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.

Kyoto: Sitting Zen

The bus dropped us off the first night in a dark parking lot adjacent to a temple complex. A young lady from the temptle where we were staying came out to fetch us, and led us through a series of narrow lantern lit walks running between cloister walls. It was a relief to walk through the gate of the temple where we were staying, crossing a small bridge through a garden. We piled into the entry way, trading our shoes for slippers.

Our rooms were above the abbot’s garden (the abbot’s quarters are now on the other side of the temple, but the room below us is the tradtiional 10 square foot room that the abbot woudl have occupied). It’s a beautiful dry garden, and I sat there to meditate last night.

We returned to the Zen temple we visited in the spring, Zuiho’in  where the abbot talked to us about meditation and then led us in a short zazen sitting. We then explored the gardens and saw the tea room (one of the very first tea rooms created). The rock garden at Zuiho’in is as magnificent in many ways as the iconic one at Ryoan-ji, the rocks piled up to represent tall waves.

From Zuiho-in we went to Ryona-ji, to sit in front of what is probably the most famous of the Zen dry gardens (if you have a Mac, the garden wall is one of the choices for a background screen). It’s not a quiet spot, the parking lot is generally packed with buses of school children and tourists, but the garden itself is a very stilling sight.

We had lunch in a tiny restaraunt, 14 seats for the 14 of us. We managed to order, the cook careful be sure that we had a plate each. Udon and donburi (rice bowls topped with meat and egg, the one I had was called “mother and child” — chicken and egg, while Yuxin enjoyed “strangers” — beef and egg. The food was good and quick, and the cook made us a bowl of curry to share.

From there it was back to the Daitoko-ji complex, to Daisen-in for another round of conversation about Zen meditation and a chance to sit. We sat zazen for 30 minutes, the abbot complimented us on our ability to sit silent and still for that length of time, most visitors can’t manage that. Those who chose had the opportunity to try the methods of correction employed in training Zen monks, a stick that can be used to strike the back to remind you of the correct position, or held behind you to help find the correct position. It makes a loud noise when used in the former way! Our time there finished with a tour of the rock gardens that surrounds the shrine to the founder, which features a garden with no large rocks at all and two cones of stones amid the raked waves, and another garden with waterfalls of stones and 100 placed rocks. We stopped for a cup of matcha (whished green tea) and sweet cinnamon cookies.

Now we are for dinner and a bath.

On the ground

We have arrived in Kyoto, going from modern Kansai to a temple lodging in Kyoto. Arrving after the temple is usually closed, we wound our way through the precints, in the dark, past one immaculate rock garden. We’re taking turns negotating the baths – after the long flight the thought of soaking in all that hot water was more appealing to everyone than tea and a sweet snack!

The group ready to depart from JFK.

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.

Kyoto: Stone spaces

We were out early again this morning, to see Daitoku-in, a complex of independent Zen monasteries. Arriving well before official opening time, we were nevertheless able to walk into the complex. It’s a virtual sea of peaked roofs, some of the monasteries here date to the 14th and 15th centuries.

Our first stop was a famous stone garden, this one representing waves battering islands, which remain unmoved. It made me think of the spiritual, “No storm can shake my inmost calm, when to the Lord I’m clinging…” The wave look high, battering the land but the rock islands are unmoved.

The abbot appeared as we came in and sat with us on the steps of the garden, having an animated conversation with Hank, which he translated for Marc and I. Advice for us: The breath matters, sit up straight so that the oxygen can really get in. That and good breathing makes you beautiful.

I found the garden both more striking than the iconic garden at Ryoanji we saw yesterday, that least quiet of Zen gardens, and more still. Perhaps it’s the contrast between the flash frozen stones and the soft moss in which the stones are set that enhances the sense of stillness.

We looked at another old tea house. Outside this one were three stones perched on another, tied with ropes. The stones are placed on the stepping stones leading up to the tea house entrance when it is occupied, to discretely signal that the tea house is in use and other visitors should stay away.

We saw several other stone gardens of various sorts, perhaps the most Zen of them all is this one, set into the floor of the cloister, rather than outside the abbot’s quarters as most of the rest were placed. It was hard to photograph, and hard to imagine where you might sit to meditate in front of it. but I liked it very much. All these cloister spaces were still and silent, no hordes of teenagers trooping through. Despite their stony nature, these small enclosed landscapes seemed aglow with life.

For the next two nights we are staying at a temple on Mount Koya, arrived at by train, then cable car. It reminds me very much of Wernersville in many ways, though less silent. We had to sign in by 5 pm, gates close by around 8. Our room has a lovely view out onto one of the temple gardens. I’m on the third floor (where I often stay at Wernersville). There are reminder of meal times in your rooms and not to leave your valuables in your rooms, since these do not lock. These rooms do have a TV (!) and wi-fi (!!). And there are Japanese style baths.

I sat on the veranda outside our room for my evening meditation. The air was cool, it felt like water on my face, the rain fell on the pond below, and the sound of the cistern overflowing was like a litany.

Kyoto: Descending into silence

Breakfast was a quick “thick toast” with marmalade in the hallway of the inn, where I could admire the old fashioned salmon pink pay phone. We got an early start this morning to see Ryoanji temple, which is famous for its Zen rock garden. The grounds are gorgeous, but because it is a stop on the standard school tour (think Independence Hall in Philadelphia), it is generally overun with kids in school uniforms and their tour guides. We got there when there were only two busses in the parking lot, by the time we left, the lot was full.

The garden was created behind the abbot’s quarters by Tokuho Zenketsu in about 1500. The garden is empty, except for 15 rocks (of which you can see only 14 at any one time), and was created (perhaps) for night time meditation. I can imagine it would be gorgeous in the moonlight. It’s surrounded by low walls, with a lone cherry tree dropping its branches over the side. One side of the abbot’s quarters is an open veranda, which is where you sit. For all that is a icon of Zen, of stillness and contemplation, the place is anything but still and quiet.

As you can see, there are lots of people looking at the garden, tour guides chattering, and recorded announcement playing (in Japanese) which, I’m told, tells how quiet this space is. Still, sitting there, tuning out the chatter, I could get some sense of what it might be like in the middle of the night to sit in this space. I suspect it would be a very still spot.

From there, we went to Rokuon-ji temple, which was, if possible, even more frenetic than Ryoanji, if you can imagine. Packed with school tours, signs everywhere forbidding group pictures (a prescription which seemed to be ignored, but you could see the logic of, as it clogged up the viewing area). Rokuon-ji’s grounds are open and lovely, but the pavilion at the edge of the lake is the draw, the top two floors are covered in gold leaf. It is spectacular. But not quiet.

Hank had written to the Saihoji temple in west Kyoto, which is more often called the Moss Temple because of its extraordinary moss gardens. The only way to get in is to request entrance ahead of time, in writing. Hank had also asked that we be allowed to see a very old tea ceremony house on the grounds (built about 400 years ago by the first disciple of the man who created the tea ceremony) for scholarly purposes. You show your letter to the man at the gate to get in, and then are offered a thin piece of paper with a sutra likely inked in (in kanji!) and shown to a room full of writing desks on the floor. For about an hour, you listen while the sutra is chanted, and copy it out with a brush and ink, then you add what you want to pray for and leave it to be burned. Then you can walk through the gardens.

The garden are amazing, softly rolling, carpeted in moss, with occasional touches of color, as in the iris on one of the small islands in the center of the pond. Because of the limits on visitors, this is a very quiet spot (except for the cell phone ringing behind me during the sutra chanting – a truly universal experience, if there is liturgy going on, there is a cell phone going off!)

The tea house was beautiful and rustic. We could only go out onto the veranda one at a time, since the boards are original and they won’t support too much weight. I was kindly allowed to take photos, so we can show the students the interior in the fall, since we will not be able to bring them inside.

From there we went to our fourth temple of the day. (Yes, I know this is not sounding all that contemplative, but we’re getting there.) This is another 14th century space, Jizo-In, a Zen temple sacred to the deity of children. It is surrounded by stands of enormous bamboo. There was only one other visitor there and we walked up to the abbot’s quarters and sat there quietly, contemplating his garden. It was so quiet I could hear the bamboo canes (which were thirty or forty feet tall at least) clattering in the wind. It was a space soaked in stillness, more than six centuries worth, and like many other still places, draws you into that quiet. I could have sat there all night, but alas, up the hill came the elderly, nigh on ancient, caretaker to kindly turn us back out into the world.

Tokyo: Togenuki-Jizu

We went to Togenuki-Jizu last night, a temple in Tokyo that draws people seeking healing. The story goes that a maid, working on repairing children’s clothes, accidentally swallowed the needle. They took her to the temple, where the priest wadded up a piece of paper with an image of Jizu on it for the maid to swallow. She swallowed, then vomited back up the paper, with the needle through the image. You still get slips of paper at the temple to swallow, as you might bathe in water from Lourdes. You can see our packet of them in the photo.

The temple is in a neighborhood, with lots of little shops that appeal to women of certain age (it’s sometimes called the grandmother zone). You cross into the percents, to find a Chouzuya, a place to wash. The stone basin here was sheltered under a small pagoda, with elegantly simple brass ladles. You scoop up some water with the ladle and wash your right hand, then your left, then pour a bit of water in your right hand, rinse your mouth and spit (discretely) onto the ground. The sheer abundance of the water is beautiful. It is reminiscent of the holy water fonts in Catholic churches (though most of those seem parsimonious compared to this flowing water, so rich visually and aurally), and of the places to wash your feet before entering a mosque.

There are several large urns in which to burn incense, you can buy a bundle and drop it in. People would walk up and waft the smoke over themselves, breathing it in, swirling it around their heads.