Friday, March 21, 2014

Where the Circle Truly Ends

Almost a year ago,  I was contacted by some people in Canada who, knowing that I had walked and often wrote about the Shikoku pilgrimage, had asked if I'd lead them around the island in April.  I've often joked that since I've yet to finish my own pilgrimage with a traditional return to Koya-san, I must still be on it.  Yet I didn't want that return to be in the context of 'work,' so told Miki that we'd have to go back to pay our respects sometime before.

Monday brought us our chance.  Sora was with us, of course, as we drove south beneath clear blue skies which framed that stunning array of peaks carved out by the Kinokawa.  Many millennia later, these peaks served as the playground for both the gods and those who chased them.  We weaved between two seemly lesser and insignificant mountains, following a tributary of the mighty River Ki, the road ofttimes not more than an ungraded track that tilted us menacingly toward racing waters birthed as snowmelt.      

An early start got us to Koya-san just before lunchtime, and after quickly tracking down the friends who'd come down the day before, we all moved toward Ichinobashi, and the silent world of shadow and moss beyond.  At the second bridge we followed the stream onto what is known as the Nyōnindō Trail.  This particular portion was known as the Sanzan route, so named since it took us along a ridgeline that intersected three peaks of about 1000 meters each.  In following the entire route, you'd eventually go over eight peaks in all, which are held to be the eight petals of the lotus flower that cradles the temples of Koya at its heart.  

But three were enough for today.  The pleasant springtime weather guaranteed sweat on each of the 200-meter ascents toward the individual peaks, then the coolness of mid-March brought on a chill on the way back down.  It was a fair bit of work moving up and down these mounts with my daughter in the child carrier strapped to my back.  Her body weight, combined with that of various things in the pockets of the pack, brought the total close to 25 kilograms, about what I had carried while on the Shikoku pilgrimage four and a half years before.  As I reached the third and final peak, Tenjiku-san, I was glad that the waning light gave us the excuse to put off the remainder of the hike.      

The next morning brought rain and chill, but the flames in the goma ceremony well took care of the latter.  My daughter was taken with the booming thuds of the large drum to our left, but my eyes never left the flames, the flickers spiky and sharp, and often forming the exact shape of Fudo-myo's fiery form.  I sat in amazed witness at his birth, forged once again into existence in the same esoteric ceremonies that have been repeated for more than twelve centuries. 

The rest of the afternoon was grounded in the equally important spiritual practice of trying to keep a two-year old dry and entertained.  This might assume the form of hot tea and noodles, taken in an old cafe whose beams were recycled timber from old temples, joints and notches visible without.  It could also assume the form of walking between temples in the mist, under an umbrella that offered truncated glimpses of the bigger world, a fairly good metaphor for our take on reality at large.  

We walked the wet grounds around Kongobu-ji, then stepped inside to get our nōkyo-chō stamped.  This building serves as the official headquarters of the Shingon sect, and as such it was a young bureaucrat who manipulated the brush, his suit and haircut identical to the others at the desks behind him.  Having now visited the brain center of Koya, all that was left was to visit its heart at Oku-no-in the following day. 

On the way out, we met a young guy who was obviously a walking pilgrim, looking tanned and gaunt and carrying a big pack.  We talked with him as we all walked through the rain.  He was a college student and had chosen to do the pilgrimage in winter since that's when he had the time.  I couldn't imagine going over some of those high passes in waist-deep snow.  We congratulated him as he moved off down the road, and it was only later that I wished I'd given him settai, maybe some cash with which to buy a hot drink on such a lousy day.    
As Miki and Sora went back to our lodgings to rest, I went down to Ekō-in, where we'd stayed the previous night.  (I have nothing but good things to say about this temple and its staff, and will use it as my base for further explorations.)  We wanted to try a temple in a different part of town for our second night, and in our misfortune, we chose Fumon-in.  It proved to be everything we despised while on the pilgrimage, of temples as businesses, and priests as salarymen.  Granted, the temple caretaker was a nice and pleasant man, but the priest was another story.  I was shocked when, as I stepped into the main temple hall to pray, he gruffly asked, "What do you want?"  The monks were little better, rebuffing anything we asked.  Fumon-in is the perfect example of an assembly line temple accommodation geared toward the bus tour market.  Had I seen either the campaign poster or the calendar for the LDP prior to checking in, I'd have taken my mammon elsewhere.

Yet I didn't know this yet, as I sat at Ekō-in for Ajikan mediation. It was quite similar to the practice of zazen, except the eyes are helded on a circular picture of the sanskrit character for "A," which sits atop a lotus.  The seasoned meditator apparently can visualize the embodiment of Dainichi Nyorai.  I only saw the face of a demented cow.

The third and final day rewarded us once again with good weather.  We took the bus up to Nyonindō, and prayed to the statue of En-no-gyoja there for a safe hike.  We entered the forest behind the hall, taking care not to slip on the wet leaves and pine branches.  The trail was narrow as it ran up and down the rivulet valleys that striated the highland that hold Koya town.  It wasn't long before we entered town proper again, stepping around a torii that had been brought down by the harshness of winter.  After a number of suburban zigzags we found the trail that had led us off Tenjikusan two days before.  Atop once again, we prayed to the seated deity in its little hut, then descended into the lotus.  

Tiled roofs and soft light.  Oku-no-in.  We crossed a quick moving stream, then climbed the set of steps that led us directly to where Taishi sits in eternal mediation.  A monk was offering incense and chanting.  We stood here for a moment, quietly, almost surprised at where we were.  Then we too lit our candles, coaxed our daughter to place incense into the bed of fallen ash that was oh so many prayers.  Miki suggested we chant the Heart Sutra, but neither of us had thought to bring a sutra book.  I started to look for a copy of the verse on my smart phone, before quickly realizing how pathetic that was.  So we chanted from memory the best we could, fudging it in some spots.   But at least it was from the heart.

As if on cue, a large group of bus pilgrims came up, pushing and bustling, and I smiled at the irony. We escaped into the darkness of the Hondo.  The booming voice of a priest chanting filled the hall.  Sora was funny here, not wanting to leave our side.  Once back out amongst the statues and trees, she ran happily up the tiled walk, dumping water on the feet of the Jizos.  Then we three stepped up to get our final nōkyo.  With one gentle but commanding brushstroke, our pilgrimage came to an end.  

On the turntable:  Elton John, "Greatest Hits"
On the nighttable:  D.T. Suzuki, "Manual of Zen Buddhism"