Friday, September 30, 2011

Kyoto: The Moss Temple

We are back at Daishin-in, where we stayed the first night. The lodgings here are much simpler, more traditional temple lodgings than those at Chi'on-in. No electronic chimes, no big screen television in the lobby (no lobby, for that matter) broadcasting the temple services. There is a beautiful garden, and simple but beautifully presented vegetarian meals for breakfast. I'm going to admit I prefer this to the more modern space any day.

This morning we went to the bamboo forest, an area of Kyoto with several Shinto shrines. We explored one of the shrines here looking at the differences between Buddhist architectures and Shinto spaces. This particular shrine was used by people seeking to be granted love and academic advancement, everything a Bryn Mawr woman might want! It's hot and steamy here, so the walk up to the ridge top left us soggy, making a stop for ice cream at a small shop a welcome treat. Green tea, kiwi, brown tea and vanilla were the flavors on tap.

The Moss Temple was next on our agenda, to see its famous gardens and to try our hand at contemplative calligraphy. Hank had written to them in the summer, asking if we might visit. (You can't visit without a written invitation in return, they check your letter at the gate!) Before touring the garden, we sat in the main hall for a short service, then copied by hand the heart sutra using a traditional ink brush and block ink. It took us about 45 minutes to copy the entire 278 characters in the sutra. (Yuxin's work in progess is in the photo.)

The garden is an amazing place, laid out by a famous 16th century landscape artist. We walked the garden, attentive to some of the ways to "read" the garden that we had learned from our conversation with Taka at Shuko-in yesterday. What are the embedded clues as to the height should you be looking at this from, how are particular views framed both with objects and in terms of contrast between light areas and darker one, how does the composition change as you walk through the space? I walked the garden path in the reverse direction with Tiffany (who is making the trip with a broken foot and on crutches - the hike up to the small hermit's hut at the top which the rest of the group was making seemed unwise for her foot and my knee). The garden seemed like a very different space when viewed in the other direction. It's a quite silent space, people naturally lower their voices and the moss seems to muffle the noises.

From there we walked to Jizo-in, the very still, very silent place we washed up last year, where we sat and meditated. Even after we were done, people were reluctant to break the silence, and continued to enjoy the stillness of the spot. I had left my pilgrim's book with the monk down at the entrance, and as we finally gathered ourselves to walk back to the bus, he appeared to be sure I would not forget it.

Each temple has its own stamp, and you can get them to stamp your book, then brush in the name of the temple, the main hall and the date of your visit - essentially a proof that you were really there. The stamp for the Moss temple is particularly beautiful.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Kyoto: Up the mountain

We began our second full day in Kyoto early, rising at 5:10 to a three tone chime in our rooms. We stayed last night at Chois-in temple, which is celebrating its 800th year since its founding. Despite the age of the temple, the lodgings were ultra modern, and looked like a high end boutique hotel, with a few twists. Like the PA system in the room, and an escort up to the top of the hill for morning services.

We followed our silent escort up the hill, the sky barely touched by dawn and the crows screeching to announce the new day. The ceremony was elaborate and our group comprised most of the observers. It ended with a sermon on a text given by a monk, perched on a seat above the group. Alas most of us could not understand a word of what turned out to me a moving forty minute sermon. Ceremonies and all lasted almost 2 hours -- utterly worth it for the walk back through the uncrowded grounds in the morning light.

From Chois-in we took the bus to a temple in the hills above Kyoto. No buses can make it up the hill, so we walked up a small street crowded with shops and school children on field trips. Many of the children had an assignment to find a foreigner and practice their English. Several stopped us and tried out their English on us, then presented us with a small gift (a note and a piece of origami wrapped nicely in a bag). The protocol for these conversations includes taking photos by both parties.

Underneath one of the images in the shrine at the top was a tunnel which wound down into total darkness. The experience was meant to evoke the womb. Woe unto anyone who lets go of the railing (Hank) as you can get quite disoriented in that kind of darkness. At the very bottom is a lovely stone with a single character on it. The idea is to stop and lay your hand on the stone and pray -- then get back out again. It reminded me a great deal of the Taddeo Ando work we saw in Naoshime (Dark Side of the Moon) in June.

The views from the top were spectacular, the whole of modern Kyoto laid out below, the ancient monastic enclave in the foreground.

After a stop for lunch, where people bravely pushed their envelope on what they might eat and dug delightedly into desert, we returned to the temple complex where we are staying (Myoshin-ji) to hear some more about Zen meditation from Takafumi Kawakami, the abbot of the Shuko-in temple there. We learned a bit more about the "stick of compassion" and the role it might play in releasing tension during meditation, as well as had an interesting discussion about the external formalities of Zen meditation versus the interal and/or spiritual effects.

Takafumi-san gave us a wonderful tour of the cloister itself. There are some magnificent screens, and we were allowed to sit in front of them, as well as a dry garden. It was fascinating to experiment with different levels at which to view the garden, and with different angles of view.

Shuko-in houses a bell taken from the oldest church in the Kyoto area, founded by the Jesuits in 1576. The bells dates to 1577 and was taken to Shuko-in after Christianity was supressed in Japan. The bell was rescued again during WW II by the current abbot's grandfather, hidden away to keep it from being melted down for ammunition. He rang the bell for us, and we took a photo to send to the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, where we had visited earlier this semester.

We had dinner and did a bit of shopping in the Gion district. Baths felt amazing after such a long day. Now I am writing this in front of the abbot's garden, listening to a gentle rain fall.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Kyoto: Sitting Zen

The bus dropped us off the first night in a dark parking lot adjacent to a temple complex. A young lady from the temptle where we were staying came out to fetch us, and led us through a series of narrow lantern lit walks running between cloister walls. It was a relief to walk through the gate of the temple where we were staying, crossing a small bridge through a garden. We piled into the entry way, trading our shoes for slippers.

Our rooms were above the abbot's garden (the abbot's quarters are now on the other side of the temple, but the room below us is the tradtiional 10 square foot room that the abbot woudl have occupied). It's a beautiful dry garden, and I sat there to meditate last night.

We returned to the Zen temple we visited in the spring, Zuiho’in  where the abbot talked to us about meditation and then led us in a short zazen sitting. We then explored the gardens and saw the tea room (one of the very first tea rooms created). The rock garden at Zuiho’in is as magnificent in many ways as the iconic one at Ryoan-ji, the rocks piled up to represent tall waves.

From Zuiho-in we went to Ryona-ji, to sit in front of what is probably the most famous of the Zen dry gardens (if you have a Mac, the garden wall is one of the choices for a background screen). It's not a quiet spot, the parking lot is generally packed with buses of school children and tourists, but the garden itself is a very stilling sight.

We had lunch in a tiny restaraunt, 14 seats for the 14 of us. We managed to order, the cook careful be sure that we had a plate each. Udon and donburi (rice bowls topped with meat and egg, the one I had was called "mother and child" — chicken and egg, while Yuxin enjoyed "strangers" — beef and egg. The food was good and quick, and the cook made us a bowl of curry to share.

From there it was back to the Daitoko-ji complex, to Daisen-in for another round of conversation about Zen meditation and a chance to sit. We sat zazen for 30 minutes, the abbot complimented us on our ability to sit silent and still for that length of time, most visitors can't manage that. Those who chose had the opportunity to try the methods of correction employed in training Zen monks, a stick that can be used to strike the back to remind you of the correct position, or held behind you to help find the correct position. It makes a loud noise when used in the former way! Our time there finished with a tour of the rock gardens that surrounds the shrine to the founder, which features a garden with no large rocks at all and two cones of stones amid the raked waves, and another garden with waterfalls of stones and 100 placed rocks. We stopped for a cup of matcha (whished green tea) and sweet cinnamon cookies.

Now we are for dinner and a bath.

On the ground

We have arrived in Kyoto, going from modern Kansai to a temple lodging in Kyoto. Arrving after the temple is usually closed, we wound our way through the precints, in the dark, past one immaculate rock garden. We're taking turns negotating the baths - after the long flight the thought of soaking in all that hot water was more appealing to everyone than tea and a sweet snack!

The group ready to depart from JFK.