Here are my two novels based on my practice and realizations.
The first is called, ‘Temple of the Phoenix,’ and is about a pathway of faith in Japanese Buddhism;
Temple of the Phoenix EXTRACTS
O Bon: the return of the spirits to the visible world pp128-139
Context: Nohmen and Kokoro are Nirvana Buddhist practitioners in Kyoto, Japan. Nohmen is British and Kokoro is Japanese, so they are learning about each of their cultures attitudes to faith. Ancestor veneration comes naturally to Japanese, but to Europeans it is not a priority. In this extract, Nohmen is trying to explain attitudes to parents which westerners have, and their view of love. The ‘Tapestry of Life’ is Nohmen’s way of seeing the whole of existence, of seeing The Dharma – everyone and everything is part of this massive colourful tapestry. Nohmen and Kokoro celebrate the arrival of the spirits at Kokoro’s family home in one heart.
Nohmen and Kokoro arrive at the family grave to begin to clean it on the first evening of OBon when the spirits are due to arrive. The small graveyard is a stone’s throw away from the huge old wooden family house, with its high wall outside, and inside one of the largest butsudans Nohmen has yet seen. Behind the plot of sacred land accommodating four generations of Kokoro’s ancestors, there are steep slopes of mixed pine and bamboo forest, their slender trunks buried deeply in undisturbed heaps of pine needles of a rich brown colour. In front of the tall grave stones in their raised beds, the beach and open sea stretch up to the Chinese continent, and further to Mongolia and the Arctic Circle. This prize position was especially chosen by Kokoro’s distinguished family to provide a beautiful environment for the spirits of their dead to bask in. The granite grave stones are lined up next to each other, each with their own apron of gravel at the base.
Fresh flowers have already been offered by the time Kokoro and Nohmen arrive, and as they look at the inscriptions on each stone, Kokoro sets about translating them for Nohmen who is still unable to read unusual Kanji fluently. Kokoro’s blended Japanese and English, suffused with a continual shiver of discovery as she attempts to translate, echoes through the now-deserted graveyard, everyone having left to drink and wait for the arrival of the unusual visitors. The sun has begun a soundless dropping into the sea which has turned the grey granite stones dusky pink. The regular burning of incense leaves its traces along the speckled gravestones, and accumulates in the stone burning vessels. This is the place for stone which is deliberately chosen as a material for gravestones because it will last forever, whilst accepting all the changes nature will make to it. It is thought that stone is only safe for the dead whose once-fragile bodies cannot be damaged any further.
Incense is almost a household item in Japan, and provides a means of very real contact with the invisible world. The squat stone figures of Jizo Bodhisattva wearing a red apron guard the entrance into most graveyards in Japan, and are usually positioned close to a source of water which is always present. It is customary to offer large bundles of incense, and to drizzle water over the head and shoulders of the effigy, which is said to soothe the fires of hell and those spirits who are trapped there, unable to eat or drink, in the intense heat. The action of dipping the small wooden scoop into the water should be accompanied with a sincere prayer for those in Hell. People also throw coins into the water around the base of the holy figure. The Jizo effigy can be found frequently inside tiny wooden shrines, or by the side of the road or on bridges, and becomes quickly amalgamated into the environment. People may abuse these deities, spit on them, or birds scour them, but they always have a bright smile.
Nohmen and Kokoro, and Kokoro’s brother who has come from his home in Kyushyu in the very south of Japan, clean the weeds out of the gravel and wash the sea salt off the stones. The siblings have not seen each other for a long time, but they say little to each other about mundane things. He has brought his children and their children, and even his first great grandchild to share this time together with his own siblings. And so, the gratitude and respect for their forbears is continued on.
The spirits will arrive on this night, so offerings of the best tea and sweet bean cakes have been prepared, and are carried on special foil platters under the shade of large cotton umbrellas to the graves. Even though the sun is going down, the heat cuts through the air and the immense exposure of the clear sky above the ocean. Then, the offerings in place, and once the sun has dropped below the edge of the ocean, the family crowd light small flat candles in their glass shades and add more incense to the stone censors.
Together they walk back to the old family house where a supper of freshly caught crab and seaweed soup is being prepared by Kokoro’s elderly aunt.Even though she is weak now, she can still dismember a large orange crab, using pliers to crack the joints of the legs open, then tossing everything into a large boiling pot, the water in which will be served as a delicious soup later. They will drink chilled sake of the best quality, a most sacred brand of alcohol, as they wait. Soon, as all the family members are early-risers so retire to bed early, everyone moves to their sleeping area on the huge tatami platform of the ground floor, rolling out their futon and easily undressing and lying down.
Bedtime has enormous flexibility in Japan. There are no specially designed mattresses or bulky beds with legs and frames, and therefore no fixed positions. People may sleep in groups or alone, flat on the soft fragrant flooring known as tatami made of rushes. Nohmen continues to whisper on with his concerns in the sleeping place he and Kokoro share, beside the massive hard-wood case of the butsudan, the tall candles of which will burn all night to guide the spirits back from the other world.
‘Kokoro, in modern developed societies once parents are deceased, the treasuring of early childhood memories of them is a common form of a kind of ‘panic’ consecration. After all, the love between mother and child represents the first relationship in a child’s life, an extension of the womb, and perhaps the moment, and the only moment, when there is a totally exclusive relationship. But then, very soon, the ego marches in and that child becomes self-centred, and so quite commonly this egocentrism continues into adulthood.
Gradually, a parent simply becomes a burden who has lied to their child about their exclusive love, and eventually is rejected as old-fashioned and an obstacle to the flourishing of this arrogant and egocentric being, their child. ‘
You see, in the west, I think that parents often become dated. Their job is finished, and they have given so selflessly for so long that the child takes their role as a given condition. It is certainly a culture driven by the glamour and power of youth. Parents are simply moving rapidly on to their death and deterioration, the social system teaching them gradually to become helpless. Thus, the reality of that self-serving entity ‘the child,’ is entirely the product of its self centred mind, of a blind dependence and unconscious exploitation. This familiar pattern surely shows that dependence of this kind is an unhealthy and needy condition which masquerades as love!
But Kokoro, how can we teach people that adult love is not remotely about human need. Surely, before we can love sincerely, we must take responsibility for ourselves as mature beings, for our own spirits, our own ecology, and then enter into love. How can people realise that it is gratitude that is the quintessence, the absolute essence of love, and that true and everlasting love requires the bringing together of many dimensions, the invisible and the visible, the outside and the inside, those of the natural human spirit like the aborigines living a traditional life and the synthetic human spirit world, the world behind the mask and beyond the mask, and so on. And that by bringing all these together, we can be truly happy and integrated, having joy in simply living and consecrating everything in our short human lives.
Kokoro, I have decided not to use the word “spiritual” because many people will think that we are talking about ghosts if we do.’
Kokoro speaks gently and with concern.
‘So desu ka!! Really? Nohmen, one day, please explain me why it so difficult. I think people accept every human has soul, or spirit? And what they think happens to soul when body finish and dies? It very hard for me. It is real suffering to be….what did you say Nohmen……tear out of Nohmen’s tapestry of life.’
‘Mmmmm Kokoro, for many, the real suffering is that they think that the spirit dies with the death of the body, and comes into existence with the birth of the body. That’s all! So, everything hinges on, is based on, just that one chance. Birth leads step by step to aging and death, and then, well, there is nothing’.
Kokoro makes a typical gesture of tipping her head to one side in total disbelief. Nohmen goes on.
‘It seems to be surprisingly easy to forget and even deny the biological reality of birth and the indispensable nature of the parents who produce us, and their parents who produced them, as daily life and its pressures grind most of us down, and the psychological side of relationships becomes a power struggle which may lead us to become completely blind to that reality. Certainly in the nuclear family, or close family, of the kind in which I grew up, there was very little harmony as each greedy ego developed and postured, and there were long periods of withdrawal and bitterness often lasting for months or even years.’
Shelter and solace is often sought from grandparents and others of the extended family by nuclear family members, but the hub of everyone’s life in the developed world is that first crucial relationship with immediate parents. In this familial intensity, like a hot-house for tropical plants which cannot tolerate the cold – you understand that Kokoro eh, – it is frightening to confront problems within these intense bonds, and so often, parents and their children are distanced as they go out into the adult world and create their own relationships and families. Then, time passes and parents age and become frail or sick, and are a potential burden. So, gratitude and humility are notions which, like childhood toys, fade and are no longer valuable. But, they are stored somewhere in a closet or an attic of the heart, and can hopefully become current and vivid once more. I’m sure this happens a lot in Japan too.’
‘I think so dear.’
‘The death of parents is perhaps for many who were brought up in a developed and largely intellectual “religionless” culture, their first collision with the controversial world of spirits………..
‘Wait.Wait. Con-tro……? nan-de?’
‘Sorry Kokoro, con-tro-ver-sial – something that people cannot agree on, are always discussing. ……..that parent’s death is the moment when they are forced to go beyond logic and accept that the loving, nurturing spirit which is the sole reason for their existence, their mother or father, has left the body of their parent. The body is then officially discarded, by the power of some kind of religious rite, and the life of that remaining adult child goes on. Due to the neediness of the ego, many children in this situation grieve, which often takes the form of anger or depression, or deep regret, and they sometimes develop an overwhelming urge or desire to bring that person who created them back. They are lost and flounder around, covered in guilt or confusion, or other forms of self-indulgence – all of which are sure signs of the dependent relationships which were denied, even rejected, because the selfish needs of children were not being met. They live in an environment in which they constantly blame others for their unhappiness, Kokoro.
Consequently, all the family photos which were amassed on the window sill to please the aging parents while they were alive, often because they rarely saw their children, now become suddenly respected and a most precious celluloid replacement for the flesh and blood which spawned them. The self-interested ego even and especially flourishes whilst grieving, suffering rejection once more as it did during childhood years. The bereaved offspring are really abandoned orphans, traumatised by the ceasing of their parent or parents, and, and on top of this, they suddenly have to dice with the existence of some other dimension into which their parent’s spirits may have flown, or not.’
Suddenly but slowly Kokoro moves quietly in the darkness to prepare a candle as one burns low. The light must not be allowed to go out tonight. Nohmen whispers on, addressing the illumination of her face. He whispers on, but meanwhile Kokoro closes her eyes and brings her hands together in gassho, bowing her head slightly to the dignitaries and deities ranged on the several levels of the massive family butsudan. Her utter gratitude to her ancestors requires all of her energy, so Nohmen stops talking and straightens his own back, kneeling formally in the shadows, and offering up his own gratitude for them.
Their gratitude is utterly focused devotion. They are not submissive slaves or sychophantic seekers of power and promotion. They are simply kneeling in their places in the tapestry, their minds and hearts are one, and there is no single thought or distraction to lure them away from their single-pointed state of grace. Kokoro replaces the candle using both hands, and then shifts back a little to make space to bow three times, her beads tapping gently on the broad ship’s timbers used for flooring as she stretches out her arms and hands in front of her, their palms upward.
With each bow she places her forehead on the warm wood, and as she becomes erect again, she lifts her hands up towards the Buddha. These are ancient gestures brought to Japan by fearless missionaries from India during the last two centuries, which are performed with the greatest respect and authenticity even today.
Then, Kokoro turns to Nohmen with a beatific smile and says, ‘Tonight, your ancestors coming too Nohmen-san, as well as our ancestor. Your ancestor and all your troubled people ancestors. We give them special welcome, special because some of them lost now.’
She closes her eyes tightly again and concentrates with all of her might on the people wandering through the wilderness of modern life, wearing their masks, as if she was calling their spirits from the sky and from beneath the earth. Kokoro and Nohmen sit on into the night. This night is an occasion in Japan when the barriers between the invisible and the visible world are lowered to reveal the complete tapestry of humanity.
The Dharma is everywhere and everything, present, past and future.
(O Bon Summer Fire festival of Daimonji), pp 159-163
Context: Kokoro and Nohmen assist in the Daimonji fire-making. Nohmen is so moved to be part of this ancient ritual, and feels, as he often does, amazed to be resident on the exotic islands of Japan. Meredith is a young American researcher who has made contact with Nohmen and Kokoro to find out more about temple consecration, which is her speciality. She has no faith in anything except facts and proofs, so Nohmen is trying to point her towards her innate faith, her Buddha Nature.
The summer fire festival of Daimonji is an extraordinary time in Kyoto. The one and a half million inhabitants of the city have reverently welcomed the ancestral spirits, as they have done each August for hundreds of years, and in a similar style are now preparing to see them off back to the spiritual realm, laden with protections and prayers. Mid-August is the hottest time of all in the Kyoto basin enclosed by its 5 mountains. Not a single breath of air moves, the heavy planks of sodden air on station platforms and in the glass-roofed shopping arcades dispersed only by the erratic and adept flicking of beautiful fans. The narrow back streets are full of people before dawn comes, the old men wearing their underwear strutting about in an imperial way with their dogs, or watering their collections of pots, and people literally banking the moments of relative coolness that will see them through the searing day ahead.
Kokoro and Nohmen wake extra early on the morning of the Daimonji farewell ceremony, chant quickly, and then rush into the city wearing strong boots and sun hats. They meet with the members of their special group where they fill their back-packs with firewood bundles, batches of prayer sticks, and huge paper sacks of pine needles which they must carry up their assigned mountain pathway.. The previous week has been filled with the writing of prayers on gamagi, thin sticks of consecrated wood, which their group will carry to the site and position ready for the burning which will start at 8.00 that evening.
Some say that writing is a kind of prayer, so that to write prayers on the products of the earth must be something very sacred. In fact, thousands upon thousands of prayers will be burned this evening to send the spirits off back to the spiritual world after their visit. In Japan historically, the burning of prayers has long been a form of purification to drive out evil and disease– the combined power of fire and of the written word then work together to cleanse deeply.
On the five mountains of Kyoto there are five giant and ancient Chinese characters burned into the earth, one on each of the mountain sides. The first is called ‘Dai’ and represents a human or spirit which is preparing to return to the spirit world. The second is a combination of Myo and Ho which is part of a Buddhist mantra Myo Ho Rengi Kyo of the famous Lotus Sutra, a work still much respected in Japan. It expresses the magic and wonder of the marvellous teaching of the Buddha not long before he died. the visiting sprits chanting it as they make their final tour of the earth for the year.
Then funagata, the character Nohmen and Kokoro can see from the river bank near to their apartment, is in the form of a primitive ship which the spirits can voyage around the mountains in. Next is Hidari Daimonji, the ‘mirror,’ which can reflect everything so that the visiting spirits and their human hosts also can develop wisdom. Finally, is Tori, the red arched gateway to a Shinto shrine so common in Kyoto, and all over Japan. The legend has it that the spirits can travel through the mountains and the sky until it is time to go through the gateway back to the spiritual world. This year Nohmen and Kokoro will help to light the many small bonfires of the ship character, Funagata.
They climb slowly with their group in the north of the city as the sun, which is already hot, intensifies. They wear characteristic white towelling headbands to signify purity, and also to prevent the salt of their sweat from stinging their eyes. As their path winds through the small woods emerging into the dome of the sky periodically, Nohmen looks back at the city crammed into its hollow, and again has the feeling of incredulity at his life’s course. Here, on the rim of the Pacific Ocean, on the other side of the world from his birth, he is climbing to make fire in an ancient Kyoto ritual. Sometimes, he has no idea how he came to be here, having left everything to his higher self, but there is a kind of certainty that this is what he is meant to be doing; that this is his purpose, here in the divide between the visible and the invisible world. He thinks of Kukai and his masters, and his beloved teacher Kokoro. They were and continue to be fearless and determined to be bridges between the many dimensions of existence. And Meredith? He wonders with a pang if she has the courage, and then offers that thought up to the sky so that it vanishes. He goes back to concentrating on climbing the rough hillside.
They climb the final rises, and the site where the shape of the ship is clearly marked in the ground comes into view. This is an ancient place with the city laid out at its base, the huge figure of the ship 130 metres long and 200 metres wide a sandy mirage on the hillside ocean, paced out and marked in a time when Japanese knew and respected the earth. The small hearths, 79 of them, are laid out perfectly symmetrically in the flattened and clean clearing. One person has been assigned to fuel each hearth, but before they unload their bundles they stand together, their names are called to which they answer Hai and place their hands in gassho, and then turn to bow to the rest of their group. Together they chant the preparation chant in ancient Japanese, and stand in silence for a moment to deepen their prayers.
Of course, this is natural to Kokoro and Nohmen, but most of the other members of the group are not necessarily involved in any teaching, and yet, they know how to pray and how to show their devotion to this ceremony. They do not question its power, but simply respect the wisdom of the ancients and want to do their best for the spirits. But neither do they have any fear.
The time comes to place the bundles of wood in the hearths which are linked together by deep channels to be filled with water to provide safety so that the fire will not spread up in this forested area, summer fires always being a possibility in the incredible heat. Nohmen stands before his assigned hearth and reaches down to undo the bundles of pale prayer sticks mottled with exotic Japanese characters, carefully spreads them out in the hearth , and then empties the bags of pine needles on top of them.
His eyes are moist as he suddenly grasps the joy and the closeness with nature that making these symbolic gestures represents: the heartfelt wishes for others, conveyed from the heart and via the arm and through the fingers into the pen, and so going on to flow through the ink on to the wood of graceful and selfless trees. The magic of fire is finally applied to them so that they are transformed into ash, and become earth once more. He has at last learned with every fibre of his body and soul how everything which seems solid and permanent to the limited human mind comes from the earth and returns to it, passing freely from the visible to the invisible world. The holy words of these wooden prayers will soon fill the night sky, blown up in the air by smoke, and as the fire gets hotter, they will settle down into the ash bed and so be drawn back into the substance of the earth.
What a glorious mission! Who could ever question it, Nohmen wonders. And yet, many people do, asking strange questions which are unlikely to him – How can you worship deities you don’t know? Aren’t these Japanese deities alien to you? You can’t believe that theses sticks of wood will make any difference to this world, can you? Nohmen knows that all he can do with all of his might now, is to tell humanity that the members of this cynical interrogation squad are the deities themselves, are the wooden prayer sticks, and are the fire which transforms them. That we should practise to adore, respect and tolerate each other because everything in the universe is made of the same fabric. That it is all part of the constantly shifting tapestry, blurring and then becoming momentarily clear, and that we have the capacity to accept everything in the name of faith and out of respect for all the founders and creators of systems of worship and human education.
He turns, standing strong and straight to look at the view out over Kyoto and the mountains, between the blue sky and green and grey earth. He embraces with a wide smile all the gods of the sky and of the earth and their mediators without any distinction, and at that moment, he remembers another rock, in another era. Standing out on the huge red rock in the Australian desert and becoming so totally part of the sky and earth. It is the same as this moment; the same tapestry and the same mission. Only now, he has the great wisdom of the teaching, and the blessings of his masters to enrich the tapestry, and the last sutra of the Buddha Shakyamuni, which at that time he had no notion of. What a miracle a life is, opening out from the tight bud of a blossom under the gaze of the Buddha.
Nohmen recalls how one of the Buddha’s faithful disciples named Kashyapa sits with the Buddha as he is about to die, and professes that he cannot imagine being unable to hear this final teaching that the Buddha will leave with his faithful ones. He passionately declares that he will peel off his own skin to use as paper, and use his own blood as ink, use the marrow from his bones as water to dilute the thick ink, and splinter his bone to use as a pen in order to transcribe these final words, so that the entire human race may read them. He vows to teach their true meaning to all beings equally in the world. The tapestry! Nohmen must strive harder to help people to step up into their places, and so to realise their missions in human life; to encourage them to put their effort into the right place fueled by the right sincerity, but above all to take off and put down their masks forever.
Later, the morning preparations completed, Nohmen and Kokoro climb again to the giant fire ship on the hillside as the sun goes down. Now, bustling Kyoto is gradually lit up against the darkening sky, so they must hurry to get into their places before the last light saps away. The air is still swelteringly hot even though the sunlight is subsiding, the earth taking so long to cool down in the summer months. There is a feeling of great excitement among the crowds of people gathered along the route as they vie for a good position to be able to see all five of the giant symbols. It is said that if they can see just one of them reflected in a cup of rice wine, known as sake, for which Kyoto is famous, they will be spared any diseases and live and long and happy life. Even the children have their water bottles strapped to their small backpacks or around their necks in anticipation of finding such a reflection in their cups of water or green tea.
Kokoro is deep in contemplation, her eyes closed her head slightly bowed, silently calling the names of the hundreds of ancestors of her spiritual children to say farewell to them. She is always anxious before the fires are lit, so she encourages Nohmen to deepen his prayer so that they together may protect the proceedings, and ward off any evil spirits.
The fires of Daimonji only burn for 40 minutes at 8.00 in the early evening of 16th August each year. The ship character will be ignited at exactly 8.15 when each set will be lit by the person who carried the prayers. Oil torches are given out, and soon they see the Dai spirit character slowly light up on the opposite hillside, and the journey of the spirits begins as delighted applause ripples through the shallow valleys around them. They watch as each of the hearths flare up to make the bold outline of the spirit kanji. Then, five minutes later the chanting of the massive Myo Ho Renge Kyo begins as the spirits prepare to board the ship in order to make their final tour of the sacred mountains before they leave.
It is 8.15 and the ship group’s torches are lit in readiness, and the signal given to light the ship character so that the weary spirits may board. Nohmen steps back from the incredible heat of the flash of fire and its almost overpowering rasping scent of pine, while Kokoro stands still, undisturbed by the heat, with her eyes closed and her lips parted in a beatific smile.
Next, they see the mirror character flair up gently and evenly so that the spirits may see the reflected beauty of the mountains and always remember it. And finally, at 8.25, the mountain tour is over, and the spirits approach the red gateway to the invisible world. The focus and concentration of their own group is strong, no-one speaking a word, each of them sensing the sheer energy of the event, and having no doubt that they are communicating their gratitude to their beloved ancestors, and promising to honour them in a better way during the coming year. And, with the greatest of precision, a quality most Japanese are proud of, all the characters are alight together, some of them beginning to smoulder as the flames die down, having conveyed the spirits successfully. There is great joy at this moment, and a deep silence before people move back into their human realm and prepare to share their joy with neighbours and families.
The second called, ‘Easy-Happy-Sexy,’ is a modern dear fable based on my experience of living with indigenous people of Australia.
I will be showing extracts from these two posts to support my posts, and to give you my experiences of the practice of faith.
GRATITUDE AND REVERENCE TO ANCESTORS: the Belief Abides in 21st Century Japan: C. Linden-Thorp M.A. (E.L.T.)
The aim of this essay is to illustrate how young Japanese people in the 21st century, despite westernization, the intensification of materialism and their almost universal aspirations to ‘cool’ culture, continue to have deep-seated beliefs in the importance and indestructible spirit of their ancestors, as well as an awareness of their own position as ancestors to be. An ethnographic analysis of data collected from Japanese students engaged in university education by means of writing samples is used as the core of this study, supported by a historic-religious summary of the background to these beliefs, a brief description of the structure of the Japanese family and importance of lineage and blood ties, a description of the current situation for young people’s lives, and a general overview of Japanese so-called ‘tolerance’ which is sometimes viewed as ‘passivity.’ The ethnographer is a University teacher specializing in academic English, and the students are well known to her. This paper is the first of several which involve ethno-religious observation and studies of young people in Japan as they enter the world arena and international life, and are forced to re-evaluate their inner lives. Key words: gratitude reverence ethnography religious ancestors
Key words: gratitude, reverence, ethnography, religious, ancestors
Full paper available at: https://www.dropbox.com/s/71ou820znh6xluq/Gratitude%20to%20ancestors%20the%20full%20paper