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...