Mt.Koya and the Beauty of Shingon Meditation

Our last night in  Koyasan, I couldn’t help but to think about all the thoughts and details that are centered around such a small yet powerful and intimate space.  We got to learn about Kongōbu-ji Temple and learn about Kobo Daishi spreading his learning and teachings of Shingoin Buddhism to Japan and being granted the opportunity to build a space that is on the mountain, Mt. Koya, that is sacred and essential to the peace and upbringings of various modes of support and faith in religious and spiritual paths among the community members. Imagery seems to be a powerful message in the stories to tell, and nature has been a powerful tool in conveying the essence and symbolism of Mt. Koya. Being able to reflect on how much I appreciate the space, my peers and I were granted the opportunity, on the first night, to witness monks passionately chanting the sutras on their last day of their ceremony. We were also given the space and opportunity to practice Shingon meditation as we learned from Professor Glassman’s colleague, who is a monk, that meditation is all about acceptance. Being able to realize the thoughts running through one’s mind and capturing one of these thoughts and observing that thought for what it is and not judging it. As beautifully mentioned, we learn more about ourselves and we deal with things much better when we learn not to suppress it, but to acknowledge and accept it, that is when we can overcome it.


Kongōbu-ji Temple-Headquarters

Jenny & Anita

Selfie with Jenny after Shingon meditation


One of the monks who practices Koyasan’s Shingon Buddhism

The Zen of Sitting


Students waiting for meditation session at Shunko-in in Kyoto.

We walked as pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo on our way into Kyoto, and trekked from Myoshin-ji to Kyoto through to Osaka, changing stations there, and are now at last on the train to Mount Koya, a Buddhist enclave up in the mountains. Pilgrims again, everything we own on our backs, trying not to lose the trail, threading our way through the commuter rush instead of through the cedar forests.


Rev. Taka Kawakami, vice abbot of Shunko-in give students a tour of the temple

In Kyoto we walked a lot, but we came here to learn to sit, to practice zazen. We stayed at the Shunko-in temple in the large complex on the outskirts of Kyoto, Myoshin-ji. On Saturday morning, we did a meditation training session in English with the vice abbot of the temple, Rev, Taka Kawakami. He talked about flexibility as a state of mind, reflected in the body. Stiff when you get up off the meditation cushion? It’s ok to sit in a chair. Be flexible. He spoke a bit about the intersection between neuroscience, psychology and Buddhist practice – perfect for this 360 which sits at that intersection point as well. There was a fun moment of connection when he referred to a longitudinal study, The Harvard Study of Adult Development, on which Marc Schulz is a co-investigator (and has a new paper out this week!) and one of the 360 students is using data from for her thesis.

From Shunko-in we went to Tenryu-ji, a 14th century Zen training monastery set in a historic garden (now a UNESCO world heritage site). There we met with Thomas Yuho Kirchner, an American and Zen monk who entered Shofuko-ji monastery in 1971. He gave us an introduction to the monastic schedule, and the training young monks would be given. We practiced zazen, sitting meditation, in the hall where the monks in training would practice, eat and sleep, wrapped in thick square futons.


Zen monk Thomas Yuho Kirchner with kaiseku

Attention could drift during long meditation sessions, and so the kaisaku was employed, a flat stick whacked across the shoulder blades, sometimes called the stick of compassion. Thomas Kirchner demonstrated its use on me. You bow to each other, then cross your arms and round your back for two quick slaps on each shoulder. It stings, sharpening your senses and much like a deep massage, refreshes. In my course we’ll talk a bit about the relationship between pain and contemplative practice. It’s a fascinating topic, criss-crossing psychology and spirituality.

Students sitting on the veranda overlooking the abbot's garden at Zuiho-in

Students sitting on the veranda overlooking the abbot’s garden at Zuiho-in

On Sunday we visited another large temple complex, Daitoku-ji, to tour Daisin-in and do a last meditation training before heading to Kyosan. The iconic Zen dry rock gardens, and nightingale floors – which squeak as you walk on them, were highlights of this temple. We also toured Zuiho-in, which I think might have my favorite rock garden, one with deep standing waves.

A bit about Prof. Schulz’ paper:

Hot Spots

Tateishi Kosho

Tateishi Kosho



Hot. The weather has been hot and very humid, which made yesterday’s hike with Buddhist priest and mountain ascetic Tateishi Kōshō tough at times. There were periodic deluges of rain, so much so that our planned hike up the mountain to a waterfall was too dangerous to take. We crisscrossed the lower mountain, walking a bit on the Kumano Kodo, a world heritage pilgrimage trail (akin to the Camino del Santiago in Spain, in fact the city where we got off the train Tanabe, is a gateway city to the Kumano Kodo and a sister city to Santiago). By the time we arrived at Kōshō’s hall, we were drenched. Rain and sweat.

We were greeted with towels to clean up with, and a hot pot lunch. Dumplings, noodles, vegetables all cooking in a salty broth, just right to replenish all those electrolytes we had lost in the morning’s hike. A bedraggled band on arrival, I watch fluids and a place to sit restore us all.
As lunch came to a close, Kōshō handed us gomagi, wooden slats with the seed character for Fudō-Myōō, the image in Kōshō’s hall, on one side. We wrote our names and ages on one side (now we know I’m the oldest on the trip!), and a desire on the other side. These would be burned in the goma, or fire ceremony, taking our prayerful desires up with them

In my class we’ve been talking about “spiritual technologies” – or the ways in which material objects, such as incense or bells, as well as bodily postures, such as bowing or walking, are often part of a meditative practice. From the familiar postures of meditators sitting on cushions to the Christian rosary beads, to the use of bells and chant, many traditions make use of material items or embodied practices to facilitate meditation. Kōshō’s fire ceremony let us see how a rich set of materials and practices could be employed: we rubbed incense on our hands, Kōshō used a big ringing bowl as well as blowing a ceremonial conch shell, the heart sutra was chanted ten times. In some ways, it reminded me of James Turrell’s “Light Reignfall” which I saw at LACMA two years ago and on which we saw a short film in class.

We are staying at an onsen, a traditional Japanese hot spring, which welcomes pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo. While there were the usual Japanese communal baths, both indoor and outdoor, Japan’s geology provided a more unusual opportunity. The bed of the river which ran past the inn was percolated with small volcanic hot springs. Dig into the gravel at the river’s edge, looking for hot spots and make your own hot bath. When it gets too hot, dip into the cool pools of the river. It felt quasi-baptismal after the day’s steep hikes.

The rain had caused the river to rise, but not so much we couldn’t find some hot spots at the edge and the students (with some help from the faculty) built a river bath, stacking stones to make an artificial pool where the hot water filters up and is trapped. It smells faintly of sulfur, adding to the sensory experience. The Bryn Mawr “hot spot” was still there this morning, and several students took advantage and went out for a quiet early morning river meditation. Me, too.

On the way out to the onsen up the river from Tanabe, we stopped at a shrine, Kumano Hongu taisha, viewed by some modern Japanese as a spiritual power spot, pawaa supotto. Another sort of hot spot.

Read more about Fudo-Myoo here (

Watch a short piece on Turrell’s “Light Reignfall” (

Bamboo and bento

Screens and gourd drum at Shunko-in

Screens and gourd drum at Shunko-in

Today was our last day at the temple complex of Myōshin-ji.  Last night there was a festival at the temple where the bell that hangs outside the Taylor Hall classroom I am teaching in this semester once hung.  We rang the bell before left on this trip, and many of the students went to the festival.

We did another round of meditation training this morning with the vice-abbot, Taka Kawakami, learning a bit more about how he sees the connections between psychology

Tea at Shunko-in

Tea at Shunko-in

(including MBSR, which the psychology class has been reading about) and traditional Buddhist meditation training.  We toured the temple’s gardens, and other spaces, encouraged to experience the spaces as they were designed to be enjoyed, by sitting on the floor in the rooms with only ambient light.  The gold screens are warmer in this light, and the garden becomes a carefully framed composition from this vantage point.

On the trolley in Kyoto

On the trolley in Kyoto

After the tour and meditation we enjoyed green tea and sweet rice cookies, and headed back one last time toward Tenryu-ji by trolley, this time to see the bamboo forest at Arayamashima. There is a small shrine there, which features in The Tale of Genji, and where students come to seek success in academic endeavors.

The forest itself has an amazing sound scape, particularly when it is windy as it was in Kyoto this morning.  There is the characteristic sound of the wind through the leaves, but also the sound of the trunks clacking against each other. The swaying motion of the trees is hypnotic, particularly from the top of the trail.

Bamboo forest at Arashiyama

Bamboo forest at Arashiyama

We took the trolley back to Myōshin-ji and picked up bentos to eat on the bus to Kumano.  It was a five hour trip through the mountains southeast of Kyoto, and we were glad of the bentos and the well packed snack bag carefully toted to the bus by the Snacks Mistress (chocolate and hard candies a hit, the salty rice crackers, not so much).  The view of the ocean on the far side was stunning, islands that seemed to float just above the water dotting the bay, then we wound our way back into the mountains.

Tomorrow the day starts with a visit to a Shugendo temple, a couple of hours of hiking and a conversation with Tateishi Kosho, then a three hour drive to Mount Koya.

Sitting zazen

Meditation instruction at Shunko-in

Meditation instruction at Shunko-in

The weather, which has been hot and humid seems to have turned, it’s cool and breezy this morning as I sit outside to write.  We are staying at Shunko-in, in the temple complex at Myōshin-ji.  Instruction is in English here, we had a short session yesterday, and will have a longer one this morning.

From Myōshin-ji, we went to Tenryu-ji – Temple of the Heavenly Dragon – a 14th century temple founded by Ashikaga Takauji, who also founded the Moss Temple (Saihō-ji) which we visited later in the day.  Tenryu-ji has a famous garden as well.

Thomas Kirchener

Thomas Kirchener

At Tenryu-ji we spoke with Thomas Yuho Kirchener, a Zen monk – an American who came to Japan many years ago.  He told us a bit about daily life as a monk, what in the Western Christian monastic tradition might be called the ordo.  The life at a Zen monastery moves between intense training periods and less intense periods, where the monks might travel from monastery to monastery.  The balance of this life reminded me of one of the Desert Fathers we read in my class, Abba Anthony the Great, criticized for allowing his monks to take time away from meditation, “If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.”


Kaisaku – the stick of compassion

We discussed postures for meditation, finding a way to be balanced and comfortable for long periods.  Kirchener demonstrated the use of the keisaku, the stick of compassion. Two swift slaps of the stick on each shoulder blade can ease the tension in your back. While we sat for 30 minutes, he patrolled the zendo.  If you wanted relief, you put your hands up in gasho, then bowed together over the stick.  Bow in gratitude when you are done.

Inscribing a shuoin book at Kiyumizudera

Inscribing a shuoin book at Kiyumizudera

Entrance to the Moss Temple is restricted, we wrote months before we left to secure a spot this afternoon.  And you can’t be late. We made it from Tenryu-ji to the temple with a few minutes to spare.  Several students left their shuoin books to be stamped and inscribed as a record of their visit to this temple. The Moss Temple has a particularly beautiful stamp and inscription.  We began our visit by listening to the heart sutra chanted and then inking our own copies.  Then we walked the gardens, where the moss deadens the sound of voices and footfalls.  The garden itself is a treasure, you have the sense of walking through a miniature world.

We ended the day by returning to Tenryu-ji to walk the garden there.  It was nearly closing, the light was gorgeous and the gardens almost empty.  A wonderfully restful way to end the day.


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: 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.