Pilgrims on Koya-san

It’s Monday morning in Koya-san, the thermometer reads a chilly 10 C (50 F). There is no heat in the monastery where we are staying, Shojoshin-in, not suprisingly as it is one of the oldest of the monasteries in this thousand year-old complex. There are space heaters in the rooms, and many of the students have them fired up. So far, I’ve decided that it’s not all that cold, and am writing this wrapped in a shawl sitting on my futon.

We are staying in a long, mostly linked set of rooms here, overlooking the small river that runs down off the hillside. The shoji slide shut between pairs of futons, but when they are open you can see the length of the large room where the students are sleeping.

Koya-san is where the renowned Buddhist saint Kobo-Daishi is entombed, and later today we will walk up the hill to see the temple and the entrance to the cave where Kobo-Daishi is said to sit in meditation still (the monks leave him a meal each day). The sacred 88-site pilgrimage that rings the island of Shikoku was first laid out by Kobo-Daishi.

Our pilgrimage to Koya from Osaka started not so differently than Kobo-Daishi’s pilgrimage to China. He sailed to China in 804 on an official delegation from Japan, in a convoy of four ships, which lost sight of each other on the first night. Likewise we piled into four taxis to get from the hotel to the train station yesterday morning. When we arrived at the station, we had only three taxis’ worth of students. The only taxi without a faculty member in it seemed to have gone astray. Unlike Kobo-Daishi’s ships, we located each other in the cavernous station!

The trip here was not as difficult as it was a thousand years ago, but we got a taste of the pilgrim’s way as typhoon damage on the tracks meant we had to get off the “express” train, onto a bus, then back onto a small local train that lurched its way up the mountain side, then make a dash for the funicular that takes you up to the town.

Yesterday we continued to learn about Buddhist meditation, spending two sessions in the afternoon with Hideo, the young abbot of a nearby temple (there are 117 in town). We annointed our hands with incense, to remind us to do our best (gambarazo), then settled into a beautiful hall. We had a wide-ranging conversation with him, including a good discussion of posture and gesture in meditation (does it matter where your hands are, should you move if you are uncomfortable? Is there a Buddhist equivalent of the misericord – a small ledge that choir monks use to prop themselves against)? We have been discussing this in the MBSR class we are taking and in my course.

When I was here in May, Hideo and I had talked about the concept of self-emptying, kenosis is the Western term. The Buddhist perspective and the Christian one are similar but there are differences. In the discussion with the students the topic came up again, and the second time ’round I had a better grasp of what the distinctions are.

We have been eating shojin ryori, traditional temple food, for breakfast since we arrived. Here we are having it for dinner as well. It’s all vegetarian, no meat or eggs, and follows the system of five. Each meal should have five colors: red, black, yellow, white, blue/green and five ways of preparing food: raw, boiled, baked, fried, steamed. I’m still trying to figure out what in my breakfast was baked! This morning students are doing some meditation practice — as well as laundry and getting a chance to walk in the small town and find their own lunch.


Photos of our sleeping space and of the temple gate. Notice the small night door at the side of the gate – even I have to duck!

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