pilgrims were few in number but enduring in memory, which shaped expectation, which stimulated resolution, which conquered doubt, until, by Konko’s time, the pilgrimage had become almost a matter of course.

Konko’s predecessor as abbot, Yushin, had made the voyage, as had Yushin’s predecessor. Yushin, facing departure with serenity, claimed he could see Fudaraku Island. “Anyone, he added,” writes Inoue, “who had freed himself of delusions and acquired faith in the Buddha could see it. Konko too would see it if he would give himself up wholly to faith in Fudaraku.”

This, alas, he could not do. In vain he intoned the sutras, in vain he sought to steel himself. Faith would not come. The time to embark drew near, and “Konko knew well that he was no better prepared spiritually than before.”

But matters were no longer in his hands. Dazed, numb, he watched the preparations unfold. The boat was made ready. Sacred statues and scrolls were brought on board. Konko himself boarded, scarcely knowing what he did. A crowd had gathered, reverential and awed. “Coins fell like rain on the boat and along the shoreline,” Inoue writes, “and children fought to collect them.” A wooden box was placed over him and nailed in place.

“Then,” Inoue tells us, “he heard the sound of an oar. He was not alone, then. The boatman would steer the vessel as far as Tsunakiri Island. There he would be cast off, alone.”

What remains to be told is pitiful. Alone in his box, his soul in turmoil, his faith no match for his attachment to life, he goes berserk. He breaks out of his prison, flings himself into the sea, clings to a plank, is washed onto Tsunakiri Island. Fishermen and monks on the island give him a meal “on the bleak shore.” “Spare me,” Konko murmurs — but it is not to be. “A hastily made box was lowered over Konko and attached securely to the bottom of (a fishing) boat,” writes Inoue. “Then Konko and the boat were pushed out to sea.

“Thereafter,” concludes the author, “the abbots of the Fudarakusanji were no longer expected to put out to sea when they reached 61.”

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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