Hakui – Japanese pilgrim coats (2)

September 24, 2009


Seal stamps and ink bonji on white cotton Japanese Buddhist pilgrim coat

Pilgrim coats are decorated with calligraphy, both traditional and bonji, and seal stamps, sometimes with the addition of ink drawings as well.

Ink drawings

On some coats are drawn or printed black ink drawings of bodhisatvas or saints. Coats associated with the Mt Omine (Omine-san, Honshu) pilgrimage feature ink drawings which look like rubbings or prints rather than freehand drawings. Enno-gyoja, an ascetic superman of the Nara Period, is one of the figures represented on coats, with shaved head and seated cross-legged holding a vajra (disk) and beads (Buddhist rosary or mala). Overlaid on these drawings are temple stamps and everyday calligraphy, so presumably the coats were printed with these drawings before being worn on the pilgrimage. As with the bonji calligraphy mentioned below, I wonder if some waterproofing agent wasn’t added to the ink to prolong the life of the drawing. Perhaps kakishibu persimmon dye, as used to waterproof traditional raincoats and umbrellas, was added to the sumi-e ink.

Seal stamps

The pilgrim would have received a red seal at each temple he or she was able to visit, from the residing priest. These were entered into a seal book, overlaid with black ink calligraphy, as well as applied to the pilgrim’s coat. Smaller red or cinnabar stamps would have been received at various smaller unnumbered temples deep in the mountains where the practitioner would have gone for training or rest between periods in the wild. Shikoku temple seals tend to be oblong-shaped, but gourd- or round-shaped seals are also possible, some larger ones several inches in diameter. Seal stamps are different from a series of images known as temple pictures, which are uniformly oblong-shaped drawings mainly of the Buddha. Plainly a Shikoku Island pilgrim would have his or her seals set out in a regular fashion either starting at the bottom hem working up or the shoulder moving down in order to accommodate the full set. My particular coat has a small number randomly scattered across the shoulder area, varying greatly in size; one features the outline of a squirrel (or perhaps a fox).


Pilgrim coats feature both everyday Japanese calligraphy and a specialised form of characters known as bonji. Everyday Japanese kanji calligraphy is used on the coat lapels, sometimes on the body of the coat and sometimes on the outer rim of the straw hat. The coat lapel writing (mostly in black ink but red ink is also possible) might provide the name of the pilgrim. Calligraphy on the body of the coat, front and back, may denote Buddhist sutra excerpts. Of special significance, both because they are very large and readily apparent, and because they are esoteric in nature, are the bonji characters. Bonji are Sanskrit in origin and have strong links with Esoteric Buddhism; it is said they were introduced by Kukai in 806AD in to Japan after he studied Sanskrit and Mantrayana Buddhism in China. Bonji are a form of Japanified Siddham script, with 53 characters representing both letters and syllables. As such, they appear on sword guards (tsuba), some carved markers and temple wooden carvings. They are found on wooden grave posts in Japan called sotoba (stupa in Sanskrit). These days, as single characters, they are popular with tatooists. Characters and compound characters are drawn with both the traditional Japanese brush pen (producing a fluid look, more Japanese than Sanskrit) or a broad-edged brush or pen (more Sanskrit-looking than Japanese).

Bonji are used essentially by Buddhist monks to write down passages of sacred text, so the literature using bonji is exclusively that of Buddhist sutra, the main one being the Heart Sutra or Pranja Paramita in the Shingon Sect and the Lotus Sutra popular among those of the Nichiren Sect. The sutras are chanted in Buddhist temples. Large hand-painted bonji characters, brush-written in black sumi ink are to be found on the back of pilgrim coats as three characters: one on the spine, one on the back left sleeve and one on the back right sleeve. To this extent they stand alone or are seed syllables of mantras of the deity over which they are painted. Vertical calligraphy along the spine sometimes reads the exhortation, “namyo-taishi-henro-kongo”.

The flow direction of the brush strokes is in evidence. Washed garments (judged by the faded character of the red seals and the greyish tinges in the black ink calligraphy) still show a depth of colour in the calligraphy, but appear as a washed-out charcoal colour in those where areas where the brush is applied less heavily. Pine soot is mixed with water-soluble glue to make black sumi ink. These days, calligraphy and bonji are silk-screened on to manufactured white cotton t-shirts and tops. Bonji seems to vary enormously from one coat to another. It’s difficult to say whether particular bonji are popular on particular pilgrim routes, or whether the same bonji cross sects. I am assuming that bonji are not used on coats worn on Shinto pilgrims. My example shows the syllable “hrih” on the left sleeve, made up of the letters ha, ri and ah. The right sleeve shows a syllable close to “rah” or “mrah”, perhaps close to “trah” as in “mantrah”. I have not yet been able to correlate these syllables with syllables in particular sutras.



2 Responses to “Hakui – Japanese pilgrim coats (2)”

  1. By far the most concise and up to date information I found on this topic. Sure glad that I navigated to your page by accident. I’ll be subscribing to your feed so that I can get the latest updates. Appreciate all the information here

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: