In Japan, Buddhist and Shinto sacred spaces are so interwoven throughout the city, that you can be forgiven for confusing the two. While the two initially conflicted, they have since found a way to “co-exist and even complement each other,” according to Japan-Guide. The Shinto shrines were all new to me, which is why I posted on them first. They provide the people with both hope and comfort, thanks to their ever-present world of spirits.
Buddhism is more familiar to me. I began studying the teachings of the Buddha while an exchange student in Thailand, continued to meditate at Wat Thai in Washington, D.C., and have since taught 9th graders about the origins and practices of Buddhism for almost twenty years.
One of our favorite temples was one that most guidebooks overlooked. This was especially surprising since it sits only blocks from the Kyoto train station: Higashi Honganji Temple. We kept passing it in the bus, though, and I finally broke down and said, “It’s too big to ignore. Let’s go in.”
The temple was magnificent. It was made of grand beams that had been hauled down the mountains by the faithful. Inside, entire rooms were gilded in gold leaf, and the rows tatami mats were the biggest I’ve ever seen.
Higashi Honganji is part of the Pure Land Buddhism sect, the one my students find the most perplexing. After we learn all about how the Buddha instructs us to break our fetters to the material world, here comes Pure Land that offers a beautiful, sensuous nirvana with trees made out of diamonds and pearls. How do you get there? By chanting the name of the heavenly Amitabha Buddha enough times, paying to have sutras copied, or other mystical rituals. The BBC says of Pure Land: “Pure Land Buddhism offers a way to enlightenment for people who can’t handle the subtleties of meditation, endure long rituals, or just live especially good lives.”
The other extreme is Zen Buddhism, which eschews the otherworldly and tells you to look inside yourself for the answers. Any activity can provide you with the opportunity for meditation, and even a simple lesson or riddle (called a koan) might spontaneously propel you to enlightenment. For example, Chinese Zen master Linji Yixuan said: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Wait, really? Well, no, not really, because murder is against the Five Precepts, but you must kill your attachment to the Buddha, and, in fact, not see him as the Buddha but as a mortal man like the rest of us. Any and all attachment causes dissatisfaction and disappointment in life (dukkha).
Zen gardens serve this purpose. You spend all your time building a cone of sand, like at the Ginkakuji temple above, but the real point is to destroy it once it’s finished. This is the only way to prove your detachment. Yeah, it’s really hard.
My biggest attachment while traveling is to my camera. My husband had to regularly remind me not to see Japan from behind a lens. (I use a Fuji X20, in case you were wondering. It’s awesome.) Many temples ask you not to take photos inside, which I understand because flash can cause damage over time to antiquities, and people taking selfies are annoying. However, I was not using flash, nor taking a selfie, and my camera can be totally silent, so…
I broke the rules. Sorry. The Buddha would be very disappointed in me. But there was just so much to photograph. I will finish this post with the gorgeous Kinkakuji Temple, northwest of Kyoto center. Go in peace, my friend.