Almost done with exams. So close I can smell it.
If you’ve been to Japan (or even if you haven’t), you’ve probably seen stone grave markers like this one. If you’re a nerd like me, you might have wondered something about them. What does the shape symbolize? How long ago did the Japanese start using them? How has the shape, or other aspects of their use, change over time? Despite the ubiquity of these grave markers – you can find them in just about every cemetery in Japan – and their distinctive aesthetic / sculptural form, in my experience, textbooks and classes on Japanese art and architecture typically skip over grave practices entirely. I have never yet been to China or Korea, but I am told that Japanese grave markers and burial practices otherwise are rather distinct from those on the continent… so you would think it would be something worth talking about.
One of the few things I did hear about these five-stage gorintô structures previously was that they are meant to represent the five elements. But, I’d always been confused as to which set of elements these were supposed to represent; if the five Chinese elements are wood, metal, fire, earth, and water, then how/why would this Japanese form feature such associations with earth, water, fire, wind, and void? Turns out the latter are the Indian five elements, adopted more directly into Japan from Sanskritic/Buddhist origins than the natively Chinese (Confucian? Taoist?) wǔ xíng. The form is also used as a tool for meditation, the five stages representing five portions of the human body, or of Dainichi (the Universal Buddha), associated with the elements. The folded legs are earth; the hara (abdomen/stomach) is water; the chest fire; the head air; and above that, void.
Fortunately, Prof. Hank Glassman of Haverford College gave a fascinating talk on the subject recently. As he explained, as recently as the Heian period, visiting graves was not a widespread custom, and graves generally were not even marked. Eiga monogatari, from the early 12th century, is among the earliest literary works describing a visit to a grave, yet here it is still limited to the top echelons of the elites, and the grave remains unmarked. A member of the Fujiwara clan seeks to visit his father’s grave, to tell of his promotions in title/post to his father, but worries he won’t be able to find the unmarked grave, which is also overgrown with weeds, since the custom of maintaining or cleaning graves was also not widespread yet; Glassman suggests the practice of maintaining, marking, and visiting graves may have become more standard in Japan along with the introduction of the Neo-Confucian teachings of Zhu Xi, which would have emphasized filial piety – obligations to one’s parents, and ancestors.
The first stone gorintô grave markers are believed to have been based on wooden ones, a few of which survive, albeit only from later centuries. Even before that, however, the first gorintô were far smaller. They were reliquaries, as is the original essential idea of the stupa form. Some of the earliest such gorintô reliquaries date to the 1190s, and have been found in rock crystal or bronze, placed inside Buddhist statuary, as receptacles for holding relics of the Buddha, arhats, or other significant Buddhist figures. This form was then adopted onto carved flat wooden planks, carved only into the topmost sections of the plank; this evolved by the 12th century into the fully three-dimensional wooden form, and then the stone one, but still survives too in the wooden planks (sotoba) seen all the time at Japanese cemeteries today. These, we learned, are typically replaced at a given grave every day for the first week after burial, and then annually after that; Glassman spoke of the beauty and impressiveness of the monks’ skills at inscribing calligraphy, in both Chinese and Siddham, on these planks by brush.
It was only in the late 12th century that the custom of stone grave markers is thought to have been first imported from the continent, though adapted to a distinctly Japanese form (shape) of marker, already in use in wood. Even then, the practice was initially rather limited to the aristocracy, and to the most prominent of religious figures. The first gorintô grave markers are believed to have been carved and erected in Japan by a group of Chinese stonemasons invited from the continent to aid in the rebuilding of Tôdai-ji, which was destroyed in the Genpei War of the 1180s. Once the Tôdai-ji project was completed, for some reason these stonemasons remained in Japan rather than return home to China; this may have been because the journey was too difficult in some way, or too dangerous, though probably not because of expense, given that the Tôdai-ji project itself was extraordinarily expensive, including the shipping of many tons of stone from Suzhou to Nara, so surely the shogunate (or whomever) could afford to fund the return trip.
Let’s step back a moment. The Great Buddha Hall at Tôdai-ji, then and now the largest wooden building in the world1, and housing the largest bronze Buddha in the world at that time, if not today, was destroyed by warriors of the Taira clan in the 1181 Siege of Nara. Even before the end of the war in 1185, efforts to rebuild the great temple were begun. Hônen (1133-1212), founder of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan, was asked to head up the project and apparently turned it down. One of Hônen’s direct disciples, Shunjôbô Chôgen (1121-1206), then took up the project, coordinating both the fundraising and the construction. It was Chôgen, who had previously spent time in China, who organized to have a group of stonemasons come from Ningbo, then known as Mingzhou, to help with the project. Glassman says we do not know just how Chôgen knew, or found, these stonemasons, but he conjectures that they may have been associated with temples Chôgen stayed/studied at in China.
Based on inscriptions on some of these stone markers, and other objects, we know that one of these Chinese stonemasons was named Yī Xíngmò (伊行末, I Gyômatsu or I Yukisue in Japanese), and that his son Yī Xíngjí (伊行吉, J: I Gyôkichi, or I Yukiyoshi) was active in Japan in the late 12th or early 13th century as well. Yī Xíngmò would have been fairly young at that time, and is believed to have been only a junior member of the team, perhaps even an apprentice, when he accompanied some number of master stonemasons to Japan in the 1180s; however, it is his name which comes down to us today, by virtue of inscriptions such as those on certain stone carvings at Hannya-ji in Nara, by his son Yī Xíngjí.
After arriving in Japan, the stonemasons determined that Japanese stone was too soft, and despite the incredible expense, Chôgen apparently managed to afford to have tons of stone imported from China. This comes as a particular surprise given the stories surrounding the fundraising efforts for the rebuilding of the temple. Monks traveled the provinces collecting donations, and in fact, a very famous and popular kabuki play, based on an earlier Noh play, features Minamoto no Yoshitsune and his companion Benkei pretending to be just such donations-collecting monks, traveling the provinces, as part of Yoshitsune’s efforts to escape from his brother’s men. Still, in any case, the stone was boated in, and two stone lions believed to have been made at that time by those Chinese stonemasons still survive today at Tôdai-ji. A group of four stone statues of the Deva Kings they are said to have produced at the same time do not survive, however. The stone lions are quite ornately decorated, with carved-on wreaths and sashes; in China, ornamentation on stone lions was restricted to Imperial tombs, but in Japan, such attitudes and policies were not in place, and further this was one of the greatest – and originally strongly Imperial-associated – Buddhist temples in the realm.
Once the Tôdai-ji project was complete, it is believed that some of these stonemasons may have found work at Mt. Kôya, where some of the first gorintô stone grave markers would have been produced. Glassman says Mt. Kôya might represent the largest graveyard in the world; I have never been, but would love to visit. The earliest gorintô marked the graves of eminent monks, and of members of co-fraternities, not only in the Kyoto/Nara region and at Mt. Kôya, but rather broadly across the archipelago; the oldest extant stone gorintô inscribed with dates are located in such disparate regions as Hiraizumi, in the far north, and in Ôita prefecture, in Kyushu; both of these date to 1269.
Yi’s descendants went on to become well-established, with at least two major branches of gravestone-carving styles developing. The main branch of descendants and disciples, still called the “Yi school,” or I-ha (伊派) in Japanese, was based largely in Nara and Kyushu in the early medieval period, while another branch, the Ôkura-ha (大蔵派), became prominent in the Kantô (around Kamakura, and what would later become Edo, and then Tokyo).
All photos my own.
1. Or, at least, the largest wooden building constructed prior to the 1990s or so. According to Wikipedia, a baseball stadium in Akita, built in 1998, is larger. Boo.