The women’s way

For almost a thousand years, Mount Koya was an entirely male enclave. Until the end of the 19th century, women were stopped at the gates. Still, many of them made the journey, to be close to sons who had become monks, and to the sacred sites. A number of women’s shelters were built at the edges of the precincts. Only one remains standing today. The shelters were linked by a path that is still extant and that entirely encircles Koya-san. Yesterday morning, after we broke silence, I walked up to the remaining women’s shelter and then headed down the path. I was immediately struck by how narrow it was, roughly a foot wide, and how it clung to the side of the mountain. It was not a place for a leisurely stroll. This is how it feels to be marginalized, to be reminded at every step that your presence here is precarious at best.

Hideo, the young abbot who has instructed in meditation while we are here told us that when he tired of his studies, he would head out on the women’s trail until he could put Koya behind him. I would agree that you very quckly find that the town vanishes and you are walking a wilderness trail.

In the afternoon we toured the Reiokan museum as a group. There were a set of 12th century silk paintings of Kobo Daishi on display, but was struck most of us were the wooden images of the four kings in the “old gallery.” They are incredibly lifelike, and quite daunting in appearance. It is easy to imagine how terrifying they might have appeared in a dark temple lit only by candles and oil lamps. Several of the students headed out to see the women’s shelter, while the rest of the group headed to the head temple for the Shingon sect.

This morning began with a final conversation with Hideo, thinking a little bit about how to embed the practice of meditation in everyday life, a bit about what else we might read when we return home, particularly about walking meditations (as opposed to the sitting meditations that we have done here). We had an interesting conversation about the concept of “nin” (prompted in part by the large character “nin” painted on the scroll in the niche of the room we were meeting in.) It means self-control, particularly of the emotions. And a bit like the idea of Ignation “indifference” it has the sense not of banishing emotion, but of controling the external expression of the emotions.

The rest of the day was a long travel day in the rain – 10 hours – taking us down the funicular from Koya to three trains, a ferry ride and finally onto a bus for the hour and half ride up from Tokushima port to Kamikatsu up in the mountains. Dinner was delight and we are enjoying listening to the mountain river that runs past the retreat center we are staying in.

Lantern night

I am writing this on the front steps of Shojoshin-in, the temple where we are staying. The sun is warm, if fading fast, and I’m waiting for the young monk to come out and ring the large bell to signal that the monastery gates are closed for the night.

We’ve been thinking not only about the way physical structures enclose, encourage and facilitate silence, but also about the ways in which other practices foster stillness, focus, attention and… silence. One practice is having a structure for the day, in Christian monastic circles this might be called the ordo — the daily schedule. Here the day begins with the morning service, dedicated to the sun deity Daishi, at 6:30. We have an ordo for the group as well, going to breakfast together after the morning service, keeping silence until 9 am, doing two periods of meditation in the morning and meeting to walk and study in the afternoon. The ordo lets us know when to talk, and when not. Bells are one way to signal times in an ordo, and you can hear them doing their work in Koyasan.

Yesterday we walked twice up to Okonuin, the temple complex at the top of the hill here where Kobo Daishi is entombed, in eternal meditation. The first time we took a lingering walk up, exploring the enormous graveyard that lines the path up the mountain. We noticed many images of Jizo tucked into trees, including the one in the photo that has grown into the tree. The temple is silent on one side, not on the other and while in the summer we found that visitors seemed to utterly ignore the request, this time as you walked around to the back (which faces Kobo Daishi’s tomb), silence fell. We finished with tea at the pilgrims’ shelter just below the main temple, made over a fire that has been burning 1000 years.

After dinner we walked up the path again, our way lit by stone lanterns (and overhead lights!) to see the Mando-e, a ceremony of lights, which occurs only once a year. Brilliantly robed priests processed across the bridge to the temple of the lanterns, led by two men pounding the ground with iron staffs. The main celebrant (so elderly that he had to be helped up the steps of the temple) is shielded by a red umbrella. The ceremony began with two monks sitting at altars to the right and left of the main sanctuary, alternately ringing bells, then furiously fanning the flames of two fires, stirring up the fire to ever higher heights. They were burning prayers sticks, a central rite in the Shingon sect which has its headquarters here. The embers rising up through the flue matched the color of the priests’ robes.

We walked back through the graveyard for the fourth time and found baths and futons a welcome sight.

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!

Kyoto to Osaka: 1001 Kannons and onsen

We got up early this morning to go to the main temple at Miyoshin-ji to see a service by all the abbots of the temples in the enclosure. I wished I had my camera as the abbots in their violet or saffron and black robes hurried to the main hall. Each had his formal red or black shoes on a two pronged stick, to change into before entering the temple. No outsiders were allowed in for this service, we peeked in through the outside. It was a very male enclave, no women at all, just the young Buddhist priests in training along the back, and the abbots. Taka, who had given us a lesson in Zen meditation on Thursday, played a leading role in the service (if I were mapping this onto Western practice I would call him the deacon). Midway through the service we noticed a priest peering through the back windows, checking off names on a clipboard. Taking attendance!

After breakfast we packed up and headed to Sanjusangendo which has a long hall filled with 1000 statues of the Buddhist deity Kannon, each slightly different (and a main image, so really 1001). It’s a stunning sight, and included a collection of the 28 guardians. No photos inside (and a reminder about every 10 feet not to take photos, and I can see why, it’s hard to resist). The building is about 800 years old, and built to withstand earthquakes with foundations that will let the building slide. The site is famous for formal archery contests, testing not only the archers’ accuracy, but also their endurance. One young man was said to have short 13,000 arrows over a 24 hour period.

We go from here to Koya-san on Sunday, many of the temples will be of the same era, it will be interesting to compare the architectures of these urban spaces in what was then Japan’s imperial captial with the then very remote mountain enclave. For my class we have read “The Ten Square Foot Hut” which is written by a 13th century Buddhist priest (Kamo no Chomei) where he contrasts life in the capital with life in the mountains. When we get back, we will be looking at the way life is structured for the Carthusian monks, a eremetic order from the same period in Europe. What are the ways in which silence and solitude are provided for? What role do the mountains play, and how is it different or similar to the role the desert played for the early Christian hermits and monks?

On the trip by bus from Kyoto to Osaka, where we will spend the night before taking the train to Koya-san early tomorrow morning, we took a detour to Arima, an old natural hot spring or onsen. We spent a good part of the afternoon soaking in the silver waters, and the gold waters, trying out the traditional Japanese bathtubs (which look like tulips) and lounging on cedar benches in the sun. It was a challenge for the women, since all the signage was in Japanese and we have no fluent Japanese speakers in the crowd. With a little help from our two Chinese speakers, and our students studying Japanese we figured it out. One of the young Japanese women in the tub told me she thought we were quite courageous to give this a fly. I thought the students who ventured to put their feet in a tub fileld with little fish that nibbled off the dead skin were truly courageous. Hot springs are traditionally associated with Buddhist temple sites, and the waters were certainly a delightful blessing for us!

Now we are threading our way through Osaka on the bus, headed for a hotel with Western beds and dinner.

Photos of dinner in Osaka, and the fish bath!

Kyoto: The Moss Temple

We are back at Daishin-in, where we stayed the first night. The lodgings here are much simpler, more traditional temple lodgings than those at Chi’on-in. No electronic chimes, no big screen television in the lobby (no lobby, for that matter) broadcasting the temple services. There is a beautiful garden, and simple but beautifully presented vegetarian meals for breakfast. I’m going to admit I prefer this to the more modern space any day.

This morning we went to the bamboo forest, an area of Kyoto with several Shinto shrines. We explored one of the shrines here looking at the differences between Buddhist architectures and Shinto spaces. This particular shrine was used by people seeking to be granted love and academic advancement, everything a Bryn Mawr woman might want! It’s hot and steamy here, so the walk up to the ridge top left us soggy, making a stop for ice cream at a small shop a welcome treat. Green tea, kiwi, brown tea and vanilla were the flavors on tap.

The Moss Temple was next on our agenda, to see its famous gardens and to try our hand at contemplative calligraphy. Hank had written to them in the summer, asking if we might visit. (You can’t visit without a written invitation in return, they check your letter at the gate!) Before touring the garden, we sat in the main hall for a short service, then copied by hand the heart sutra using a traditional ink brush and block ink. It took us about 45 minutes to copy the entire 278 characters in the sutra. (Yuxin’s work in progess is in the photo.)

The garden is an amazing place, laid out by a famous 16th century landscape artist. We walked the garden, attentive to some of the ways to “read” the garden that we had learned from our conversation with Taka at Shuko-in yesterday. What are the embedded clues as to the height should you be looking at this from, how are particular views framed both with objects and in terms of contrast between light areas and darker one, how does the composition change as you walk through the space? I walked the garden path in the reverse direction with Tiffany (who is making the trip with a broken foot and on crutches – the hike up to the small hermit’s hut at the top which the rest of the group was making seemed unwise for her foot and my knee). The garden seemed like a very different space when viewed in the other direction. It’s a quite silent space, people naturally lower their voices and the moss seems to muffle the noises.

From there we walked to Jizo-in, the very still, very silent place we washed up last year, where we sat and meditated. Even after we were done, people were reluctant to break the silence, and continued to enjoy the stillness of the spot. I had left my pilgrim’s book with the monk down at the entrance, and as we finally gathered ourselves to walk back to the bus, he appeared to be sure I would not forget it.

Each temple has its own stamp, and you can get them to stamp your book, then brush in the name of the temple, the main hall and the date of your visit – essentially a proof that you were really there. The stamp for the Moss temple is particularly beautiful.

Kyoto: Up the mountain

We began our second full day in Kyoto early, rising at 5:10 to a three tone chime in our rooms. We stayed last night at Chois-in temple, which is celebrating its 800th year since its founding. Despite the age of the temple, the lodgings were ultra modern, and looked like a high end boutique hotel, with a few twists. Like the PA system in the room, and an escort up to the top of the hill for morning services.

We followed our silent escort up the hill, the sky barely touched by dawn and the crows screeching to announce the new day. The ceremony was elaborate and our group comprised most of the observers. It ended with a sermon on a text given by a monk, perched on a seat above the group. Alas most of us could not understand a word of what turned out to me a moving forty minute sermon. Ceremonies and all lasted almost 2 hours — utterly worth it for the walk back through the uncrowded grounds in the morning light.

From Chois-in we took the bus to a temple in the hills above Kyoto. No buses can make it up the hill, so we walked up a small street crowded with shops and school children on field trips. Many of the children had an assignment to find a foreigner and practice their English. Several stopped us and tried out their English on us, then presented us with a small gift (a note and a piece of origami wrapped nicely in a bag). The protocol for these conversations includes taking photos by both parties.

Underneath one of the images in the shrine at the top was a tunnel which wound down into total darkness. The experience was meant to evoke the womb. Woe unto anyone who lets go of the railing (Hank) as you can get quite disoriented in that kind of darkness. At the very bottom is a lovely stone with a single character on it. The idea is to stop and lay your hand on the stone and pray — then get back out again. It reminded me a great deal of the Taddeo Ando work we saw in Naoshime (Dark Side of the Moon) in June.

The views from the top were spectacular, the whole of modern Kyoto laid out below, the ancient monastic enclave in the foreground.

After a stop for lunch, where people bravely pushed their envelope on what they might eat and dug delightedly into desert, we returned to the temple complex where we are staying (Myoshin-ji) to hear some more about Zen meditation from Takafumi Kawakami, the abbot of the Shuko-in temple there. We learned a bit more about the “stick of compassion” and the role it might play in releasing tension during meditation, as well as had an interesting discussion about the external formalities of Zen meditation versus the interal and/or spiritual effects.

Takafumi-san gave us a wonderful tour of the cloister itself. There are some magnificent screens, and we were allowed to sit in front of them, as well as a dry garden. It was fascinating to experiment with different levels at which to view the garden, and with different angles of view.

Shuko-in houses a bell taken from the oldest church in the Kyoto area, founded by the Jesuits in 1576. The bells dates to 1577 and was taken to Shuko-in after Christianity was supressed in Japan. The bell was rescued again during WW II by the current abbot’s grandfather, hidden away to keep it from being melted down for ammunition. He rang the bell for us, and we took a photo to send to the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, where we had visited earlier this semester.

We had dinner and did a bit of shopping in the Gion district. Baths felt amazing after such a long day. Now I am writing this in front of the abbot’s garden, listening to a gentle rain fall.