Thursday, September 19, 2013

Koyasan: Shingon Buddhism

Inside Ekoin's actual temple (Ekoin is where we are staying)

One of the things I have learned from this trip is that there are schools within schools within schools of Buddhism – and this is just in Japan. It becomes bewildering to try to distinguish between them all and understand what is going on, what the differences are and what they mean – even among Zen schools of Buddism. Eventually, I quit trying. 

What did become apparent fairly quickly, however, is that Japan modified the teachings of Buddha, as received primarily from China, in ways that made it a better fit for Japanese society, – not only in the 6th and 7th centuries, but also every century since then. One of the most obvious examples of that is Buddhism’s sync with Shintoism, i.e., Japan’s “natural” and “original” religion that continues up to this day. Most Japanese consider themselves practitioners of both Buddhism and Shinto. Most important events in a person’s life are marked by a visit to a Shinto shrine, whereas memorial services are universally held at Buddhist temples.

But Setsuko, our guide in Kyoto, made an interesting observation. She said that most people in Japan today are effectively secular, and one of the primary reasons why is because of how badly they were burned by the state religion of Shintoism and emperor worship that was instilled following the re-installation of the emperor in the 1870’s, culminating in the official state teaching that the emperor is/was a god. That is why so many Japanese were willing to sacrifice their lives during the Second World War, and they were devastated and disillusioned when Japan lost the war and Emperor Hirohito announced to the nation that he is not a god, but is in fact human.

Which brings me back to the place where we now are. The Buddhism practiced here, Shingon, is unlike any other to which we’ve been exposed since coming to Japan. It is an esoteric school of Buddhism that was brought to Japan from China. It is apparently similar to Tibetan Buddhism, though the whole subject – as indicated above - immediately becomes intensely complicated when one begins to learn about it. 

But a brief overview is necessary for what I am going to be blogging about over the next couple of days. To provide that, I’m simply going to quote from our temple’s information that it provides to its guests:
“Koyasan is home to an active monastic center founded twelve centuries ago by the priest Kukai (posthumously known as Kobo Daishi) for the study and practice of Esoteric Buddhism. 
“He sought to establish a monastery deep in the mountains, a retreat far from worldly distractions where Buddhist monks could practice their faith and pray for peace and the welfare of the people. As its mountainous name suggests, Koyasan is situated in a valley atop a highland (altitude 900 meters). It stretches 4km east-to-west and 2 km north-to-south, and the eight mountains surrounding it are often compared to the eight petals of a lotus flower. 
“Kobo Daishi (Kukai) was a renowned monk who established Shingon Buddhism during the Heian era. He entered into eternal meditation on March 21, 835 and is believed to be alive and continues to provide relief to those who ask for salvation. Kobo Daishi is also known as the father of Japanese culture. He is renowned for his talents as a teacher, engineer, inventor, poet, calligrapher.”
One of the things that Koyasan is most known for is its huge cemetery, Okunoin, the entrance of which is just down the road from where we are staying. A broad walkway extends two kilometers through a cedar forest to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, which is considered the holiest spot here. 

A picture taken in Okunoin (Internet)

Among the trees are over 200,000 gravestones and memorial pagodas for people ranging from important historical figures to ordinary people. The entire walkway is lined with lanterns, which were lit last night as we took a night tour of the cemetery with an English-speaking monk at our temple.

It is about that experience, and about the experience Mark and I had there this morning, that I will write about in my next post.

No comments:

Post a Comment