Thursday, September 19, 2013

Koyasan: The Goma Fire Ritual and the Kannon

The Goma Fire Ritual is unique, so far as I am aware, to Shingon Buddhism in Japan, although a similar ceremony also apparently exists in Tibetan Buddhism. As I mentioned yesterday, both Shingon Buddhism in Japan and Tibetan Buddhism spring from the same source of esoteric Buddhism that was exported from India to China and then Tibet in the 6th and 7th centuries. In Tibet, it is apparently called the "Homa" fire ritual. Going even further back, the roots of the fire ceremony date back in India to Vedic times.

The temple where we are staying (Ekoin) offers a Goma ceremony daily at 7:00 a.m. in a special small temple in the corner of the temple grounds. Guests are invited to witness the event; photos are permitted as long as flash photography is not used.

Guests are seated on either side and behind the priest who sits in front of the fire

The handbook presented to Ekoin's guests offers the following explanation of the "Gomakito":
"The Goma (Homa) Ritual of consecrated fire is unique to Vajrayana (Tibetan) and Esoteric Buddhism and is perhaps also the most mystical and cognitively powerful. It stems from the Vedic Agnihotra Ritual and is performed by qualified priests and acharyas for the benefit of individuals, the state or all sentient beings in general. The consecrated fire is believed to have a powerful cleansing effect spiritually and psychologically. The ritual is performed for the purpose of destroying negative energies, detrimental thoughts and desires and for the making of secular requests and blessings."
As the priest sits in front of the fire, he has an array of bowls, tongs, and other ritual instruments in front of him. He uses tongs to stack small but carefully cut pieces of kindling. He uses long sticks with small cups at the end to place spices, seeds and other items on the fire, all of which are very symbolic. All the while, a monk is chanting in the corner while the priest mumbles words and whispers what one assumes are prayers and incantations.

The ritual, which lasts about a half-hour, builds in intensity. At one point, the monk in the corner begins striking a taiko (Japanese) drum in the corner. The monk is making all kinds of hand signs, I notice, as he goes through the ritual, each of which I am sure has an esoteric meaning.

He eventually gets to one part of the ceremony where he picks up many small pieces of kindling, each of which are carefully cut to approximately the same length and size. I later come to find out that there are 108 of these pieces of wood that are thrown on the fire, representing the Buddhist belief that there are 108 "attachments" in this world from which we need to free ourselves.

Meanwhile, the drumming continues, along with the chanting. The fire grows larger and larger, burning away both the wood and - symbolically - our impurities. The lead photo at the beginning of this post and the one just above capture a bit of the intensity of concentration of the priest. The picture below the size of the fire and some of the small 108 pieces of kindling.

It was a memorable experience.

The Kannon (Avolokitesvara)

In the process of doing research on the Goma fire ritual, I also ran across some information on the Kannon - a "thousand-armed" Buddha statue, of which we have seen many manifestations during our time here in Japan, such as the following one in a temple in Kamakura:

The most striking example that we have seen of Kannon statues was at the Sanjūsangen-dō Hall in Kyoto. The emperor had ordered a local daimyo to erect this hall/temple, which features a central Kannon flanked by 500 kannons on either side. Photographs were not allowed to be taken in the building, but I've found pictures on the Internet that others, ignoring the rule, have taken and posted.

Quoting from a couple of sites on the Internet:
"Esoteric Buddhism began in ancient India, was brought to China, and finally to Japan. In the Nara Period (7th-8th Centuries), statues of Kannon Bosatsu ["Bosatsu" being the Japanese word for Bodhisattva] (the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, one of the images used in Esoteric Buddhism) were worshipped in temples all over Japan. Also many practitioners went deep into the mountains to do spiritual training, as Esoteric Buddhist priests do. But Esoteric Buddhism as an organized religion did not begin till the Heian Period with two famous Esoteric priests named Kukai [the founder of Koyasan] and Saicho. These men left Japan in the early Heian Period to go to Tang Dynasty China. When they came back to Japan, they brought with them the religious system of Esoteric Buddhism."
"One prominent Buddhist story tells of Avalokiteśvara vowing never to rest until he had freed all sentient beings from samsara. Despite strenuous effort, he realizes that still many unhappy beings were yet to be saved. After struggling to comprehend the needs of so many, his head splits into eleven pieces. Amitabha Buddha, seeing his plight, gives him eleven heads with which to hear the cries of the suffering. Upon hearing these cries and comprehending them, Avalokiteśvara attempts to reach out to all those who needed aid, but found that his two arms shattered into pieces. Once more, Amitabha Buddha comes to his aid and invests him with a thousand arms with which to aid the suffering multitudes."
To confuse things even further, Kannon is also referred to as the goddess of mercy, i.e., she's a woman. In doing my reading, it appears that Kannon was earlier represented in male form, but eventually came to be represented more in female form. Once again, the whole subject quickly becomes bewildering - at least to me. But its nice to have a bit more understanding of what we have seen and are seeing.

Today is our last day in Koyasan. Tomorrow morning, we head back to Tokyo. The food here at the temple is strictly vegetarian, and, frankly, we are looking forward to having something a bit more substantial for breakfast in the morning.

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