Tag Archives: Buddhism

Snap, Snap, Snap

Two more photos from my last supper before my phone died:

The little pink-striped balls in the soup had a light, springy texture.  I meditated on the artistic composition of tempura-battered leaf with sprig of crunchy something and a side of horseradish for about five seconds before devouring it.

The man in black came and went, kneeling down and serving me dish after dish.  It would have felt weird except that I assumed it was part of his practice of obliterating the ego.  Besides, the food was to die for.

Some people daydream of spending time in a mountaintop monastery.  Some think it’d be their worst nightmare. I didn’t know what to expect at Koyasan.  I hadn’t had time to dig into it beyond just finding a place to sleep, at Shojoshin-in monastery, one of 52 monasteries in Koyasan.

Some of the monasteries don’t accept any visitors, or women or couples, so that ruled out quite a few.  The process of finding a place was opaque.  I can’t even tell you how I found Shojoshin-in, which turned out to be quite deluxe and conveniently located right next to the entrance to Okunoin cemetery.

My only knowledge of Buddhist retreats was from Keiko, my sister in law.  As a grad student in public health, she had done an internship in Thailand.  Afterwards, she went to a Buddhist retreat center in the countryside for two weeks.  There was no internet or phone available, so my brother was kind of bent out of shape about not knowing what was going on with her.

Her description: She had a small cell with a hard, narrow bed.  Visitors were required to wake at 5am, meditate for an hour, then attend a two-hour group meditation, then they got a bowl of rice for breakfast.  Then they meditated off and on all day and ate more simple fare.  They never left the center to go sightseeing because there wasn’t anything to see in the surrounding area.  That’s as much as I retained of her story.  It sounded dreadful and I stopped listening because I knew I would never do that.  I knew Koyasan would be a step up, but not how much of a step up.

To paint a picture, here’s the intro from the glossy Guide to Koyasan brochure available in Japanese, English, Korean, Spanish, and Chinese.

Koyasan is a center of Buddhist study and practice, located in Wakayama Prefecture at an elevation of about 900 meters [2,953 feet]. Koyasan is a highland valley extending 6km [3.7 miles] east to west and 3km [1.8 miles] north to south.  It has a circumference of 15km [9 miles] and is surrounded by eight low peaks. The topography is reminiscent of the center of a lotus flower surrounded by eight petals.

Koyasan was founded about 12 centuries ago by the great Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi as a center for Shingon Buddhist training.  His wish was to establish a monastery deep in the mountains.  He wanted it far from worldly distractions where Buddhist monks could practice and pray for peace and the welfare of the people.  Emperor Saga granted him the use of this land in 816.  From around the end of the tenth century, the belief arose that Kobo Daishi Kukai had not passed away, but had rather entered an eternal meditation at Okunoin for the liberation of all beings.  Faith in Kobo Daishi Kukai has sustained generations of people and drawn pilgrims for millennium.    

For me, Okunoin cemetery was the main event in Koyasan.  I visited it three times.

Right after my fabulous first-night dinner, I stepped next door into Okunoin.  It was twilight.  Silent.  I was the only visitor in this cemetery of 200,000 graves.

Did I take the opportunity to feel the serenity after my hectic day of travel?  No, I treated the place like one gigantic photo opp.

It was impossible to capture the scale of the thousand-year-old cedars.

I tried including statues that were about 12-feet tall (4 meters).

I took multiple photos of jizos, of which I already had 100 photos from visits to other shrines.

It only occurs to me now, in retrospect, to ask: why did I need to capture everything?

Word of the Day: Death

I got up this morning to find that one of three kittens I am fostering for the Humane Society was dead.  It’s not uncommon for foster kittens to die.  The mother cats are stray, barely adults themselves, emaciated and hungry, and/or diseased. It’s a cruel world.

Later today I will attend a funeral where Vince will give the eulogy for his best friend from prison.  I don’t know how he died.  He was only 34.

For those of you who are new to the blog, I began writing it with my son when he was in prison.  As he transitioned from prison and addiction to a healthy, sober life, I was freed to write about fun things like travel.

I still try to contribute to efforts at reforming our US system of mass incarceration.  This week I attended a meeting with the new Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

We were there to demand a moratorium on a practice called crimeless revocations.  In Minnesota, out of the 10,000 men and women in prison, 24% are not there for committing a crime.  That’s right; they are in prison because, after serving their sentence and being released, they missed a meeting with their parole agent or—most commonly—they relapsed and used drugs or alcohol.

So we lock them up, where they sit in prison for four to eight months.  They do not receive drug or alcohol treatment or any other services because they are short-termers.  They lose their jobs, their housing, and whatever fragile relationships they have started to rebuild on the outside.

The commissioner agreed that this practice is a waste of time, money, and lives.  But he said he couldn’t stop doing it until he gets buy-in from all his people.  We’ll meet with him again in a month.

Vince wasn’t sent back to prison, but he had all his privileges revoked because he didn’t answer when his parole agent called.  He was doing community service work in a noisy warehouse at the time and didn’t hear his phone ring.  For a month, he was not allowed to leave the house for anything but work.  No AA, no socializing with family or his sober friends.  No gym, no runs. None of the things that were going to keep him on an upward trajectory.  It was his darkest month.

The prison system is designed to punish, not rehabilitate. One of the worst forms of punishment is to mess with people by setting unclear expectations, catching them on some minor infraction, and coming down on them like a sledgehammer.

In Japan, as I’ve described already, I stood to one side and observed as worshipers approached the inner sanctum of a temple or shrine.  In Tokyo, Nikko, Kyoto, Nara, and Koyasan, they bowed, clapped, threw coins into a donation box, and lighted incense or candles.

I’m not a believer, but I felt something, at times.  Perhaps it was because I was mystified by what was taking place.  Maybe I was moved by the sincerity of the worshipers, or the atmosphere.

Especially since my aunt died, and now that Vince’s friend has died, I would like to think there is the possibility of some lingering connection between the living and the dead.

Maybe I should turn the French curio cabinet I inherited from my aunt into a household shrine, complete with photos of ancestors and incense burners.

Day Two in Tokyo.  My sister-in-law’s father, Fred, is retired from a big Japanese company. He has been painting with a group of fellow retirees for years.  If I understood correctly, companies support their retirees to participate in hobbies together.  Fred is also in an essay-writing group.  Today I managed to find the building in which his painting group was holding an exhibition; these are his works.  He’s very talented.

I stopped first to get some pastries because that’s what people do in Japanese novels.

I’ve had eight hairstyles since I last saw Fred and Hiromi five years ago.  But of course I’m white.  He picked me out in the crowded building lobby, hugged me, and said, “Welcome, Anne-san!”

Baby Bodhas

The first Japanese temple I visited was a block from my hotel and was called Zojoji.  I didn’t have a sense at the time whether this was a “typical” temple or not.

As I wrote in a previous post, there are thousands of shrines, large and small, everywhere in Japan.  Zojoji, in retrospect, was an “average” sized temple, with a dozen buildings scattered over what seemed to be a couple acres, and Tokyo Tower looming in the background.

I just learned on Wikipedia—after making my annual very modest donation to support them—that Zojoji is the “head temple of the Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism in the Kanto Region.”  That’s kind of like saying I am “the greatest travel and prison blogger who lives on the east side of St. Paul.”  I would see a lot of descriptors like this in the weeks to come.

But it was still pretty cool, it being my first.

Most of Zojoji’s current buildings are recent reconstructions except for the main entrance gate, the Sangedatsumon, which has survived many fires, earthquakes and wars and dates from 1622.

1622!  Here’s the gate:

As I also wrote previously, I was in Japan in the off season.  This was thanks to school holidays not having yet commenced and to it being the rainy season.  The downside, of course: rain.  The upside: hardly any tourists.

It had just rained and the buildings were closed, so it was just me and a handful of other people in the complex.  Normally I would be snapping away with my phone, but I was phoneless for now.  I had wondered: would I be able to enjoy this atmospheric moment without capturing it?  (I took these photos later, once I’d got a new charger).

I was pleased to note I felt at peace.

I came across these “baby bodhisattvas”—hundreds of foot-tall stone statues of bodhisattvas.  I’ve found various definitions of bodhisattva online.  The most generic is something like: one who is on the path to nirvana and has compassion for all beings.  Kind of an apprentice Buddha.

I felt a physical urge to reach for my phone to take photos, then relaxed when I remembered my dead phone was back in my room.

This was the explanation of the bodhisattvas:

These are “care guardian deities of children.”  They are dedicated for the safety growth of children and grandchildren, as well as for the memorial service for still birth or miscarried children.  To protect and keep warm their heads, “red hat” “red apron” and “windmill”, were dedicated to the guardian deity of children image.  Please refrain from touching.

I felt a pang of sadness, knowing some of these must represent babies that died. I have four friends or relations whose babies died, and it’s got to be one of life’s worst experiences. I “lost” a baby through adoption, so I like to think I have strong empathy for how it would feel.

Just then a powerful gong sounded nearby and reverberated for 20 seconds before sounding again. It made me jump internally then a calm descended over me.

This was happening just the way it was meant to.  If my phone had still been functional, I might have been hunched on my hotel room bed scrolling though social media to learn that my second cousin’s oldest kid had just graduated from college in Nebraska, or how a guy I met in grad school 17 years ago will look when he’s 100, thanks to a hot new “aging” app.

I gave thanks for my phone being dead—at least for now.

Walking toward the sound I found a monk—yes, with a shaved head and long flowing robe—using a long, thick rope to propel an enormous weight forward into a bell the size of a Volkswagon Beetle.

Why he was doing this—was it a call to prayer?  The “closing” bell? Was he ushering in nightfall?  It didn’t matter.

I crossed back over the road and wondered about this little gem tucked in between hideous concrete high-rises.

I stopped at Family Mart, a ubiquitous convenience store, for some cheap eats before crashing for 10 hours—my first of 26 nights in Japan.

On Fire

I just returned to my room from a fire ceremony.  I think that’s what you would call it.  No one at the monastery in Koyasan where I am staying mentioned it; I heard about it from an Aussie couple who had the room next to mine.

When I went to the monastery website to see if I could find anything, I discovered that it is only in Japanese.  Here is what Google translate tells me about the fire thingy:

Eikan Hou was the eighteenth fellow of Shinto secular practice continuing from the Muromachi era, and the ruler of the country of Satsuma. It is answered.

In addition, the Shingon sect highest secret law “Yaki eight thousand sheets Goma” is trained more than a hundred times, and the enormous legal power is widely known inside and outside the country.

In December 1965, she was admitted to Shinshu Kotobuki, the slogan, and was promoted to the rank of Amida. The following year, he trained the secret law “One Million Pieces Goma Line” which could not be done by anyone in the history of the esoteric religion for 100 days. 

The line of the extraordinary death of roasting 10,000 milk trees and 3 thousand sheets of gargogi on a daily basis was made impossible.

Now, the Ebisu method holder has been praised in many fields as a great-fall outpost.

Perfectly clear, right?

This monastery is obviously doing well financially. They’ve constructed two new shrines on their grounds.  It must have cost a fortune for the highly-skilled woodworkers alone.

I assumed they weren’t finished yet, but my Aussie friends informed me that the fire ceremony took place inside.

Rain was slicing down in sheets as I worked my way around the veranda.  The buildings smelled like newly-hewn cedar, which they were.   I approached a sleek sliding door with a touch-controlled entry, and a man about my age sitting cross-legged on the floor inside waved me in.  I couldn’t very well say no.  Whoosh….inside, the new tatami mats smelled like hay.  Probably because that’s what they’re made of.

A friendly woman, perhaps the man’s wife, smiled and waved me over to a low chair near the front of the enormous prayer hall.  The hall looked like every other inner shrine I have seen in the last three weeks, except that everything was shiny and new.

Also, there was a 10-foot-high scary Buddha of fire.  This being an inner shrine, I assumed photos were not allowed.  Here’s an image of a similar Buddha I found online.

The new Buddha’s eyes were made of some shiny material that made them look like real eyes. It was 10 to one o’clock and although I was ready to fall over from exhaustion (and a very large bowl of noodles I’d had for lunch), I thought, “I can do this. I can stay awake for half an hour.”

I was the only person in the hall besides the kindly couple.  The chair was maybe one foot high and had a back that rose six inches.  At first, I was so grateful that they didn’t expect me to sit on the floor. I sat up straight, closed my eyes, and listened to the rain.  A rain meditation!  That’s what I was doing.  A profound question arose in my mind: Would I have time to stop at Uniqlo in Tokyo tomorrow to pick up a couple pairs of pants before I headed to my Air BnB?  There were more deep ponderings: Did I have the correct bus fare to get out of Koyasan?  How did they clean these tatami mats—did they vacuum them?  Would I have time for a nap before dinner?

I felt my mind go numb and my head droop toward my chest.  I jerked it up just in time to see a tall, beefy monk settle down on the altar and proceed to build a roaring bonfire. I mean it—a four-foot-high raging fire that threw sparks everywhere as the monk cast pine needles and incense into it while he chanted.

He had my attention. I didn’t notice almost two hours pass until I had to heave my creaky bones off the chair.  That was meditation.

Meditations on Buddhism

I made it to the morning meditation, mainly because I was worried about not making it to the morning meditation, and so I couldn’t sleep.  Well, I only slept about two and a half hours because my legs were going berserk, but if that helped get me to the meditation, so be it.

Those of you who have been reading for a long time know that I am a Jewish Atheist Pagan, or JAP.  That’s better than the other thing that JAP stands for.  No, not Japanese—Jewish American Princess.

I don’t know much about Buddhism except that it began in India with the enlightenment of a monk named Siddhārtha Gautamaand and it spread across Asia.

As I write this in my room in the mountaintop monastery, the weird music they play at 6am, 5pm, and 9pm just started.  It sounds like the beginning of the Dr. Who theme song, then turns into a chime-y tune that I cringe in fear is shaping up to be “We Shall Overcome,” but then it fades into nothingness after a minute.

Each of the 52 monasteries in Koyasan, a tiny mountain town, has its own idiosyncratic brand of bells, gongs, chimes, chants, and other noises issuing through the air at all times of night and day.

Back to Buddha.  There many different representations of the Buddha, and bodhisattvas, who from my understanding are kind of understudies to the Buddha.  Is there only one Buddha? Good question.  I think there is only one and there are also thousands.  No one painted a picture of the original Buddha back in 4th Century Nepal.  This makes it okay to depict him in many different races and forms.  There must be hundreds of different strains of Buddhism.  I knew that Zen was a Japanese form, but as I’ve moved around Japan I’ve encountered dozens of others, mostly based on the teachings of some Buddhist master or other.

Buddha’s teachings are known as dharma and sutras are religious teachings.  He highlighted the virtues of wisdom, kindness, patience, generosity, and compassion.  The five main precepts of Buddhism, which are suggestions and not laws, are to refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication.  Well, I’ve never killed anyone!

As in many faiths, adherents practice meditation, and that can take many forms—silent, chanting, walking, using a mantra or symbol, etc.

In Japan, about 30% of the population is Buddhist and only three percent are Shinto, which is a Japanese indigenous religion. These faiths overlap and intersect.  Hinduism is also mixed in there.  Unlike with Christianity, none of the three seeks to stamp out the others.

Japan has a temple (Shinto) or shrine (Buddhist) around every corner.  Some are enormous, like Todaji Temple in Nara, which is the largest wooden building in the world and houses a 15-meter-high Buddha.

Others are obscure, like this tiny one I stumbled upon in Tokyo, dedicated to dogs.

At most temples or shrines, I have encountered people bowing, clapping, lighting incense or candles, ringing bells, or listening to monks chanting sutras.

Inside each shrine is … wait for it … an inner shrine.  In most cases these are surrounded by signs asking people not to take photos.  Here’s one that didn’t have any prohibitions.

The inner shrine at the monastery is much like this.  I made the faux pas of wearing my yukata, or dressing gown, to the meditation, and being told, “Yukata, no!”  I had read an etiquette book I bought, twice, and still got it wrong.

I ran up to my room to change and rejoined the group.  About eight guests were observing as two monks intoned (presumably) sutras, punctuated by drums, gongs, and bells.  One had a beautiful timbre to his voice, and the two chanted in harmony.  I have no idea what they were singing, but it was magical, surrounded by dragons, lanterns, candles, incense, lotus flowers and orchids, tapestries, and thousands of intricately decorated boxes.

The jury is still out on my phone but I am taking its darkness as the digital detox I have long discussed but never had the will power to carry out.  Maybe Buddha had a hand in it.

Konichiwa from Koyasan

It’s 11:30pm and I will not be going to sleep any time soon.

I’m writing from Shojoshin-in monastery in Koyasan, Japan.  There are a couple things keeping me awake.

  • Whoever invented futons should be forced to sleep on one for the rest of his life.  I piled six on top of each other and all they do is sag into the center so that my head and feet are elevated and my spine is bowed downward onto the hard floor.
  • Restless Legs. After going through hell to wean myself off my RLS prescription, I used my emergency stash of pills while Lynn was with me so I wouldn’t drive her crazy with my pacing, kicking, and thrashing around all night. Now I have one pill left which I will try to save for my flight home, and I am going through mini withdrawal again.
  • My phone—I dropped it into a toilet! It’s dead!  There’s a chance it may be okay if I refrain from touching it for 24-48 hours and no one sends me a text or any kind of message.

But …

  • I don’t know what time it is unless I turn on my laptop, and I don’t have an alarm! Meditation starts at 6:30, followed by breakfast at 7:30.  There is a note on the info sheet about the monastery that says “Bell rings before 10 minutes.”  Ten minutes before what?  If it’s for morning meditation, will I hear it if I’m in the deep slumber I usually get for an hour or two after being an RLS puppet all night?

So many thoughts.  I don’t usually write at night but maybe if I get this out of my system, I will be able to settle my mind, if not my legs.

Koyasan is the most amazing place I have ever been.  That’s what I was thinking as I wandered through the ancient mausoleum that is where the 9th Century monk Kobo Daishi is meant to be in a state of permanent, deep meditation, praying for the wellbeing of all people. His mausoleum and the thousands of graves and shrines that surround it are in a forest of ancient cedar trees.  This was right before I dropped my phone in the toilet.  I will show you photos if my phone revives.

It took some doing to get here.  This morning I bade farewell to Lynn after another great travel time together of 10 days in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara. Much more on that later.

We took a shuttle from our hotel to the train station, where we had breakfast and then Lynn headed back to Tokyo and off to Scotland.  I took the Wakayama train to Hashimoto, where I transferred to the Nankai Koya line to Gokurakubashi.  Wonderful names.

The second train ride was very scenic, winding up, up, up through the mountains and stopping in tiny towns which didn’t appear to have road access.  Next it was on to a cable car which rose what seemed like a thousand feet up the mountain, followed by a 20-minute bus ride.

I was checked in by a monk who swiped my credit card, then hoiked my luggage into a dumb waiter to take it to the second floor.  He pointed out the shared toilets and baths and the meditation hall as he led me to my room.  It’s a traditional Japanese room, which means super uncomfortable for westerners like me who aren’t accustomed to sitting or sleeping on the floor.  But I have a view of a beautiful garden with mountain peaks in the background.  The sound of a brook, and frogs and birds, is in the background.  The monastery serves guests breakfast and dinner and the dinner was out of this world.

I could hear an Australian guy in the next room asking for a chair at dinner.  He was given one.  I will try to hold out and sit on a cushion to eat my meals but I don’t know if my hips can stand sitting on the floor for three days.

That’s about it for now.  Wish me luck with my phone.