Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Day 49: Koya-san

Wednesday, August 12, 2009
At 5:55 in the morning, a monk hidden somewhere within the temple began to beat a gong in a slow, steady rhythm.
Bong… Bong… Bong…
The intense, enveloping sound echoed through the quiet morning, sound waves bouncing off of the meticulously crafted sand sculptures and manicured trees of the temple garden.
Bong… Bong… Bong...
The reverberations cascaded through my body, shaking my bones and pulling me out of a deep, exhausted slumber. I rolled over on the futon to see Sho groggily smiling at me from under the thick folds of his soft comforter.
Bong… Bong… Bong…
The sonorous noise drifted out of the mountain valley and dissipated among the surrounding peaks of Mt. Koya.
“Ready for some chanting?” I asked Sho.
“Yep!” he said with enthusiasm and pulled himself up from the futon, hopping around on one foot on the tatami mat as he pulled on his pants.
We shuffled quietly down the long, hard wood corridors, converging with other guests emerging groggily from their rooms to participate in the morning Buddhist ritual. We passed by an opening leading to a beautiful garden in the center of the temple, and felt the warm summer morning air envelope us and hint at the oppressive heat to come. After navigating several turns through the large complex, we left our slippers at the entrance of the ceremony room and quietly found a place to sit on the tatami mats with about 15 other guests. The room was dimly lit and adorned with Buddhist images and paraphernalia, the smell of incense wafting over us. Nine monks with shaved heads and flowing robes sat on mats in the front, legs folded easily beneath them, and each holding a book of sutras. Ryusho Soeda, head of the temple, sat in the middle and led the ceremony, his impressive robes wrapped comfortably around his frame. The chanting began immediately.
Sho sat enthralled throughout the 40-minute session, as the monks intoned with a deep, hypnotizing rhythm. Every so often, one would strike a gong or a clanging symbol or bells. Sometimes one monk would start to drone out the beginning of a new section of the sutra, and the others would join him after a few seconds, their voices merging together powerfully. I closed my eyes and let the chanting envelop me. My thoughts drifted over the past month and a half of riding, and I marveled that we had made it this far without any serious sickness, injury or mental breakdown. I opened my eyes and looked at Sho, who was sitting close to me, attentively taking in the fascinating morning ritual. He was already changed since we began this trip. He had grown stronger and bigger, less apt to complain about minor inconveniences, and patient enough to sit through 40 minutes of Buddhist chanting.
When the monks had finished, they filed quietly out of a side door, except Soeda-san, who turned toward the visitors in the room. His round, middle aged face was serene, and he moved slowly and with purpose, exerting a calming presence over the room. He paused as he silently took in our faces and smiled gently. Accustomed to foreign guests, he spoke in heavily accented English, describing his religious beliefs and the story of Kobo Daishi, the posthumous name for Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. Kukai chose Mt. Koya as the site of the the sect’s headquarters over 1200 hundred years ago, following a voyage to China, where he studied with a well-known Buddhist master. Followers believe that Kukai is still alive, meditating in a big stone cave underground and watching the world.
“Perhaps it must seem very strange or absurd for you that the one who lived almost 1,200 years before can keep meditation inside underground walls until today,” Soeda-san smiled. “The reason why such an irrational belief could survive for so many years is that still today, many people can experience an encounter with Kukai, mainly in the crisis of their life, physically or psychologically. Kukai has been believed to send his supple body not only to the believer, but also to the unbelievers to make them aware that they are watched by Kukai. So these repeated experiences encountering Kukai over the time and space make this irrational belief [pause for effect] super rational.”
As he spoke, I realized that he gave the same talk every morning to tourists staying at the temple. I wondered if he were bored by it all, or found it mildly interesting to see the attentive wonder in people’s eyes as they heard this story for the first time. Perhaps it felt simply like an extension of the chanting ceremony, but without the promise of transcendence...
Soeda-san concluded his brief comments with the observation that, “the ultimate truth is never static, but dynamic.” Just as I was contemplating the implications of that thought, he abruptly shifted to the mundane, noting that our breakfasts would be ready in five minutes, and that we should reconvene in the dining hall.
“What a cool way to start the day!” Sho commented excitedly, as we shuffled out of the ceremony hall.
After breakfast, Sho and I hopped on our bikes, ridiculously light without our 75 pounds of gear, and explored the town of Koya. We visited the massive Daimon gate that had welcomed us the night before. It was impressive, but in daylight did not have the same mystery and power of the evening before, when its brilliantly lit, towering orange beams represented salvation from our exhausting bike ride up the mountain in the dark. We sat in the shade of the massive structure and talked with Eiko and Saya on the phone for a while, before continuing on to see Koya’s impressive mix of temples and tombs.
Many followers in the Shingon sect choose to be buried at Okunoin, a sprawling collection of many thousands of graves spread throughout the dense forests surrounding Kukai’s mausoleum on the outskirts of Koya. Sho and I hiked along a beautiful, flowing mountain stream, passing countless graves. The varied headstones were everywhere, competing with one another to proclaim the previous existence of the entombed. Some were nothing more than a simple, modest stone marking the spot, while other gravesites were over-the-top. My favorite was a 20-foot tall towering stone rocket ship pointing skyward and threatening to blast off.
“This guy must have really loved outer space!” Sho laughed.
No one knows how many burial sites there are in Okunoin, but Sho did his best to visit every one, running back and forth along the main path ways, then challenging me to find the most creative route through myriad trails that disappeared into the surrounding overgrowth and uncovering yet more graves.
Throughout this ride across Japan, we have passed many grave yards. Usually, they are modest collections of beautifully carved and meticulously cared-for headstones, nestled into a forest by the road or carved into the side of a hill. Early on, I remember pausing while biking up a long climb in the countryside and glancing down to enjoy a sprawling farm stretched out below me, rows of neatly arranged crops covering the land all the way to the base of a set of hills a few miles away. At the edge of the farm, a lone, bent figure moved slowly between two headstones that stood aside from the crops on a small raised plot. The old man gently cleaned the area, lit incense in front of the graves and stared in silence, as Sho and I peered from above. It was a touching scene.
“What is he doing, Daddy?” Sho asked.
“Paying respects to family members who died.”
As we pedaled away, I mumbled to myself, “That’s where you’re headed,” exercising the presumably uniquely human trait of anticipating my own death. Actually, I said that to myself every time we passed a graveyard on this bike ride. Seriously. Not out of a macabre sense of despair, but more in an attempt to provide some context for this crazy adventure. Knowing that I will die, sooner or later; meditating on that truth; appreciating that every day, no matter how full of mundane routine, is precious; sensing that each moment is potentially remarkable; feeling the constant passage of time and moving through life’s phases – I used to know myself only as a child, but now I am the father? All of this provided the context for a grand adventure across Japan with my 8-year old son. Each moment is precious and finite – how do you choose to spend it? If I am only here for a while, I reasoned, I might as well try to do something extraordinary!
Our visit to Koya was obviously getting to me. :-) What I needed was time to meditate. We returned to our temple lodging at Renge-Jo-In and re-entered the ceremony hall where we had observed the morning’s chanting session. Sho had enjoyed the chanting and was eager for the next new experience.
“Do you think I’ll like it, Daddy?” he asked excitedly.
“I’m not sure, but please do your best not to make any noise, ok?” I responded, wondering if it was a good idea for him to come along.
This time, there were no gongs, no symbols, no bells. There was only silent sitting on tatami mats in the darkened room, led by the mindful, passive, settled presence of Soeda-san, wrapped in the smell of incense and shared with a dozen others listening to their own heart beats. I settled into a comfortable seated position, focused on my breathing, slowing it down until it was hard to tell whether I was inhaling or exhaling, and descended into a barely conscious state. At first, a stream of random thoughts and hidden worries intruded unhelpfully: images from yesterday’s monster ride up the mountain, the spooky bike light casting strange forms into the black night, Sho’s well-being, my priorities, a thousand years of history, graves, aching muscles, could we complete the ride across Japan on schedule, missing my wife and daughter, lingering Sumo wrestling injuries... Gradually the thoughts dissipated, evaporating into the stillness, until all that was left was my breath, still moving in and out, but barely perceptible. A kind of mental opening was occurring. A letting go. A mindfulness. A sinking into the eternity of the moment.
I felt a tug at my sleeve. “Dad!” Sho whispered. I ignored him. “Dad!” he whispered again, and I could feel the collective annoyance in the room at this unwelcome intrusion into the magical silence.
I opened my eyes and gave him an unhappy look.
“I’m going outside to play my DS, ok?” he asked.
I nodded, and he crawled across the tatami mat floor, and slowly creaked open the wooden sliding doors. Then ever so annoyingly, he creaked the doors closed again. Each sound he made reverberated like a bomb dropped into the middle of the room, and I winced at the rude intrusion on my fellow guests’ meditations. Soeda-san sat impassively at the front of the room, unbothered by the commotion, unmoving and serene. The other guests, not nearly as practiced at meditation, shot us annoyed looks.
That evening, Sho and I wore comfortable cotton yukata robes down to the dining hall, a large, tatami mat room near the temple entrance that could easily hold over 100 people. About twenty guests sat on the floor beside one another, appreciating lovely lacquer trays full of miso soup, mountain vegetables, hot tea, rice, and a delicious flavored tofu dish. Only one guest was Japanese, and he was seated by himself separately from the group for some reason that was never explained to me. The rest were friendly tourists from Germany, Italy, Canada, the U.S. and France. Happily, they were too well-mannered to ostracize us for the disruption of the meditation ceremony, and we all chatted politely about our experiences traveling around Japan.
After a while, Kiyomi Soeda entered the room. The 89-year old matriarch of the temple, she wore a brightly colored kimono and exuded self-confidence and vigor. She looked much younger than her age and professed to have enjoyed excellent health throughout her life. “Only recently, I have begun to have difficulty hearing, and my legs feel weak at times,” she lamented. We all munched our food in silence as she settled down comfortably in front of a microphone and told us her fascinating story.
Until around 1880, women were not allowed to live in Koya, which was meant to be a Buddhist retreat far away from the temptations of society. Priests were not allowed to marry and heads of temples chose their successor from among their disciples. This changed not long after the Meiji Restoration, a tumultuous period in Japan’s history when the country, which had been rigidly closed to the outside world for over 2 centuries, was compelled to modernize by the threats and opportunities posed by the U.S. and Europe. Priests on Mt. Koya began to marry, and their succession became hereditary.
Born in Koya in 1920, Kiyomi was a restless youth and left the isolated mountain top community in the late 1930’s to study English at a university in Tokyo, a much more stimulating location. When World War II began, she returned from Tokyo and her friends asked her suspiciously why she had “studied the language of the enemy.” But after the war, when knowledge of English was a useful skill, the same people praised her far-sighted wisdom. During the war, the Japanese military used the temples in Koya to support the war effort. When the U.S. military sent soldiers to look for weapons caches among the temples, Kiyomi’s rare English skills made her suddenly extremely useful in her community.
She married the head of Renge-Jo-In Temple in 1946 and told us about the sorry state the place was in when she moved in. The ceiling of the beautiful room we were sitting in had a leak that they could not afford to repair, ruining the tatami mats.
“Where you are now, you would be sitting in the middle of a mud pit,” she joked with Sho, who giggled. “We had to lay down wooden slats to walk across this room. There wasn’t enough food either, so we all grew sweet potatoes. Because of the lack of sun up here, they were stringy, skinny things that had little taste, but it was better than starving. When we ate rice porridge, I remember being able to count the number of grains in the bowl, it was so meager.”
She went on to tell us about Kukai, going into much more detail than her son had following this morning’s chanting ceremony. She told us of Kukai’s decision to study esoteric Buddhism in China, of his prodigious intelligence and ability to find a famous teacher in China and become his chosen successor after only a year and a half of study, and other accounts of his exceptional abilities. I noted the importance within many institutions, from politics to religion to business, to ascribe phenomenal exploits to their founders.
Sho wasn’t worried about the implications of hero worship, however. After we had eaten our fill and returned to our room, he was happy to snuggle up with me in our comfortable futons and fall asleep recounting the details of one of our most interesting days so far.

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