Bridges between worlds

We drove back to Osaka from Kamikatsu, with a stop in Tokushima for lunch and to run a couple of last minute errands. After the quiet of Kamikatsu, particularly of Nakamura’s hermitage, many of us found even Tokushima to be wildly overwhelming. In the spring, I remember finding Tokyo to be tough going after Koya and Kamikatsu, and how grateful I was for lunch in a pocket park on top of a department store.

We saw the famous whirlpool in the Naruta straits, it sits almost directly under the bridge. The last part of the drive was on an elevated highway along the edge of the water, though the ports. We swooped up and over more than a dozen elegant bridges. Each different than the rest, some bright red, like the gates into the temples, others looking like they had been beamed in from Gene Roddenberry’s future, spare, ultramodern spans of a grey so pale they were nearly white. It felt like we were flying in from one world, to land in another.

We tucked the last few things into our bags, then gathered in the lobby for the shuttle to Kansai airport. As I write this we are at 37000 feet, above Canada, three hours from landing and maybe 7 hours from home. Swooping back to our world…

Of dragons and stars

Last night was the peak of the Draconids, a meteor shower that appears to emanate from the constellation Draco, the dragon. We used an app on my iPad to locate it in the sky, but there were clouds and a nearly full moon just before we went to bed. The peaks was to be at about 3 to 4 in the morning, and I promised to set my alarm to check then and rouse the crew if it turned out to be good viewing. At about 3:15 I heard the pitter-patter of little feet (or more precisely the shuffle thump of slippers above me, and the sliding of shoji in the hall), and got up to find a half dozen of us, along with our host at Yama no gakko,Taue-san. The sky was crystal clear, but alas, there were very few meteors to be seen (unlike the fiery skies of 1998).

After yesterday’s exploration of the cave with the dragon, it was an apt event to be in Japan for.

Tea and temples – Posture and gesture

We worked at Nakamura’s until dark, and still had a ways to go to finish binding our journals. Nakamura showed us the final steps, gave us a sample and then packed up our books for us to finish when we get home (assured that we have the correct tools, since I can do simple bookbinding). We walked down the hill back to the bus, our way lit by iPads and the occasional bug meeting a sad end on the electric fences that enclosed some of the farms.

Dinner, cooked for us by Gufu (Atsko’s husband) was a warm and welcome sight. We had a wonderful rice curry, piquant shallot pickles and a warm banana dessert, scented with cardomom and cloves. After dinner we browed Gufu’s field notes from his travels in India, beautifully detailed, with careful sketches in lieue of photographs (since he doesn’t own a camera). We all agreed that we could aspire to this kind of note keeping in any of our fields.

This morning most of the group went up to the ana zenjo temple to hike up to the top of the dragon falls, and (contemplatively) wiggle and wend their way through the crevices to see the dragon. The hike is too steep for my knee, so I stayed back at Yama no gakko to write and walk along the river. It was a warm morning and many older people were out enjoying the sun, which gave me lots of practice in bowing and saying “ohayu gozaimasu” (good morning).

The rocks were a tight fit at the temple, so much so that the woman leading the group had them tie their white pilgrims jackets on the side, not in front, so as not to give them even an inch less freedom to slip between the rocks. Each person had a candle, making the journey that much more difficult.

A quick, but beautiful bento lunch back at Yama no gakko and we were off again, this time to particpate in a (semi)formal tea ceremony. We visited the local tea teacher (it takes about 25 years to earn your license as a teacher of the tea ceremony). She demonstrated the ceremony with the “sensei” (the teachers – Hank, I and Atsko) and then served each of the students tea and a sweet in the formal manner. Thankfully this was a teaching moment and not the far more challenging formal tea ceremony. Even following Hank’s example, and earlier briefing, I had a difficult time with the rubric.

Since I can’t sit seiza – the experience provided me with an interesting meditation on posture. It felt clumsy to bow from the position I could sit in, and to bend over to examine the tea cup when I was through drinking, though I am certainly flexible enough to do so. When we get back after break, in my class we’ll be talking about the ways in which the contemplative communities that grew out of the desert eremite tradition shaped their rule of life to foster contemplation and prayer. What role do posture and gesture play in these rules? How do we shape our bodies in order to give shape to our meditation and prayer?

The tea teacher talked a bit about the background of the ceremony (with Hank providing translation), which is modeled on the Catholic mass. The careful purification of the vessels, and in some traditions, the sharing of a single cup, certainly evoke the movements of the Eucharistic celebration.

I am writing this down by the river behind Yama no gakko, finding it hard to imagine that at this time tomorrow night we will be pulling into a hotel parking lot near Kansai Airport, ready to fly home on Monday morning. The trip has given us many threads to pull into our courses when we return, and I am looking forward to some rich and engaging conversations back in Bryn Mawr’s halls.

Gleaning wisdom

I am writing this overlooking the gorge at Nakamura-san’s, the drop just below my feet is about 40 feet down to a small terrace, once planted with rice, but now fallow. We spent the morning picking small limes (sudachi) at two farms above Kamikatsu. They grow three kinds of citrus at Bondo, which is a certified organic farm, along with the tea that we have been drinking at dinner, awabancha. The citrus has thorns, huge spiders live in the grove, and finding the green limes amid the green leaves requires some focus. The second grove we picked at belonged to a neighbor, who has just moved back here from the city to help his elderly parents.

We gleaned the trees in the first grove, checking for what had been missed in the first picking. I thought of the number of times I had asked students what they had gleaned from a reading, without any real concept of how painstaking that is, or how much you might have to search to find a bit of fruit.

So many of the rules of life for contemplatives, drawing on Benedict’s early model, specify a time for physical work in addition to the work of contemplation, and many orders do agricultural work, or make bread or jam. The rhythm and pace of the work, and the discomfort of it — the sun is hot, the lime oils are rough on the skin, the thorns prick and the small scissors are sharp enough to cut unwary fingers — are an interesting comparison to the work of meditation. Which can have its own discomforts, as well as rhythm and pace.

Lunch was at a small organic shop, which has local produce, including rice. The rice harvest is in progress here, we can see the sheaves of rice tied up in the fields to dry. We left with some rice (though not the 5 kg bag I was really eyeing), and lots and lots of the awabancha.

After lunch the bus dropped us at the first bridge on the way to Nakamura’s and everyone who did not have a broken foot walked the remaining distance up the mountain (a short half hours walk, but all uphill). Now we are doing the next bit of our work on binding the journals, cutting out the covers and getting ready to stitch up the spines.

A different kind of luxury

The morning dawned clear and warm and after breakfast we headed up to visit Nakamura-san, an artist who lives a deliberately simple life up the mountain from Kamikatsu proper. The bus driver was a champion, the road is narrow and winding and there were a couple of spots where it was more than a tight fit to get us around a curve or across a bridge. (The fit was so tight that tomorrow we will walk the last bit — at the driver’s reqest!)

We had brought Nakamura a gift, a piece of stained glass we had commissioned from an artist (Wayne Stratz) in Pennsylvania. Wayne designed the piece at Wernersville, where we had done our first experiment in silence, riffing off of pictures I had taken when Hank, Marc and I visited in June. The result was a tea pot in glass, evoking the mud hearth and cast iron pot with which Nakamura had made us tea on that visit. The style of Wayne’s piece is very similar to the style of some of Nakamura’s work. Later in the afternoon Nakamura showed the students some of the ways in which he creates these stained glass like pencil drawings, and helped the students create some of their own.

The main activities of the day were to begin making bound journals, using traditional Japanese binding techniques. Nakamura showed us how to bind cloth (prints in patterns traditionally used by Nepalese women for their underblouses) to paper, so that it would be easier to handle, and then how to bind the equivalent of the folios to which we will attach the covers tomorrow. For some students this was the first time they had threaded a needle.

We also helped make lunch. Atsko Watanabe, a member of Kamikatsu’s town council and a friend of Hank’s and Nakamura’s had brought the makings of lunch (vegetable soup, tofu, bread and fruit) up with her. When she asked for help with lunch, the first thing she needed was someone to get the fire started in the mud hearth. With a little help from Nakamura and Atsko, two students managed to get a good fire going and water heated to make a wonderful vegetable soup. We ate in shifts of 5, as that was the number of bowls and chopsticks we had — no disposable plates and bowls. (Kamikatsu strives for zero waste, and comes pretty close.)

Despite the simplicity of Nakamura’s life, it seems deeply luxurious as well. At what point do we have so much stuff that we can no longer manage it? Several of us had hermitage envy and I confessed to Nakamura-san that I was eyeing the hollow across the valley, which seemed to me a perfect spot in which to nestle a small house.

We finished the day with a short visit to the Zero Waste Academy, Kamikatsu’s project to limit the amount of trash they produce. There are 36 different waste streams (plastic bottles and their plastic caps are two different streams), and a room where you can pick up goods for free (some students will be coming home with beautiful tea cups that someone else no longer needed).

It was an extended meditation on what goes into making the heat to make lunch, rather than just turning on a burner; what goes into making a blank book in which to keep your notes; what happens to what we put into the trash here (every yogurt container will have to be washed, the orange juice cartons broken down, washed and folded just so).

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!