Koyasan

Water is round in a round receptacle, and square in a square one.

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This week I rode a cable car to reach a mountain valley named Koyasan. It is quite intentionally isolated from the rest of Japan, as a sanctuary for and founding place of a 1200-year-old school of Buddhism adapted to Japan by Kukai, known colloquially as the “Father of Japanese Culture”.

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The small town offers a variety of ‘Shukubo’ temple lodging, and opportunities to cleanse the mind, heart, and body. The ‘patron saint’ Buddha of Koyasan pictured here is angry with the anxieties in your heart, and is ready to slay your inner demons.

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At Eko-in, my particular Shukubo, I was offered a room with tatami mats, traditional vegetarian monk fare, Japanese calligraphy instruction, guided meditation classes, onsen style bathing, and various other opportunities to cleanse.

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The 1100 year-old grounds and facility are beautiful, boasting several communal spaces, a prayer temple, meditation hall, small ritual temple, a collection of Japanese and Buddhist art, and serene gardens.

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Like water in a receptacle, the mind takes form according to it’s circumstances. To reach enlightenment, careful observation is required, but there is a constant need of cleansing to alleviate suffering to conduct observation. These are tenets of Buddhist thought.

Japanese Esoteric “Shingon” Buddhism describes the human mind similarly, of a character as the moon: changing shape with circumstances or emotions, sometimes obfuscated by clouds or pain, yet never tarnished, and always reflective of the pure light of the sun.

The importance of observing and cleansing the mind are evinced through the ritual, meditation, art, and architecture of Koyasan; here, moons in various phases are alight along the path to the main temple.

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Because Shingon Buddhism’s teachings are esoteric, language-barriers, inaccessibility of its teachings to non-initiates, its one-to-one teacher student style, and the rarity of qualified teachers outside Japan, it and Koyasan remain among the world’s most secretive schools of Buddhism.

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For those uninitiated in the mysteries of Shingon’s esotericisms, Koyasan is a place of rest and cleansing.

In the kilometre of graveyard lining the trail to the main temple, remains of heroic Samurai rest side by side with honored enemies.

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At the temple, ritual cleansing of a Buddha is encouraged to symbolize the cleansing of one’s own heart.

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At the Shukubo’s smaller ritual temple, guests may take part in a Goma fire ritual, in which personal wishes for loved ones are inscribed on wooden blocks, and burnt as a sort of catharsis, creating smoke believed to have cleansing properties.

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If a king is plagued by bandits, he must first locate their camp before he may attack; so too, when man is beset by worldly passions, he should ascertain their origins.

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