The Way Home

Our way home from "Pocket Farm Dokidoki" was pretty much the way we came, except that it happens that there are two "Route 18s" which run roughly parralel to each other, an old one and a new one. The "new and improved" one is not quite finished, so we had been on parts of each without knowing it. Turns out that for now, the old one is a bit of a short cut which was just as well as we wanted to make a stop at place we had spotted earlier in the day – a temple along that narrow section that I complained about.

We pulled into a dirt parking lot across a side street from the temple grounds. The temple building sits atop a hill that is covered in cedars, maples, and other trees. The entrance at the base of the hill has new-looking stone walls and lanterns, yet the long steps leading up the hill and a gate at the top are obviously hundreds of years old.

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I immediately recognize the large wisteria crests engraved in the stones on either side of the entrance. It is the symbol of the Hongwanji temples of the Jodo Shinshu or “True Pure Land” Sect, which is widespread in Japan and Hawaii. The Moody Minstrel’s blog has pictures of the home temple of this sect in one of his recent posts about Kyoto.

I had not come across a Hongwanji temple in Ibaraki before, though I had read there were two historic ones (the other is in the north end of the prefecture in Hitachi). The name of this temple is Muryouju-ji and it was originally built in 806 by members of a different sect. 806 - wow. Almost 1,200 years ago. In Japan that is during the Heian era, and the first year of the Daido period. Those were early times for Japanese Buddhism, just two years after emperor Kammu had sent the priest Saicho to China to study and he had returned to found the Tendai sect in Japan.

I was excited to find this temple and eager to learn more about it. The temple building is not visible from the entrance so we started up the 100 or more steps - a bit of much needed exercise after our big feast at Dokidoki.

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At the top of the first set of steps, there is a driveway that crosses, and a path leading down to Route 18. Several maple trees are there and the leaves were in their full autumn glory.

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At the top of the steps is the main gate. It has a new looking cedar bark roof, but the wood planks of the gate and hinges look to be the originals. From here we see the temple on the opposite side of a courtyard. It too looks to have a new roof. In the courtyard are a large bell tower, an old stone storage building, a stone water basin, and a statue of Shinran Shonin (Saint Shinran), the 13th century monk upon whose teachings the Hongwanji temple is based.

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In 1221 Shinran came to this temple, which was in disrepair at the time, and rebuilt it. He spent three years running the temple. Five years ago, it was once more renovated which accounts for the new looking roofs and new stone entrance. It also says something about the wealth of the members of this temple. Some things are going well around Hokota it appears.

A legend says that beads from Shinran’s onenju (Buddhist prayer beads), which were carved out of the wood of a bodhi tree, fell on the ground here and grew into a tree. There is in fact a bodhi tree there that is over 700 years old and may have been planted by Shinran. This is the type of tree that the historical Buddha is said to have sat under as he meditated.

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The bell tower was built around 1725. I look forward to ringing in the New Year with this bell. It must have an awesome ring to it that can be heard far and wide in the valley below.

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Though I did not see them this day, I have since read that inside the main building is an artwork, with accompanying text, which is shown once a year, and a carved wood statue of Amida Buddha whose 48 vows are central to Jodo Shinshu teachings.

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The new beautiful, thick cedar bark roof

I have also discovered that priests from this temple were involved in a political intrigue that occurred in the 1830’s during the Edo period. Some of the priests, including the head priest, were among people who allegedly wanted to sail to the distant Bonin Islands (now called Ogasawara Islands) located 1000 km south of Tokyo and possibly to Hawaii, and even the USA in order to make contact with Westerners and study their ways. At the time there were Dutch, British and Americans from Hawaii living in the Bonins. The Bonin Islands were thought by Japanese to be a kind of island paradise. Contact by Japanese citizens with Westerners was strictly forbidden back then. The charges turned out to be false, a charade to provide cover for political maneuverings behind the scenes. Interesting none the less.

We had not finished exploring the temple grounds when my digital camera batteries ran out of juice. The sun was getting low in the sky anyway and it was time to promise to return another day and head home. Besides, a certain dog would be waiting for her walk and dinner.

As we drove south along Kitaura, an orange sun was peeking around some fluffy cumulus clouds and was reflected on the smooth surface of the lake. "Red sky at night, sailors delight" the saying goes. It would be a fine day tomorrow.

It seemed a perfect ending to a perfect day that had started on a fluke, a whim, and unfolded on its own before us, one surprise after another. It had given us a beautiful autumn drive, a splendid meal, and an unexpected historical and spiritual journey back into ancient times as well. I can’t ask for more than that, and I suddenly felt a deep awe and gratitude for this day, this life.


Happysurfer said...

Dear Pandabonium, thank you for the tour and the history lesson which I enjoyed very much. Great pictures too. I remember the first time I visited a temple in Penang, I was awestruck by the hugeness of the statues of the deities. They were like fifteen or so feet tall. Not sure whether it's the Kek Lok Si Temple. I was taken aback and was filled with emotion at such splendour. Amazing feeling.

You mentioned about ringing the bell during New Year. Pls enlighten on its significance. Can bells not be struck at other times?

The Moody Minstrel said...

Allow me to chime in here, Happysurfer. There is no problem with ringing temple bells any time of the year. In fact, on the three main occasions during the year when people tend to their family graves (spring and summer equinoxes, O-Bon), it's customary for at least one representative from each family to ring the bell. Usually the children do it, and they have a grand time ringing the thing over and over and over...

However, it is the custom on New Year's Eve for the priests to ring the bell a certain number of times (I don't remember the count) to herald the coming of the new year. They often ring the bell as a group, combining their strengths to make one awesome sound!

Wow...I've driven by that wall and stairway before, but I've never stopped. I guess I need to explore some more.

Happysurfer said...

Dear Moody Minstrel, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom. It is much clearer to me now. Japan is a really fascinating place - full of culture and history, vibrancy and best practices. An example to be emulated.

Pandabonium said...

Thanks Moody. You taught me something I did not know.

It is different here in Japan than in Hawaii. The tradition here is for the bell to be rung 108 times on the New Year by priests (I didn't know that part, I would have been disappointed).

For Buddhists this corresponds to the 108 "bonno" (afflicting passions of human beings). It is also the number of beads on a priest's "onenju", one of which you can see in the left hand of the statue of Shinran.

In Hawaii, Hongwanji temples adopted a tradition of having the temple members ring the bell. Before midnight, a service is held in the temple afterwhich people offer incense at the alter and then take a turn at ringing the bell, followed by firecrackers and food in the social hall.

The firecrackers have nothing to do with Buddhism. The real reason is that New Year's is one of the two days that fireworks are legal to use in Hawaii and some of the temple members use it as an excuse to light them off. :^)

Temples in Hawaii also conduct family services on Sundays. The bell is rung at that time as well in a particular rhythmic pattern as call to worship.

The Moody Minstrel said...

I've never heard of temples in Japan offering regular worship services, though I'm sure some of them do. Since antiquity, the Japanese have tended to be religious opportunists, i.e. except on designated holidays, they only worship and pray when they have something specific to ask for.

I think the native Shinto religion sums up this way of thinking nicely. I never knew it before, but in Shinto it is believed that the universe is ruled by one, supreme god from whom all other deities and spirits are descended/evolved (kind of like Hindu, only totally different). However, the Shinto faith as practiced has nothing whatever to do with the supreme god. Why? Because he has nothing to offer! He's literally too big for us mere humans, so Shinto doesn't bother with him! The "highest" deity they worship is Amaterasu-no-Omigami, the Sun Goddess, because the sun does have practical benefit to humanity.

Such spiritual enlightenment is truly inspiring...

Pandabonium said...

I think the reason for the Sunday services in Hongwanji temples in Hawaii, US, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, etc. is this: They had competition from Christian churches to deal with. The members were immigrants in a predominantly Christian culture. So they adapted accordingly and started offering similar kinds of "serivces" including Sunday services that are structured in a similar way, pews to sit in, nursery schools, "dharma schools" (like Sunday schools), and even songs for the members to sing during services as an adjunct to sutra chanting.

Hongwanji temples in the mainland US even refer to themselves as "churches", which really bends the definition of that word. They continue to adapt even translating some sutras into English.

YD said...

Happy Surfer
Yes, the giant statue of Guan Yin is at Kek Lok Si. It is a very significant figure in Penang and has been there for many years. There was once (i think more than 10 years ago), some part of the statue crumbled down, and donations were collected to rebuild it.

There is a Peng Aun (peace) bell in Kek Lok si. Taoism tradition believes that ringing it 3 times bring good luck, but beware don't ring 4 times, becuz 4 times mean 四大皆空 (Total emptiness), which means being dead in another meaning. :-)

(note: actually 四大皆空 is quite a nice word in buddhism. it means total discardment of all attachments, in other terms, being enlightened and leave the world of samsara)

I am intrigued by the Shinto's belief about the supreme god. To some certain extent, they have reached certain level of 四大皆空-ness, haha...being not attached with too many things, including the notion of god. And allow me to digress, there is an interesting feature of buddhism: people are encouraged to follow the dharma to work towards enlightenment, but in the end, they have to discard every attachment, even the attachment to Buddha and dharma. that is, everything that they have been following so long. However, in real life, not many people can actually "let go" at the end, from normal lay men level, to even the highest sanga level. hence, the words of 四大皆空, simple they may seem, but deep their meaning is.

The chanting beads, 念珠, or "onenju", have 108 beads. To share an interesting common belief, some buddhists actually insist the number of beads in a chain to be made always divisible by 27. Hence the prefered number of beads in a chain (neck or wrist beads) are like 27, 54, 81. well... mine is actaully 26, more like the number of alphabets. hehe

About the assimmilation of religion into local society, I agree with you about the competitions and the 'normal' services on sunday, religion classes and schools, songs, etc. As religions, to reach out to the mass, they needs to accommodate to the local culture in order to be accepted. The philosophical and theological aspects of religions cannot be easily understood by all, and to introduce the concepts in a more direct/ academic way will make the religion lose its appeal. To reach out all levels of society, many religions adopt the strategy of catering to people's lifestyle and let the religion seeds seep in indirectly. Songs, classes, congregations, etc.. are common social activities for human since earlier times. And people tend to follow the mass, and prefer to do things as what everyone is doing. also, with a local touch of learning religion, people feel belonged to their society, their community and their circle. Targeting the needs of interaction and communication of human, philosophical/ religious ideas are spread easier.

(erm.. i might have just pointed out what is already clear... i just can't resist digressing, can i?)

Pandabonium said...

Happysurfer, I'd like to see the temples of Southeast Asia. Kek Lok Si must be wonderful. So much art, architecture, historical and spiritual significance in those structures. Not like the buildings that are erected by modern cultures which seem to be dedicated to the "god" of money.

YD, it is so good to have you back with your informative and thoughtful comments (digressions inclcuded).

I have smaller onenju also, a few of them actually. One has 20 beads and another the more traditional 27. Doesn't really matter as the their purpose is remind us, there is no kind of "magical" power in them. So often the smaller ones simply have a number of beads according to the bead size to make them a suitable length.

I read a survey of Japanese people which said that over 80% of them identify with no religion at all. Much of what is labelled religion (anywhere, not just in Japan) is really just custom and ritual - people going through the motions without any understanding.

The activities at temples in Hawaii of value to the members and are significant from the religion's perspective as they support the "sangha" - the fellowship, which as you know is one of the "three treasures" in Buddhism.

Buddhism is adaptive as you point out, but it is also a religion that is tolerant of others and does not proselytize. New members come in, but also some people leave. On the balance, Jodo Shinshu is on the decline in the Americas, while other teachings, such as Zen and Tibetitan branches are growing.

But now I am the one who digresses. :P

The Moody Minstrel said...

there is an interesting feature of buddhism: people are encouraged to follow the dharma to work towards enlightenment, but in the end, they have to discard every attachment, even the attachment to Buddha and dharma.

Nice digression!
As the Zen master Lin-Chi said:

"If you meet a Buddha, kill the Buddha. If you meet a patriarch, kill the patriarch. If you meet an arhat, kill the arhat. Then for the first time you will gain emancipation, will not be entangled with things, and will pass freely anywhere you wish to go."

Unfortunately, during the early 20th century some Japanese Zen sects took that way too literally, and they started becoming militantly nationalistic.

Actually, there are some Buddhist sects here that do have regular worship services, but they are mostly the modern ones based on Nichiren's teachings, such as Soka Gakkai. Those are also the ones that actively proselytize (occasionally to the point of harassment).

Pandabonium said...

" Nichiren's teachings, such as Soka Gakkai. Those are also the ones that actively proselytize (occasionally to the point of harassment). "

Yep. They have colorful history of trouble and controversy right to the present including some spectacular scandals in recent times in the areas of sex, politics, and money.

YD said...

From my knowledge, Soka Gakkai has not been welcomed by the mainstream Buddhism for their more radical thinking and concepts.

I remembered my experience in the Buddhist society in London, there was a new member from Soka Gakkai background. Her rebellious and radical views shocked the other members.. and in the end she decided to leave the society because not being able to influence and change the thinking of others.

I do not know well about their other background. Would any of you wish to share more? thanks...

Pandabonium said...

Over a cup of tea some time. :^)

j-apricot said...

Well, speaking of "joya-no-kane", a lot of temples invite people to ring their temple bells on New Year's Eve and of course, only for once for each person, couple or group and 108 times in total.

The Moody Minstrel said...

Basically, Soka Gakkai is to Buddhism what Jehovah's Witnesses are to Christianity. In other words, they are a sort of active, dogmatic revivalist movement that modified their background belief system a lot, claiming that it is bringing them closer to the "truth". They and more traditional believers have trouble accepting each other.

It's ironic, too, because, even though Nichiren was a controversial figure to say the least, for the most part he was a fundamentalist. He called (very vociferously) for a return to the pure teachings of the Lotus Sutra, which formed the cornerstone of the Tendai sect founded in the Heian period. He was very strongly opposed to Zen and Nembutsu (Pure Land), which were considered mainstream at the time (Muromachi period).

As simple and straightforward as his views were, however, after he died his followers all went in very different directions, founding a whole bunch of different sects that all dislike each other...and other forms of Buddhism. (Perhaps they are the Protestants of Buddhism?)

Good grief...am I rambling or what? Where did I suddenly learn all this stuff?

The Moody Minstrel said...

Sorry...Nichiren was around during the Kamakura period. My bad.

Has anybody participated in a New Year's temple bell ringing as described by Pandabonium and J-Apricot?

YD said...

Thanks moody!

If we cannot ask for all different religions to accommodate and accept one another, at least we can hope that, if only the different sects could adopt the 'couldn't bother' attitude of Shinto in terms of the relations among one another. At least, we won't have too much squabble around.

A quote from Jonathan Swift, an Anglican cleric.
"We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love each other."

Pandabonium said...

OK I've had my tea.

I agree with Moody.

Nichiren was a contemorary of Shinran, though quite a bit younger. Both were trained as Tendai priests. Those who followed Nichiren viewed themselves as fundamentalist reformers of Tendai (which is based on the Lotus Sutra), whereas Shinran and his teacher Honen, went off on their own, focussing on different parts of Buddhist teachings. So Moody is right, if must try to draw an analogy in Western terms (dangerous waters), they were "prostestants" of a sort.

Some view Soka Gakkai as a cult as they are very focused on extracting money from members and a demanding relationship between the organization and the members. I would not label them cult as such, as "cults" usually demand a lot more control and make it difficult to remain aloof or quit. Soka Gakkai does not, to my knowledge, go that far.

In contrast - and I'm not promoting here, just comparing notes on things I've seen - the Jodo Shinsu temples of the present day are focused on teaching their beliefs by offering their sangha a free and open place to worship, study, and ejoy the company of others. Shinran himself did not claim to be any different from or above his followers, and to this day, the temple is structured with everyone, ministers and members alike, as equals.

I got to know virtually all the Hongwanji ministers in Hawaii, and some others, many of them quite well. They all share that attitude of equality, enjoy sharing ideas with members, and hold diverse opinions themselves on the religion. I was always free to disagree and question and even argue - in a friendly fashion - with them.

The business and finances of the temple is run democratically, with officers elected by the members and the budget drawn up by the Hongwanji and members together.

To me that was good. Other people want more structure. And some religions would find such an arrangement heretical.

YD, many religions, if not most, have as a basic tenet the rejection of any other religion, so I don't look for peace between them anytime soon, though some try very hard. Perhaps we humans need to evolve out of the whole religious phase. We will always need a philosophical framework to live by, but adopting existing ones that have obviously not solved the world's problems yet may not be the way to go.

There are variations and extremes among religious institutions. They are, after all, human enterprises. (Uh oh, even that last sentence could be inflamatory).

smenita - Common misspelling of the name of a famous 19th century Czech composer.