Monday, February 28, 2011

Pilgrim's Progress

The Senso-ji in the Asakusa neighbourhood of Tokyo is one of the city's few sights still recognizable from the mid-nineteenth century--albeit by way of a reconstruction from the 1960's. The southern gate, Kaminarimon, in which hangs the largest--and most celebrated--paper lantern in Japan, leads to an avenue of shops whose ramrod-straight perspective lines call Hiroshige's masterpiece woodcuts immediately to mind. Another gate at the promenade's north end opens onto the temple forecourt.

On the Sunday of the Tokyo Marathon, the compound teems with devotees and sightseers, the distinctions between them blurring in a way they haven't for many generations in the great churches of Europe; or maybe, more accurately, people are simply more animated and having more fun. For an offering of 100 yen, you can shake a numbered stick out of a metal cylinder while you pray your petition, then open a corresponding wooden drawer and retrieve a prediction of the outcome. I'm glad I wasn't praying very earnestly or for anything of real import, because I drew Number 74: "Your request will not be granted. The sick patient is hopeless. The lost article will not be found. The person you wait for will not come. Building a new home and removal are both bad. Marriage of any kind, to start a new trip and new employment are all bad." (Clearly, I might as well have been praying for social democracy in America.)

The Senso-ji is a Buddhist shrine to Kannon. Her tiny golden statue was miraculously fished from the nearby Sumida River in the seventh century. Set back to the right of the main temple stands a Shinto shrine commemorating the discovery. A fountain offers purification for devotees of both holy places: ladle the limpid water over your left hand, then over your right, then rinse your mouth and spit into the sluice below the great basin.

Centered in the forecourt below the temple steps stands a great roofed incense burner of cast bronze. Visitors fan the smoke toward their faces and over their heads and shoulders. A devout man holds up his bundle of incense sticks, bowing to the four directions before adding them to the plethora already offered. Smoke partially obscures the faces of those leaning in from the far side. Less piously--but who can tell?--another man takes a photo of his girlfriend as she stands with one hand on the rim facing his camera.

Atop the temple steps, worshippers fling coins from three or four yards back, sometimes over the heads of those standing further forward, into the slat-topped coffer set before the inner sanctuary, then raise their hands palm to palm in reverence.

Repair to the Yagoda Hall west of the main temple and you can commission a calligrapher to commemorate the date of your visit in an accordian-fold book you've brought with you; or can buy a book at the stall for the purpose.

At the far west side of the precinct you can graze on street food for lunch--grilled squid balls, or a rice-gluten cake topped with seaweed and glazed in tamari, or a flattened dumpling of sweet red bean paste deep-fried at a cart parked in front of a plum tree flowering riotously on a bright afternoon at the end of February.

Everywhere you turn, piety shades into fun, and fun into piety, while Western Christianity mostly lost track of such gradations five centuries ago. Creeds intermingle between Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple in ways unthinkable to most monotheists. Kannon herself not only offers an image of the feminine Divine, but in the historical progress of her cult opens the door to the transsexual Divine. Often referred to as the Goddess of Mercy, she is more properly the Boddhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara according to his Sanskrit origins, who in descending the Himalayas into China with the spread of Buddhism underwent an MTF sex change to become Kwan-Yin. She is Ocean of Wisdom and Mother of all who pass through these precincts, whether in laughter, curiosity, hope, or prayer.

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