Prince Shotoku: Founder of Japanese Buddhism and the Japanese nation

 

AHE-Logo-TM-265pxhttp://www.ancient.eu/article/1029/

by Charley Linden Thorp

published on 09 March 2017

shotoku-aged-2

In Japan in 573 CE Anahobe, the wife of the Emperor’s son, had a dream of a priest in golden robes who asked her if he could lodge in her womb as he was about to be born as a world-saving Bodhisattva. The child was born painlessly and unexpectedly in the imperial stables and was named Shotoku (sho meaning sacred, and toku meaning virtue). At the age of 2, he naturally placed his hands together in gassho (reverence), faced the East, and recited the words, Namu Butsu (praise be to Buddha). Buddhism had hardly been heard of in Japan at that time! Prince Shotoku was to rule Japan between 594-622 CE as Regent and to unite his nation of warring clans in the dual roles of the first Buddhist statesman in the world and the lay founder of Japanese Buddhism.

Prince Shotoku as a Youth

Prince Shotoku had several titles:

  • Prince of the Stable Door (Umayodo no Miko) due to the unusual circumstances of his birth.
  • Prince of Eight Ears (Yatsumimi no Miko) because of his special intelligence and his ability to listen to eight people at one time and understand each of them.
  • Prince of the Upper Palace (Kamitsumiya no Miko or Jogu Taishi) because his father, Emperor Yōmei, loved and respected his talented son so much that he created a special part of the palace for him to live in.

ACHIEVEMENTS

The civic contributions made by Jogu Taishi (the title most people in Japan give him) were impressive and are still in place. Among them, he created the ‘cap system’ for government officials which rooted out nepotism with the recognition of merit. He imported Chinese culture along with the lunar calendar, art and scholarship and he resumed the existing practice of dispatching of envoys to import all manner of cultural and religious knowledge to Japan which had been terminated. He initiated irrigation projects to improve agriculture and implemented extensive welfare measures. He created highway systems and he wrote the first chronicle of Japanese history.

BUDDHISM IN JAPAN

How he came to be devoted to this new faith which suddenly appeared in the islands of Japan is something of a mystery as mentioned above. However, though a Buddhist scholar and the first patriarch of Japanese Buddhism, he remained a lay practitioner throughout his life. It is thought that Buddhism first became known in Japan when the ruler of a province of Korea called Baekje visited Japan and presented a beautiful gold-plated image of Buddha Shakyamuni and sutra scrolls to Emperor Kimmei (531-571), Shotoku’s grandfather, who was impressed. However, his enthusiasm to adopt Buddhism threw the principal families of Japan into confusion. 

Japan had been culturally isolated and conservative until then and showed no sign that the indigenous religion, Shinto, the ‘Way of the Gods,’ was inadequate. Shinto develops a deep appreciation of natural beauty and spirituality but there is no ethical element, unlike Buddhism.  Also, at the time there was no formal written language in Japan so the enthusiastic adoption of Chinese pictographs happened simultaneously with the influx of Buddhist sutras in Chinese translation.   

However, Shotoku, now Prince Regent to his Aunt Suiko who succeeded her husband in 593 CE, was to convince the country that Buddhism was exactly what was needed. In fact, at the age of 14, he fought in a brief civil war between the progressive Soga family who favoured Buddhism and the conservative Monobes family.  It was a Holy War fought over the enshrinement of Holy relics in a pagoda (stupa) which Shotoku insisted was essential as the origin of Buddhism was so far away from Japan in India

prince-shotoku

Prince Shotoku

Surprisingly, Buddhism replaced Shinto as the national religion of Japan within 50 years exactly due to its values of tolerance, rationality and philosophical depth, none of which featured in the Shinto faith. The only remnant of Shinto which was retained was the link between members of the Imperial family and the Japanese goddess of the Sun and the Universe, Amaterasu, who are still considered to be her direct descendants.

Perhaps the story which best exemplifies Shotoku’s devout Buddhist faith as an adult is when his father became seriously ill. The Prince sat by his father’s bedside day and night meditating on his recovery and as a result, he did recover and became a devoted Buddhist himself.

TEMPLES & TEACHINGS

The Prince initiated the first two Buddhist temples to be built in Japan. Shitenno-ji  (530 CE), the temple of the Four Heavenly Kings, of the North, South, East and West, was erected because whilst defending his family in battle, he prayed intently to the 4 Buddhist Kings and victory was achieved. Later Horyu-ji was built in Nara to contain many treasured artworks and artefacts, and he went on to build five more. But these temples were not merely places of worship. Shitenno-ji, built at the seaport, was a religious sanctuary providing training in music and the arts, a dispensary for medical herbs, an asylum for the abandoned and a hospital and sanatorium. Monks took many roles in society, as educators, physicians, and even engineers. Temples in Japan today are often cultural and welfare centres.

Prince Shotoku also gave public lectures on various aspects of Buddhism. He authored eight volumes of commentaries on sutras. The Sangyo-gisho (3 Sutras) was popular among lay Buddhists. It focused on the Lotus Sutra which conveyed Buddha Nature and universal enlightenment, the Vimalakirti Sutra which expounded lay Buddhism and national rulers as Bodhisattvas, and the Srimaladevi Sutra which extolled the virtues of a Buddhist Queen to honour his devout aunt, Princess Suiko.

SHOTOKU’S CONSTITUTION

‘HARMONY IS THE MOST PRECIOUS ASSET.  WE ALL ALTERNATE BETWEEN WISDOM & MADNESS.  IT IS A CLOSED CIRCLE.’ SHOTOKU SEVENTEEN-ARTICLE CONSTITUTION

The 5 bonds of Confucius figure in each article: ruler to ruled, father to son, elder to younger siblings, elder friend to younger friend, and husband to wife. Shotoku declared, ‘‘Harmony is the most precious asset.  We all alternate between wisdom and madness.  It is a closed circle.’ According to the Nihon Shoki, a definitive history of ancient Japan written in circa 720 CE, Prince Shotoku created a seventeen-article ‘constitution’ (Jpn. Jushichojo Kenpo) which was implemented as a political tool to unite the warring clans. This was not a modern constitution designed for the governing of state and subjects, but a set of spiritual aspirations inspired equally by Buddhism and Confucianism. It focused on the morals and virtues that should be the aspiration of every subject in the realm and led to him receiving the title ‘Dharma Monarch’ (Skt; Dharmaraja)

The following articles are evidence that this is truly a Buddhist constitution: Article 2: Reverence to the 3 Treasures of Buddhism – Shotoku firmly believed that all beings could benefit from their truth. Article 6: the difference between merit and demerit, reward and punishment – this demonstrates the laws of karma so central to Buddhism. Article 10: self-control and mind-control – the harmony between nature and society, also a strong goal of the Buddhist way of life. They are as follows:

1. Harmony should be valued and quarrels should be avoided.

2. The three treasures, which are Buddha, the (Buddhist) Law and the (Buddhist) Priesthood; should be given sincere reverence, for they are the final refuge of all living things. 

3. Do not fail to obey the commands of your Sovereign. He is like Heaven, which is above the Earth, and the vassal is like the Earth, which bears up Heaven. 

4. The Ministers and officials of the state should make proper behavior their first principle, for if the superiors do not behave properly, the inferiors are disorderly.

5. Deal impartially with the legal complaints which are submitted to you. 

6. Punish the evil and reward the good. 

7. Every man has his own work. Do not let the spheres of duty be confused. 

8. Ministers and officials should attend the Court early in the morning and retire late, for the whole day is hardly enough for the accomplishment of state business. 

9. Good faith is the foundation of right. 

10. Let us control ourselves and not be resentful when others disagree with us, for all men have hearts and each heart has its own leanings. 

11. Know the difference between merit and demerit.

12. Do not let the local nobility levy taxes on the people. 

13. All people entrusted with office should attend equally to their duties. 

14. Do not be envious! For if we envy others, then they, in turn, will envy us. 

15. To subordinate private interests to the public good — that is the path of a vassal. 

16. Employ the people in forced labor at seasonable times. 

17. Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone.  

(Nihon Shoki)

These tenets provide the basis of stable and peaceful Japan today 1500 years later and could be said to be part of the essence of its distinctive culture.

DEATH & LEGACY

In 621 CE, Shotoku became gravely ill and as an indication of his popularity, a statue was commissioned in the form of the Buddha. It can now be viewed in the Hall of Dreams of the Horyuji Temple in Nara.  After his death in 622 CE, he became known as ‘Japan’s Shakyamuni’ and his relics were enshrined in the various temples he established.

The surviving features of the Mahayana Buddhism he founded are as follows: the notion that all beings have Buddha Nature and can be enlightened regardless of spiritual training, class or gender (Jpn. Ekayana); the spiritual aspects of Buddhism are the most important – this remains true today; gender discrimination in monasteries should not exist; Buddhism should be synonymous with the welfare of the Japanese nation and symbolic of prosperity and peace.    

Shitenno-ji Temple, Osaka

rokujido-hall-at-shitennoji-temple-in-osaka-50879418

In the Middle Ages, Shinran (1173-1262 CE), the founder of Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land), the largest school of Japanese Buddhism today, worshipped Prince Shotoku as the saviour of Japan. Shinran is famous as the first ordained monk to reject his clerical vow of celibacy which set a trend for Japanese clerics. He openly married and had children with Eshinni and the reason for this departure was that Prince Shotoku appeared to him in a dream as the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Kannon, who assured him that he would be incarnated in Eshinni.  So, in a way, Shinran married his greatest hero. Shotoku is also said to have reincarnated as Bodhisattva Eshi of the Tendai faith and later as Amida Buddha, the principal Buddha of the Pure Land School.

In conclusion, as Prince Shotoku firmly believed, it is certain that our sincere relationships with each other are the most important factor of all in society and that individual power and success must only be viewed through that lens. But this 17-article constitution could and can only be successful if humans put aside all their self-seeking ideas and temper their dominant egos and temporal desires. This can best be achieved by cultivating Buddha Nature and embodying our divine mission of unconditional love and light. Altruism – sincerely looking after others before ourselves – is an ancient universal tenet of the human species which Prince Shotoku spent his life embodying.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CHARLEY LINDEN THORP

Linden is a ValidLit writer/teacher living in Japan. Ordained as a Buddhist Priest, she is a Dharma/Meditation teacher working to make the ideas of Buddha Nature accessible to everyone, which involves many thousands of years of historical research.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Buddha World
  • Anesaki, M, The Foundation of Buddhist Culture in japan. (Monumenta Nipponica, 1943), 1-12.
  • Anonymous, An Introduction to Buddhism: teachings, History and Practices. (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
  • Anonymous, Nihon Shoki
  • Banarsidass, M., “The Birth of Japanese Buddhism,” Buddhist Spirituality vol II.
  • Buswell, J.R.E. (Ed), Encyclopedia of Buddhism (Macmillan Reference, 2004)
  • Carr, K.G., “Pieces of Princes: Personalized Relics in Medieval Japan,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 38(1): 93-127.
  • Fujiwara K., Shotoku Taishi Derek
  • Kitagawa, J.M., “The Buddhist Transformation of Japan,” History of Religions 4 (2): 319-336.
  • Soper, A.C., A Pictorial Biography of Prince Shotoku (The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 1967), 197-215.

Temple Chronicle: Winter Training in Japan – Fear!

It is fear that makes us inflexible and forces us to suffer. We are first taught it as helpless children by our ‘kind’ parents who are passionate for our success and survival in the visible world. And so, our reflexes are honed and our target sights are set. The regime of training by other adults with experience and knowledge, who themselves are highly trained, is usually strict.

It is then that masks and social apparatus are issued so that we can receive approval from our community, quickly fit in and gain respect, wealth and fame being paramount. But fear easily lodges in these intricacies like dust on an elaborately carved choir screen. We gradually become insensible to it so it mounts up until the gaps for air and light are covered over.

The heavily conditioned mind thrives on this substance ‘fear.’ It efficiently suppresses originality and the courage to be truly ourselves, first with others, but then eventually with ourselves, so that we are no longer familiar with our True Nature and become self-dishonest

Dishonesty frets the perpetual dialogue in our heads until eventually we cannot glean the difference between it and honesty. Then our strings of words create a new being, a permanent resident in the house of our flesh and blood.

So, our spirit energy has been trapped, caught up in a million meshes! It is incarcerated so that we will follow the rules and fulfill the expectations of our communities. We are anxious about the rapidly approaching age of robots and our possible obsolescence, but those who live in massive urban communities have been ‘system slaves’ for several centuries. We tend to abdicate everything to mediocre leaders, even the kindling of our divine spark which becomes a mere pipe dream.

Fear has been heavily utilized by governments, religions and educators to maintain control of individuals, and as a result, the innate goodness at the core of each individual has gone underground. Endemic fear has become focused only on the negative, the evil, the destructive, the anarchic so that goodness has become a cliché,a pleasant myth, a triviality, something in the background. It is seen as a by-product of the domination of the visual sense, detected in everything we see, and in the commentary we produce to accompany it.

But if we close our eyes and stop the babble, it recedes with each grateful breath.

Above all, in our human journey, we must find the truth according to our individual divinity, and in it our mission will be patent, our exact contribution in the visible world outlined. Our specific talents and strengths are in great need at this time of disintegration to reunite us in one bright light.

The Master promises us that the visible and the invisible are one, and fear will vanish if we remain supple and bring goodness into the forefront of human life. We are each a piece of the unfinished puzzle.

Winter Training – every year in Japan spiritual seekers do intensive training designed to break their habitual way of living and responding, to wake them so they can get insights into reality. Everywhere they perform austerities of body and mind; the practice of cold-water ablutions is common – breaking the ice formed on barrels of water left out in the freezing night air, and then scooping it over the head and shoulders, is very effective.
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Watch out for more reflections and insights during this winter period.
Images courtesy of megapixyl.com and Linden Thorp

Temple Chronicle: 20th February

Homa

The world of words demands that we churn out concepts and assertions mindlessly. Each word creates an image in our visual libraries and memory banks. The bridge of the mind leading out to the vast field of consciousness is so cluttered with verbiage and images that we cannot move. We are blocked in.

But unblocking is not just a matter of clearing out, discarding our highly documented lives out on to the scrap heap. No matter how badly they make us suffer by living always indirectly, marooned in our own minds, we have created them in our unique way. They are what we amount to so far, our materials. But we can be sure that materials are not permanent.

So we can first acknowledge them, accept them as our way up to this point, and then we can tenderly build a fire and set them alight, watching them burn with gratitude.  They are a means whereby and without them we would be deprived of their richness.

In the desert, in the Dreaming Lands, aboriginals set light to large tracts of land to promote new growth in the universe, and to send cleansing smoke up to the sky travelers. Japanese Buddhists write prayers and mantras then burn them in a special Homa fire to convey them into the invisible world, and to burn away human delusions. Fire cleanses and promotes new growth, so let go of the archives and new growth is guaranteed to appear. The bridge will instantly be unblocked.

We must keep creating because that is our modern way, teeming with diversity, but we can discard, empty the trash on a regular basis, and spend a little more time each day in the great still silence where words and images have no purpose. Then we can slowly and steadily intersperse listening with looking because sound is concrete whereas images are abstract.

And words? Concentrate your attention on the sound of the words instead of the meaning. Listen to the heart behind the words that reach you and linger lovingly there without reacting or categorizing, or trying to make them permanent. They are the utterances of a fellow true spirit after all.

With a sincere heart and awareness, you can cease to assert and window-dress your ego when you interact with other true natures in your vicinity. Asserting is merely a desperate attempt to make yourself and your world permanent in someone else’s eyes, and in your own. It excludes and separates.

When you speak remember that you are essentially spirit so you must express yourself in an artfully vague way like a breeze, the rapid flapping of the wings of the hummingbird, or the constant fluttering of a candle flame.

We actually have no single ‘claim’ to make via our soft lips or balanced on plump tongues because we are pure love energy, and the human throat is best-suited to singing. Instead of words, fingers and eyes and warm breath and our unique fragrance will register our sincere heart with perfection. Therefore, it is wise to refrain from talk until you have checked your free flow of love.

humming bird

 

Temple Chronicle: 5th February

 

higher mind

The objective of all Buddhist training, of any spiritual training, is to first become a better, happier person, and then to look after other sentient beings, developing unwavering respect and compassion in that pursuit. The majority of humans aspire to ascend and so get clarity on themselves and their place in the world. They have deliberately sought a method of getting control of their negative emotions so that they can allow their natural goodness to prevail at every moment.

According to the Buddha, we are each a stupa, a shining tower to house the essence of the Great Truth (Tathata {Skt} Shinnyo {Jpn}), but the divine can only work in us when we are empty of delusions, self-serving desires and attachments. There are numerous ways we can ‘practice’ to realize this emptiness, but there is a danger that we ‘practice’ with ego, becoming attached to the practices themselves, forcing and striving to achieve these states. The word ‘practice’ is unfortunate in many ways because it implies imperfection, apprenticeship, and an impending performance. However, immediate realisations are numerous in the same way that performances can be spontaneous and their performers unknown.

This struggling against the current of the natural, this shouldering and manipulation and grasping by religious means, is perhaps burying our true nature even more deeply. Aspirants in Japan must start from scratch in terms of their faith, so are often initially benefit seekers, believing that they can acquire protection and benefit from the deities. These expectations are ingrained in the popular Shinto practices, and the line between Shintoism and Buddhism is quite blurred. So, they often barge into zealous practice, giving it their best for a probation time, and then, if they are not happier, wealthier and wiser, they may go on to try some other faith path.  These tactics often come from fear and superstition in my experience.

It is interesting and at the same time quite shocking that human beings often long to wipe clean the slate of their beings, to erase everything so that they can be reborn, totally transformed. Many of us view our thinking as flawed so we block it, hide it away; we experience a frisson of guilt at having such thoughts and then bury them, perhaps forever. We have rendered thoughts permanent and visible as everything and everyone else is. But it is possible to just let our thoughts appear, let them surface as detritus or debris in water. We do not need to condemn ourselves for having so-called bad thoughts, in the same way as we do not applaud ourselves for having so-called good thoughts. Thoughts are epehemera.

It is impossible to wipe the slate of our human existence and our spirit entirely clean, unless we synthesize amnesia or undergo brain-washing. Instead, we can adapt and accept – making the effort to free the flow of the water of our life. We humans are essentially beings of light, formless tennants. Water is similarly formless; in its natural state it flows wherever it wants to, wherever it can. Sometimes over-zealous practice can freeze that flow, fixing our nature into a glacier. Emptiness is the free flow of our waters, which are healing and cleansing, refreshing and exuberant.

Once we did not need to make an effort to keep our divine flame alight by spiritual practice. We were truly living out our original nature, flowing freely, merging with the fluid natures of those around us in loving harmony. Then, we learned to utilize the intellectual mind to interfere in this natural process, and our blindness began, leading us to go our own egocentric way towards the secular and personal power.

We may meditate, we may reflect, we may take empowerments and initiations, we may doggedly follow the letter of our teacher’s advice, but we must not lose sight of the truth, the suchness, which is deep inside ourselves, inside our unique stupa. We must not rule out the possibility that our ancestors were divine beings who handed on their divinity through the generations to us, and that in simply being, sitting with ourselves exactly as we are, that spark will burst into joyful flame once again.

The master invites us to appreciate ourselves, our inner beauty, while at the same time making certain we are completely honest with ourselves.  What are we really feeling?  What are we imagining we are feeling?  What are we hoping we will feel?  This is the true basis and function of meditation. Before embarking on a spiritual path, we must come face to face with our deep selves, naked, so that our true nature will be revealed.

Do we truly feel the icy stab of the first pail of water poured over our own warm flesh? Or do we feel it vicariously as our Master pours it? Do we rise before dawn with our entire consciousness, 100% present, in order to watch the reality of the sun rise in the sky, the sun rising inside our sky? Is it really our true nature which takes the prayer beads now, in the centre of the moment, completing it with all our might? Is our stupa dedicated and perfectly purified in order to embody the light of the great truth?

Mindfullness engenders enlightenment.

stupa

Temple Chronicle: 1st February

waterfall training

Again cold and unforgiving weather today.  It is thought to be a good sign because it will help those following to truly remember what the masters did 80 years ago to found this special teaching.  Freezing weather seems to have been the appropriate time to begin austerities in Japan, like the rainy season in India in the time of the Buddha.

Waterfall training was one of the main ways to purge the ego. So today, aspirants must walk in their footsteps in their minds, up the steep narrow path along the ridge to the waterfall. They will feel the freeze of spray on their face as they get closer, then the immersion of skin habitually covered with cloth, the sound deafening arousing the dread of that first cold death.

Photographs of their waterfall training etch themselves into the memories, the consciousness, of aspirants. The blood-stained white cotton robes, the hands pressed into gassho despite the shivering, the slate-blue of feet and hands.  And they are told this teaching takes the middle-way, and that only masters need to do this hard training.  That they do it exactly so that disciples living their daily lives, ‘householders,’ do not need to.  But does this create a dependence despite its magnanimity?

Wondrous powers will be activated through the Dharma current of correctly linked streams.  The spiritual current is something seekers can plug into, connect with, through the rituals and spiritual tests.  The mandala or succession diagram for this teaching is complete, reaching far back to Shakyamuni Buddha, 2600 years ago.  So, if they go under the freezing waterfall in their minds, in their deep minds, they are assured of going further on to enlightenment in oneness with their guides.  This is the mysticism of blind faith.

The Masters were flesh and blood, warm-blooded mammals with soft eyes and physical and emotional vulnerabilities. That they were driven to take these strict actions following in the footsteps of their masters, and those before, is about tradition, validity. The further we get away from the founder of any religion or organization, the more checks and balances we need.

But it’s not what the masters did, it’s the way they did it, out of pure compassion for all human beings, for their suffering and their joy.   There was no other motive.  It is this pure intent that is so impressive, and that disciples can easily emulate.

She is feline in her enthusiasm to collect the cards which mark each day of training. They are beautiful, each with their message carefully conveyed in the hand of the Master, reproduced in their several million.  She buys a little case specifically designed to collect them in, and then as the end approaches, she feels a sense of completion.  These masters have, drop by drop during 33 years, fed her with faith. She was born not knowing the taste of it, not naturally knowing there was something for her in the invisible world.  Her innate purity stood for nothing in a culture in which merit and maleness mean everything, and their opposites nothing.

The religious treasures have amassed over the years, and now she can never be parted from them.  They enliven her spirit and allow her some action. Her complete happiness can be found in following perfect models, in belonging, in constant gratitude and humility.

Today, in a city temple under the central Osaka freeway, one long-term disciple talks of how she was saved by the teaching’s power in 2001, at the time of the aerial attack on the Twin Towers of the New York World Trade centre.  She was standing outside the main entrance when the first plane crashed into the tower, waiting to go up to a meeting on a high level floor.  In the panic, she ran for cover into the subway where she could take refuge until the emergency teams came.  Winter training is the time she can show her gratitude most.  She always tries to bring a foreigner to the sessions to say thank you to the foreigners who rescued her from that tragic disaster.  She will never forget her debt. It is her mission to expend her life paying back.

The Masters can be role models through their faultless lives devoted to all beings. But we must be careful to live out our own individuality, our own Buddha Nature, and to bring to fruition our unqiue mission.

uchu-A

Temple Chronicle: winter austerities

Kobo Daishi

The morning air is fresh, the severe coldness has receded for a few days.  But it will return. The edifice of the temple reposes as the sun rises. I want to write about my daily life here living in the Shingon temple precinct: devotions and insights, spiritual signs and moving towards emptiness and beyond.

She has gone, thinking she had not woken me, but I felt the duty and devotion rising in our rooms, borrowed rooms like our breath. I heard the sluicing of water, and the whispered chants deep in the shower room. Cold water poured over head and alternate shoulders, a chant for each small bucket full. Kneeling on salt. Shivering and moving without control in a jagged way. Rising. Sitting again. Rising.  Her mind breaking the imaginary ice on the barrel the way the Master actually did.

What is it that wakes you?  She says it is ‘Gohozenshin Sama,’ that she just asks them before she sleeps to wake her.  They are the fierce and brave Guardians of the Law in their towers outside the temple inner sanctum.  The Guardians of the Heavens and the Earth that make it possible for us humans to walk the pathway, to seek the way.

She walks before dawn through the centre of the white 5 story apartment buildings arranged like cakes on a beach. The sky is heavy and ice-clad.  She walks quickly wearing temple shoes, decent, soundless, repeating mantras, and holding her fluorescent orange dustpan and brush both with long handles. She rustles as she walks, the white plastic bag shivering. She is going to brush the temple precincts in preparation for the Buddhas to walk there.

She has told me about her ancestors indicated in meditation training.  They were mountain ascetics living wild in the forests of Wakayama, pacing up and down narrow pathways made by raccoons and red deer, ridding themselves of their ego minds.  They sheltered from nothing and no-one, taking refuge only in their spirits connected to the universal source.  Standing in pouring rain and blazing sun with oblivious stomachs, slowly unlearning, de-culturing, de-conditioning. Solitary, in human terms, in caves, climbing trees to pick seeds and nuts, and confronting gongens, evil emanations,  then driving them away with sheer determination in a stare. No human distraction for 20 or 30 years. But some of them were so lonely they committed suicide.

She industriously brushes the leaves into piles, stuffing them into her bag using a torch in her mouth. It is still dark in front of the main temple gate; the guard-house quiet, young men in suits snoozing and taking 15 minute shifts throughout the night, then changing into their white ablution robes, and chanting at breakneck speed to squeeze the sharp pain of ice out.

Yesterday, Baba, her guiding parent, came for tea.  Talk of the schedule and the spiritual goals this year.  She lives 5 minutes away on the south side of the temple where she carefully watches her charges, advising them on their daily life, on how to wake up to the spiritual aspects of existence. Her eyes see the bald truth and she’s not afraid to relay it even though it may hurt. Fearless, but thought of as insensitive and un-Japanese by many.

She has devoted most of her life to these teachings, the teachings of Nirvana. The wide world is encapsulated inside her temple precincts, so there is no need to go very far outside. Sharp questions are asked about the regularity of visiting the temple whilst on holiday, and how many hundreds of certain mantras were said on certain dates.

Today we will go to the city temple to meditate on the tenth floor on an office block. This period of austerities is softened because the masters did all the severe training. We will ride in a comfortable car and an elevator thanks to them paving the way. Gratitude must fill our very nostrils especially during this 2-week period.

Gassho

 

 

O Bon: the return of the spirits to the visible world

It is sizzling summer here which induces a panic in non-natives used to more temperate climates. We cannot survive without air conditioning, so it is difficult to stay long in the open air, even for native Japanese, born in the far south in Kagoshima and Okinawa. So, driving in the car with cold air rushing in through the vents, is so calming as well as tantalizing.

This land is exquisite when away from the rather careless and pragmatic urban areas. We drive north-west of bold and brassy Osaka, into the mountains. The forests of mixed pine and bamboo are dense with rigorous and ancient energy, and sure to be full of brown bears, raccoons and monkeys. The sky is cloudless and will soon mingle with the sea. I want to be out there with the Dharma, with the Buddha, protectors and gurus, but know that I would never survive this slab heat. My unequivocal mission is to accept everything, to be content entirely, and to serve others.

It is 3.45 in the morning, and we set out to join the crowded motorway, filled with people returning to their hometowns in order to clean and adorn their family graves, and to wait for the return of their ancestors from the world of spirits. Dawn approaches as we dive into the forests interspersed with rich green rice paddy, and I marvel at this glorious land of rock and tree and bear. My partner Mariko chants he Heart Sutra in Japanese as we drive on, followed by iced Oolong tea and freshly sliced Japanese pear, nashi.

Three hours later, we arrive in Takeno, a tiny seaside village, Mariko’s hometown, and park our little ‘k’ car (economy car) in the small shale yard of the old family house. Her cousin and her daughter with her children are waiting for us, offering us a cool shower, and iced Barley tea. After we have cooled down, we prepare to chant for Mariko’s mother’s 27th death memorial, putting on our robes and preparing the giant home altar (butsudan) with candles and incense. Every one sits behind us holding their juzu (rosary beads) being sure to copy our bowing and gassho (palms together at the level of the heart).

The chanting is more of a challenge and pleasure than usual because the ancient owner of the house has abandoned real Buddhist practice to join Sokka Gakai, a Japanese religious organization which has prohibited any Buddhist images. So, we must focus extra hard in order to slice through this misguided diversion from Dharma to reach the golden reclining Nirvana Buddha.

Afterwards, we take flowers to the family grave and chant again, being sure to wash the tall head stones with fresh water so that the spirits will not be thirsty. In the hottest part of the day, the local people will retreat indoors, closing all sliding doors to create a cool place, and relax together drinking sake (rice wine) to wait for the arrival of their ancestors. Later, when the sun has set, they will go again to the graveyard with lanterns and food to offer at the grave. They have come together from all parts of Japan to meet together at the family house and celebrate their ancestral spirits.

This profound gratitude to all their descendants without whom they could not be alive today, is most moving. This is supreme Dharma, identical in the human world and the world of the spirits! I have learned so much from this most inspiring Japanese custom.

note: if you would like to read more detail of O Bon, please go to the side bar – Nohmen and Kokoro Talk Dharma, Chapter 6, Ancestors. You can check the meaning of gassho, butsudan, Sokka Gakai and juzu unique to Japanese Buddhism in the glossary. Also for more description of ancestor celebration – Temple of the Phoenix,  pages 128-150