Fellow exchange students Marcio Kuwada, Mamta Lama, and I were incredibly fortunate to enter the beautiful inner altar of Gyōtoku-ji Temple in Gokayama, Gifu Prefecture.
Gyōtoku-ji traces its origins to the untiring efforts of the ‘myōkōnin’ Dōshu of Akao in the sixteenth century who, having encountered the Jōdo Shinshū teachings from Rennyo Shōnin, was inspired to form Dharma study groups that eventually led to the establishment of the temple.
It is said that Dōshu slept on 48 pieces of split firewood and would say, “Namo Amida Butsu” every time he woke up from the undeniably painful ‘bedding’ upon which he chose to sleep.
Asked if this was a devotional practice required of Shin Buddhist practitioners in addition to saying Namo Amida Butsu, Dōshu said, “Absolutely not. But for a stubborn person like me, if I slept upon a comfortable bedding, I would sleep through the night unaware of Amida Buddha’s compassionate benevolence. By making it difficult to sleep, every time I wake up I am at least able to think of Amida Buddha’s compassion and say Namo Amida Butsu!”
According to the late Dr. Taitetsu Unno, a ‘myōkōnin’ is a ‘wonderfully excellent person,’ a devout Shin practitioner who has plumbed the depth of religious life. ‘Myōkōnin’ is derived from the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit ‘pundarika,’ lotus flower, which symbolizes enlightenment. In the premodern period, ‘myōkōnin’ were normally from the lower classes of Japanese society, usually with very little formal education.