Honoring Female Ancestors at Kyoto’s White Temple

Catherine Pawasarat recounts her journey to the White Temple in Kyoto, Japan, where both Buddhist and Shinto deities are honored and female ancestors are recognized.

Catherine Pawasarat
29 January 2024
The White Temple in Kyoto, Japan, designed by Takashi Yamaguchi. Photos by the author.

While in a Skype conversation with Buddhist teacher Roshi Joan Halifax, she posed a question, Zen-like in its simplicity and impact: “Have you heard of Kyoto’s White Temple? Interesting.”

Intrigued, I embarked on an online quest, searching for numerous variations of “Kyoto’s White Temple.” Alas, my search only yielded one article within the pages of an online architecture magazine, which mostly explored the minimalist architectural design of the building, characterized by its clean, white, rectangular form. Yet, it also unveiled how female ancestors are honored within its walls. Despite my three decades of living in and visiting Japan, I had never heard of such a practice.

“The building allowed natural light in from the back, mixing with artificial light bouncing off the white surfaces. It spoke to me of peace in all the bardos.”

Ancestor worship dates to Japan’s earliest recorded history, tracing back to the nature-based folk religion that later evolved into Shintō, or “the way of the spirits.” Traditionally, ancestor worship in Asia is patrilineal, with eldest sons shouldering the responsibility of paying respects to their ancestors via the paternal, male line. Shintō practitioners prayed for a good afterlife for their family and tribe members, simultaneously hoping they might be helpful allies from realms beyond. Alongside this spiritual practice, a historical fear of potential havoc wreaked by unhappy or vengeful spirits has left Japanese culture with a lush endowment of ghost stories. 

As Buddhism permeated throughout Japan, the practice of ancestor worship intermixed with Buddhist prayers and rituals, all oriented toward achieving a successful passage through the death bardo and ultimately securing a favorable rebirth. Though Japan is known for Zen and other branches of Buddhism, Shintō still permeates its culture. The harmonious intermingling of the two practices can yield a rich spiritual landscape.

To hear of this mix of practices including women ancestors was new to me. I tried various ways to find out more about the mysterious White Temple, but to no avail. As the Covid-19 pandemic began, Japan closed its borders for two years. Stuck in Canada, my interest in the White Temple had to wait. 

My Search for the White Temple 

As the pandemic settled in the summer of 2022, Japan opened its doors to business visitors. I travelled to Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital I once called home, for its famous Gion Festival. The festival is a 1,150-year-old collection of Shintō rituals attempting to appease vengeful spirits that are believed to cause summer epidemics. After 25 years of fieldwork, I’d written a book on the festival, ironically during the COVID-19 pandemic. This visit to Kyoto was my first time back in three years. 

Upon arrival, Kyoto was hot and humid. The city bustled with culture and traffic, as it has been every summer for over a thousand years. On my first day, I requested assistance on finding information on the White Temple from a young woman working at a tourist office. She, too, shared my fascination with this unheard-of story of a temple that honored female ancestors. 

I watched and waited as she input search terms into her computer, again and again. “This place is really hard to find!” she rued. Finally, she found a name, phone number, and address for me. When I searched the address online, the map showed a general area, but no specific location, evidently out of range of public transportation. I called one of my oldest friends in Kyoto, Yamamoto-san. We agreed a trip to the temple sounded like a pleasant morning together. 

The Ephemerality of Things

When Yamamoto-san picked me up in his car, the first thing he said was, “It’s really hard to find out anything about this place!” His car’s navigation system couldn’t locate it, and he couldn’t learn any more online, either. Resolute, we set out, with the two-hour drive giving us the chance to catch up on our respective lives since the pandemic. This trip was the first time I was able to share my book on the Gion Festival with the many Japanese people who supported my research, particularly respected elders. It was a celebratory time, though bittersweet, with some of my main sources no longer replying to my correspondence. Some, I learned, had died before seeing the book — others would soon pass.

Yamamoto-san, in his mid-80s, was the same age as my parents. When I inquired about his health he replied with characteristic candor, “At my age, one’s health is never ‘good.’ It’s just sometimes less bad.” With my parents, each time we met felt like it could be the last, lending a touch of preciousness and sadness to our time together. Japanese culture recognizes this universal feeling with the philosophy called mono no aware, “the ephemerality of things.”  

A kimono merchant, Yamamoto-san’s kimono business now formed a modest memorial to its economic bubble-era glory during which we’d first met. I was new to Japan then, and Yamamoto-san had opened doors for me to learn about traditional Japanese culture, now my expertise. But being an expert in traditional Japanese culture is like being a quantum physicist — any knowledge is based on a deep appreciation for how much one does not know. 

After taking the highway out of Kyoto, we found ourselves on narrow country roads, winding through forested mountains. Yamamoto-san expressed interest in the temple’s rare practice of honoring female ancestors. Though his own generation was unquestioningly patriarchal, he prided himself on having an open mind. Our friendship had persevered thanks to his sincere curiosity in how I perceived the world, even when we disagreed.

Deer on the way to Zuisenji.

We drove through a nature preserve, passing a few deer calmly eating at the side of the road. Though I’d lived in Kyoto for 20 years, I’d never been to this part of the province. Kyoto is renowned for its wealth of culture, with heritage from its thousand years as the imperial capital, including thousands of Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines. I was surprised at how just a few hours’ drive by car could slough away the city’s busy formality. We knew we were close to our destination, but still couldn’t find the temple. We stopped at a local community center to ask directions, where we were welcomed by a warm group of staff, and swallows darting over our heads.

Temple of the Pure Spring

Armed with directions, we finally came upon the temple grounds. Walking through the formal entrance gate, the compact space shone with a tidy peacefulness. We took in the temple’s stately main hall, gravel-covered grounds, bronze bell, clearly defined paths, and manicured trees and shrubs. The bright front corner of the White Temple peeked out from behind a more traditional Japanese temple building. 

In front of the main hall, two men dressed in work clothes, with towels wrapped around their heads in the way of Japanese carpenters, stood on ladders, hanging an indigo-colored banner across the hall facade. One descended and came to greet us. We introduced ourselves, and Imai Kōshi, a resident monk, quickly welcomed us into the main hall.

“We had a hard time finding you,” I shared. “Yeah, it’s not easy,” Imai-san chuckled. I had a sense that this was how things should be. 

The temple’s official name, Zuisenji (瑞泉寺), means “Pure Spring Temple,” as in a wellspring, with a nuance of auspiciousness. It was a peaceful spot, on a beautiful lake whose shores were lined with pine trees. Imai-san introduced the major deities enshrined in their main hall: Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana, the “Great Sun” or cosmic Buddha), 11-faced, thousand-armed Kannon (the bodhisattva of compassion), Benzaiten (the Shintō goddess of arts and learning, related to Sarasvati), Monju (the bodhisattva of wisdom), and Idaten (a bodhisattva protector of children from illness).  

Zuisenji grounds.

“It’s an unusual combination, don’t you think?” Imai-san asked.

It was. Typically, Japanese temples have a predetermined set of enshrined deities, determined by their lineage. Mixing Buddhist deities together with Shinto deities like Benzaiten was unusual. Buddhism entered Japan from today’s Korean peninsula in the 6th century, commingling synergistically with the pre-extant Shintō for more than a millennium. But in 1868, the government forcibly separated them by imperial decree and law, suppressing Buddhism to re-establish the emperor’s divine status and pave the way for a Japanese empire. Though Japanese spirituality remains flexible, and it’s no longer illegal to mix Shinto and Buddhism, it’s still unusual to find them formally combined within a temple’s main hall. 

Imai-san told us that the temple was non-denominational to “meet the needs of our changing times” — “Esoteric Buddhism,” he called it. This was just part of Zuisenji’s flexibility.

Venerating Female Ancestors

Imai-san pointed to a small shrine across the grounds, dedicated to Amaterasu Ōmikami, the Shintō sun goddess. I asked him how they came to venerate female ancestors. 

The temple was originally located in neighboring Osaka Province, he told me, and relocated to the current site three generations back.

“When it was moved, the monk then decided to also honor female ancestors,” said Imai-san. “A son usually honors his mother, and maybe his grandmother, but ancestors beyond that are usually forgotten. The head monk at the time thought: ‘Why not honor the female ancestors too?’ It was a simple kind of decision.” 

Visitors to Zuisenji may honor both their matrilineal and patrilineal ancestors. A family usually only pays respects to the husband’s ancestors, but at Zuisenji they may also honor the wife’s. 

The entrance to the White Temple.

“We’re the only temple in Japan that does this,” he said.

Zuisenji sees visitors coming from all over the country, Imai-san told us. As the population rate has declined in Japan, new spiritual problems have come to the fore. Who will revere ancestors whose line of descendants has come to an end? Zuisenji provides services for such families as well.

I asked if I could honor my ancestors, and Imai-san offered me a brush pen and two long slices of cedar with the classic outline of a Japanese funerary stupa. These are shaped according to the godai, or five Buddhist elements: a square for earth, circle for water, triangle for fire, crescent for air, and jewel for space. These slices of cedar would be burned in a ritual, Imai assured me, during the upcoming Obon season, when Japan traditionally honors their dead. 

I wrote my maternal grandparents’ names on one slice of cedar wood, and my paternal grandparents’ names on another. I included my grandmothers’ maiden names, though faltered on the spelling of my maternal grandmother’s. Despite my decades of efforts towards gender equality, pain still arose around this imbalance in my own attention to my ancestors. 

As I wrote, I sent my grandparents gratitude for providing me with good parents and a good life. I prayed for the wellbeing of their spirits. Grateful for this precious human life, I’d long cultivated a recollection of my grandparents with appreciation, but I realized I couldn’t ever recall reflecting on all four grandparents at the same time. My eyes welled with tears. 

As someone who was raised Catholic, has practiced the ayahuasca sacrament, and was a student of Shintō before I became a Vajrayana practitioner and teacher, I wasn’t sure which customs I was practicing. I wasn’t sure it mattered.   

The Hall of Purple Light

We moved to the Shikōdo (紫光堂), or the “Hall of Purple Light,” just a short walk from the main hall. In English it’s called “The White Temple,” for the striking nature of austere, rectangular, completely white building. 

“Why is it called the Hall of Purple Light?” I asked.

“Isn’t that the highest vibration of light?” Imai asked back, averting my efforts to get clearly defined answers to the indefinable. 

“What made the temple choose such a dramatic departure from traditional Buddhist architecture and design?” I asked next.  

“The monk at the time had a relative who was an architect,” Imai-san said, referring to the renowned Kyoto-born, Tokyo-based architect, Takashi Yamaguchi. The temple is better known by architecture aficionados for this striking minimalist building, completed in 2000, than for its revolutionary break with gender tradition. 

We entered and sat in the small number of chairs there, facing a kind of altar for ritual offerings. Behind that were rows upon rows of black and gold funerary tablets of various sizes, rising in height so they could all be seen, with a central wooden carving of Shōkanzeon bodhisattva (“Holy Hearer of Cries,” a form of Kannon or Aryavalokiteshvara) presiding over all the tablets. Each tablet represented someone’s deceased family member, or several. Some were for unborn children.

A bell inscribed with Buddhist dedications.
A bronze bell inscribed with Buddhist dedications.

Each memorial tablet was artistically inscribed with family names. Different sizes marked standard Japanese Buddhist observance timeframes. Imai-san rattled them off as Yamamoto-san nodded: three years, seven years, 17 years, 37 years. The longer the observance timeframe, the larger the tablets were.

“It’s not about the money,” Imai pointed out, looking at me carefully to make sure I understood. “Anyone can be honored.” 

Out of respect for the departed and their families, there were no photos permitted inside any of the buildings, so we simply sat in the Hall of Purple Light for a short while, soothed by the sensations from its Buddha statue, memorial tablets, and our own fresh perspectives. The building allows natural light in from the back, mixing with artificial light bouncing off the white surfaces. It spoke to me of peace in all the bardos.   

We ended our visit by visiting the bronze bell. I stood inside it, asking Yamamoto-san to strike it so I could feel the sound vibrations traveling around its circular form. We surveyed the compact temple grounds, enjoying the lake and trees, graced on this day by sunshine and many birds. Traditionally, Japanese temple gardens were designed to replicate Amitabha’s Pure Land paradise. One could only feel they’d done it justice.

Catherine Pawasarat

Catherine Pawasarat left her 20-year home in Kyoto to co-found the Clear Sky Retreat Centre in British Columbia with her partner, Qapel, and with sangha, students, and supporters, in the lineage of Namgyal Rinpoche. Cata and Qapel also teach extensively online through PlanetDharma.com