Footprints of the Buddha, by Lafcadio Hearn


I was recently surprised to find, in Anderson's catalogue of Japanese and Chinese paintings in the British Museum, this remarkable statement:—"It is to be noted that in Japan the figure of the Buddha is never represented by the feet, or pedestal alone, as in the Amravati remains, and many other Indian art-relics." As a matter of fact the representation is not even rare in Japan. It is to be found not only upon stone monuments, but also in religious paintings,—especially certain kakemono suspended in temples. These kakemono usually display the footprints upon a very large scale, with a multitude of mystical symbols and characters. The sculptures may be less common; but in Tokyo alone there are a number of Butsu-soku-seki, or "Buddha- foot stones," which I have seen,—and probably several which I have not seen. There is one at the temple of Eko-In, near Ryogoku-bashi; one at the temple of Denbo-In, in Koishikawa; one at the temple of Denbo-In, in Asakusa; and a beautiful example at Zojoji in Shiba. These are not cut out of a single block, but are composed of fragments cemented into the irregular traditional shape, and capped with a heavy slab of Nebukawa granite, on the polished surface of which the design is engraved in lines about one-tenth of an inch in depth. I should judge the average height of these pedestals to be about two feet four inches, and their greatest diameter about three feet. Around the footprints there are carved (in most of the examples) twelve little bunches of leaves and buds of the Bodai-ju ("Bodhidruma"), or Bodhi-tree of Buddhist legend. In all cases the footprint design is about the same; but the monuments are different in quality and finish. That of Zojoji,—with figures of divinities cut in low relief on its sides,—is the most ornate and costly of the four. The specimen at Eko-In is very poor and plain.

The first Butsu-soku-seki made in Japan was that erected at Todaiji, in Nara. It was designed after a similar monument in China, said to be the faithful copy of an Indian original. Concerning this Indian original, the following tradition is given in an old Buddhist book(1):—"In a temple of the province of Makada [Maghada] there is a great stone. The Buddha once trod upon this stone; and the prints of the soles of his feet remain upon its surface. The length of the impressions is one foot and eight inches,(2) and the width of them a little more than six inches. On the sole-part of each footprint there is the impression of a wheel; and upon each of the prints of the ten toes there is a flower-like design, which sometimes radiates light. When the Buddha felt that the time of his Nirvana was approaching, he went to Kushina [Kusinara], and there stood upon that stone. He stood with his face to the south. Then he said to his disciple Anan [Ananda]: 'In this place I leave the impression of my feet, to remain for a last token. Although a king of this country will try to destroy the impression, it can never be entirely destroyed.' And indeed it has not been destroyed unto this day. Once a king who hated Buddhism caused the top of the stone to be pared off, so as to remove the impression; but after the surface had been removed, the footprints reappeared upon the stone."

Concerning the virtue of the representation of the footprints of the Buddha, there is sometimes quoted a text from the Kwan-butsu- sanmai-kyo ["Buddha-dhyana-samadhi-sagara-sutra"], thus translated for me:—"In that time Shaka ["Sakyamuni"] lifted up his foot…. When the Buddha lifted up his foot all could perceive upon the sole of it the appearance of a wheel of a thousand spokes…. And Shaka said: 'Whosoever beholds the sign upon the sole of my foot shall be purified from all his faults. Even he who beholds the sign after my death shall be delivered from all the evil results of all his errors." Various other texts of Japanese Buddhism affirm that whoever looks upon the footprints of the Buddha "shall be freed from the bonds of error, and conducted upon the Way of Enlightenment."

An outline of the footprints as engraved on one of the Japanese pedestals(3) should have some interest even for persons familiar with Indian sculptures of the S'ripada. The double-page drawing, accompanying this paper [Fig.1], and showing both footprints, has been made after the tracing at Dentsu-In, where the footprints have the full legendary dimension, It will be observed that there are only seven emblems: these are called in Japan the Shichi-So, or "Seven Appearances." I got some information about them from the Sho-Eko-Ho-Kwan,—a book used by the Jodo sect. This book also contains rough woodcuts of the footprints; and one of them I reproduce here for the purpose of calling attention to the curious form of the emblems upon the toes. They are said to be modifications of the manji, or svastika, but I doubt it. In the Butsu-soku-seki-tracings, the corresponding figures suggest the "flower-like design" mentioned in the tradition of the Maghada stone; while the symbols in the book-print suggest fire. Indeed their outline so much resembles the conventional flamelet-design of Buddhist decoration, that I cannot help thinking them originally intended to indicate the traditional luminosity of the footprints. Moreover, there is a text in the book called Ho-Kai- Shidai that lends support to this supposition:—"The sole of the foot of the Buddha is flat,—like the base of a toilet-stand…. Upon it are lines forming the appearance of a wheel of a thousand spokes…. The toes are slender, round, long, straight, graceful, and somewhat luminous." [Fig. 3]

The explanation of the Seven Appearances which is given by the Sho-Eko-Ho-Kwan cannot be called satisfactory; but it is not without interest in relation to Japanese popular Buddhism. The emblems are considered in the following order:—

I.—The Svastika. The figure upon each toe is said to be a modification of the manji (4); and although I doubt whether this is always the case, I have observed that on some of the large kakemono representing the footprints, the emblem really is the svastika,—not a flamelet nor a flower-shape.(5) The Japanese commentator explains the svastika as a symbol of "everlasting bliss." II.—The Fish (Gyo). The fish signifies freedom from all restraints. As in the water a fish moves easily in any direction, so in the Buddha-state the fully-emancipated knows no restraints or obstructions. III.—The Diamond-Mace (Jap. Kongo-sho;—Sansc. "Vadjra"). Explained as signifying the divine force that "strikes and breaks all the lusts (bonno) of the world." IV.—The Conch-Shell (Jap. "Hora ") or Trumpet. Emblem of the preaching of the Law. The book Shin-zoku-butsu-ji-hen calls it the symbol of the voice of the Buddha. The Dai-hi-kyo calls it the token of the preaching and of the power of the Mahayana doctrine. The Dai-Nichi-Kyo says:—" At the sound of the blowing of the shell, all the heavenly deities are filled with delight, and come to hear the Law." V.—The Flower-Vase (Jap. "Hanagame"). Emblem of muro,—a mystical word which might be literally rendered as "not- leaking,"—signifying that condition of supreme intelligence triumphant over birth and death. VI.—The Wheel-of-a-Thousand-Spokes (Sansc. "Tchakra "). This emblem, called in Japanese Senfuku-rin-so, is curiously explained by various quotations. The Hokke-Monku says:—"The effect of a wheel is to crush something; and the effect of the Buddha's preaching is to crush all delusions, errors, doubts, and superstitions. Therefore preaching the doctrine is called, 'turning the Wheel.'"… The Sei-Ri-Ron says: "Even as the common wheel has its spokes and its hub, so in Buddhism there are many branches of the Hasshi Shodo ('Eight-fold Path,' or eight rules of conduct)." VII.—The Crown of Brahma. Under the heel of the Buddha is the Treasure-Crown (Ho-Kwan) of Brahma (Bon-Ten-O),—in symbol of the Buddha's supremacy above the gods.

But I think that the inscriptions upon any of these Butsu-soku- seki will be found of more significance than the above imperfect attempts at an explanation of the emblems. The inscriptions upon the monument at Dentsu-In are typical. On different sides of the structure,—near the top, and placed by rule so as to face certain points of the compass,—there are engraved five Sanscrit characters which are symbols of the Five Elemental Buddhas, together with scriptural and commemorative texts. These latter have been translated for me as follows:—

The HO-KO-HON-NYO-KYO says:—"In that time, from beneath his feet, the Buddha radiated a light having the appearance of a wheel of a thousand spokes. And all who saw that radiance became strictly upright, and obtained the Supreme Enlightenment."

The KWAN-BUTSU-SANMAI-KYO says:—"Whosoever looks upon the footprints of the Buddha shall be freed from the results even of innumerable thousands of imperfections."

The BUTSU-SETSU-MU-RYO-JU-KYO says:—"In the land that the Buddha treads in journeying, there is not even one person in all the multitude of the villages who is not benefited. Then throughout the world there is peace and good will. The sun and the moon shine clear and bright. Wind and rain come only at a suitable time. Calamity and pestilence cease. The country prospers; the people are free from care. Weapons become useless. All men reverence religion, and regulate their conduct in all matters with earnestness and modesty."

[Commemorative Text.]

—The Fifth Month of the Eighteenth Year of Meiji, all the priests of this temple made and set up this pedestal-stone, bearing the likeness of the footprints of the Buddha, and placed the same within the main court of Dentsu-In, in order that the seed of holy enlightenment might be sown for future time, and for the sake of the advancement of Buddhism.

TAIJO, priest,—being the sixty-sixth chief-priest by succession of this temple,—has respectfully composed.

JUNYU, the minor priest, has reverentially inscribed.

1 The Chinese title is pronounced by Japanese as Sei-iki-ki.
"Sei-iki"(the Country of the West) was the old Japanese name for
India; and thus the title might be rendered, "The Book about
India." I suppose this is the work known to Western scholars as

2 "One shaku and eight sun." But the Japanese foot and inch are considerably longer than the English.

3 A monument at Nara exhibits the S'ripada in a form differing considerably from the design upon the Tokyo pedestals.

4 Lit.: "The thousand-character" sign.

5 On some monuments and drawings there is a sort of disk made by a single line in spiral, on each toe,—together with the image of a small wheel.


Strange facts crowd into memory as one contemplates those graven footprints,—footprints giant-seeming, yet less so than the human personality of which they remain the symbol. Twenty-four hundred years ago, out of solitary meditation upon the pain and the mystery of being, the mind of an Indian pilgrim brought forth the highest truth ever taught to men, and in an era barren of science anticipated the uttermost knowledge of our present evolutional philosophy regarding the secret unity of life, the endless illusions of matter and of mind, and the birth and death of universes. He, by pure reason,—and he alone before our time,— found answers of worth to the questions of the Whence, the Whither, and the Why;—and he made with these answers another and a nobler faith than the creed of his fathers. He spoke, and returned to his dust; and the people worshipped the prints of his dead feet, because of the love that he had taught them. Thereafter waxed and waned the name of Alexander, and the power of Rome and the might of Islam;—nations arose and vanished;— cities grew and were not;—the children of another civilization, vaster than Romes, begirdled the earth with conquest, and founded far-off empires, and came at last to rule in the land of that pilgrim's birth. And these, rich in the wisdom of four and twenty centuries, wondered at the beauty of his message, and caused all that he had said and done to be written down anew in languages unborn at the time when he lived and taught. Still burn his foot- prints in the East; and still the great West, marvelling, follows their gleam to seek the Supreme Enlightenment. Even thus, of old, Milinda the king followed the way to the house of Nagasena,—at first only to question, after the subtle method of the Greeks; yet, later, to accept with noble reverence the nobler method of the Master.