21 May 2008

In, out, and between - pt 1

The last day of the journey at Koyasan offered more than a few opportunities for reflection.

To fill out my nokyo-cho, my book of temple seals, I stopped by the offices that support Shingon Buddhism's public education and mission projects, known as the Kyokai. A foreign visitor's desk has recently been installed and it was one of the friendly and helpful staff there that invited me to participate in a ceremony to take the 10 Precepts of a Bodhisattva. The Christian equivalent might be an oath-taking rite to obey the 10 Commandments.

It appears this ceremony is held daily, at least during the peak spring tourist season, and anyone with 500 yen and 30 minutes to spare can participate. You are asked to fill out a form with your name and place of residence, which is used by the monks to call you to the altar to receive your copy of the vows from a guy in robes who impersonates Kobo Daishi. His performance is enhanced by a lack of light. With just a couple of candles in an otherwise sealed room, its much easier to image the great saint sitting before you and to treat perhaps a little more solemnly his encouragement to take your vows seriously.

Kyokai's main altar (behind which the ceremony took place)

The ceremony itself was not particularly noteworthy, though if you have the opportunity while in Koyasan I'd recommend you give it a try. There was a moment, though, that I won't soon forget, and it had nothing to do with religion or the spiritual.

When I filled out the form with my name and residence, the monk first asked me what country I was from. But when he realized I spoke Japanese, he asked if I lived in Japan. When I replied affirmatively, he said, well, in that case, just tell me the name of the prefecture where you live.

When my name was called during the ceremony, I was Martin of Fukuoka Prefecture. It may not seem like much to those of you who haven't lived outside your own culture, but for those of us that do we are regularly reminded, especially here in Japan, of being different. The reminders are often not deliberate, but foreigners are nevertheless sensitive to distinctions of inside/outside, of us/them. That small moment of inclusion, when I was from Fukuoka and not the USA, was touching, particularly as it was offered at the conclusion of a long and sometimes arduous journey in which the only differences of importance were how fast you could walk or how many blisters you had.

Less than an hour later I was reminded that not everyone is so welcoming.


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