5-7 June 2002:Koya-san is a well-forested mountain-top Shingon Buddhist monastery town. Deserted by night, except for the sounds of the cars that had been chopped up down the street, extra seats removed, inside paneling stripped, stereos ripped out, cars reduced to minimal weight for racing. At night you could hear their great engines revved, careening around the narrow mountain top, where many holy men are buried and their followers prostrate chanting daily.
My mobile phone worked and I took advantage to consult with an excellent contemporary culture theorist and Japanese classical historian based in the Bay Area. Aside from that though, my wireless net connection was down and I was left with a deaf mute laptop and D.T. Suzuki's Teaching of Buddha. This I read in my traditional Japanese room; straw mats, no chairs, nothing to lean on but walls - just cushions on a straw mat floor. How did these people sit? wondered my Mom, mystified. I lay around and moved around in various positions, probably a healthier way to read than to simply lay in a ball on a couch.
According to the opening of the book, Buddha was born as an elephant entered his Mom's womb, and then a visiting mystic came to her when he popped out; sounded like a bit of immaculate conception and three kings. It seemed artificial, tacked on compared to the plain speaking of the lotus sutra. So it seems to be universal that people wonder about deep things, make some general statements, their buddies revere them and the statements, and see it to their advantage somehow to add all sorts of superfluous magic hoo-hah. I was always so bothered by the idea that people believed literally that Jesus was incarnate godson with power to save them, I couldn't get past my incredulity to actually give his words time. So I tried to get to the Lotus Sutra again; staying at a temple seems to be the proper place to re-read it. But I was amused and distracted by all the contortions of one old Indian dude's life as spun out in this Gideon's Bible equivalent - a book translated for guests of some Japanese hotels all over this country. Why can't people just share observations about human conduct without dressing it up with divine validation? I guess that's like asking, why do I use tables on my web site? Just that the stakes seem less high in my case.
Perhaps I was expecting more from the morning service, after all, Buddhism seemed to me a sort of intellectual religion, debating truth in Koan, sort-of riddles designed to reduce the capacity of the mind to process rationally and instead force it to acknowledge impossibility and flexibility and irrelevance. But that may only be Zen, or that may only be the Zen I found in cash register-sized books in America. This Buddhism here at Koya-san's Ichijo temple was young men with shaved heads constantly readjusting their long robes, kneeling in front of elaborate golden statues and lanterns, secrets nested in gilded shrines, room half thick with incense smoke, droning, chanting sentences in a language now unspoken. The feeling of the large bell bowl and the combined two voices, low and less low rang in my chest to complement with something sweet, strong and resonant the acute pain I felt in my knees unaccustomed to that much kneeling. It was definitely a mood and I could feel swept away. But it wasn't directly engaging my capacity to process my world.
Koya-san was founded by Kukai (aka Kobo Daishi), a Japanese guy who took a boat to China in 800 something and brought back some new Buddhism. It was a form of Buddhism that advocated taking ahold of your responsibility for enlightenment in this life. It was a form of Buddhism that integrated all manner of local gods and dieties, picked up in the long journey Buddhism had taken between China and India. Accordingly, Buddhism at Koya-san would appear to be as nuanced and lively as the pantheon of Greek dieties. All around are temples to this God and that Goddess who contributed somehow to Kukai's efforts; proof that Buddhism is a great religion if only for its evolved flexibility and willingness to co-exist with pre-existing traditions. There's various levels of Buddhahood, carefully articulated roles for each appointed Buddha to play. So it likely mirrored the rigid social structure of Japan at that time.
Koya-san boasts temples that attract legions of pilgrims say the tour books; those writers must have been visiting only on weekends or holy-days. Mom and I would leave our temple just after dinner, around seven PM and we would walk through aged trees surrounding large old wood monuments. Half an hour would go by without another person in sight.
Wandering amidst the tall trees blocking shading some old weathered tombs and fallen stones from some sun in which bugs drifted lazily, I thought I was in a set from a video game, the final stage of the second level, when the hero goes into the village to find it empty and only in the town graveyard, which in this case seems impossibly large, the hero finds legions of undead warriors struggling from decrepid but achingly beautiful tombs hoping to reclaim life with living blood. The undead warriors were absent; bucolic peace ruled the day. And it was not busy when my Mom and I walked with 200,000 dead - a few pilgrims in shirts stamped for each temple they'd seen, carrying staffs with bells. Otherwise we had stretches of fifteen minutes of silence with cold stone and the teeming quiet plants growing between it.
Kobo Daishi's stature has meant that Japanese buddhists with money or connections want to be buried near him, since it's rumoured that he's been in a state of meditation quietly on the mountaintop for over 1000 years, and when he gets ready to pass over into the great monastery in the sky, he'll take everybody with him, at least everybody who has a tooth, a lock of hair, or some ashes up on the mountain. All them folks get to go straight to the great good place with him. I couldn't stop working over the refrain to Richie Rich's tune "Do G's Get to Go to Heaven?"
The graves ran on for miles. Graves teeming on hills around you. Graves waiting down silent, plant-encroached trails. Graves leaning left nearly falling over. Graves adorned with fresh pine boughs. Many adhere to a traditional style; stupas, miniaturized Japanese spiritual architectures, statues of Buddhas and priests. And also symbols. The most lively of these were for companies, companies who have purchased plots of land on top of Koya-san, so their employees might be assured that they will more speedily find themselves working for the company in the sky some day. Accordingly, there are grave monuments that are giant cups of coffee (UCC). One statue featured two factory workers, and at their feet, the back plate logo of a car and a steering wheel. Nearby, a giant metal rocket sat on top of a grave stone.
Visitors may feel magnificently dwarfed not only by the cluttered stacks of human death accounting but by the tall proud trees. Kobo Daishi's thousand years of influence have protected this forest, making for a lovely mix of dead humans and flourishing plant life. I wanted to come back at night, to wander amidst those trees in night fog with only moon would be enough of a superstition moment, but add the quiet voices of 200,000 dead would be both Stevie Wonder and Rick James. The place was too big to lock down, and I was curious to see what else I might find in this vast necropolis by night. But my temple was secured each night at 9pm, the giant wooden gate swung shut and barred as though to repel any invaders. I gave some thought to sneaking out, but time was not yet right for me to act as Yoshitsune and seek out a tengu.
[These photos were taken with an Eyeplate, as I'd misplaced my more able-bodied camera.]