mad in pursuit notebook


Portable Magic: Japanese Pocket Shrine

travel shrine

I love magical little things — beads, amulets, holy medals. They pull me in. Their meaning and symbols intrigue me. I  decided today to pull something from the shelves and dig into it. This little shrine above pushed its way to the front of the line.

travel shrineYou can see how small this pocket shrine is by comparing it to the house key (about 2-1/2" high). It’s carved from a single piece of wood, with a humble coating of black lacquer on the outside. The carving is so-o-o delicate with miniature painting in gold. I’m so impressed with the workmanship… and wouldn’t it be wonderful to carry in my pocket?

My best guess about its origins and meaning:

Country of origin: Japan [1]

Spiritual tradition: Buddhism... one of the esoteric sects of Northern Buddhism

portable shrine detailDieties. [Left] Dianichi Naori (aka Vairocana, Mahavairocana): principal deity in the esoteric doctrines of Northern Buddhism; the Great Solar Buddha of light and truth. His hands are in the chiken-in mudra. It is the mudra of "the six elements" or the mudra of the "fist of wisdom, " stressing importance of knowledge in the spiritual world. The five fingers of the right hand (earth, water, air, fire, ether) protect the sixth (man) as the index finger of the left hand. Also interpreted as knowledge (index finger) hidden by the world of appearances (right fist). [2]

[Right] Probably [?] Kannon (aka Kwan-non or Avalokitesvara): Bodhisattva (enlightened being who has renounced nirvana to help humans attain salvation) of compassion. This representation of Kannon has eight arms, holding various objects such as the 3-pointed vajra (a thunderbolt scepter representing Buddha, dharma/learning, and sangha/community) and the axe (to cut away the obstacles to knowledge).

Date. Nineteenth century? (Whatever we don't know, we call "nineteenth century."

31 Dec 2011


[1] See similar shrines in The Gods of Northern Buddhism by Alice Getty, Plate LVII.

[2] Buddhism [Flammarion Iconographic Guides] by Louis Frederic

Passion And Peril