Sunday, August 26, 2007

The most magical place I have ever been


Not very many people know about Koyasan, the sacred mountain top temple town in Wakayama, making it one of Japan's best-kept secrets. I visited there recently and now I believe it is the most sacred and magical place in all Japan.


Essentially, imagine a huge cedar forest covered in moss and buddhas and pilgrims and monks, crumbling tombs and trails and temples, secret shrines, golden sunlight streaming in from above. Cicadas and mantras and mists surround, somewhere a bird calls. A grey stone path leads through the labyrinth of tombs all the way to a large temple nestled deep in the heart of the forest. The distant sound of a river, the tall cedars stand like cathedrals, spider webs and butterflies abound, playing in the scattered sunlight. The infinite color, leaves, and sounds are a radiance that reaches right into you, grabs your mind, and illuminates your perception. The air smells clean and a little sweet like sandlewood. Suddenly you start humming to yourself.


Inside the large temple, monks and nuns chant and sing and fuel large fires. Next to the temple is the Toro-Do or Lantern Hall, where 10,000 lamps are kept constantly burning.

Supposedly these lamps have been burning continuously for over a thousand years.

Hidden behind the temple is the tomb of Kukai, also known as Kobo Daishi, who was the monk that began the Shingon(1) sect of Buddhism in Japan, as well as the 88 temple pilgrimage in Shikokoku. After Kukai returned from China in 806, having received the mind-to-mind transmission of the secret tantric teachings dating back to Nagarjuna, the emperor gave him a mountain on which to build a monastery.


My friend Emilie said that upon entering the forest she spontaneously burst into tears. She felt a wave of pleasant energy rush through her body “as if I had pierced the membrane of a large bubble.” I can’t say I felt anything that strong, but I definitely felt something.


This forest is known for having magical powers because it is where Kukai is resting…which brings me to what is really interesting. As Kukai was approaching death in 835, he told his followers to take him into his meditation cave and to close the door. There he entered into mahasamadhi, a kind of deep meditation, and the cave was sealed. The story goes that fifty years later, the emperor Daiko had a dream of Kukai. He traveled to Koyasan and found Kukai's cave full of mist, and Kukai’s body was still in a sitting position. A temple priest accompanying the Emperor touched Kukai's knees, found them still warm, and said that they transmitted "a pleasant fragrance.”(2) After finding his body in this state, Kukai was given a new name, Kobo Daishi. His tomb was sealed and hasn’t been opened since.


When I stood in front of the incense offering pot by the cave, a blissful energy filled my body, my fingers in particular, and I wanted to dance and sing. All around me were monks, nuns, and pilgrims singing a beautiful prayer together. The candles were flickering while the incense smoke was rising and glowing in the sunlight. The entire forest seemed to be dancing. I sat down, closed my eyes, and tried to absorb what I was feeling: a kind of warm, inner hum. I felt enfolded in some sort of luminous cosmic blanket, and I smiled deeply and laughed to myself. The old lady sitting next to me was singing with her eyes closed.


At Koyasan you can actually stay at one of the old temples for about 10,000 yen a night. We stayed at an 800-year-old temple near the forest. 600-year-old paintings covered the walls. The temple monk who took care of us (alongside two very skillful old ladies) was 24, a little chubby, and one of the kindest, most playful people I have ever met in my life. In the morning, he woke us up at 6 (at my request) and we followed him into the Hondo, or Main Hall, where we watched him light the candles and incense. He taught us his morning yoga practice, which felt really great, and then we sat behind him as he did his morning prayers. He began the prayers with a long “Om” and then spent the next 30 minutes singing. His voice was extraordinary. It ended with the mantra of his root deity, Fudo Myou.(3)



Hanging on the wall in front of the monk, on either side of the sculpture of Buddha, were two large, exquisite paintings of the mandalas used in Shingon Buddhism. These mandalas are blueprints of the “Diamond and Womb Realms,” and they represent, among other things, the masculine and feminine aspect of reality in every moment.(4)


In Buddhism it is often said that one cannot have emptiness without form, wisdom without compassion, stillness without movement. One cannot have the One without the Many, and when this is realized, then Emptiness and Form highlight each other as clarity and light, and the union of Emptiness and the entire world of Form appears as the basic union of consciousness and all of its manifestations. This union is also the ultimate union of the masculine and feminine, and is symbolized by the monk sitting in meditation (masculine), singing and dancing with his hands (feminine), ringing bells, holding vajras5, beating drums, and being the movement of the moment, not just its ever-present witness. This is very profound stuff.



So we watched the monk do that, I secretly recorded some of his song on my camera, and then we ate breakfast prepared for us by the nice old ladies in a tatami room whose walls were covered by 600-year-old gold leaf, one side open to the exquisite garden.

The vegetarian cuisine of Koyasan was developed by Kukai himself and passed down from monk to monk. After feasting upon it, many people can see why the monks of Koyasan really aren't missing out with their non-meat diet.



The meal was a huge vegetarian feast. Probably the best food I have ever had in my life. I’m not kidding. Go there and you will understand what I mean.

It’s so easy! Go to Osaka, to Namba, and then take the Namkai Koyasan express. It takes about 2 hours. I really want to go back there soon. There's so much I didn't see. But what I really want to do is just walk through that forest again, look up, see the trees waving back at me, the sunlight playing with the leaves, turning each into tiny jewels, colored diamonds, all steeped in beauty and singing the silent song of the sacred. All I want to do is rub my hands across that moss, listen to the prayers whispered by the wind, and watch the sunlight play with the leaves and incense smoke.



(1) Shingon (Mantra-yana) is essentially a type of Japanese Vajrayana. Oversimplified, the world of Buddhism can be divided into three broad stages or levels of practice: Hinayana (small vehicle), Mahayana (great vehicle), and Vajrayana (diamond vehicle). Each one can be seen as a developmental stage, leading the practitioner, step by step, though higher/wider/deeper levels of wisdom and compassion.

Hinayana is the foundation and core practice of all schools of Buddhism. The main practice is vippasana or “insight meditation” (where one sits down and simply gives attention to whatever arises in the space of their awareness), and the goal is to see through to the empty nature of all phenomena, including your own clinging ego, reach nirvana, achieve enlightenment, and become a sage or arhat.

Mahayana (which formed after Hinayana and is the most popular form of Buddhism and includes Zen and Pure Land) takes this practice one step further and aims at the enlightenment of all beings. After suffering and self are seen through to be empty, they are embraced (along with the world) and are therefore transcended. This world then appears to be identical to nirvana, just as it is (The Heart Sutra: “Emptiness is none-other than form; form is none other than emptiness”). The goal for Mahayanists isn’t to achieve nirvana (which, philosophically, cannot be achieved, for it is the “unconstructed condition”), but the goal is instead to become a bodhisattva: one who stays in this world until all beings are awakened. The central practice of the Mahayanists is compassion, and there are actual practices used to cultivate and increase the amount of love and care in the practitioner’s mind and heart.

After Mahayana comes Vajrayana Buddhism (appearing in Japan as the esoteric mikkyo and Kongosho). Vajrayana is based on one uncompromising principal: There is only Buddha Mind. There is only Light. There is only Luminous Emptiness in every direction. Vajrayana is the tantric path, embracing all forms of energy, using postures and mantras and visualizations of deities in mandalas to express and manifest enlightened mind. And since everything is already Buddha Mind, there is no way to reach Buddha mind, so the practitioner simply learns to play and delight with the mind and energy and self, just as they are.)

(2 )This kind of story is so common in Buddhism. There are countless tails of saints and enlightened masters dying while sitting in meditation, their bodies staying upright for weeks, sometimes years. Also, it’s common that the master will tell their disciples to close the door to their room, and in a week, when it is opened, all that is left of the master’s body are some hairs and fingernails.

Among the eastern traditions is a belief that when a human being achieves a certain level of spiritual or conscious development, they can acquire certain “siddhis”, or yogic powers, including the ability to fly, be in more than one place at once, psychic powers, and a kind of prolonged life. They can receive energy and fuel directly from the “unified energy field” that sustains all life. They can abide as a kind of subtle light-body (like the Mayans in the Celestine Prophecy) and they can then remain in absorption, with or without a body, subtly affecting the collective consciousness of everything in the universe. Kukai is said to be sitting in this kind of subtle energy body right now, in a small cave behind a temple deep in the forest on Mt. Koya. And when you stand in front of that cave, a powerful feeling shimmers like gold throughout the mind. You can really feel something. Looking at the Hut-like temple in the forest, I asked a monk, “Is that the place were Kukai is supposed to be?” and he said, “Well, it is good to think so.”

Miraculous encounters with Kobo Daishi have been reported ever since his passing into the state of mahasamadhi. One example I found on the internet is that of the former Cabinet Minister Ikeda Hayato, who developed an incurable cancer of the throat and was forced to retire from politics. His mother persuaded him to make the pilgrimage to Koyasan. Following this visit he recovered, and went on to become Prime Minister of Japan.


(3) Fudo Myou is a “King of Light” in Buddhism. You have probably seen his image before. He is a fierce deity, the wrathful personification of the Cosmic Buddha. He sits or stands on a rock, as apposed to other deities that sit on lotus flowers. This is significant, for whereas the lotus stands for purity and life/death, the rock stands for the unchanging, unmoving bedrock of reality. Fudo Myou is engulfed in a fierce fire and brandishes a sword used to cut through delusion and ignorance. He is imagined while chanting his mantra: na makusa manda ba saranankan! His mind is imagined to be one with non-dual reality. Non-dual reality includes everything, including all duality, and so imagining this deity is supposed to cause the practitioner’s mind to turn towards a radical, all-inclusive, non-dual embrace of everything arising in experience, while also recognizing the shapelessness and illusory nature of everything arising: all is like fire, made of mind, full of light and energy. Anytime the mind holds onto a certain thought or feeling, taking it as real and separate, Fudo Myou will cut the attachment and delusion with his sword, freeing the mind into equanimity, peace and spaciousness (and if that peaceful state is attached to, then Fudo Myou will free the mind of that, releasing it back into the a full embrace of the world.)

(4)The male aspect of each moment is crystal clear emptiness, appearing as everything, like a multifaceted diamond. Each facet of the diamond is a different universe or thought, all of which are the countless faces of the same crystal clear emptiness. Understanding this empty nature of reality directly is known in Buddhism as “Wisdom” or “Prajna.” The practice used to develop this wisdom is meditation—sitting still and using the mind to look at the mind. The fruition is actualizing Emptiness; Crystal Clear Diamond-mind.

The Womb mandala represents the other side of reality: The feminine. This aspect is the energetic fullness and movement and emergent quality of each moment. Every moment is full (not empty!) of a flowing, flowering, changing energy, and it all comes out of the luminous womb of the present moment. This is the feminine, the movement and dance, the infinite forms and feelings and colors. In this realm, forms are all real, not illusory, and the love of the forms is also real. This is the path of embrace, of sensuality, and of loving and being totally involved in everything. The practice is Love. The fruition is Fullness, Compassion, and Warm Hearted Womb-mind.

9 comments:

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I am interested to see how you develop the enlightenment theme beyond the photo.

Wonderful photo sequence

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