KIKUSUI HENRO HOUSEKongo Tsue / Kongo Zue (Kongo Staff)by Hiroshi Kushima
(translated by David C. Moreton)

The Meaning of the Staff

The staff is made from wood and is approximately one meter long and is especially useful when walking along mountain paths. However to Shikoku pilgrims the staff also plays the role of the transformed body of Kobo Daishi. In other words, by carrying a staff one is walking with Kobo Daishi and this action is called 'Dogyo Ninin.'

Characters are etched in at the top of the staff expressing a stupa (grave marker) and the Sanskrit characters have the meaning of air, wind, fire, water, and earth.

How to treat the Staff

The staff is the transformed body of Kôbô Daishi so one must place it in a place of respect such as the room alcove. At many lodging facilities, water is available in the entrance way to wash the staff and at some places, the owner will wash it for you.

When one knows that this is Kôbô Daishi, it stops one from treating the staff with little respect. It is natural to use it for its original role and when one is walking, one may use it for support and for protection against dogs and snakes.

Although this staff is most important one cannot carry it onto a plane because it is considered to be a weapon. In my case, I walked the pilgrimage in segments so each time I time I flew from Tokyo to Shikoku I could carry my bag onto the plane but I had to check in my staff.

The Staff and Bridges

There is a rule that "One must not let the staff touch the ground when crossing a bridge." This is based on the folklore of when Kobo Daishi was traveling around Shikoku and had to spend a cold night under a bridge, so cold that it felt like ten nights. This was because he was refused lodging near Ozu in Ehime Prefecture. Thus, Kobo Daishi might be sleeping under any bridge so one must not disturb him by the pounding sound of your staff. It is impossible to comprehend the idea that the staff is Kobo Daishi and that Kobo Daishi exists under the bridge; however that is the rule that has emerged.

As one gets engrossed in walking, one sometimes taps the staff while crossing over a small bridge without realizing it. When I went with my wife, we joked, as if playing a game with each other saying, "Hey, this is a bridge", "Oh no!", "This isn't a bridge." It is only a board. "However this seemed to be effective in order maintain oneself as a "true" Shikoku pilgrim. In the past, most bridges were made from wood and it is interesting to think that practically it is a policy to prevent damage due to the staffs.

As well, it is said that "One must not cut the staff." By using a staff around Shikoku, it will shrink by about 20cm by the end of route and in such a state, the end will become frayed and torn. So one should rub it along the road and one must not cut with a knife because for the apparent reason that the staff is the transformed body of Kobo Daishi.

One time when I was tapping the staff while going up the stairs at the entrances of a temple, I was told "Do not tap the staff on stairs." However, there are priests who say, "I have never heard of such a custom" so evidence for such an admonition is unclear. I feel that I want to walk each step of the way with Kobo Daishi, however, if there are some people who are displeased upon seeing such actions I feel that perhaps I should stop doing it.

In the end, for these kinds of so-called "rules" there is no one to instruct in a unified way nor are there any strict rules so it is not necessary to fret about them that much.

In my case

The staff that I use now is my 4th one.

The first one which I bought at Temple 1, Ryozenji on my first segment pilgrimage was a regular-sized one (about 1.3 meters). The staff cover (like a little hat) that came with it had the name of Ryozeji written on it. There are many that grasp this hat while walking, however, I felt that I was grabbing the face of Kobo Daishi so I walked by holding it beneath the "hat."

When I was coming down the mountains I felt that this length was too short for me (my height is 170cm), so I bought a longer staff at Saba Daishi on the second segment. I was worried that perhaps I would be punished because doing something bad such as "buying a new staff" without finishing the pilgrimage with the original staff being the transformed body of Daishisama, but upon consulting with the priest at Saba Daishi, he said "It is okay, I will burn the old staff here." I felt relieved and replaced the old staff and ended my pilgrimage with this new one.

This staff was 20cm longer than the usual ones and was very good for walking. However, it was not made from wood but painted red so I worried whether or not it was appropriate for a person like myself without any qualifications to use such a staff, but the priest at Saba Daishi said, "It is okay" and so I decided to buy it. Afterwards, however I found out that official sendatsu's use red painted staffs. Of course the one that I bought was not like the ones they use, but just an ordinary style one. However, there were many times when I was looked upon as having special qualifications for having such a staff and at times, I felt uncomfortable.

On my second pilgrimage, I decided to buy a new staff on occasion on doing the pilgrimage with my wife. However, I could not find a long staff at Temple 1 or at Monzen Ichiban store and as a result, I started the journey with a regular length one. I continued to use the 'hat' that had been on my first staff. However, at the end of 2000 when I was crossing the Niyodo River, I obeyed the rule of "Do not let your staff touch the bridge" and I held it horizontally but a strong wind came and blew the hat off into the water. It was my third staff but this hat had been with me for six years and despite the faded colours was important to me so I felt sad when I lost it. At Temple 37, I bought a new staff hat.

While I was getting ready in the summer of 2001 to do the 4th segment of my second pilgrimage, I saw on a mailing list related to the pilgrimage that Kumo-san and Uno-san had written ways on how to make your own staff. I thought, "Why don't you make your own staff?" So I went to a Home Center, bought cypress wood, cut it to an appropriate length, made a stupa and created a one-of-a-kind 1.6m staff. This is the staff that I have now.


Forgotten Staffs? - December 31, 2001 at Temple 59Kokubunji

One of the biggest problems about the staff is leaving it behind somewhere. Because it is not something that one usually uses in everyday life, so there is a chance of forgetting it when leaving a place to stay, when leaving a temple or placing it at the side of the road, or at any other time. I forget how many times I did this. In my case I was able to remember and go back to pick it up without much time loss. Forgetting the staff can be considered to be something that will happen everyday.

As well because all the staffs seem to look the same there is a chance that someone at a temple or place of lodging will take the wrong staff. In this case, I recommend that write your name on it soon after you buy it.

At each temple, one can see many staffs that have been left behind especially at temples near the end if the pilgrim route. In fact there are some in bad condition that have been bleached by the wind and rain and when I see them in such a state it makes my heart hurt. At this point, the staff is soaked with the owner's sweat, the hat on the top is ripped and the strings have been replaced. The owner must have met an important priest. There are many with names written on them and one can only imagine how depressed the owner must have been to realize that he had forgotten the staff.

(translated by David C. Moreton)

Glossary TOP Copyright (C)2002 Hiroshi Kushima / (C)2004 David C. Moreton