Koyasan meditations, a Japan travel story
Vail CO, Colorado
JAPAN “Startled awake by lurking footsteps delicately approaching my room, I sprang upright in the plush down bedding.
Amazingly, the translucently tan, paper walls (shoji ) had kept my room warm throughout the freezing mountain night. Unfortunately, the paper walls were paper thin, so I heard every snore, sniffle and footstep that reverberated down the pine-floored hallway of the 30-room Muryoko Inn, a shukubo Buddhist temple in Koyasan, Japan.
On Honshu island, Koyasan ” four-square miles of UNESCO World Heritage Site ” is located south of Kyoto in the misty mountains of the Kii Peninsula. The meandering drive up 3,000 foot Mt. Koya rewards visitors with towering cedar, cypress and pine forests. It’s a different world in Koyasan. The bustle and development that defines modern Japan gives way to a peaceful Buddhist ambience. Pedestrians outnumber vehicles and the crisp mountain air recharges even the most urban-weary travelers.
A shukubo temple, like the one in which I now stayed, is a Buddhist take on a bed-and-breakfast. A night’s stay, including dinner and breakfast, only costs about $200 ” an insane bargain for Japan. Along with other traditional ryokan-style lodgings, shukubos are the way to travel in Japan. The rooms are exceedingly minimalist.
Shukubos offer an intimate glimpse into Japan’s ancient Buddhist culture. Constantly shuffling groups of polite Buddhist priests tend to your every need. They cook and serve elegantly arranged, vegetarian Buddhist fare (shojinryori) and do all the housekeeping chores. Guests are provided kimonos and slippers. The authentic experience climaxes at the candle-lit morning ceremony, which all overnight guests are encouraged to attend.
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The sandals stopped ominously at my door.
“Rorysan, you wake?” asked the familiar voice of Mr. Yamada, my forty-something Japanese guide.
“Hai,” I affirmed, groggily rolling off the feather bed onto a sturdy Tatami mat.
I scanned the dark floor for my watch. The Japanese have a penchant for punctuality”even after joyously imbibing late into the night, Yamadasan, impeccably dressed and ready to go, delivered my 5:45 a.m. wake-up call promptly at 5:30.
I layered all the contents of my backpack in preparation for the frigid predawn ceremony: thick wool socks, jeans, silk long underwear, two long-sleeve shirts, heavy wool sweater, plaid scarf and fleece beanie.
I reached the temple’s main hall just as the first priests arrived. Save for a few framed photographs of Pope John Paul shaking hands with the Muryoko’s Ajari (teacher; the head priest of a Shingon temple), the corner entrance to the main hall looked more like the door to a forgotten broom closet than the gateway to the L-shaped compound’s most sacred room.
Priests at the Muryoko, like everyone in Koyasan, practice Shingon Esoteric Buddhism. Esoteric Buddhism, Zen Buddhism’s chilled-out cousin, emphasizes aesthetics meditation rather than self-denial, and counts over 2 million Japanese adherents. Koyasan is the Shingon School’s Mecca, attracting practitioners, priests and curious tourists from around the world.
Normally apprehensive in houses of worship, I felt a calming force beckon me inside the dark temple. My tense shoulders relaxed as I smelled burning incense. Countless candles, along with a few oil lanterns provided the only light. Two chandeliers dripping with shiny golden bells hung from a wooden ceiling beam.
The temple was divided into three sections: Chairs for spectators lined a rectangular viewing room aligned perpendicular to two open, square rooms. On the right side, the priests, dressed in black kimonos swathed with burnt orange robes, sat in two lines facing one another. In the left more ornately decorated room, the Ajari sat alone on a simple bench facing a shallow stone bowl and an ancient leather-bound, two-feet wide prayer book.
Without warning, a bell rang and the priests began a coordinated, baritone Sanskrit chant. The room practically shook from the rhythmic bass vocalizations. The priests gently swayed back and forth as they sat on their folded legs, knees facing outward. The Ajari ignited a small fire in the bowl. As he did this, he began his own, barely audible chant. The small fire quickly filled the room with light, mystical smoke. The cackling fire occasionally sent orange sparks skyward like luminescent souls leaving earthly life behind.
The aim of aesthetics training is to clear the mind in order to commune with God, like lucid daydreaming. I’m nothing if not a dreamer, so I quickly sank inside my head. I thought about moments from my childhood”warm summer evenings playing backyard baseball, visiting the zoo with my mom, attending elementary school field trips”memories I’d all but forgotten. But suddenly I wasn’t just recalling the moments, I was reliving them. I floated through different memories mid-conversation, seeing them through my own eyes, not as a third-person observer. It was so visceral, yet surreal. Time slipped by.
Eventually, our English-speaking host at the Muryoko, Kurt Kubli, a Swiss economist-cum-priest, quietly interrupted our meditations to invite the eight attendees and myself to offer a prayer for Kobo Daishi”the spiritual founder of Shingon Buddhism.
In 806, Kobo Daishi, known then by his earthly name, Kukai, returned to Japan after studying Esoteric Buddhism for two years in China. He began spreading his own brand of Esoteric Buddhism”the Shingon School. In 816, with permission from Emperor Saga, he founded Koyasan as a Shingon retreat. And so it remains today, despite fires, wars, and the thunderous earthquakes that mark Japan’s intriguingly tumultuous and resilient history.
We queued before a small pile of burning embers, dropped a pinch of incense dust into the fire and repeated after Kurt, “Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo,” or “Great Teacher Brilliant Shining Diamond.” It’s a prayer of reverence and gratitude.
Kurt informed us we had an hour until breakfast. My mind immediately returned to the warm feather bed in my room; for if I do have a place of worship, then it is surely down-filled.
“You will come with us,” Kurt said, while politely, but firmly gripping my shoulder.
Kurt smiled mischievously as he led me across the immaculately groomed courtyard. Fresh snow dusted the 100-foot tall pine trees, rotund little bushes and the bluestone walkway, which, along with the muted orange hue emanating from the rising sun, created a mystical atmosphere. We entered a cozy six-Tatami room adjacent to the main dining room. A low table sat in the center, surrounded by flat buckwheat-filled cushions.
“Please have a seat Rory.”
Priests began to fill the room”priests I recognized from the ceremony because they, like Kurt, were not Japanese. First, a middle-aged white couple entered, then a lone late middle-aged white man, and, finally, an elderly Asian woman. Once we were all comfortably seated, Kurt passed around hot coffee and Hershey Kisses as he explained the meaning behind this congregation.
“Every morning, we come here after prayer to speak with the Ajari, who has business to attend to in Koyasan, so he cannot be here. So, today is for you. Ask us whatever is on your mind.”
“Ok, what’s your take on this type of tourism? Do you feel that you’re cheapening your beliefs by allowing paying guests at your temple?”
“Actually, temples here have a history of taking in guests. Japan is a mountainous nation that was quite difficult to traverse in the time before airplanes, trains and cars. So, temples often admitted road-weary travelers for only a small donation. We are merely continuing the tradition. This is how we are able to maintain the traditional Buddhist culture and meet modern Japan’s.
“This man,” Kurt smiled slyly, gesturing at the Belgian, “is a Catholic priest, and he is here studying Buddhism for two years.”
A Buddhist Catholic Priest? I faced the Belgian, furling my eyebrows in disbelief.
“It is true. I travel the world studying religions. In Pakistan, I studied Islam. In India, I learned Hinduism. For the last two years, I’ve found myself here studying the teachings of Buddha. It helps my understanding of Catholicism. Our teachings from the Old Testament are not very different from the teachings of Buddha.”
“And what have you learned here?”
“I have learned to accept the uncertainties of life. To answer all of life’s most important questions”the meaning and origins of life”is not as important as accepting these unanswerable questions exist. To find peace in this acceptance, that is where we can all find contentment”and for some, enlightenment.”
Everyone in the room nodded.
Having finished our coffee and chocolates, we adjourned and trickled outside into the frigid morning air. I felt the warmth in their smiles as we said farewell.