A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about kami

VISITING SHRINES AND FLIPPING A SHIT; PLUS ESOTERIC SECRETS

Or "Naia Doing What She Does Best"

Um so. Apparently for a while there I forgot I had to write blog posts, and was happily trundling across mountains and shit not remembering that my task does not end with writing in my journal. Damn. Now I have to write about a LOT of THINGS.

SEPTEMBER 19-28

The Monday we returned from Hokyo-ji we moved from our temple hostel, Hidatsumesho, to a secular inn near To-ji, a Shingon (esoteric Buddhist) temple where we attended morning services to compliment our Shingon studies. Here is our neighborhood:

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Here is what I thought of To-ji:

"The Shingon service is bizarre. The priests and laity are worshiping in the same place at the same time, but they are all just doing completely their own thing. The main priest sits the entire time with his back to the worshipers, his long flowing sleeves hiding the secret mudras only Shingon priests can learn and perform. Meanwhile, the laity chants sutras and dharanis. Even this, though, they do at their own pace -- some chant slowly, some at a breakneck speed; some just have loud conversations with each other in the middle of the service. They're almost all old people. At one point in the service , one of the priests brings out a small red back that supposedly contains Buddha relics of some kind, and people line up on their knees in front of the railing, a lot like communion in a Christian service. The priest touches the bag to their heads and their open palms while chanting something I don't recognize. After the service, everybody goes around the side of the building for tea and gossip. Basically I'm like, 'Okay, I guess I'm back home in Virginia now.'"

The second day we went to To-ji, I moved to the railing to be touched with the relic bag. The bottom of the bag was stiff, so I couldn't feel the shape of what was inside. It smelled earthy, like patchouli. After, I felt a lot more ... something. Clearer, maybe? More aware of my surroundings? Whatever the feeling was, it was unusual for 6:30 AM.

To-ji, incidentally, has a flea market every two weeks. But this is no ordinary flea market, my friend. No, it is simply THE MOST AMAZING FLEA MARKET I'VE EVER SEEN (and I've seen a few). It covered the entire grounds of To-ji and spilled outside its gates onto the sidewalk. They had EVERYTHING there. Food, handcrafted things, clothes, antiques, jewelry, books, art, phallic objects ... everything. I panicked. And I am not at liberty to divulge most of what I bought, as it was the majority of my gifts for people.

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Saturday I decided I was tired of planning and meeting and rushing around. Ben and Jake and I started to wander about Kyoto aimlessly, but then decided to visit Fushimi Inari shrine -- the one with the endless tunnels made of orangey-red torii gates. It turned out to be a short, cheap bus ride away.

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The place is so vast that over the course of six hours I did not even get to see the whole grounds. There were too many white people in the main shrine area so we ran away down some stairs and discovered a deserted graveyard straight out of a ghost story or possibly Spirited Away, the path to which was littered with half-buried, broken fox statues and offertory vessels.

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Then we discovered dirt paths to nowhere. They took us up a hill, by a lake, past a bamboo grove ... and then back to the main Shrine path.

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Ben left and Jake and I hiked up a bajillion stairs at the suggestion of an old Japanese man who stopped to bow at every altar along the way, whenever he wasn't accosting energetic couples to tell them to climb "yukkuri!" (slowly). At the top we found the promised "nice view," and it was glorious. So we sat there for a long time and I drew the cityscape.

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In other news, Melanie and I disgraced ourselves by reflexively bowing to a young Japanese guy we had just had drinks with. It was really super fucking awkward and he was freaked out and we felt like doofuses and so on the way home we bought ourselves pastries at a Circle-K and defiantly ate them while walking to prove we were actually rebels.

SEPTEMBER 29-30

This entry begins: "I was sopping wet and full of wonder for such a large percentage of today that I had almost forgotten it was possible to live otherwise. Mount Koya was incredible."

We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and dropped our stuff off at a temple complex where we stayed with a bunch of other lay pilgrims. Then we were whipped off on a dizzying high-speed tour of Koyasan by Brian, who had a terrible cold but insisted on talking a lot anyway. First we visited Kongobuji Temple, which was huge and full of beautiful art. As per usual, we were given something utterly stupid like an hour to explore a place that deserved at least one whole day. I was about to lose it at any given moment as I was dragged bodily past dozens of gorgeous shoji screens and paintings and rock gardens and barely given the chance to stop and stare. We had to get to a Dharma talk on time. FUCK THE DHARMA TALK I screamed inwardly, I DON'T SPEAK JAPANESE. ....Well, they did teach me how to order at McDonald's and ask for directions. *facepalm.*

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Then we visited the Great Stupa. Oh. My. Jizo bosatsu. It blew my mind. Inside were statues and painted pillars arranged to form a 3-dimensional mandala, at the center of which was a huge golden statue of Mahavairocana Buddha. I was effectively rendered speechless. I just sat in front of the altar staring. His eyes were terrifyingly alive -- the light made them shine like real eyeballs, and his facial expression was similarly terrifying -- in the most positive sense possible. He was so colossal, yet so calm -- exuding rolling waves of power that turned all my organs over inside me.

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Then suddenly it was evening, and we were rushed to the gates of a gigantic cemetery (Okunoin), at the far end of which Kukai (also called Kobo Daishi), the founder of Shingon, has his mausoleum. He doesn't use it for being dead in, though. Oh, no. He's far too cool for that. He attained Buddhahood and entered into eternal meditation in 835, and has been sitting there being better than everybody else ever since. But seriously. This graveyard. I couldn't STAND how majestic and beautiful it was. It was Hokyoji's grounds times fifty -- massive, literally thousands of mossy crumbling graves, most hundreds or a thousand years old. Giant, weathered five-element stupas towered on both sides of the path, and little stone Jizos with their faces worn away huddled in the hollows of trees or stuck half-buried out of the dirt (every one, incidentally, no matter how worn or broken, had been adorned with a little red bib by a visitor). Everything was glazed with a thick coating of a vivid green moss which seemed to own the place.

Brian did not allow us to stop or take any pictures because we had to get to Kukai's mausoleum before it closed and I wanted to THROW HIM OFF MOUNT KOYA. The mausoleum was beautiful (though not as much as the rest of Okunoin), and we lit incense and candles and chanted him the Hannya Shingo (Heart Sutra). It's got to get old, you know? I bet Kukai wishes somebody would throw a performance of a Florence + the Machine song his way every once in a while. After that, we stopped by Aimee-sensei's ancestral grave (yes, of COURSE she comes from a famous ancient warrior clan who have a large and impressive grave plot on Mount Koya. Of COURSE she does) and chanted the Hannya Shingo there too, and donated the merit to her ancestors.

The temple where we stayed fed us entirely too well at every meal. I found it pretty suspicious, after Zen -- almost like we were on a movie set instead of a real temple. But then, we were staying as guests there, rather than trainees. In the morning we got up early (well -- not so early for us) to attend the Shingon service and goma ritual (a fire ritual where wishes are written on sticks of wood and then burned by a priest in a complicated ceremony). I sat in seza for over an hour. I INCAPACITATED myself. It took me five minutes to get enough feeling back in my legs to make a sake offering at the altar. I loved the service, though. The room was small, close, dark, and very smoky (the epitome of esoteric). There were a lot of monks there to chant, so the chanting was much better than at Toji -- it was mesmerizing.

After the service, we had free time. The shops were fairly homogenous and boring, so I took advantage of that time to return to Okunoin to make up for my wrathful deprivation of beauty the previous day. It was raining heavily; we had been told a typhoon was approaching. I took a raincoat but no umbrella. The Okunoin was even more beautiful than before in the rain. I touched everything I could, to ground myself in the moment and the place -- moss, puddles, the cracked faces of Jizos, the rivers running through the cracks in tree bark. I picked a clear spot in front of a fenced-in group of eleven great stone stupas, lay down on the soaking sponge-like moss, and let the rain soak every bit of me it hadn't found already. I just kept my eyes shut and lay there for a very long time, until I felt like the moss had grown over me, too. It struck me how perfectly beautiful and satisfying it would be to be dead in a place like that. I wish I could die there and never be moved.

I walked back so soaked that my clothes weighed me down. I couldn't even go into a store to buy lunch due to a (very Japanese) mortification over the possibility of dripping on their floor. So I bought some mochi and bottled coffee from a street vendor and went back to our temple to meet the group.

I had arrived at Koyasan in a state of isolation and crushing depression. I left feeling better than amazing. Koyasan is where I broke through to being able to FEEL Japan all around me, and I remembered that alone is essentially what I'm here for.

Posted by Niadra 20:59 Archived in Japan Tagged hiking cemetery buddhism woods buddha graveyard shrine bamboo shinto jinja inari kami bodhisattva shingon esoteric fushimi mikkyo Comments (0)

THE PRESENCE OF KAMI

Or, "why does everything about me make so much more sense in Japan"

The 26th was our first totally free day. Nevertheless, shameless try-hards that we all are (god I hate Broadwater slang), we got up at 7 AM having slept about 5 hours to go see another shrine! It was by far the best thing that had happened to me on this trip. I mentioned before that I had been kind of frustrated with my lack of ability to fully grasp and respond to everything I was seeing -- well, this was the first time I felt something close to the full impact of the situation.

Kamigamo-jinja is a huge Shinto shrine complex, starting with the obligatory huge torii gate and including spacious grassy grounds and buildings of various sizes. I didn't even get to see much of the main building because we wandered through a market that was happening on the grounds this particular day. Everything was handmade Japanese crafts, art, and food or drinks. It was pretty amazing, but also very familiar since arts and crafts fairs are a thing that happens all the time at home.

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Two of the other girls and I, having walked through the bazaar, wandered up a narrow path leading up through small torii gates to a smaller, quiet shrine away from the main structures. There was no one else around, and it was right on the edge of a small cliff. Looking out from the cliff in one direction you could see the shrine grounds, and in the other direction was a crowded urban residential area. But still it felt totally silent in front of that shrine.

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It was everything I needed to see and more. That finally got through to me. I really felt I had to make an offering, so I put some yen in the offertory box, rang the bell, and bowed to pray. My head was a mess. It was all white noise. I had no idea what I wanted to say to the Kami, except "Thank you for letting me find you here." I think it was all I really could have said. I stayed like that for a while, then sat down and just stared. There were three small shrines, one of which I recognized as being dedicated to Inari because of the fox statues (Inari was originally responsible for the rice harvest, but is now also seen as a Kami for business and commerce). I took a lot of pictures. I realized as I was sitting there something I hadn't even considered before. And that was that I think my main intention in coming to Japan was to touch the Kami.

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Anyway, I've been trying to write this post forever, but every time I tried something happened and by now my blog is so far behind what is actually happening to me that I'd like to paraphrase a few things in order to write my next post about our Zen retreat.

In a nutshell, here are things that have been going on, as things are wont to do:

-We began practicing zazen meditation at our hostel a few days after starting the program. We get up at 5 AM and begin meditating together in the butsuma (Buddha Room) at 5:30 for about forty minutes, followed by sutra recitations.
It fucking hurts. That is most of the information I can give you about zazen because I am mostly preoccupied with disciplining myself not to move even though my left leg is so far asleep I am having phantom limb syndrome in a limb that is (supposedly) still attached to my body. Also, do you know how much spit your mouth decides to make when your brain knows you aren't supposed to swallow because it makes too loud of a noise in the meditation hall? The answer is seven. I'm sorry, I know it doesn't make sense, but this is my brain on Zen.
Also, I really enjoy chanting sutras, but I have to admit that we are all pretty bad at it. Maybe it's that we're not fluent in Japanese, maybe it's that we're not monks, maybe it's that our voices are simply not deep and sonorous enough, but it is kind of like a bunch of forgetful kindergarteners trying to say the pledge of allegiance.

-Kyoto-Yodobashi. It is an electronics mall. A mall full of electronics. Like eight floors of them. There are two whole floors just of flatscreen HD TVs. And I tell you something: even the shittiest ones are a hundred times better than any TV in the US ever, even though they are made by the same Japanese companies. I just thought I should inform you all that Japan purposely keeps us in the dark ages and laughs about it.

-I would like to speak in further praise of group bathing, following my experience of a traditional Japanese public bathhouse. It was nothing short of a perfect fusion of indulgence and hilarity. There was NO ONE in the whole place but us and a large number of old naked Japanese ladies who stared at us in unrestrained disbelief as we threw our clothes off and proceeded to be young English-speaking foreigners in THEIR bathhouse (supervised by Eimi-sensei, one of our program directors, but that hardly mattered to the old ladies). You could tell by the stares and the utter lack of any other gaijin that we were in the RIGHT KIND OF PLACE.
The baths were kind of a bigger and more decadent version of our hostel's bath. There were lots of little shower heads ranged around the walls and you sat on little stools in front of low mirrors and made sure you were DAMN WELL SPARKLING CLEAN before getting into one of six large baths -- three variously hot ones, one hot one with indigo-colored violet/chamomile-infused water, one ice-cold one (my favorite, no one else's), and one natural sulfur bath the color of milk.
The old ladies retaliated for our presence by terrorizing us at every opportunity. One came over and rapped me on the head really hard when I let my hair touch the water.
We felt SO GOOD when we got out of there. I felt like I had just been issued a new body. I do not think the timing of this was a coincidence, as the next day was when we left for our two-day Rinzai Zen retreat at Myoshinji. The difference between how we felt after these two activities is the funniest joke ever.

-I guess I really haven't said anything about what our classes are like, but the truth is they are far from the most interesting thing about this program and it really wouldn't entertain you to hear about them. They mostly exist to provide us with historical and social context for the things we experience, and also to teach us enough Japanese for us not to implode in delicate social situations. The classes I take/audit are Theory and Practice of Buddhism in Japan; Japanese Religions; Beginning Japanese; and Japanese Society and Cultural Traditions.

NEXT TIME: Getting hit with sticks and doing everything in fast-forward at a Rinzai monastery!

Posted by Niadra 20:37 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto meditation house spa bath japanese shrine public shinto zen jinja rinzai kamigamo zazen kami Comments (2)

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