Friday, September 20, 2013

Koyasan: Okunoin Cemetery

Koyasan is regarded as one of the most sacred places in Japan, if not the most sacred; and it is certainly counted among the most sacred places on the planet. The most revered place in Koyasan is Okunoin Cemetery, and the tomb of the founder of Shingon Buddhism, located at the end of a two-kilometer walk, is the "holy of holies."

We made our first trip to Okunoin the first night we were here when an English-speaking monk from our temple took us on a night-time tour. The central walkway is lined with lanterns, plus there was a full moon out that night, making a magical place even more mystical.

At the end of the walk, after crossing a sacred bridge beyond which no photographs are allowed, is the lantern hall where thousands of lanterns are kept burning, both inside and out. The effect of this at nighttime was quite spectacular.

This hall is immediately in front of Kukai's mausoleum, where it is believed he entered "eternal meditation" in the year 835. Some 80 years later, so the story goes, a monk and imperial official entered the mausoleum and found that Kukai's body was still preserved, and his hair and beard had grown to enormous lengths. This event sealed the story that Kukai had not died but was in "eternal meditation." The mausoleum was closed again and, supposedly, no one has been inside it for over 1000 years. 

Mark and I made a return trip the following day to see it in the daylight. There are over 200,000 grave and memorial markers in the cemetery that date back for at least a millennium. As we walked through it on the central pathway, we really did feel a tangible sense of reverence. It is considered the most sacred place in Japan not only because of Kukai's mausoleum, but also because the ashes of so many are interred here amongst towering cedars, some of which are reputed to be almost one thousand years old.

Ubiquitous throughout the cemetery are stone stupas or pagodas, representing the five elements. There are literally thousands of them, if not tens of thousands.

There are all kinds of legends associated with various places in the cemetery. Next to a shrine of a "sweating Jizo" (which 'sweats' with the weight of the sins he takes upon himself) is a well. The legend is that if you can clearly see your reflection, you will live a long life. Mark looked down and saw his image clearly (as did I).

If you look very carefully, you can see the reflection of Mark's face toward the bottom right of the water.

There is a small stream that flows about 100 yards in front of the lantern hall. The bridge across this stream is considered sacred, and by tradition, one crossing the bridge must either cleanse themselves by bathing in the stream or by ritualistically throwing water on one or more of a group of Jizu statues lined up alongside the stream. We saw many Japanese going to each statue, throwing water, bowing their heads and offering respect and prayer.

A group of monks making their way toward the sacred bridge from the lantern hall in the distance

Crossing the bridge

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