By Nicole Kitson
In Japan, there exists a strong history of charity towards pilgrims. Historically, this giving dates back to the time of Kobo Daishi. He was a Buddhist Saint in medieval Japanese society and emphasized that all people could achieve the “attainment of Buddhahood in this life.” To achieve this Buddhahood, one must participate in the Six Perfections, the first being, ‘to give’, that is through charitable giving.
It was believed that if you did a good dead, you would be rewarded and protected and vice versa, if you did a bad deed you would be punished. There were many folktales that spread with examples of how individuals were rewarded or punished. It was also believed that Kobo Daishi may still be living and traveling incognito on a pilgrimage. To provide for this great saint would be a very good deed and bring rewards to the provider. To turn away this disguised saint would bring harsh punishment to the person.
Throughout history there were a number of popular pilgrimage routes in Japan. Those who lived along the routes, or operated stores along them frequently donated items such as food, clothing, money and tobacco to pilgrims. The act of giving free alms to passing pilgrims is known as Settai.
Over time, the custom of giving to pilgrims spread and often the individuals along the pilgrimage routes formed charitable groups that would provide for the pilgrims. “For example, in the mid-eighteenth century, the Confraternity of the Sacred Dance’s group, which consisted of rich families from Kyōto, provided aid along the route to Ise” (Moreton, 1995, pg 22). In 1805, during the peak of the Ise Shine pilgrimage, an estimated 5 Million people donated goods, services, food and shelter to pilgrims.
Ian Reader, in his book Making Pilgrimages: meaning and practice in Shikoku discusses further reasons that people gave Settai to pilgrims. One is a sense of common feelings towards the pilgrims, as the giver may have been a pilgrim themselves at one time. Another is that by giving alms to pilgrims, one was essentially sharing in their pilgrimage and the religious benefits. This was especially important to those who could not participate in a pilgrimage themselves.
The pilgrims in Japan were a diverse group; young and old, male and female, rich and poor, nobility and commoners. There was no bias in giving and any pilgrim could receive Settai. No pilgrim was seen as more deserving than another of these charitable gifts.
Settai is an example of giving in Japan that is still a common practice today along the Shikoku route. Fodor’s travel guide for Japan recommends that if you do not have the time to walk the 1200 km Shikoku pilgrimage for yourself, you can still participate by offering some coins or other form of charity to pilgrims on their road to enlightenment. In modern times, the homeless population has also benefitted from Settai. Instead of living in the cities in poverty, the homeless will often become permanent pilgrims benefitting from charity along their route and being treated as holy men.
The strong belief in receiving rewards for giving has helped form a charitable tradition, the giving of Settai, which has lasted hundreds of years and still continues today.
Making pilgrimages: meaning and practice in Shikoku, Ian Reader, pg 120-128
Fodors, Japan, pg 490
The History of Charitable Giving Along the Shikoku Pilgrimage Route, David C. Moreton, http://www.shikokuhenrotrail.com/shikoku/moretonThesisFrontmatter.pdf
Collcted writings of Carmen Blacker, Carmen Blacker