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Buddhist temple on Mt. Koya discovers masses of miniature five-tier towers

A part of the large collection of small five-tier towers found at Entsuji Temple is shown at the Koyasan Reihokan Museum in Koya, Wakayama Prefecture, on July 1, 2019. (Mainichi/Kazuo Matsuno)

KOYA, Wakayama -- A huge collection of miniature "gorinto," or literally five-ringed Buddhist towers, have been found at Entsuji Temple on Mount Koya, the Mount Koya cultural property preservation society announced on July 1.

The towers, believed to number in the tens of thousands, were stored in 16 wooden boxes. The ones checked so far have been made of Japanese cedar and cypress. They each measure about 9 centimeters high and average around 3 centimeters in width. It is rare to find such a large number of this type of tower in Japan.

"In their capacity as items used to pray for blessings as part of interment, we can say they are incredibly precious historical materials," a society representative said.

One of the five-tier towers, with Sanskrit characters written on each of its sections, and the paper found stored inside it, are seen at the Koyasan Reihokan Museum in Koya, Wakayama Prefecture on July 1, 2019. (Mainichi/Kazuo Matsuno)

India ink writings on one box indicated 15,218 items had been stored. Another suggested it was handled in some way in the seventh year of the Tenpo era (1830-1844) of the Imperial calendar, as well as in the eighth month of Hinoesaru, the 33rd year of the 60-year sexagenary cycle once widely used in East Asia. A separate inscription refers to 84,000 towers. It appears that the towers were collected during the Tenpo era.

The five tiers of the small towers represent the five elements: earth, water, fire, wind and air, which construct physical space in Esoteric Buddhism. Each section of the towers also has Sanskrit characters written on them. Some towers bore the posthumous Buddhist names of the deceased, the names of the patrons and their locations. Additionally, the bottom portions of some towers have a carved section measuring about 5 millimeters in diameter for a small scrap of paper with Buddhist scripture on it.

According to the explanation by the preservation society, the ancient Indian king Ashoka the Great is said to have separated Buddha's remains into 84,000 stupas, thereby spreading the teachings of Buddhism far and wide.

Learned monks from Mount Koya, known as Hijiri, would go on pilgrimages to various places carrying the small five-tier towers, and write inscriptions in India ink as requested by patrons. It appears they would then take them back to the mountain. But it's not clear what the aim was in amassing such a considerable amount of them. One possibility is said to be that it was believed if many of them were gathered in devotion, greater Buddhist merit could be acquired.

The preservation society intends to check all of the boxes with cooperation from the Agency for Cultural Affairs.

Part of the collection will be on display at the Koyasan Reihokan Museum in a special exhibition opening on July 20. For questions, call the museum on 0736-56-2029 (in Japanese only).

(Japanese original by Kazuo Matsuno, Hashimoto Local Bureau)

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