Wednesday, September 18, 2013

From Kyoto to Koyasan

We left Kyoto yesterday morning, ready for a few days of rest and contemplation. We enjoyed Kyoto, but we were a little exhausted of all the "seeing" of things. 

When we were arranging the itinerary of this trip back in May, Mark said that one of the things he wanted to do was go on a meditation retreat. So in Googling what might be available, we came upon Koyasan - a mountain community that is the headquarters of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, founded over 1000 years ago. There are dozens of working temples there, many of whom offer lodging as well as temple experiences for their guests. It sounded like a cool experience, so it was put on our list.

We are very glad we came here.

To travel here to Koyasan, we took a train to Osaka, then a subway across the city to another station where we boarded a train for Koyasan. This was yet another one of those aspects of our trip that I had been a little anxious about, i.e., purchasing tickets, making sure we made the connections, etc. But as has been the case all along, as result of a little advance planning, we had no problems at all.

The train ride was about 90 minutes, and the second half was spent climbing up through heavily forested, very hilly terrain. We went from being a little about sea level in Osaka to approximately 2800 feet here in the little mountain valley where Koyasan is located. Upon arriving at the train station at the "foot" of Mount Koya, we took a cable car up a very steep incline to a bus station at the top, then traveled 15 minutes or so by bus to reach our destination.

Entrance to Ekoin Temple, our home for the next few days

The head priest here, to whom I think the temple actually belongs (since many temples in Japan are passed down from father to son), speaks excellent English. He took us to our room, which is typical Japanese style, and a bit bigger than our room in Kyoto - which had only six tatami mats, whereas this one has eight. We also have a little "porch" off our room where we can sit in chairs and gaze out at the lush garden outside of our room.

In the above picture, Mark is tracing a famous teaching of Buddha called the Heart Sutra. The characters are Chinese, and we are given a calligraphic pen to trace the characters. Mark finished his in less than two hours. I haven't had the guts to tackle mine yet after the trauma of the other night's calligraphy lesson.

The meditation hall as seen through the trees from our porch

The mail hall leading from the front office toward our room

After resting in our room for a while, we went out for a walk before heading to the meditation hall at 4:30 for a meditation session/lecture about the Shingon method of meditation, called Ajikan. It was quite the setting - a long hall with sliding doors on each side that were opened to let the air in as well as the beautiful wooded scenery. 

The explanation of the meditation was interesting, and I have to say that it was inspirational to listen to the head priest explain the purpose and method of meditation. For example, he compared thoughts that crop up in meditation to one leaf that falls in a forest. We simply let it drop, instead of focusing on it and letting it distract us. He also suggested a different method of breathing, both in and out through the nose, whereas other methods to which I have been exposed call for breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. And finally, he suggested counting to ten over and over in one's mind instead of trying to count as far as we could. That method, he explained, leads to attaching to how long we can meditate rather than allowing us to focus on things that matter.

Dinner was brought into our room shortly after the session. Rather than have a central dining hall, monks bring the meals - dinner and breakfast (which are included with the cost of the room) - to each guest room, whereupon the stackable trays are set out, as pictured below.

After dinner, we went on a nighttime tour of the famous cemetery here in Koyasan, but I'll write about that later.

It's amazingly beautiful, calm, peaceful and quiet here. We love it.

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