Japan Culture Lab

I explain questions of Japanese culture easily.

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What Does Sanzu as in Sanzu River Mean? Why Do We Need Rokumonsen? What is Ishizumi (Stone Piling)?

      2017/12/29

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It is said that, after we die, we cross the Sanzunokawa (the Sanzu River, the Buddhist equivalent of the River Styx) to go to the other world.

They say that we need rokumonsen, six coins of one-mon (a unit of a small amount of money used in the Edo period), to cross the river.  Why do we need them?

Can we not cross the Sanzu River if we do not have money?

Where do people go if they cannot cross the river?

This time, I would like to take a look at the Sanzu River, which all of us may cross after we die.

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What Does Sanzu as in Sanzu River Mean?

The Sanzu River comes from the Buddhism.

In Buddhism, the Sanzu River is located on the border of shigan (this world) and higan (the other world).  People are said to cross the river seven days after their death.

Depending on the gravity of sins committed during the lifetime, the routes through which you can cross the river will be determined.

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The good can cross a bridge over the river built of gold, silver, and other treasures.  It is said that those with lesser sins cross shallow water called sansuise, while those with grave sins cross deep water called goshinse.

Stream is rapid and tides are high at goshinse, and rocks come rushing down from upper stream to crush the sinners to bits.  Despite being crushed to bits, bodies will be restored as they are already dead, only to be crushed to bits again and restored, and it will go on and on forever.  There is even a giant serpent living at the bottom of the river, which may also come to eat the sinners.  It is such a dreadful place.

The river is said to have been named the Sanzu River (the river with three routes), as there are three places where we can cross it.

Further, it is considered that if you fail to cross the river and get swept away on the way, you end up in the hell.  It is said that most of those with grave sins fail to cross the river and go to hell.


Why Do We Need Rokumonsen?

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Beside the Sanzu River is a mighty tree called eryoju, where an elderly ogre couple by the names of Datsueba (ogress) and Ken’eo (ogre) live.

Before crossing the Sanzu River, Datsueba rips off the clothes of the dead.  Ken’eo places the ripped-off clothes on eryoju to check the gravity of sins committed during the lifetime.  Based on the so-checked gravity of sins, the routes through which you can cross the river will be determined.

 

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During the Edo period, however, people started to believe that, if you had rokumonsen, you would neither be stripped off nor be subject to the ogres’ decision about the routes for crossing the river based on the gravity of your sins.  With rokumonsen, you could rather cross the bridge for the good.

It does not mean that you were allowed to cross the river if you had money.  Rather, rokumonsen was considered to be an offering of money.

Paying rokumonsen was a proof of your remorse for the sins committed during the lifetime, devotion for Buddha, and belief in Buddhism.  With this payment, it is said that you are able to cross the Sanzu River without falling into hell.

Rokumonsen is not used anymore now.  However, there is still a custom of burying people with pieces of paper on which rokumonsen is printed.

 

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What is Ishizumi (Stone Piling)?

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At the Sanzu River, there is a place called Sainokawara.

This is where children who died before their parents get together.

It is extremely unfilial to die before parents do, and it is thus said to be a great sin.

For this reason, children pile stones to build a tower for the consolation of their parents.  This is also to atone for their sin of having died before their parents die.

However, as soon as the towers are built up high, demons come to destroy them.  The children have to start all over again.

No sooner have they built the towers than they are destroyed……“Sainokawara” is thus used, sometimes, as “an example of futile effort”.

Try as they may to pile stones, demons come to destroy them.  However, in the end, it is believed that the children will be saved by Jizobosatsu, the Buddhist guardian deity of children.

 

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All human beings die in the end.

In reality, nobody knows what will become of ourselves after we die.  However, as there are many Buddhists in Japan, a lot of people know the tales of the Sanzu River and Sainokawara.

There is a custom all over Japan of consoling the souls of the dead by ishizumi (piling up stones).

Not only do children pile stones for parents, but also parents pile stones for children who died young.  People would also pile stones when they visit beaches for those who died in accidents at sea.

I suggest that you do not destroy a tower made of stone if you see one.

 

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