Category Archives: Japan

Fog Haiku

beidge in mist

In a famous story,  the Buddha gave a wordless sermon to his disciples by holding up a white flower. No one in the audience understood the Flower Sermon except Mahakashyapa, who was the only one who simply smiled.   The Buddha nodded approvingly, indicating that he was the only one among the hearers who truly understood.  In the Zen tradition, Mahakashyapa’s smile signifies the direct transmission of wisdom without words.  The photo is of the sutra hall at Honen-in temple in Kyoto. And so:

cloud hidden sutras

the wordless flower sermon

cuts through illusion

linked to carpediem haiku kai

Lost in the Mist Haiku

linked to carpe diem haiku kai

This is a picture of the main gate to Honen-in, a temple of the Pure Land Buddhist sect. It is found in the Northeast corner of Kyoto, just off the Path of Philosophy.  Its precincts are relatively small, but a precious, tranquil oasis.

cropped-cropped-cropped-misty-entrance11.jpg

pure land gateless gate

Nirvana on either side

hiding in the mist

Sacred Arrow Haiku

byudo center Kyoto City Budo Center

Whenever I went into central Kyoto, the martial arts center was one of my favorite stops, especially the range for Kyudo–the Art of Archery.

Eugen Herrigel’s book Zen and the Art of Archery was my very first introduction to Zen Buddhism, and I can still feel the excitement I felt as I read the book in the Spring of 1968.  I don’t think it is accurate to call the Zen arts in general, and the Art of Archery in particular, “religious.” The use of the word “religious” is problematic when applied to Japanese culture.  For most Westerners, the word carries the connotation of rigid dogma, exclusivity, and strict moralism.  None of these characteristics applies consistently to Buddhism or Shinto, which from the Nara period (8th century CE) have been marked with a syncretism only occasionally marred by feuds or Nationalistic cooptation. During the six years I taught in a Japanese University, I had a fascinating time explaining why Westerners took Religion so seriously.

Still, as with all things Zen, there is a marvelous ritual and spirituality in the Art of Archery. Practitioners wear special dress and approach the line with reverential short steps. They first kneel sideways to the targets, and, as in the tea ceremony, every movement is prescribed, from the stringing of the bow, to taking aim, to releasing the arrow:

kyudo kneeling

Here is another picture from the Kyoto Center:

girls kyudo

On every visit, I was transported by the grace and beauty of the Art.  It was truly a marvelous dance.  I was also amazed at the distance to the small target:

target

One day as I was enjoying the artistry of the archers, I noticed a man who seemed about my age (at the time, 72), moving with exceptional grace and apparent lack of control, who hit on or near the bullseye every time.  It was a privilege to watch him, and I felt his centered concentration seep into my own mind and heart.  When he finished, I approached him to offer my gratitude and appreciation.  He was most gracious in return–but then he said “Nansai desuka? (how old are you?)” Nanajunisai desu (72) I answered.”  He smiled.  “Kodomo (a child!)” he said. Pointing to his nose, he said “Kyujunisai desu (I am 92).”   I was swept away by the wonder of artistic mastery and the relativity of age:

grace smoothly flowing

his back straight as an arrow

old man disappears

linked to carpe diem haiku kai

Sacred Rope (Shimenawa)

DO NOT FOLLOW IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE OLD MASTERS,

BUT SEEK WHAT THEY SOUGHT.

BASHO

On carpe diem haiku kai, one of the recent prompts for creating a haiku is the Sacred Rope, or shimenawa in Japanese.  This is one of my favorite symbols in Shinto, and it always warmed my heart when I passed one–in a shrine or even in the countryside.  It is a twisted rope used to denote the sacred energy of a place–such as Mount Fuji:

shimenawa fuji

It is often seen circling a tree both to honor the soul of that tree and to call attention to its unusual life force:

shimenawa tree

The zigzag strips of paper are called Shide, and are often used in purifying ceremonies, attached to a wand (e.g. a gohei) and waved over anything from a building to a new car.

One of the most famous Shimenawa in Japan is pictured by Chèvrefeuille  on his website:

near wedded rocks

These are the Wedded Rocks, or the Married Couple Rocks, found near the Grand Shrine of Ise. The rocks symbolize the Shinto version of the Creator Deities, as told in the 8th century chronicle, Kojiki.   The story goes that the kami Izanagi and his wife Izanami (She Who Invites) were tasked with creating the Japanese islands.  They were given a heavenly spear, and standing on the floating bridge of Heaven, they swirled the waters of the sea.  As drops fell from their spear, the islands of japan were formed. The story continues with the death of Izanami, but their wonderful creative relationship is commemorated at this lovely spot, and sanctified with the shimenawa:

bridge

I will use the following photo for inspiration.  The young woman is called a Miko, a Shrine Maiden who in the olden days was regarded as a shaman.  Today they are young girls who help at the shrine and sometimes perform the sacred dance called the kagura.

Great Shiminawa

a lovely miko.

sheltering shimenawa–

no dogma, just dance

Shingon Pilgrimage

image

 

a weary pilgrim

wades through seas of emptiness

not making a sound

The famous pilgrimage course of Shikoku island celebrates and worships the spirit of Kukai (Kobo Daishi) who founded the esoteric Shingon (True Word) sect of Mahayana Buddhism in Japan.  He lived from 774-835, and founded his head temple on the beautiful Mt. Koya on the main island of Honshu.

I have always loved his name.  The kanji “ku” signifies air, or sky, and “kai” means sea.  The haiku above, therefore, is a play on his name: Sea of Emptiness.

Many years ago, I brought my class of 26 students for an overnight stay in a temple on Koya-san.  We had an unforgettable experience walking through the unique graveyard (Okuno-in) to Kukai’s mausoleum.  It is said that he did not die, but has been in deep meditation for 1000 years, and it is easy to believe in that powerful setting.  We enjoyed a dinner at the temple served by the monks (there are 50 ways to eat your tofu), and then rose early for meditation and chanting.  During the next class at the university, I asked my students to share their impressions of the journey. Everyone had found the experience profoundly moving, but one guy cracked the class up by telling us that the best part for him was staying up half the night drinking beer and sake with the younger monks.   I found it delightful that they could also laugh at their own humanity.

Speaking of which, Kukai was a contemporary of the monk Saicho (767-822) who founded the other early sect of Mahayana Buddhism, Tendai, based on Mt. Hiei.  Although they studied in China at the same time, and worked together in their younger years, they had a falling out concerning the proper training for esoteric studies.  These two great and holy men spent their final years resenting each other, and not speaking.  On the one hand, this is disillusioning.  On the other hand, I find consolation in the human failings of even the exceptional among us.  I wrote about this in the post on Jesus and the fig tree, and it underscores Mary Oliver’s reassurance that “you don’t have to be perfect.”  Whew!