The Travelling Trooper Learns About Shingon Buddhism And Goes On A Night Cemetery Tour

A couple train rides and a couple bus rides after leaving Nara, and we finally arrived in Koyasan around 3 in the afternoon. We walked down the main road of this little mountain town towards Kumagaiji Temple, and I couldn’t help but notice that this bearded fella that was on the bus with us was also walking in the same direction as us. I wondered if he was also heading to Kumagaiji, but I was too exhausted from the commute that I didn’t really feel like interacting with another human being unless it was absolutely necessary.

Sure enough, we ended up at the same temple. We both checked in and were given a tour of the temple together. We were shown the washrooms, the baths, told about the day’s schedule, and then sent to our respective rooms with instructions to come down for dinner at 5:30.

I lay down on my bed and let my body melt into the floor as I watched some YouTube to kill some time.

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The coolest thing about the room was the kotatsu table in the middle of it. It’s a square table that’s low to the ground. It’s high enough that you can fit your legs underneath. Once you slip your legs in, they legs are gripped in the wonderful warm embrace of the heater that’s mounted right beneath the table.

Once I had enough energy, I went to the Ekoin, the next temple over, to reserve a cemetary night tour. On my way back to my room, I also stopped at the reception desk to sign up for a calligraphy lesson at 4:30.

At the lesson, I got to choose whether I wanted to trace a picture of Buddha, write Buddha’s, or write the alphabet. I opted to write Buddha’s name, though I was tempted to trace the Buddha. I mean, who doesn’t love tracing? But it’s also meant to unite your mind with the body of Buddha. Monks practice this to relax and focus their minds as a form of meditation.

The crazy thing about the Japanese language is that there are three different types of alphabets–Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji–and they’re all used for different purposes. While Hiragana and Katakana are similar, the former is used for Japanese words, while the latter is used for foreign words.

Kanji is the main alphabet of the Japanese language. It consists of over 8, 000 characters, each representing a concept, word, or name. This is another way in which it differs from Hiragana and Katakana, since those two alphabets are syllabic, meaning the characters represent individual sounds, not concepts. To decipher the meaning of an individual kanji, you have to look at it within the context it is used in, since an individual kanji character can have multiple meanings. (I suppose this would be similar to synonyms in English?)

The calligraphy lesson proved to be difficult, but fun. It was just me and the teacher, so I got the one-on-one support that I desperately needed. She was funny, friendly, intelligent, and spoke great English. She actually taught calligraphy for a living, so I was in good hands.

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I knew I was in trouble when I struggled to make a straight line on the first character. I never mastered how to make the little flicks at the end of some lines. She made it look so easy. And sometimes my lines weren’t as thick or thin as I wanted them to be. I was just a mess.

I also struggled with the fact that Kanji characters are written from left to write and from top to bottom. Each character has a specific order in which you must make each stroke. I messed this up at least a dozen times, but every time, the teacher let me come to the realization on my own as I lifted the pen to start the next stroke.

My teacher, being the great teacher that she is, assured me that I was doing fine. “Now, you write like a 7 year old,” she said, “but when you finish, you will write like a 9 year old.”

Progress is progress.

And to her credit (and my own), I did see a distinct improvement in the writing by the time we reached the left side of the page.

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We would first write each character in the air with our finger, then practice it twice on a piece of paper, before eventually writing it for realsies on the main paper.

The three figures on the right side are different types of Buddha. The one on the far right is the main universal Buddha. The one that’s on fire has something to do with the unhealthy anger that we sometimes feel in our lives. A book I was given says his name is Myo-o. It also says, “Myo-o provokes people realize the Buddhist path by showing an angry face.” Not sure how that works, but okay.

The picture on the far left is of Kobo Daishi, the monk who founded the Buddhist grounds on Koyasan as a retreat from worldly distractions. Kobo Daishi wanted it to be a monastery for Shingon Buddhist training after he brought Shingon Buddhism over from China. He was given permission from Emperor Saga in 816 to use the land as he wished. He chose Koyasan because it resembles a Lotus flower, with its eight surrounding lower peaks representing the eight petals of a Lotus. The metaphorical significance behind the Lotus is that a beautiful and pure life is able to grow from the dirty and muddy waters of attachment and desire.

On top of being a monk, he was also a famous calligrapher, poet, scholar, and engineer. He is responsible for the syllabic alphabets Japanese people use today. He created it as an alternative to the difficult Chinese characters that were used at the time. He also opened the first school in Japan so that all people, regardless of class, could learn. Basically, the man was all kinds of awesome.

Among Kobo Daishi’s poems is his most famous one, the Iroha, which uses every kana syllable only once. The poem reads “Flowers bloom and their smell is sweet, but eventually, they must scatter. In the same way, who in our world can last forever? Go beyond the deep mountains of conditioned phenomena today, there no longer pursue vain dreams in delusion.” It has to do with the impermanence of life, the cycle of everything in life, and nirvana.

After the lesson, it was time for dinner. There were only three guests staying at the temple–myself, the bald guy from earlier, and a Japanese woman.  The woman didn’t speak English, but my teacher informed us that she had graduated from Kumagaiji the previous year.

The bald guy’s name was Slawomir. He was from Poland. We got to chatting, and eventually agreed to tour the cemetery together.

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While we ate, the leader of the temple arrived to speak with the Japanese guest. Thanks to my calligraphy teacher, who worked as our translator, we were able to speak with him as well. After learning that I was a teacher and hearing some of my hellish teaching stories from Abu Dhabi, he shared some of his own frustrations.

He went on about how young Buddhist students today are lazy, don’t work hard, and don’t listen. He complained about having to repeat himself all the time. My teacher laughed and added that she thought he was so funny because whenever she walks by the classroom and finds him yelling in his booming voice at his students, he’ll turn around and flash the friendliest of smiles at her. He laughed at this as well.

As a teacher, it’s awesome to know that even Buddhist monks get frustrated with their students.

At 7:00, Slawomir and I headed out for the cemetery tour. I know it’s weird to describe a cemetery as captivating, but that’s exactly what it felt like. The snow on the graves and on the large cedar trees made it feel like a walk through a fairytale forest.

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The soft light coming from the towers lining the path were like stars lighting our way. (Actually, the meaning behind the moons lighting the way on those towers is two-fold. 1) Like the moon, we change every day. Our mind, our emotions, everything about us changes every single day. 2) While the moon gets its light from the sun, Buddhists get their light from Buddha.)

An interesting thing about the cemetery is that large business companies can actually bury their employees in their own areas within the cemetery. For example, we saw what looked like a grave marking the death of Panasonic, but it actually marked the place where Panasonic buries many of its employees who believe in Shingon Buddhism.

Okunoin Cemetery is the largest, and perhaps the most important cemetery in Japan. It holds 500, 000 graves, as well as the body of Kobo Daishi. It is believed that in 835, Kobo Daishi went into an eternal meditation in his mausoleum. Several years later, a monk went into the mausoleum and found him still in the meditating position. He shaved his beard, changed his clothes, and left the room. Nobody has entered the room since then.

To access the mausoleum area, you must cross a bridge. But before doing so, you must pour water over one of the small Buddha statues. Before, people had to enter the river to cleanse themselves, but this practice has since evolved on account of how bloody cold it gets up there. No photos are allowed past the bridge.

We bowed towards the mausoleum and stepped foot on the bridge. As we went up the stairs of the main building, we saw endless lanterns hanging from the roof. They glowed with a beautiful orange light. The lanterns vary in size depending on the size of an individual’s donation. The larger the donation, the larger the lantern.

Many people of significance have made large donations over the years. One man, whose statue marks the beginning of the path through the cemetery, was a successful businessman who owned many restaurants around Japan. He donated the money to pay for the path through the forest.

Around back, we paid our respects to Kubo Daishi. Then we crossed back over the bridge, bowed once more at the mausoleum, and headed back to the temple.

Back at the temple, Slawomir and I decided to hit up the onsen before calling it a night. (Reminder: Onsens are hot springs where one bathes nude.) I went straight for the onsen, while he dealt with a broken heater in his room.

By the time he arrived, I’d already been in the onsen for a good twenty minutes. Nothing strengthens a friendship like a late night dip in your birthday suit. Slawomir and I shared life stories and travel stories, until eventually, after I’d been in the onsen for a good hour, I started feeling lightheaded. That’s when we decided to tap out. It was closing time for the onsen anyway.

Slawomir and I made plans to explore the cemetery again in the daylight and to explore Koyasan together in the morning. And with that, we called it a night.

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