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I just got back from Koyasan. It was an amazing experience.

The day we arrived the head monk gave us a speech about the mandalas in the Kongobuji temple of Koyasan. There was a very impressive ceremony and dancing by women from the temple at the end. We all sat around inside the main temple room and listened. (I snuck around a bit and took pictures.) A magazine, AERA, is doing a story about me and the cameraman was also snooping around taking pictures of me taking pictures of stuff.

Koyasan only has temples and no hotels, but many of the temples are a lot like nice Japanese ryokan. The one we stayed at was beautiful.

The next morning, there was a panel lead by Nakazawa-san, a famous expert on religion, Miyazaki-san, a monk from Koyasan and Pema Gyalpo Gyari, the liaison for the Dali Lama and a Tibetan. Here are some notes from the panel. It is all a bunch of significant trivia. I wonder if I should call it signifia... It's probably not a good idea for me to try to come up with words in the middle of the night... anyway.

Buddha was the son of a destroyed state so like the Jews and the Christians, he taught not to worship idols and things since that's a good way to get caught in a hostile state.

When the Taliban bombed the statues in Afghanistan, many Japanese monks were indifferent, saying only, "well it doesn't really matter if we have statues."

Miyazaki-san went as far as to say, blowing up the big Buddha in Nara may be a good thing for Buddhism in Japan.

The mandala is also just a representation of the impression of where Buddha meditated. It is a tool for meditation and NOT something to worship. Therefore, like idols, it doesn't really matter if we have them or not. What is important is knowing one's self.

The Tibetans teach from the Book of the Dead about life. Death is one of the most important things to teach. Japanese Buddhist universities do not teach enough about death. Monks are live half way between the world of the dead and the world of the living and that should be their primary job.

Japanese temples were all originally set up to keep graves and the most important task of a monk is to help the living pass to the world of the dead.

Koyasan which is basically graves, trees and a training ground for the soul is being considered for a position as a world treasure. The monk thought it would be bad. Koyasan really don’t have anything and the attention would probably be detrimental. The main asset physically is the graves of most of the emperors and famous people, letting everyone know that EVERYONE dies.

Koyasan was originally a Shinto shrine that was ovetaken by Buddhists. This is a little known/publicized fact. On the other hand, without the entry of Buddhism, Shinto would probably not have taken the more organized form it has taken today.

They talked about the fact that Hirofumi Ito studied religion of the West and decided that one God and a unified religion were necessary for a strong nation. He split Shinto and Buddhism and made the Emperor the God of the Shinto religion, even until the then the Emperor was a great believer of Buddhism and most of them were buried at Koyasan. Then, Japan lost the war, the Emperor lost his power and Japan became atheist.

Another point was that the world "religion" was imported during the Meiji Restoration and is a new word in Japan. Japan referred to the Way of Buddha or the Way of Shinto and believed in things, but organized religion was not defined until Japan started to copy the west.

Another interested point was that Japan was the only country where Buddhists had graves. The monk said that he thought it was to keep the dead people from coming back. The more important the person, the bigger the grave. ;-) Pema said that he thought Japanese funerals where everyone talked about the person while the monk was trying to send them on their way was rude since it probably made it difficult to go to the other side.

One other interesting piece of information was that Tibetan Buddhists don’t kill mosquitos. They blow them off their bodies. Also, Pema told us that he was less concerned at eating whale than small fish since each life is precious and one life to feed many is better than many lives to feed one...

Pictures from Koyasan.

6 Comments

Had lunch yesterday with Mr. Unno, a partner of Accenture. His wife is Taiwanese. He said that they have graves in Taiwan. So there goes that theory. One thing we discussed was that maybe it was the influence of the Japanese occupation...

Dear Joi,
I too have been to Koyasan and I found your discussion interesting. Christianity and Islam are two religions that have a problem with idolatry. I really appreciated the expressed intention of the speakers to keep Buddhism alive and real. I also found the point about the Tibetan Book of the dead accurate. I had four friends die during my twenties and so I found myself at university in philosophy class wanting to know about Descartes and "I think therefore I am." I really had an urgent desire to know what happened to your spirit/ soul after one died. It was a little deep for most people at that age. Then In my thirties, after graduating from my first degree, I found myself reading from a Buddhist Bible while I waited for my two children at swimming lessons. I found the readings really intellingent and I continue to now. Then at forty-four (four years ago) my mother died. I brought the Tibetan Book of the Dead to her hospital room and ten minutes later the nurses decided to turn off the life support system. I attempted to go to a temple once, but the service was in Cantonese (even though it was a Tibetan Temple). I found the experience of being in the temple alienating compared to reading books by the Dalai Lama and I did not return to the temple. I just kept reading the books. So when I went to Koyasan, I was really hoping to begin some form of practice. Koyasan helped me do that. I live in Canada and there are Jodo Shin and Tibetan and Chinese buddhist temples here, but no Shingon temples. I initially had a really intellectual approach and I sometimes wish that I had more than that, but I really agree with what you said in your notes. Buddhism is about meditating (in the morning it is easier I find) and mind training and learning how to master the ego. I do not have a shrine in my home and I have to go to Koyasan to go to a temple, but that is not a problem for me. I meditate in the very early morning. Then I go to work or I do some work at home. I recite the daily service for the laity in the evening (I have put together a binder with the service and some prayers and dedications of merit etc. I have recently acquired two pictures : one is if a group of monks at Koyasan and the other is of Okinoin. I put them both in my binder. If I want more training I will have to return to Koyasan, but I am more likely to return there when one of our relatives dies and I or one of my family members are really struggling with the issue of the death of a parent or grandparent. I found reading Buddhist literature interesting, but there came a point where I needed to be able to practice. It had to be real/authentic, not just something that you read about in books that you discard. I have found that so far buddhism has given me some answers to questions that I was looking for and some skills for approaching life and death, and some answers about the meaning of life and what is really important. As we age we start thinking about these things. I was more interested in absorbing the atmosphere on the mountain and the atmospere of Okinoin than I was in the temples when I was on Mt. Koya. I attended the morning celebration at Shojoshin-in and I found it a lot less alienating than I did the first time that I was in a temple. I found myself more able to relax and enjoy the experience and I read about the ceremony later and to my surprise it included the Heart Sutra and chants about all the Buddhas including Avalokitesvara and Shayamuni Buddha. And now I have another Bodhisattva to pray to : Kobo Daishi. I sometimes do not know what to do next, but I get over it. I read an article about Japanese self -mummification and I struggled with the idea for a while until I realized that the advice that I got from a Japanese monk was appropriate. He told me to listen to what the Japanese had to say about themselves and not what others have to say about the Japanese. What difference does it make whether one self-mummifies or someones student's mummify one's body after death? People have the right to die as they see fit. I still think that the aspiration to not cross over to the other side until all other sentient beings do before you is a noble aspiration. "Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha." And when I meditate in the early morning with my eyes closed and I do nothing but listen to my breath, after a while the difference between self and other no longer exists for a while.

I left a long comment yesterday. I wanted to add that Buddhism teaches about death, but that is really part of life : if one does not think about some things like death, then one learns to lead an unexamined life. My parents and grandparents were all Christians, but they were not particularly religious. Westerners think that it is a good thing that the church and state are separated. People cannot be forced to practice religion : they have to want to practice. Japan is not having any less of a spiritual crisis than the west : there are not any where near enough Catholic priests. We are told that in the west the younger generation are changing religions at a faster rate than before. It is not that they are not seeking religion, but it is no longer the case that one inherits one's religion from one's parents period. People are making a distinction between organized religion and spirituality. I believe that the people are heaving a spiritual crisis of sorts due to the emergence of science.

I just read about some Japanese monks that are trying to attract the attention of the Japanese youth. I just wanted to say that the Dalai Lama was in the Canadian city where I live and he spoke to the youth in a large group : my college age daughter went to listen to the Dalai Lama as did many of her friends. I think that this was a brilliant idea. A stadium full of students went to see the Dalai Lama. If anyone is going to reach some of these young people and convince them that it is important for their generation to try not to repeat the mistakes of the past, I think the Dalai Lama is a great example of one who truly seeks peaceful solutions. The Dalai Lama was brought to the city to attend a conference on solving world problems. I think that Buddhist monks have a great deal to contribute to the world and to youth, even if they do it on a smaller scale than the Dalai Lama. Do not give up. It is worth trying to reach out to the youth of today. Everyone will benefit from this.

The university in the Canadian city where I live has been taken off the list of accredited universities for China. People are saying that it happened because the university hosted the Dalai Lama in September 2009. The Dalai Lama will be visiting Obama when he goes to the U.S. soon. Apparently China does not like that idea either.

The Dalai Lama has talked to President Obama today. The president has promised to support the Dalai Lama and the cause of more rights for Tibet. Finally.

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