Friday, June 24, 2011
For a long time, I was a bit shy about walking into a temple--do you have to be a member? Will somebody ask me what I am doing? All kinds of questions. Now that I am a bit more used to it, I thought I would write about some of my experiences. How does one visit a temple? A good place to start is the gate of the temple. Most temples have traditional roofed gates--now that I think of it, Tsuki Hongwanji has a more ordinary gate with no roof. But the traditional gate is called the sanmon 山門 meaning 'mountain gate.' Every temple is considered to be a mountain, regardless of its actual geographical situation, so the gate to the temple is the mountain gate. The pictures show the famous Kaminari Mon or 'Thunder Gate' of the temple Sensoji in Asakusa, and the two guardian figures in the gate of the temple Enyuji in Meguro. The gate has an important symbolic function. In fact, the one in Asakusa never closes, and you can enter the temple area easily without going through it. But going through the gate symbolizes one's intent or desire to visit the temple for Buddhistic purposes. Actually, lots of sightseers go through temple gates as well, but if you are interested in Buddhism, going through the gate can enhance your experience. The temple grounds are a kind of mandala, which is demarcated from the mundane world. Most often, gates have guardian figures that are supposed to keep anything evil from coming in. Kaminari Mon is famous for its two statues, the god of wind and the god of thunder. The god of thunder is surrounded by drums, and the god of wind is portrayed with a kind of cape or something blowing dynamically in the wind. Most temples have more generic guardians, but one thing in common is that one has an open mouth, the other a closed one. The open mouth is said to be saying AH and the closed mouth is saying UN. These sounds symbolize complete protection since they are the beginning and end sounds of a syllabary 'alphabet.' Also, the first sound a coming from our mouths when we are born is AH (or maybe Wah!) and as our last breath leaves us, we say UN. So, as you go through the gate, be sure to check out the guardians--they are usually very dynamic sculptures, and also you can reflect on the protective aspects of Buddhist iconography.