Tag Archives: Koyasan

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 a10-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 other 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 them 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.