Koyasan is in many ways the capital of Shingon Buddhism, or Japanese Esoteric Buddhism. It was founded 1200 years ago in the mountains south of Kyoto and Osaka, as a place of retreat by a bonze named Kukai, or Kobo Daishi. It is now a World Heritage UNESCO site, rich with ancient temples where pilgrims and visitors may find a bed for the night or a place to stay, pray and meditate.
Ekoin Temple is almost as old as Koyasan. Many of its monks belong to a younger generation, and they make a point of making their lives and teachings accessible to non-initiated, international visitors. We were about to spend 24 hours with these monks and, although we did not know it yet, get much more than the classic tourist experience.
After traveling for half a day from Kyoto, we hopped off the bus. All around us, elderly people going back home, pilgrims wearing large hats and carrying decorated walking staffs, children lining up in front of a monk, all dressed in the same black and white outfit.
We approached our temple, walked into the courtyard and let our heavy backpacks hit the ground with a dull thump. Within seconds, we heard footsteps on a wooden deck to our right. A bonze greeted us from the outside corridor of the temple, bowed and waved for us to come in. He invited us to remove our shoes and immediately led us to our room, before leaving us again with another bow and more footsteps, hushed and hasty.
We stood in silence, our cooling sweat like a fan on our skin. The room seemed to be devoid of unnecessary flourish or piece of furniture that would have distracted us from the beauty and peace of the place. Under our bare feet and hands, the floor and the walls felt as if they were made of one unique, continuous material. An outside deck with two chairs and a small table invited us to sit face to face in secret, shielded from view. The mountains around were clad in rolling, low, heavy clouds that murmured delightful promises.
A few minutes later, a younger bonze knocked and came in. He walked to our table and knelt. “Let me explain what your stay with us at Ekoin is all about”, he offered directly in a fluent English that took us aback.
He told us about house rules, meal times, meditation classes, writing classes and the Goma fire ritual that takes place every morning. He invited us to join the other guests and himself for a guided tour after dinner in the Okunoin cemetery.
Okunoin, Kobo Daishi’s tomb, lies deep into the cemetery, surrounded by more than 200 000 Buddhist and Shinto tombs and a forest of cryptomeria trees, often incorrectly designated as “Japanese cedars”. Some of these trees are thousands of years old, and every one of them is protected.
Kobo Daishi is the alleged inventor of the kana syllabary, which today consists of the hiragana and katakana syllabic signs and is used in addition to the kanji, a writing set of signs borrowed from the Chinese to write Japanese. As Kobo Daishi wished it, the kana made the writing of Japanese more straightforward, and ultimately more accessible to the people.
Our bonze unrolled before us two scrolls that he’d been holding along with two large felt pens. Translucent kanji and kana filled the scrolls, written in the vertical, traditional tategaki fashion. During their stay at Ekoin Temple, guests are invited to slowly write over these pre-written words and sink progressively into a quieter state of mind, meditating over the significance of those words while retracing them on the paper. It is called Sutra Writing. Even a gaijin, a foreigner, can do it. The main point of the exercise is to focus all of your mind on one task, a feat much more difficult to achieve than it sounds.
“A quieter state of mind”, I recited. “This is what I’ve always found hard in meditation. It is difficult to stop thinking.”
The bonze smiled with indulgence. “Our mind is like a little monkey”, he declared, mimicking the mischevious animal to make us giggle. “You cannot prevent a monkey from reacting. Therefore, you cannot prevent yourself from thinking. But if you give the monkey a task so intense that you can keep its attention on it, you are left in peace and you mind is cleared, ready for meditation.”
I would wait until the evening before I could concentrate on that task. Half an hour after the bonze left our room, the promising clouds broke out and a heavy rain fell, filling the air with its loudness and the scent of earth. For a whole hour before meditation class, I let my inner monkey dance in that rain, while the accumulated tension of heat, jetlag and backpack straps left my body.
Dinner was served at 5:30. Another bonze came in with two sets of bowls filled with tiny portions of different foods. While transferring the bowls one by one to our table, he explained that the same dinner was served to everyone on the premisces, guests, pilgrims and monks. Every food had its place in that set. Five is a sacred number in all branches of Buddhism, and that meal was composed of five colors, five different types of cooking, and five different kinds of flavor. Overwhelming flavors such as chive and garlic ought to be avoided. Such a meal, if possible, must be vegan. Soy tofu, sesame tofu, marinated vegetables and fruits, fried, baked, steamed… The meal was very filling and every single bite was delicious. It felt like each food had its designated tastebud. In silence, we chewed the last of our restlessness away.
Two hours later, our group left to the Okunoin cemetery in the growing darkness. In Koyasan and more generally in Japan, the Buddhist and Shinto religions usually get along well: there, you will walk by a variety of tombs, decorated with Buddha statues, esoteric symbols and the very iconic tori, those red doorways that eerily open onto thin air. Under the canopy of the cryptomeria, all you will hear at night is the wind brushing past the branches, and series of frantic clicks: the forest is home to a large colony of flying squirrels, and they will make sure to sound the alert as you pass.
As we kept on walking and went deeper into the cemetery, our young bonze told us more about Shingon Buddhism. He kept his voice low and our small group gathered eagerly around his lantern and away from the cemetery shadows. Shingon has very little interest in religious dogma. To our Western, non initiated, atheistic ears, the way Shingon relates to nature sounded like an interesting compromise between religion, metaphysics and science. Our group started to discuss the differences between Shingon and our Western religions. Atheists and believers alike, we discussed how our religions lay a much heavier emphasis on dogma. The bonze did not state his mind. He just calmly told us that there is no need to mull over such differences, because “in every single thing there is Buddha”: in every single thing, there is Goodness.
We were now entering the most sacred part of the cemetery and signs indicated that cameras were not allowed. The bonze started to pray aloud, over the sound of a dozen people rummaging through their backpacks to put their cameras back in their cases. He then invited us all to bow and thank Kobo Daishi to let us visit him.
What we saw at the end of the path, I can only describe with words, in the absence of photographs. Kobo Daishi’s tomb is guarded by a very large temple with an immense roof, under which hang lines of traditional lanterns. A magnificent wooden balcony goes all around the building. Behind the building, there is a wooden fence. It is surrounded with flowers, golden lotuses and votive statues. Behind the fence, there is Kobo Daishi’s tomb: a small, ancient wooden edifice that looks like it is about to collapse.
The legend around Kobo Daishi’s death knows many variants. Our bonze told us one of them. It is said that at the end of his life the bonze entered that building one last time, to meditate and pray for the world. He never came out. Decades later, a bonze came in to find out what had happened to Kobo Daishi, and he found him there, his beard and hair and nails all grown, as if still in meditation. The bonze washed him, cut his beard and hair, and left him with food and water. He closed the building behind him and nobody ever came in again. Today, the tradition says that Kobo Daishi isn’t dead, but is still meditating. Twice a day, local monks bring him a meal and pray there in support of his meditation. Pilgrims come from everywhere. The precarious building has its maintenance done from the outside.
As we were walking back, my mind buzzed with questions. I asked our bonze, “So nobody has ever tried to find out whether Kobo Daishi is actually in there, or if he is dead or alive?” The bonze chuckled. “It doesn’t matter”, he said. I stopped walking. “Excuse me?” He turned around. “It doesn’t matter whether he’s dead or alive. People may believe what they want. What matters is that the legend makes people come. And when they come, they remember and meditate over Kobo Daishi’s message. It’s his message that matters, the remembrance of him. The rest is unimportant.”
When we came back to our room, someone had laid two futon beds on the floor, complete with sheets, pillows and a thin summer duvet. In the morning, another bonze on duty came in with breakfast. Then we joined the Goma fire ritual. At Ekoin Temple, that ancient cleansing ritual is the occasion for the monks to burn the Sutra scrolls filled by the guests and pilgrims. Burning the negative energies and thoughts that have been trapped in your scroll rids your mind of them.
After the ritual, it was time for us to leave. We shouldered our backpacks, put on our shoes and stepped into the courtyard. Our young bonze walked by and greeted us. We thanked him and said farewell. He and I exchanged one last look, one last smile. Here they stood, the atheist and the bonze, their inner monkeys goofing around, playful and happy.