We’re staying at a Shingon Buddhist monastery, where we meditated in the afternoon before the excellent vegetarian dinner, and where I remembered that I don’t get along with any religion-like context, no matter how benign. I don’t do well with rules even if they’re supposed to be good for me. I passed up the morning chanting to drink coffee and study my kanji instead. Nice building and garden, though. Never again.
For the curious, Mahayana Buddhism’s main esoteric offshoots are Tibetan and Japanese. Mahayana’s precept is that anyone can achieve Nirvana in their lifetime. Esoteric Buddhism further says that learning tricks like meditation or tantric skills can be useful on the road to enlightenment. Japanese Buddhism goes one step further, implying that satori or enlightenment can come in an instant, spurred by a question or the sound of a distant bell.
Now the Japanese penchants for information, study and imported goods leads to their Buddhism being extremely well connected to the original Indian methods and gods. I met a priest who characterizes his shrine as being dedicated to Sarasvati (the one that was Brahma’s wife and quite the musician.) Buddhism here is also very informed by Sanskrit sutras, Tibetan mandalas, and other imports. Some of the priests carry those cool Tibetan staffs that have three bronze rings at the top. The rock garden outside has a Sanskrit letter raked in its gravel.
Shinto began 500 years before Buddhism was imported, when the first Yayoi rice farmers prayed for good harvests. When Buddhism was imported, there were already lots of Shinto shrines here, and shrines and temples had intermingled functions. This continued for 1,400 years until the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800s, so it can sometimes be difficult to tell a shrine from a temple. Either or both can have fading paint, torii gates, fantastic carpentry, and roofs made of hinoki or thatch.
Keep it simple: a temple is more likely to a have multiple pagoda roofs and statues of Buddha, whereas a shrine is more likely to have priests wearing white, large origami and very heavy rope strung about, and a rope hanging down at the front door attached to a bell above that believers ring to attract the attention of the gods and then throw money in the box just for good measure.
Quick: shrine or temple?
Right, a shrine. See the rope above the doorway?
Kumano has lotsa shrines and temples. The most major zone is definitely the headquarters of the Shingon sect of Zen Buddhism on Mount Koya. A Buddhist theme park, it sports almost 80 groups of temples, including this monster one with an enormous rock garden depicting the back of a dragon emerging from the clouds. Apart from this zone, most of the other religious buildings are shrines scattered here and there along the pilgrimage routes.
We went to the most serious Japanese cemetery I’ve ever seen, which reminded me of Pere Lachaise in Paris. It had the graves of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (the shogun that unified Japan) and of his vanquished enemy warlord Oda Nobunaga as well, a fact that must be causing Oda some posthumous grief. It also had areas devoted to many major corporations.
In Yoshino, we climbed really far up a mountain to reach the shrine at the top…only to find it empty! Very austere and Japanese, don’t you think? Next to it was a little hut where Yoshitsune hid from his brother-in-law Yoritomo in the late 1100s, quite a famous story. Well-preserved hut, too.
With that, we came home, a place very nice to return to, and this blog closes for now. Happy trails!