Quiet tea, talky tea

Butsuma--a space for the Buddha. Chanoma--a space where people drink tea, eat, chat.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Horyuji, a great treasure of Nara


This fantastic temple complex may have been founded as early as 607 A.D. Apparently the temple was well-developed by the time of a disastrous fire in 670. There is some doubt about what exactly was damaged or destroyed in that fire. There is an official inventory which was made in 747. There are around 2300 buildings or objects of important cultural and historical value, among which are 190 designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties.

The Nandaimon, or Great South Gate leads the visitor to the Western Precinct, surrounded by a wooden cloister, which contains the five-story pagoda, the Kondo Golden Hall and the Daikodo Great Lecture Hall. The lecture hall was burned after a lightning strike, and it was rebuilt in 990. The Kondo enshrines a very famous Shakyamuni triad. The Pagoda has deep relief sculptures, almost like dioramas, of the life of Shakyamuni and scenes of lectures and teachings by bodhisattvas.

One magazine article I read about Horyuji suggested allowing around six hours to see everything. That was out of the question for me, so I next went to the Daihozoin, the Gallery of Temple Treasures. This is a modern construction (1998) built in a traditional style, that is like a museum, with very welcome air conditioning. The objects in this museum are simply stunning. No photography of any statues or interiors of buildings is allowed. However, the Nara Tourist Association publishes very fine photos of a selection of images from various temples in its wall calendar. I took pix of the calendar, yielding poor quality images, but they give some idea of the statues in this treasure house.

Moving further to the east, I approached the Eastern Precincts, passing down a long avenue lined with earthen walls and gates enclosing smaller temples. Another major gate leads into the eastern precinct. The most famous building here is the Yumedono, the Hall of Visions. Many temples of this period have similar octagonal buildings, but this is said to be the earliest one. Another temple nearby is the Shariden, a temple where relics of the Buddha are enshrined. Neither of these buildings are open to the public, but the brochure notes that the Hall of Visions is opened for a short time in the spring and fall.

The pix always seem to come out in reverse order. At the bottom is the Inner Gate, forming part of the cloister around the Western Precincts. The two heavenly gods protect the gate. See an earlier post for pix of the Western Precincts. The next pic moving up is the avenue leading to the Eastern Precincts. The walls on either side are made of pounded earth and finished with colored clay. There are gates leading to smaller temples. The scene here is unchanged for a millenium. The next pic up is the gate leading to the Western Precincts. It is not grand, but it is in the typical style of Nara. The next pic up is the octagonal Hall of Visions. The two Buddha images are Shokannon, originally the central deity of the Hall of Visions, now it is viewable in the air-conditioned comfort of the Treasure House. Also in the Treasure House is a triad of Amida Buddha with two bodhisattvas rising out of a golden lotus pond. This triad is enshrined in a very interesting tower-shaped altar. By the way, I recently discovered that if you click on the pix in the post, you can see it displayed large. I'm still learning about Blogger!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Esoteric ceremony

Koyasan and kechien kanjo


The Koyasan Tourist Association put up a notice about kechien kanjo, scheduled for Oct 1 - 3, so I thought this might be time for me to write a bit about my experiences. Actually, the first time I went to Koyasan was to participate in the kechien kanjo. Koyasan Shingon Buddhism is a vajrayana esoteric Buddhism; kanjo ceremonies are a big part of it. 灌頂or 'kanjo,' is made up of two characters that mean 'sprinkle' and 'head' or 'peak.' In fact, there is a very tiny, symbolic amount of water sprinkled on the head during the ceremony--interesting parallel with baptism. In esoteric Buddhism, there are many of these water sprinkling ceremonies, called abhiseka in Sanskrit. For other ways to transliterate it, and for fairly reliable info about the Shingon ritual, Wikipedia is not bad:


The kechien part refers to forming a relationship with (a) Buddha. Fortunately, kechien kanjo is available to anyone who wants it. The only requirement is that you are doing it on your own intiative, and that you are a responsible adult. However, they don't even ask your name or anything.

Anyway, as a first-time visitor, just Koyasan itself was certainly impressive. There are other important Buddhist monuments in Kyoto, Nara and elsewhere. However, Koyasan is a pretty isolated community, and the whole town has some relation to Buddhism. There are no pachinko parlors, no Starbucks, no chain stores, no karaoke. Lots of shops selling altars, incense, rosaries and related stuff. Lots of workshops where artisans make such things. Not to mention, hundreds of temples, many of which welcome overnight visitors with splendid gardens, painted screens and fine vegetarian cuisine. So you really feel you are in a bit of a different world there.

The ceremony takes place in the Kondo or Golden Hall, where a statue of Yakushi Nyorai the Medicine Buddha is enshrined. However, I never saw that statue for two reasons. First, it is never displayed, the altar is always closed, because it is a hibutsu, a hidden Buddha never visible to the public. The second reason is, for the ceremony, the temple is lined with blackout curtains, so it is completely dark inside. The only light is from candles, so you can't see much of anything. Also, for much of the ceremony, you are blindfolded. So, step by step, you enter into the darkness. Completely blindfolded, you move about, guided by unseen monks. After the blindfold is removed, you have a one-on-one with a vajra master who helps you hold the kongosho, a vajrayana 'weapon.' This is where the practically unnoticeable water drop is sprinkled on. Next, you have a chance to offer incense to a whole pantheon of Buddhas and other deities. After all this, you emerge, blinking in the sunshine, seeing things in a new way, at least for a while.

Kechien kanjo for the Kongokai mandala is offered in October, and for the Taizokai in May. On the first day of the three-day period, before the kechien kanjo begins, there is a procession of priests, including the abbot of the head temple, wearing their robes of Heian period styling, with incense, shell trumpets, cymbals, with more accompaniment from the huge bell in the bell tower. A great photo op at the very least. After this procession, the priests conduct ceremonies in the Kondo that set things up ceremonially for the kechien kanjo.

I have added a short video of the procession. It was raining that day, so the procession was limited to the verandah under the eaves of the temple.

Another pic shows the Kondo from the side. It is a huge temple built in the traditional way, with no nails, just huge timbers fitted together. However, this building is from the nineteenth century, not so old. Koyasan is exposed on a mountain on a peninsula which gets lots of typhoons and other storms that come roaring up the Pacific coast. This means lots of lightning strikes, and lots of fires throughout Koyasan's history.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Nara Pilgrimage

World heritage sites

I was able to visit some temples, three in Nara and one in Kyoto, that date from the time of the earliest introduction of Buddhism into Japan. At that time, the location of the capital was shifted from time to time, for reasons such as geomancy, perceived threats or because of inauspicious accidents or disasters. Therefore, the seven major temples of Nara are pretty spread out over the area, and it is a challenge to see several at once. I wanted to see Horyuji, because it was one of the earliest ones, and Yakushiji, because I had seen two of the statues, Gakko Bosatsu and Nikko Bosatsu, when they were on display at the Tokyo National Museum. I added Toshodaiji to the list because it is within walking distance of Yakushiji. That was about the limit in terms of time (most of the temples close at 4:00 or 5:00 PM with entrance only until thirty minutes before closing, and also in terms of endurance, walking and seeing so much on such a hot day.

I jumped on the bullet train (shinkansen) in Tokyo around 7:00 AM, and got to Kyoto by around 9:00. It took another hour to get to Nara and then I took a bus to a different train station for a 12-minute ride to Horyuji station. I arrived there around 11:00 and checked the bus stop, but it was so hot I splurged on a taxi to the temple. The temple was founded early in the seventh century. The 'worship fee' is rather high, at ¥1000, but the images and buildings require museum-quality care, so it is reasonable. It is a lot cheaper than Disneyland, for example.

Yakushiji is not on the same train line as Horyuji, so I went to the bus stop to check on a bus. The next one was a 45-minute wait, so I headed to a noodle shop for a great, reasonably priced lunch of udon, rice, and vegetables. The bus to Yakushiji took about 30 or 40 minutes, but the bus stop was only about five minutes from the temple. Yakushiji was founded around 710, but was moved to the current location in 718 or so, because of one of the capital moves. The capital moved on again, and the temple today is in a very rural landscape of rice paddies and villages. This temple is the head temple of Japan's oldest Buddhist sect, Hosso.

It is only a short walk to Toshodaiji, the head temple of the Ritsu sect. The temple was established in 759 by Ganjin Wajo, who came from China to teach Ritsu to the Japanese. This temple is less splendid (it is not one of the 'big seven')--it has only one small pagoda, and the other buildings are fairly modest. But the objects of worship in the Kondo main hall include at least eight works designated as National Treasures (I didn't count them). It is a very quiet, green environment which seemed very ancient, and also relatively cool on such a hot day. The train station, Nishi no Kyo (western capital) seems to indicate a capital that has since moved. From there it was about an hour back to Kyoto.

The next day I headed for Toji, a temple in southern Kyoto, that was built around 794, when the capital was moved to Kyoto. There is a station called Toji, one stop from Kyoto on the Kintetsu line. Toji means 'east temple' and originally there was also a west temple (or maybe just plans for one); these were supposed to guard the southern approach to the city. However, Buddhism in Japan underwent a major shift when the monk Kukai, Kobo Daishi, returned from China, bringing Vajrayana Shingon Buddhism with him. The emperor was very impressed with Kukai, and entrusted Toji to him.

So I was happy that I could see four temples in just 1.5 days. I will put up more details on each temple in following posts.

The first pic shows the central garan of Horyuji, with the Kondo main hall and five-story pagoda. 'Kondo' means 'golden hall' perhaps it refers to the fact that Buddha statues are usually gilded. The second pic is the gate looking into the garan of Yakushiji. There are two three-story pagodas in this yard, but they have extra eaves on each story, so they look like they have six stories. The third pic is Toshodaiji, with the Kondo to the left, the Kodo (lecture hall) in the background, and a small tower, the Shariden next to a larger building that was originally monks' quarters.