Reading the Air: letter to Meredith


After extensive discussions with Meredith Capethorne, Professor of Temples visiting Japan, who is unable to believe in anything except academia and extensive proofs, Nohmen, a Buddhist priest, decides to write to her.  He hopes to encourage her faith in something other than herself and her version of reality.

Dear Meredith,

I realise that direct communication with you at the moment is not a good idea.  So instead, I want to tell you about the wonders of Kukai, or Kobo Daishi, one of his formal titles.  I’m sure you know that he is almost single-handedly responsible for bringing Esoteric Buddhism to Japan from China in the eighth century.  I will spare you the facts for you can access them for yourself I’m sure, and probably already have.  Instead, I wanted to give you a taste of my impressions and more direct experience of him.  I can’t imagine why the world at large knows so little of this saviour.  His optimism is something extraordinary.

KukaiKukai’s young life seems to have been a preparation for creating a Japanese breed of Buddhism, in the same way that my Master’s was, and like many geniuses, both needed teachers themselves for only a short time.  Each of them absorbed Buddhist sutras voraciously-Kukai is said to have read 10,000-and because of each of their unique and altruistic spirits, they were able to catch the fine thread of those sutras that were the most important for their respective eras.

As you know, one of the translations of the Sanskrit word ‘sutra’ is thread.  Putting it another way, they were able to tease out the fine threads from a tangled mass, and blend them together, a talent peculiar to the tradition of crafts in Japan, one of the first cultures in the world to painstakingly cultivate silk from the cocoons of the silkworm. silk 1silk

Like other spiritual leaders and makers of religion, Kukai was a kind of Renaissance man, capable of anything and everything.  He had a world perspective, and to my mind was able to be in touch with the universe despite his birth in seemingly isolated Japan.  Of course, his roots in Shinto-the way of the gods or kami-sama– the indigenous religion of Japan from the eight century to 1945, helped his cause.  He realised that all the elements of nature were divine, and that if they were illuminated, the great truth would become unveiled!

shintoIt was extraordinary that this man could conduct his whole life from the position of the then unknown teachings of the Buddha, and also vow to resist his own enlightenment, sattori in Japanese, until every last person was enlightened.  Even at the tender age of nineteen he realised the limitations of human life, and, perhaps more importantly, that being able to once recognize those limits meant that they could be transcended.

Imagine having the creative energy and the huge scale of thinking to be able to reinterpret Buddha Shakyamuni’s  wisdom from over a thousand years before, and adapt it for a totally different epoch and culture?  To be able to turn the notion that we humans are merely insignificant specks of dust, the main idea of early Buddhism, into the incredible idea that we each have the potential to become a Buddha ourselves. And not at the gates of Heaven in anonymity, but in the course of our daily lives!  In other words, that our individual becoming a buddhadivinity could be brought into our practice during the span of our life, and that the opportunity to embrace our fellow humans and help create world peace and harmony was, thus, very real. 

When I first came to Japan, I was quite surprised to find that many people, who practised religion – albeit in a tokenistic fashion, by visiting the shrine occasionally or at festival times, or in even more serious ways – were mostly looking for benefit for themselves and their loved ones, or their companies. This phenomenon exists in Christianity I know – the benefit-seekers who go directly from drinking in the public house at midnight on Christmas Eve into the nearest church to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  But I somehow expected spirituality in Japan to be different.

Of course, in both cases, it is usually some kind of fear or guilt, or a last resort situation, amounting to the same thing perhaps, which is often the only trigger to drive people to do some kind of religious practice. That, for most people, the marking of faith in an outward way, is a kind of seeking benefit seekers 2reward or conditional form of protection. Naturally, there are possible benefits to be had from believing deeply in something, and essentially, people want to find happiness in their lives and are perhaps unable to do this single-handedly.  In this way, they recognise that there are greater forces, and that, with help, they can tap into those forces and get what they want or need.

Meredith, I now realise through my studies and my experience of devotion to a teaching that the ancients took their altruistic model, perhaps, by observing the universe, and especially the animal kingdom in which there are creatures that give benefit to other creatures or organisms at the expense of themselves.  This is true devotion, I think, but in the animal kingdom, we cannot call it that.

That thing aside, maybe you have heard the Buddhist idea that we humans can be like a candle?  Exactly so -giving light to others by dedicating our bodies and souls unconditionally.  Ah! What freedom there is in being selfless and totally trusting that the universe will always take care of us. I can assure you this kind of life of giving is the best joy of all. Though I can hear you saying that surely that is one huge benefit in itself? But of course, the candlesaltruistic creature which serves others is not consciously seeking benefit. So, in a way, I’m suggesting that we humans are capable of living in just such an unconscious way, with no witnesses, with no or little ego.  You may remember that I once compared my own life with that of a tiny creature riding on the back of the earth!

So it was that Kukai realised that the generations of Indian Buddhists, who lived some hundred years after Shakyamuni Buddha, recognised that the difficult goals he set for reaching enlightenment were for those who would give up their lives as ‘householders’ and live a monastic life, and that most people did not want to give up the joy of living a full human life, just as Kukai himself did not. This realisation made the foundation for lay orders such as ours.  But, this is another large subject only to be touched on in this communication.

peacockThese ancient Indians, like the Aborigines of Australia and Japanese Shintoists, believed wholly in the supernatural and the natural world, and especially envied the characteristics of some animals.  The peacock was one such creature they revered and desired to emulate.  At first, they were afraid of the peacock with its mournful cry and fantastic plumage and feral ways  They were especially shocked when they realised on observing that it was capable of eating poisonous spiders and snakes in order to nourish it large physical structure, and could survive. Quite naturally, I think, they also wished to transcend such poisoning and human fragility, and so came to worship the peacock out of a mixture of envy and fear.

At this time in India, many mantras, or invocations, were used in everyday life, the ancient Indians possessing an authentic insight into the use of the spiritual voice to communicate with the invisible world. Thus, such mantras were developed to emulate the peacock and bring this animal god closer to the human world-mantras, which even incorporated the doleful cry of the peacock.  They really believed that by calling upon this magical and terrifying bird, they may themselves gain some of its divine qualities, and so transcend their weaknesses and limitations.mantras 1 

So, Mantrayana, the next stage of Buddhism, was created, and the idea that all poisons are the same, pondered upon, so that in time, the negative aspects of the human mind became known as ‘poison’ which required an ‘antidote.’ Indeed, mantras or invocations were viewed as just such a kind of antidote, and so became recognised as a part of nature, and not created by man.  They represented an esoteric language, which nature or the universe would respond to, and a way of fusing with the microcosm.

These people had enormous imagination, just as Kukai did, not having yet learned the passiveness of modern, intensively technological societies. So,Daigojihe easily latched on to these Indian modes of thinking and became convinced that this was the way forward to communicating with the universe for Japanese.  You probably know the rest – his studies in China, his return to Japan, and the building of numerous temples and creation of artworks in the name of Buddhism. In all he was able to create his entire system of Esoteric Buddhism in seven years.  I think you will agree that it is really a marvel that he knew how to adapt the original ideas to suit the Japanese character.

But Meredith, what incredible vision he had! At the age of 19?  It wasn’t a question of trusting a teacher, though he encountered and learned from many. His amazing faith was really entirely a question of trusting in his own vision and sense of altruism, of giving himself wholly to the good universe, and his place or mission in human life.  Kukai interacted with his own higher self, and so allowed the course of his life to flow down the mountain of existence like a magical stream, which eventually became a fabulous iridescent river.  In other words, he recognised his mission clearly.Homa

The other constituents of his immeasurable and unwavering faith were courage and fearlessness.  There are many accounts of priests from other Buddhist denominations at the time, which portray their terror of the dramatic rituals which Kukai regularly performed and thrived on.

For me, the greatest aspect of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism is the idea that there is nothing in the universe that remains still, and so there is truly nothing to lose because we humans actually possess nothing or no one.  I can imagine your reaction to that rather dramatic notion! But really, we are simply visitors here in human life, passing through it rivers of spirits, hoping to reach enlightenment. human lifeThis was also such a seminal idea in Kukai’s system – namely shunyataor emptiness. He, like my present masters, wanted to give hope to human beings daunted by the sacrifices monastic Buddhists were required to make. 

He saw actual human life as the greatest monastery of all where people could practise the teachings, really apply them in every action, thought and word of their daily lives.  As a result, we lay practitioners are able to breathe and be totally flexible because there is nothing to hold on to.  

sand through fingers

We can stand back and let life fritter through our fingers in a way, as along as we promise to obey the basic precepts or moral rules which are universally human, and always put others before ourselves. And just for completion, that’s what both my mentors, Alexander and Feldenkrais, I mentioned to you, advocated – you’ll perhaps remember-letting our bodies be natural and not allowing our negative minds to interfere in they way they work.

Kukai developed a beautiful and complete system of living which equally embraced the visible and the invisible, and had at its core the brilliant jewel of harmony amongst all people, and between all people and the earth. But, Meredith,  despite his learnedness and his countless initiations and experience of numina or spiritual phenomena, he filtered everything through his own higher mind. His doubts and questions leading him further andhigher mind further into ‘the beyond’ we talked about. And you must do the same.  Doubts, like mistakes in the learning process, will perfect your faith. They are simply feedback!

So, our masters, and myself and Kokoro, preferred to step forward and actually experience something in the pursuit of faith, rather than linger in a kind of twilight of virtual experience, cradled in a comfortable but anesthetized place.

Finally, I concede that I am arrogant as you suggest.  That is one of the poisons I am working hard in my spiritual training to eradicate, or to find the antidote to counteract.  I am truly sorry for my arrogance and regretful that I was responsible for upsetting or frightening you in any way.  But whether or not you decide to take off your mask for even a moment longer, please know that you are always in my prayers and Kukai 2meditations, and that I will care for you eternally and unconditionally.  My greatest wish is that you will find your real mission in life one day soon.

Please remember that the connection between us has been made and can never be broken.  Our destinies have intersected, so you will always be connected through me, to Kokoro and out masters, and so to those masters whose great wisdom and perseverance brought the most sacred teaching of all to its zenith in the Far East, such as Master Kukai.

In gassho

With the greatest loving kindness


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