Teaching In Socks


Serenity Now!

Last week was Silver Week in Japan. “Silver Week” is actually not a holiday, it’s a branding construction contrived by the adwizards in mainstream media. It’s actually three separate holidays that happen to fall within the same week (this year). Also it’s not even a whole week; it’s only three days, Monday–Wednesday. Still, someone wanted to be clever and craft and autumnal cousin to Golden Week–which actually is a full week, yet runs from a Wednesday to a Wednesday. It goes without saying that Japan could use some lessons on how holidays work.

Still, contrived or not, I’m a fan. This mostly hinges on the fact that, unlike other commercially constructed holidays, Silver Week actually gets me out of work. Thus, I used my three-day holiday to visit what could be described as Esoteric Buddhism’s Cozumel (most people do not describe it this way), Koyasan.

Koyasan, as I learned from a series of painted doors in a temple and their accompanying placard descriptions, was founded by the monk Kukai during the Heian Period. In 804 AD, Kukai returned from a trip to China where he had studied and developed new ideas about Buddhist methods and teachings. The defining characteristic of his new ideas about Buddhisms was that enlightenment was not an unachievable state taking multiple lifetimes to approach, but instead an attainable reality for everyone based purely on their spiritual devotion and training.

Upon his return, Kukai sought to form a new school sect of Buddhism based on this belief. Hiking in the forest one day he encountered two dogs, a black one and a white one (there were not dogs, but indeed Gods), who lead him to a mountain surrounded by eight hills This shape resembled a lotus–a prominent Buddhist symbol—and convinced Kukai that the Gods had led him to the site of his future monastic complex.

Today, Koyasan serves as the headquarters of Shingon Sect of Buddhism–or as it’s translated, “Japanese Esoteric Buddhism”. The city is filled with beautiful wooden temples and is home to one of Japan’s most famous cemeteries, Okunoin.

Koyasan looks a bit like Candyland (R)

Koyasan looks a bit like Candyland (R)

Several of my friends had traveled to Koyasan before nad had given it a favorable reviews. Many of the temples allow you to stay in them overnight and participate in Buddhist services and ceremonies.

The promise of the possibility of eternal spiritual enlightenment was all too enticing. It really is the ultimate trump card (well that and heavily-backed will) at any family dinner table argument. Also, eternal salvation and inner piece is probably pretty nice too.

Thus, I made the four hour trip to Eko-in temple in Wakayama Prefecture which included two trains, a subway, a bus and a cable car.

On the bus, I discovered, via eaves dropping, that the two French couples sitting in front of me were staying at the same temple as me (I later learned that this is the only temple you can make a reservation at online, and as such is pretty much the foreigner hub of Koyasan).

I noticed the French couples were having a small debate amongst each other regarding the bus map. As I had directions translated by my girlfriend, I considered intervening, but as the directions were untested and I didn’t want to be the one to lead everyone astray–especially considering that their bags looked heavier than mine. Furthermore, I believe it’s a global axiom that one should never get in the middle of a French debate. I feel like Churchill would have stayed clear of this one, and I would be smart to do the same.

The bus approached the stop my directions designated me to get off at. I quickly hurried to the front of the bus and disembarked. When I got off, I noticed one of the French girls had made her way to the front of the bus behind me and was attempting to ask the bus driver question for directions.  I didn’t catch all of their conversation, but as the door closed it sounded like the bus driver has as much enthusiasm for this interaction as bus drivers have for…well, anything.

It was short twenty-yard walk from the stop to Ekoin. As I entered the gates I noticed the the bus had made it’s next stop, about a hundred and fifty yards beyond the temple. I didn’t wait to see if the French couples got off the bus, but evidently they did because they ended up staying in the two rooms next to mine. One way to look at it was that it was nice to have some international awkwardness of a European variety. I had missed that.

As I check in a women explained ot me the Temples rules and schedule. However, because my girlfriend had helped me make a reservation in Japanese, she explained it all to me in Japanese. Unfortunately I know know enough Japanese where I can sound like I know Japanese but where I am also to proud to ask for clarification during the many moments when I should.

Dinner would be brought to my room at 5:30. The bath/showers were open from 4:00-10:00. The morning services were either at 5:30 or 6:30 (I forgot) and the zen meditation course I had signed up for was at…. some time…maybe tomorrow.

The room was nice, it had a simple table, tea, a television, a phone and tatami mats. I dropped of my stuff and went for a quick walk around the city. I returned at 5:15, just in time for dinner.

The meal was quite interesting, It was three trays of dishes, including a separate bowl of rice and a beer that I had ordered–which happened to be the champagne bottle size. The Monks are vegan, so the meal, save for some tempura, seemed to follow their dietary guidelines. I ate some soba, a variety tofu, an orange, and a lot of rice. I ate rather slowly and helped some of the more interesting bits down with the beer–which i finished.

I assume I was the last to finish dinner, because the monks checked to see if I was finished three times. After the third time, I gave up–realizing that I was perhaps holding things up.  A monk came to collect the trays and set up my futon. After he left, I switched into my pajama pants and sat down to read for a bit. About ten minutes later the monk came to my door and announced it was time for meditation practice.   I should have asked for the woman to repeat that last part.

Instead,  I was off to meditation practice in a a collared shirt, pajama pants and a bit buzzed from drinking a magnum of Asahi. I also happened to be the only foreigner participating, so my eccentric attire was doubly ensure that I stood out.

The practice itself was great. As  I entered, a monk asked me to sit in the back so he could translate the instructions for me. There was about twenty minutes of instruction followed by twenty minutes of meditation (I think). I’m not sure if I achieved enlightenment or not, but considering I couldn’t even sit in the proper positions, and spent the entire time thinking about trying to think about nothing (insert Seinfeld joke here), I perhaps have a bit to go on the road to Nirvana.

The next morning I woke up just in time for morning services. Again, as I was confused as to what attire people wear to services–regular clothes, or the robes they provided us with, I opted for the hobo option of wearing pajama pants and a t-shirt. It really was my only option as there is too much kneeling to be comfortable in jeans and I don’t have enough confidence in my Kimono tying ability to risk a wardrobe malfunction. Still, I scored poorly on the group-think quiz as everyone was wearing jeans.

The services turned out to be one of the memorable hazes. I can’t really recall a specific moment but the experience as a whole really stands out. I think it’s the chanting. I don’t know if death has an internal sound (it probably does) but if it does, I am confident it sounds like the chanting at the service. It’s that odd mixture of being both beautiful and haunting–sort of like French Cinema (which let’s face it, is what death looks like).

After services, there is a fire ceremony. This sounds cooler than it really is. Basically, one guy makes a small fire, while another bangs a drum and chants. I am sure in the spirit word this resembles the Fourth of July. I, on the other hand, was starting to get tired of sitting on the floor. For all it’s cracked up to be, enlightenment involves a lot fo time switching between sitting Indian style and risking a a rather mundane ACL/MCL tear.  Achieving oneness should incorporate more chairs and cushions but I understand why others see differently.

After the fire, I had a quick breakfast and checked out my room. I walked through the cemetery (not pictured), which was really beautiful. A lot of wealthy and famous people are buried there and many have chosen ornate, perhaps even eccentric, grave markers. There was one rather larger mausoleum type tomb that had a stone marked at the front that read “Panasonic Corporation”.

AND Japan's largests Rock Garden!

AND Japan's largest Rock Garden!

I then headed back to the station and caught a train home. While I didn’t discover full spiritual enlightenment,  I did find a bakery selling blueberry bagels and upscale bacon, egg, and cheese McMuffins in the Osaka Train Station, so close enough for me.

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