Ekai Kawaguchi – Three Years in Tibet
Ekai Kawaguchi was a Japanese Buddhist monk, known for his travels to Tibet and Nepal in the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. He described his travel to Tibet in his book “Three Years in Tibet”.
Childhood and Background
Ekai Kawaguchi was born on the 24th February 1866 and named Sadajiro. He was the eldest among five children and was Christian by birth. At the age of only 15, his direction in life turned unexpectedly after he read about the life of the Buddha. He developed a passionate urge to become a monk and decided to live by the Shojin vows. These included a strict adherence to vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol and celibacy.
At the age of 25, he was ordained as a monk at the Gohyakku Rakunji. His name changed to Ekai Jinko which means “Ocean of Wisdom, Wide Virtue.” He became the rector of his Monastery in Tokyo but gave up the position in 1891 in order to dedicate his time to studying a large collection of Buddhist books in the Chinese language, to meditate and learning Pali in Kyoto. He lived in seclusion at the head temple of Obakusan to translate difficult classical Chinese texts of the Tripitaka into Japanese. Realising the need to refer to the original manuscripts for accurate translation, he decided to leave for Tibet in 1897.
It took Kawaguchi a few years before he reached his goal of traveling to Tibet. He first stayed in Darjeeling, India for several months, living with a Tibetan family to learn the Tibetan language.
Kawaguchi had to cross either Bhutan or Nepal to reach Tibet. He chose the route through Nepal as there were many Sanskrit manuscripts to study there and sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites to visit. He was also the first Japanese to enter Nepal as it was forbidden to foreigners. Kawaguchi decided to disguise himself as either a Tibetan or Chinese monk and use less frequented routes. Kawaguchi had to maintain his undercover identity during the whole trip. He travelled through Kathmandu, across high Himalayan Mountains into Tibet. He was not well equipped and had only limited information and support. But he reached his goal, Lhasa, in 1900.
During his second visit to Nepal, in March 1905, he offered a 100-volume set of the Tripitaka to the Prime Minister of Nepal. It is currently kept in Kathmandu, at the National Archives. The then Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana offered Kawaguchi various Sanskrit manuscripts in return. Kawaguchi also collected many other Sanskrit manuscripts, Buddhist scrolls, paintings, and religious objects while in Nepal.
During his third visit to Nepal, Ekai Kawaguchi advocated for the unity of Asia and Pan-Asianism in his letter to the prime minister. Nepal being the birthplace of Gautam Buddha deserved to benefit from Japanese science and technology. Kawaguchi also offered suggestions for the development of Nepal various and diverse fields, such as education, political and financial administration, industrial development and infrastructure.
During a pilgrimage to Lumbini in 1912, Ekai Kawaguchi witnessed animal sacrifices to Maya Devi, the mother of Buddha, who was mistaken by the local people to be a Hindu Deity. He requested Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana to prohibit animal sacrifices, who issued a decree prohibiting animal sacrifices at Lumbini.
The journey from Japan to Lhasa took almost four years. He stayed at many monasteries and made pilgrimage around the sacred Mount Kailash in west Tibet. Besides being the first Japanese to visit Tibet, he also was the first foreigner who stayed for more than one year in Lhasa, the ‘forbidden city’. He studied at the Sera Monastic University in Lhasa and gained a good reputation as a doctor.
His travels are described in his book “Chibetto Rzoko Ri,” or “Three Years in Tibet”. His book is an important witness as it portrays his journey as well as the social, religious and political situation in India, Nepal and Tibet. In the 1920s he assisted the German Theravada monk Nyanatiloka, the first teacher of another pioneering traveler to Tibet, Lama Anagarika Govinda.
Upon his return to Japan, many people began to be curious about distant Tibet. He gave talks about Tibetan customs and manners but especially monastic immoderation and corruption, superstition irritated him a lot. On the other hand he had great respect for the religious and political leaders and had made many friends during his travels.
Extracts from Three Years in Tibet
The town before me was Shigatze, the second capital of Tibet, and the palatial building was the Tashi Lhunpo Temple. The name means ‘a glorious mass’ or ‘Mount Sumeru,’a legendary mountain mentioned in Buddhist Scriptures. The monastery owes its name to its founder, Gendun Tub, who thought that the mountain at the rear of the temple resembled Sumeru.
The Lama Superior of this temple is regarded as the second Grand Lama of Tibet, for, though he does not possess any political influence, yet with regard to the rank bestowed by the Chinese Emperor he is superior even to the Dalai Lama himself. Sometimes a kind of regency under this ‘second Grand Lama’ takes place during the interval between the Dalai Lama’s death and the enthronement of what in Tibet is believed to be his re-incarnated self.
This second Grand Lama is commonly called Panchen Rinpoche, but his real title is Kyab-kon Chen-bo, meaning ‘Great Protector,’ while his name is Lobsang Choe-ki Nima, the ‘noble-minded religious sun’. I was told he was eighteen years old, having been born in the year of “sheep,” and was believed to be an incarnation of Amida-nyorai. At the time of my visit he was away at a distant palace, so that I could not see him.
– Ekai Kawaguchi, Three Years in Tibet.
Regarding Sera Monastery
I was admitted as a student of the first class, in which priest-students varying from boys in their teens to men in the forties and fifties were studying the Buddhist catechism, according to the Tibetan fashion. Their way of studying was so interesting and active, and they were so earnest and fervent, that one would have thought they were quarrelling with one another while discussing.
The catechism is a very pleasant performance, and the ways of questioning, emphasis, and intonation are quite interesting. The catechised sits in a certain attitude, and the questioner stands up with a rosary in his left hand, and walks towards him. He stretches out his hands with the palm of the left hand downwards and that of the right hand upwards and claps them together, uttering the words, Chi ! chi tawa choe chan. Here ‘ Chi ‘ means the heart of the Bodhisattva Mañjushri and its utterance is supposed to make the questioner one with Him, whose real body is knowledge. The rest of the utterance literally means, “in that nature of the truth.” The sense of the whole is “We shall begin the discussion following the nature of Truth as it is manifested in the Universe.” Then the discussion begins in earnest according the rules of the logic of Nyaya. The first question, for instance, may be whether Buddha was human or not. Whether the answer is in the affirmative or the negative, the questioner goes on to ask; “But he was not above mortality, was he?” If he be answered in the affirmative, he will say that it could not be so, for Buddha was no more than mortal. The answerer, if bright enough, will then reply that Buddha, though himself above death, submitted himself to it in his incarnated body. He must say also that Buddha had three bodies, called in Samskrit Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya, and in Tibetan, Choeku, Lonjoeku and Tulku. These terms mean: ‘The all pervading body consisting of the purest virtue of Truth in him’, ‘the body derived from his countless virtues, enjoying complete happiness with the light of Truth,’ and ‘the body derived from his boundless mercy and transcendental knowledge for the good of all beings.
If the catechised shows any weak point in his answers, the questioner never fails to take advantage of the opportunity, and drives him on, saying for example that Buddha was a real man born in India. Whether the answer be in the affirmative or negative, he will go on asking many questions in succession, and that with so much animation that, when he utters the words of a question, he beats time with hands and feet. The teacher always teaches the catechists that the foot must come down so strongly that the door of hell may be broken open, and that the hands must make so great a noise that the voice of knowledge may frighten the devils all over the world, by a fearless heart and a brave attitude. The object of the questions and answers is to free the mind from all worldliness, and to get into the very bottom of Truth, giving no power to the devils of hell in the mind.
– Ekai Kawaguchi, Three Years in Tibet.
Meeting with the Dalai Lama
Ekai Kawaguchi’s fame grew as he was helping many people through medicine and acupuncture. Because he was helping poor priests in the monastery, he was invited to the Royal Court for an audience with His Holiness 13th Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Rinpoche Thubten Gyatso. In his book, Kawaguchi shares his account of the audience and how it came about. He was even praised by the Court Physician, who said he would recommend Kawaguchi to become the Court Physician:
The Dalai Lama was dressed in a cloak different from that of a common priest. He had on a silk hood and a great robe called sanghati and under it a fine putuk of Tibetan wool about his waist. His under dress was what is called Lema woven of the best Chinese sheep wool. He wore a fine Papal crown on his head though he is said to be often bare-headed, with no crown at all. He held a rosary in his left hand. He was then aged twenty-six. He is about five feet eight inches high, a moderate height in Tibet.
The Dalai Lama looks very brave. His eyebrows are very high, and he is very keen-eyed. Once a Chinese phrenologist remarked that the Tibetan Pope would bring about war one day, to the great disturbance of the country, for though brave-looking, he had an unlucky face. Whether the prophesy comes true or not, he really looks the very man of whose face a phrenologist would be sure to say something. He has a very sharp and commanding voice, so that one could not but pay reverence in his presence.
– Ekai Kawaguchi, Three Years in Tibet.
Ekai Kawaguchi brought back to Japan a large collection of Tibetan scriptures. After his return he was an independent monk and lived with his brother’s family. He earned some income from the publication of his scholarly work. He was wrongly accused of being a spy in Tibet and he refused to assist the military police when they approached him. He passed away in 1945.
For more interesting information:
- Trode Khangsar – a 400 year-old Dorje Shugden Chapel in Lhasa
- BBC: Lost World of Tibet
- Nepal Pilgrimage Full Videos
- 16 Unique Places in Japan
- Nepal is the Land of Spirituality Beauty and Mystery
- Mount Kailash and More
- Alexandra David Neel
- His Holiness the Greath Thirteenth
- I Visited the Holy Jokhang Temple Lhasa 2008
- Rapping Monks of Japan!
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