The day I shaved my beard off (Japan 2014 Day 6.2)

25 July 2014 — Overnight I have a dream with my mother in it. Ever since I read a book of Jung’s writings about dreams – over a decade ago in the Scottish highlands – I’ve taken my parents appearing in my dreams as representatives of my relationship with the two countervailing forces that unite us all: yin/yang, force/yield, pull/pull, masculine/feminine, anima/animus, action/inaction – there are seemingly endless interpretations of these binary polarities. My relationship with my dream mother felt strange, and wrong, so I take it as sign from my unconscious that my balance is off-kilter.

I feel this keenly in the morning, getting on the wrong train twice then getting off the train and wandering in the wrong direction trying to find Atsuta Shrine. I starting asking locals directions in broken Japanese. Things pick up when I meet former school principal Shoji, and then retired engineer Hishiyaki, which I wrote about last week. Meeting the gods of Japan I become deeply impressed with the simple nature-loving logic underpinning Shinto.

After visiting Atsuta Shrine, I return to Nagoya, pick up my luggage and start the multi-stop trek to Koya-san – a small mountain town in Wakayama prefecture and the centre of Shingon esoteric Buddhism in Japan. After the multiple hiccups in the morning on one train line, the afternoon goes off without a hitch – the Shinkansen from Nagoya to Osaka followed by four changes onto regional trains, a cable car up the mountain and then a bus ride from the cable car station into town.

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Koyasan is still a working temple area, and the only accommodation in town is in Buddhist temples, hosted by young Buddhist monks with varying levels of English. In the past it was only the temples in town and only men lived there, at each of the seven entrances to the area via various mountain paths there used to be a single women’s monasteries for the devout without penises. It’s slightly more developed these days, with a handful of souvenir shops, restaurants, a mechanic, service station and primary school. High school students still travel down the mountain in the cable car every morning.

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The meals in the temple lodgings are all vegetarian, but served in multiple dishes on trays that are brought to your room. The rules are relaxed enough that I can order a beer with dinner. I’d been advised that the sesame tofu would be fabulous, and it was.

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140715_Koyasan_08_webAfter dinner i speed down to the historic (pre-cable-car) gate before sunset, then power walk back down to the other end of town, about fifteen minutes, to catch the beginning of the night tour of Okuno-in  – the two kilometre long graveyard which was one of the main reasons I came to Koya-san.

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It’s a large group – there’s a bunch of Americans on some kind of group holiday – and our guide is a monk named Noburo. The tour is fascinating, both for the insight into the history of the graves (more on that tomorrow) and for the introduction to Kukai, known after his ‘death’ as Kobo Daishi – the founder of Shingon Buddhism.

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The guy has an impressive CV. Before becoming a monk he was a writer, poet, and civil servant. Kukai is apparently responsible for introducing the first public school to Japan, establishing onsens (public baths) across the country and coming up with the two Japanese kana scripts – hiragana and katakana. Bit of an over-achiever really.

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At the end of the graveyard is the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, where photos are not allowed. the furthest building from the beginning of the complex is a small wooden hall, which he walked into in 835AD and began ‘eternal meditation’. No one ever goes in there and the superstitious believe he’s still in there, meditating. The child in me wants to breaks over 1200 years of tradition, climb the barrier and see if Kukai is still actually there, meditating. The sceptic says don’t be a child.

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It’s a very affecting and serene place, especially at night, and despite the size of the group I can feel why Kukai chose this spot to establish his final resting place. Noburo tells us about a walking meditation – for those who want the assistance of the Bodhisattvas (enlightened beings) – where you stand in front of Kukai’s hall, make your wish of what you want help with, bow and then walk 15-20m to a metre tall wishing stone, that you touch, repeating your wish, then walk back to the front of Kukai’s resting hall. Repeat 100 times to get assistance in your goal.

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To me this repetitive and mildly monotonous task sounds like a good way to test someone’s dedication, discipline and resolve. Just like the experience with Shinto earlier in the day, I’m struck by the profound simplicity of this type of Buddhism. Another one of Kobo Daishi’s recommended meditations is cleaning your house or room – so that what you see reflects what you want.

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I resolve to do the walking meditation the following evening, before I return to my temple accommodation, bathe and then shave off my beard.

“Holy shit, that was an amazing evening,” I write in my journal before heading off to bed.

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