The Curious Story Behind Fudarakusan-ji

Fudarakusan-ji is a Tendai temple in the city of Nachikatsuura, Higashimuro district in Wakayama prefecture in Japan. The temple is named after Fudaraku, derived from the mythical dwelling place of the Buddhist bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, Mount Potalaka and is believed to exist in the seas south of India. Mount Potalaka was designated as part of UNESCO World Heritage Site under Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.

Fudarakusan-ji is said to have been founded over a thousand years ago by a monk from India named Ragyō Shōnin, “The Naked Saint”.

Fudarakusan-ji, Japan | 663highland

While travelling back to his home in India, he was shipwrecked off the Kii Peninsula and was carried ashore on the Kumano coast. For over a millennium until the late 19th century, most of the Fudarakusan-ji monks once they turned 60 years old, would go out to sea on a small boat in a practice known as ‘Fudaraku Tōkai’ which means crossing the sea to Fudaraku. The monks believed that Mount Potalaka was an actual island near the coast of Japan.  Fudaraku Tōkai was one of the ‘Shashin Gyo’ trainings where monks performed an act of self-sacrifice for human salvation. Followers of the religion entrusted the monks to carry their prayers for enlightenment and happiness to Fudaraku Island or “Kannon’s Paradise”, said to be somewhere off the southern coast. Fudaraku Tōkai was like a suicide mission and the monks were sent out to sea as their last deed in life and were chosen for the divine journey since they are nearly at the end of their life anyway.

The Fudarakusan-ji monks hoped to achieve salvation by sacrificing themselves in performing Fudaraku Tokai.  They were also known as tokaisha, pilgrims of the sea.

Boat used in Fudaraku Tokai ritual, Japan. | puffyjet

The rudderless boats that the monks used were designed to be miniature shrines and were actually coffins in which a single monk was sealed inside with nothing but a lantern and a month’s supply of food. The monk was then sent out into the open ocean armed with his faith and open heart, he is believed to be guided by the gods to Fuduraku, to deliver his prayers in behalf of mankind, his destiny awaits.

The Fudaraku Tokai ritual is just a symbolic event. The real journey to Fudaraku was death itself. Some monks would usually escape their floating tombs while near the coast and they would drown themselves in the waves while still believing in the ultimate goal of reaching Mount Potalaka. Other monks would purposefully sink their boat while still inside and others would simply endure the entire trip and die from starvation of thirst. On very rare occasions, the boat would reach the shore such as with the case of the 16th century monk named Nisshu Shonin, who survived the entire journey and reached the Ryukyu Islands believing it to be Fudaraku. Today, a replica of the boat the Fudarakusan-ji monks used is housed in a special pavilion at the temple.