Goma ceremony invokes power of Fudo Myo-o
Smells and bells
I have been interested in vajrayana (mikkyo, esoteric Buddhism) for a while. Tibetan Buddhism is in this category. The diaspora caused by conditions in Tibet has helped Tibetan Buddhism to spread around the world--it is now one of the better-known Buddhist traditions, I would say.
In Japan, this tradition is represented by Shingon Buddhism. Not quite the same as Tibetan, but some similarities. A Japanese monk named Kukai (posthumously named Kobo Daishi, the Great Propagator of the Law) found an esoteric sutra in his independent studies. Wanting to learn more about it, he managed to be appointed to a government legation to China, where he met a master of esoteric Buddhism. He quickly learned the entire canon from his Chinese master, Huigo, and returned to Japan. Shingon was actively supported by the government (believing that some 'magic' might help the country resist invasions and disasters. He was granted the mountain now known as Koyasan to establish a monastery--the mountain is still a center of Shingon Buddhism today.
The Goma fire ceremony is one esoteric ceremony that is relatively easy to see. It is dedicated to Fudo Myo-o, whose name means Unmoving Brilliant King. Any temple that has an image of Fudo probably has or had a connection to mikkyo at one time--many of the major sects of Japanese Buddhism have been influenced by Shingon. I have been trying to pay a bit more attention to Fudo these days, so I went to observe a couple of fire ceremonies.
This is a ritual implement for vajrayana ceremonies, although this is a very large one, probably not intended for actual use. Visitors can touch this one for good luck.
The rather unassuming Hall of Fudo Myo-o at the temple known as Takahata Fudoson
One famous temple for this is Takahata Fudoson (-son means object of worship, usually a statue or painting). The official name is Takahatasan (the 'mountain name' of the temple, formed with the name of the place plus 'san' meaning mountain) Kongoji ( -ji means temple, Kongo is a central idiom of mikkyo that has connotations of adamantine, unbreakable power). The impression of power is evident in images of Fudo as well as in the ceremony. The temple was founded more than 1000 years ago. The Fudo-do or Hall of Fudo is several hundred years old. They conduct the Goma ceremony there several times every day. The Fudo-do is not large, but its ceiling and interior walls are dark with smoke. Clearly the only lighting in the original design was candles; now there are a couple of floodlights illuminating the central space, but their brightness cannot completely overcome the gloom.
A railing separates the inner sanctum, with a typical square altar and large image of Fudo Myo-o and his attendants. A small bell signals the entry of the priests, with the officiant sitting directly in front of the altar. The officiant carries out several ritual duties including flinging very small drops of water about with a wand. The priests begin to chant, and soon the officiant lights the fire, made of stacked pieces of wood, anointed with various oils and spices. As the flames mount, the voices become stronger and the large bass drum is sounded. This large sound invokes the invincible power of Fudo. The priests chant some sutras and then for an extended period, the mantra of Fudo. Several lay people join in chanting the mantra. Then, as the chanting and drumming continue, a priest invites the lay people to approach the altar of Fudo, which is done in an orderly single file. The ceremony continues, with various tablets being exposed to the purifying flames, sometimes getting a bit singed. As the lay people return to their places in the outer area, the fire is beginning to die down. After the last bits of the fire are seen to, the officiant bows to the group of lay people and the line of priests withdraws, again to the sound of a small bell.