Sunday, June 29, 2014

Living the Monastic Life in Kyosan

Saturday, June 28, 2014
Kyosan, Japan

Spending a Day in a Buddhist Monastery in Kyosan:
We awoke at the crack of dawn, alarms clocks duly set. Racing through a wash, we went downstairs to the Dining Hall for breakfast—we have come to expect a uniform sameness about the offerings each day—and then set off at 8.00 am exactly for the walk to the subway station that got us to Kyoto Main Station. About 15 of us had signed up to spend a day and a night in a Buddhist Monastery in the mountains of Kyosan, about 850 meters above sea level. It promised to be the experience of a lifetime and I was both excited and unsure about what to expect.

A Long Journey into the Mountains:
It turned out to be the journey of a lifetime! To get there, we had to change several trains—from Kyoto Main Station to Osaka Main Station. From Osaka, we took a Japan Rail train to a place called Shin-Inamiya where we changed trains again. This one took us up the most verdant mountains clad thickly with towering Japanese cedars and bamboo groves. The air grew misty as we climbed higher and higher until we arrived at Okonuin where we alighted from the train and transferred into what is called a ‘cable car’, but which, in point of fact, is a funicular train that went still higher up the mountain in a heart-stoppingly steep incline. We arrived at Okonuin Bus Station in about ten minutes and then boarded a bus that took us to our monastery—in total, a convoluted journey of four hours. It was about 12 noon when we arrived in Koyasan together with hordes of Japanese pilgrims and weekenders for Koyasan is a popular hill resort among the locals of Osaka and Kyoto and is often used as a retreat from urban stress.

Checking Into Daein-In Monastery:
The stroll along the winding mountain road leading to our monastery took us past little shops selling strange items: tasteless snacks, bottles of sake, cheap souvenirs. But in a few minutes, we were entering the distinctive monastic gates of a religious establishment and were met by a monk who in extremely halting English conveyed the essential information to us: Shoes had to be removed at the entrance and a pair of slip-ons had to be, well…slipped on! These were to be our footwear during our entire stay there; dinner was at 6 pm (we were told to assemble in the Dining Hall no later than 5.55pm); baths were only to be had in the evening (from 4. 30 till 9.00 pm only) in the Communal Bath (separated by gender) at the end of the hallway—we would learn the protocol that governed the taking of baths later in the day; main gates closed by 7. 00 pm—if you needed to stay out later, you would need to use a small side entrance. Well, that was it really.

It took us only a few minutes to realize that we were in a traditional Japanese ryokan (home) complete with sliding shoji screen doors, painted wall panels, tatami mats underfoot. We were shown up to our rooms after keys were handed over: some of us had rooms on the ground floor that opened out into the most adorable rock and water garden (had we the time to spend in it, I’d have been jealous); the rest of us had rooms up one flight of stairs—we had views of the roof tops of the monastery and of the forest-draped mountains of Kyosan. Equally stirring, equally idyllic. Llew and I entered out room tentatively. We saw a low-slung polished wooden table, twin cushions on the floor on either side of it. On the table were pages from the Buddhist sutras complete with calligraphy pens (we were expected to spend some time practicing our sutra-copying skills). Painted screens concealed cupboards that held our bedding—mattresses and comforters (but these would be made up later). There was a large wooden box on the table—inside it was a china kettle and twin cups and a box of green tea leaves together with an electric kettle for boiling water. And wonder of wonders—in this serene, monastic place, there was a TV (Llew was delighted to be able to keep up with the FIFA 2014 games). No, there was no attached bathroom—we had to walk to the end of the corridor to the toilets and basins and baths (as described earlier) were one floor downstairs.

Lunch in a Small Cafe:
There wasn’t much time to lose as most of Japan’s temples close their doors by 5 pm. Our long journey had caused hunger pangs and the mountain air contributed to making us feel as if we could devour a horse. Maggie, our tour leader, called Lunch Time which we decided to spend in the main town. Off we went to find a suitable spot and ended up in a little place called Maru Man where Llew chose the Katsu Rice Curry and ended up with a most delicious meal (I have to say that the curry was better than some we’ve eaten in India, if you can believe it!) and the breaded pork cutlet that accompanied it was equally good. I chose the Soba Noodles with Chicken and Leeks and after doctoring it with soya sauce and chilli powder had a fairly good meal—the soba noodles made with buckwheat were very healthy and I was sure I was gaining in nutrition what I might have lost out in taste. Still, it was a good economical meal washed down with Japan’s Asahi beer. Not a bad lunch at all.

Temple-Trotting Once Again:       
Koyasan is all about temples. It derived its importance as a pilgrimage center from the fact that an important Buddhist monk from China called Kobo Daishi—popularly known as Kukai—made his way to Japan’s remote mountainous settlement of Koyasan where he initiated a new sect of Buddhism that is one of Japan’s most practiced today. We saw dozens of pilgrims wearing the traditional robes of their sects all over the town as they traipsed from one temple to the next achieving the stamps of the sites.

Out first stop was Kobo…where Kukai established the headquarters of his sect. Apart from the architectural eminence of the building that is traditional in the way I’ve come to recognize in this part of the world, it contained some really beautiful painted screens in the traditional Japanese style dwellings that comprise the complex as well as the largest rock garden in the country. The garden was of special interest to me and as I walked along the covered wooden corridors that link the separate houses together, I was struck by the Zen quietness of these dry gardens with their large dark rocks that stand in quiet contrast to the tiny white pebbles that surround them. These pebbles are regularly raked in decorative patterns around the rocks and have come to gain their uniqueness in this aesthetic. These gardens are punctuated by the occasional Japanese maple tree that grows very close to the ground or the pine trees that are trimmed, I am told, pine needle by pine needle, in order to achieve the topiaried effect that makes them so distinctively Japanese. In a room at the far end of the complex, green tea was being distributed with a crisp wafer biscuit and it made a welcome spot to rest out feet as we listened to a sermon in Japanese delivered by a monk.

Unfortunately, rain that had threatened throughout our exploration of the complex, came down rather heavily at this point, but I have to say that it added its own freshness to the Alpine landscape and caused mist to hang upon the highest branches of the cedars. Truly, it was beautiful and had the effect of calming one’s mind in the midst of so much holiness.

On to the Mandala Temples:
By then it was close to 3. 30 pm and we were keen to see Koyasan’s hightlights. Maggie informed us that just across the street, along a narrow pathway were the famed Mandala Temples that were spectacular and not-to-be-missed. So off we trooped in the direction of this rich complex as the rain petered off to a slight misty drizzle. And then we were in the midst of another series of Buddhist stupa-like structures that conceal some of the most stirring sights in Koyasan. In one of them we saw a towering gilded statue of the Medicine Buddha flanked by four deities and sixteen Bodhisatavas painted on vermillion pillars. The overall effect was stunning as gilding and incense engaged our senses of sight and smell. Meanwhile, sound was delivered by pilgrims who sat on their haunches close to the altar and chanted a number of sutras that added to the atmospheric feeling of devotion. It was a wondrous sight.

Across the stupa was the Kondo, another building with a statue of the Medicine Buddha concealed in a vast black cupboard. At the back was a mural depicting the Enlightenment of the Buddha. Here too paintings of Kobo Daishi on the wall made for a visual feast that caused us to marvel at the industry and talent of the devotees over the ages. These buildings are several centuries old and are National Treasures (protected monuments) in Japan. Yes, unlike so many of the Cathedrals and churches we have seen all over Europe, they are not just museum-pieces—these are real, vigorous sites of communal worship and personal devotion. Faith is alive and kicking in these spots where the propagation of religious fervor is a priority. So while tourists—like us--might come to gawp at the artistic achievement of these creators, we are also moved by the sights of hundreds of people participating in the rituals of individual and communal prayer and it is a very moving sight indeed.

Off for a Monastic Dinner:
It was almost 5 pm when we finished with these highlights of Koyasan and it was time to partake of the monastic life that we had traveled a long way to experience. So we picked our steps back to our monastery and returned to our rooms to freshen up before assembling for dinner in the communal dining room. Llew was not looking forward to the meal as he finds sitting cross legged on the floor a particular challenge. Our food was laid out in two neat rows as we sat opposite each other across the room. Low stools carried a multitude of little china bowls and plates each of which carried a tantalizing morsel that none of us could identify! Needless to say, it was strictly vegetarian. I mean some items were easy to name: clear miso soup with a few soba noodles and soy pellets floating it in; another cloudy soup seemingly made with a coconut milk base and filled with glass noodles and other tasty morsels—it was easily the most delicious thing I had at the monastery and was made more interesting by the fact that the monk came and lit a little stove under each of our bowls which caused the soup to boil aggressively in front of our astonished eyes; tofu in varied preparations and of varied consistency (sometimes custard-y and at other times firmer); tempura that was light-as-air; steamed squash and crisp beans; the mandatory bowl of steamed white rice (I have not seen brown rice anywhere in Japan); and for dessert… a wedge of fresh pineapple beautifully trimmed and cut. Dealing with chop sticks made the large meal seem interminable to us. Still, it was a wondrous and very tasty experience as meals go and one I am not likely to forget in a hurry.

Ritual Bathing at Communal Baths:
Then came one of the most fascinating aspects of the monastic life—the communal bath! I wasn’t at all sure this was something I could quite handle especially when I discovered that I would need to shower in a large showering hall with no curtains separating one bather from the next and then, stark naked, would need to descend into a vast communal hot bath. Never in my life have I ever done such a thing: even when we have taken communal baths in hot springs (as in Budapest and in the Canadian Rockies at Banff) it has always been with our bathing suits on. To bathe in the company of other women without a stitch was not my idea of relaxation and I have to say I almost backed out of the deal. But then I said to myself that I might as well have the full authentic experience because that was what I had come to enjoy.

And so, clad in the yutaka (Japanese sleeping robe that was provided in our rooms) with a heavy sash, Llew and I made our way to the baths—he to the Men’s Baths and I to the Ladies’. I found that one of my colleagues had beaten me to it and it was she who explained the protocol to me. I had to leave my slippers and my robe in the locker and enter the showering area sans clothing. There, I was to use the soap that was provided and the tiny white towel that was no larger than a small handkerchief (I could use as many of these as I needed!). When I had washed and soaped and cleaned my body thoroughly, I could step into the bath that was steaming gently.

Well, I went through the paces very tentatively being filled with inhibitions about my body and its appearance. But as I soaped myself with my back turned to the other bathers, I somehow found my self-consciousness flow away with the soapy water. A few minutes later, I was slipping into the bath and chatting away with my colleague who was so relaxed that her calmness communicated itself to me. And in seconds, I felt completely comfortable. A few minutes later, more and more of my new friends entered the baths and went through the steps and as each of them entered the space, I felt myself relax more so that, by the end of ten minutes, I had lost all consciousness of my physicality and was attuned only to the serenity of the warm water on my body and the softly lapping sense of waves as they washed all around me. Truly, it was heavenly and I would have stayed there forever, were it not for the fact that the hot water causes dehydration and I began to feel a trifle weak. It was time to drink some water and dry off.

I’m not sure I am interpreting this correctly but I believe there must be some reason for this communal washing. It might have something to do with releasing the consciousness of body image that is so central to our Western mindsets and entering into a new consciousness in which one is fully accepting of the body one is given and indeed becomes contented with me, no matter its shape or size, or color. As far as I know, the quest of the Buddha as he sought Nirvana or Enlightenment, was to try to find the way to liberate human beings from passions and possessions. And perhaps, I believe, from inhibitions or from being judgmental. I think that in releasing my self-consciousness and accepting my body and my physicality for what it is, I achieved some understanding of the calming serenity of Buddhism.

Llew, when he returned to our room, described the exact same sensation in the Men’s Baths—the sense of feeling anxious in the beginning about sharing so private an activity with so many strangers that gave way so gently to complete lack of self-consciousness. At any rate, we were ready to try a hand at practicing the writing of the sutras and of sipping some green tea quietly in our room where we found the beds had miraculously been made up on the floor by silent elves (read novice monks in training) who left us feeling as if we should slip right under the covers. Needless to say, we slept immediately knowing that we were to awake at 5. 30 am for the 6. 00 am temple service in which we were keen to participate as observers.

It had been a most unusual day filled with some of the most unusual experiences we had ever had. But we were glad we had opted to experience these unique aspects of Japanese Buddhist culture first-hand in a real Buddhist monastery. It is not an experience that can be repeated or replicated anywhere else.

Until tomorrow, sayonara

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