Koyosan: Walking the graveyard

We were up at 5:45 for morning prayers here. Two priests chanted sutras while we sat. The floor was warmed from below, the rain fell softly outside. Each time one of the priests struck the bell, the black silk sleeve of his robes folded onto the floor, flowing like ink off a brush, looking like a kanji character.

It’s been raining all day, softly earlier, now pouring. We walked up to the place where Kobo Daishi, the Buddhist saint who founded this monastic complex in the 13th century, is interred. The legend is that he is still alive, in eternal meditation. Two hundred thousand graves are in the complex, people want to be buried here so that they can ascend with Kobo Daishi. To see so many graves, so many ancient graves in particular, is astounding.

The temple is still very active, funerals are still being held, we saw at least three today. I was moved to see a young man climbing up to the shrine, solemnly carrying a silver wrapped urn full of ashes in a white sling.

We went into the temple where saffron robed priests are praying for the dead and living. The entire complex is shrouded in incense. There are hundreds of lanterns lighting the inside. A crypt underneath houses thousands upon thousands of little Jizu statues, each with the name of the deceased underneath.

We walked back to town for lunch, then met a young Buddhist priest named Hideo for some conversation about meditation. We returned with Hideo to the shrine. A monk friend of Hideo’s gave us a pinch of a spicy powder to anoint our hands with before we entered the temple, then offered us incense to burn while we meditated, and a home safety protection charm. We sat and meditated, in what felt like the middle of the market place, coins ringing as people threw them into the huge offering bin, chanting families, people pacing back and forth (walking 100 lengths of the veranda, praying). Pilgrims in peaked hats and white jackets, carrying staffs or bags of white with a small bell on them, stream past.

We had tea, make over a fire kindled from coals kept alight for a thousand years. The same fire that is used to light the candles in the shrine at the top of the hill.

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