Gosen Kannon, the Guardian Bodhisattva for Seafarers

 Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Avalokiteshvara is one of the Bodhisattva attendants of Amitabha known as the Hearer of the Sound of the World. Usually referred to as Kannon-san, Avalokiteshvara is widely worshipped in Japan as a goddess of mercy, though a male deity in India. Statues of Kannon, often portrayed as the Bodhisattva with Thousand Hands symbolizing her generous dispensation of mercy, are to be found all over Japan, some in museums such as National Museums at Tokyo and Nara and others in temples such as Horyu-ji in Nara and Sanjyusangen-do in Kyoto.

Needless to say, Avalokiteshvara is not the only Bodhisattva that is widely worshipped in Japan. Referred to as Ojizo-san, Ksitigarbha, or the Bodhisattva of Great Vows, is also quite popular among the Japanese whose statues are found all over Japan in all kinds of places, not just at temples such as Hasedera in Kamakura and Dainichi-do in Matsusaka but also at roadsides in cities and mountains. Though not as popular as Avalokiteshvara and Ksitigarbha, Samantabhadra known as the Universal Sage Bodhisattva, Manjusri, the Wisdom Bodhisattva, and Maitreya, the Bodhisattva who will appear on Earth in the future, are also well-known and widely admired. Thirty-three temples in Western Japan built during the Heian period (794-1185) are known as popular pilgrimage sites to view and pay respect to these and other Bodhisattva statues.

There is another Bodhisattva who goes by the name of Gosen Kannon, the Guardian Bodhisattva for Seafarers. Not as well known as other Bodhisattvas, there is a fascinating story behind the birth of Gosen Kannon in Japan, which is associated with Ennin (794-864), also known as Jikaku Taishi. As a disciple of Saicho (767-822), who founded Tendai school of Buddhism in Japan, Ennin is credited with the founding of Taimitsu (Tendai esotericism) at Mt. Hiei and the introduction of nembutsu (the invocation of the Buddha’s name).

It was 838 CE that Ennin joined an envoy to Tang China to study Buddhism. After studying Buddhist sutras with Chinese masters, Ennin boarded a ship in 847 to return to Japan. As it had happened so many times before, the four ships carrying Ennin and other envoy members were caught in a violent storm. According to an old document found later, “The waves were so high as to wash away rocks and stones, and the clouds that covered the sky were so thick as to turn the day into a dark night. Even the seasoned captains of the envoy ships lost their calm.” In fact, the storm was so violent that the captains lost control of the ships, and one of the four ships was capsized and sank to the bottom of the ocean.

In the midst of this violent storm Ennin invoked the Buddha’s name, looking up towards the sky. Immediately, a Bodhisattva appeared in the sky emanating luminous lights to protect the ships. The shining sun appeared as the dark clouds were cleared away and, as the violent head wind turned into a gentle tail wind, the ships were able to reach the coast of Matsuura in Hizen (the present-day Nagasaki prefecture). However, the captains could not keep control of the ships when they tried to bring passengers ashore, and the ships broke into pieces. Ennin was able to swim to the shore, though he had to struggle against high waves to keep him from drowning.

After safely reaching the shore, the captains asked Ennin to carve the statue of this Bodhisattva who appeared on the sea and saved the passengers and the crew of the envoy ships. Ennin thus carved the statue of Gosen Kannon, which literally means “the Bodhisattva who protects the ships,” out of a piece of wood from the envoy ships that had broken into pieces as they hit the shore.

As soon as the statue was completed, “Gosen Kannon shone with bright light emanating from its body, prompting the captains to become Ennin’s disciples in awe of the power of his faith,” says an old document mentioned above. The same document also describes the captains making a drawing of this Bodhisattva on paper and pasting it on their ships as a good luck charm for safe voyage of their ships. The document goes on to describe Gosen Kannon as the protector of ships against winds and waves at sea.

The statue of Gosen Kannon, depicting the Bodhisattva riding on a ship with an oar in his hands, is now housed at Myouhou-ji in Omihachiman, Shiga prefecture.* In a way, it is quite appropriate that Gosen Kannon is housed at Myouhou-ji because it belongs to the Obaku school of Zen Buddhism in Japan, which was founded by Chinese Chan Master Ingen (1592-1673). Ingen came over to Japan when he was at age 63, disappointed with the social turmoil in the closing days of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and risking his life in making the dangerous journey on the sea. Known as home to unique Bodhisattva statues such as the Horse-Headed Bodhisattva and the Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva, Shiga prefecture is thus home to another unique Bodhisattva statue, the Guardian Bodhisattva for Seafarers. The presence of many such unique Bodhisattva statues in Shiga should not come as surprise, considering that the prefecture ranks at the top of the nation in terms of the number of Buddhist temples per population.

* See the Myouhou-ji website for the story behind the birth of Gosen Kannon: https://www.myouhou-ji.com/