Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Groping in the Dark

Daisho-in sits atop a rise at the west end of Miyajima village, which stretches along the shore of the best-known island of the Inland Sea. Below, at water’s edge–in fact floating on the waves at high tide–stands Itsukushima Shrine, whose great ceremonial gate is one of the most photographed sights in Japan. Twenty-seven kilometers to the east, an atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima sixty-six years ago this August.

Curving up the slope to the left of the temple’s main lower gate commences a trail to the top of Mt. Misen. In about ninety minutes you can walk it to a small hall just down from the peak, in which a fire smoulders that was first lit in the eighth century by Kobo Daishi, the wide-roving saint who brought Shingon Buddhism to Japan. It’s hard in central Japan not to cross Kobo Daishi’s many paths; he was the founder as well of the eighty-eight temples that ring the island of Shikoku with a 1000-kilometer pilgrimage route.

A stone staircase ascends from Daisho-in’s entrance to its upper gate and main court. Turning ranks of prayer wheels mounted beneath the banisters, you gain the merit of reciting the sutras embossed on their cylindrical surface. Further stairs lead from the central plaza to more shrines and halls, including a resting place of Kobo Daishi himself. The sound of chanting to a rapid, regular drumbeat reverberates from one of these, and from the loudspeakers that broadcast it to the whole complex.

In the Kannon Hall, a large ritually displayed photo of the Dalai Lama belongs here by virtue of his status as the living incarnation of Avalokiteshvara-Kannon. It also attests the temple’s solidarity with Tibetan Buddhism in its struggle for survival against the Chinese government's campaign of cultural genocide, as does the sand mandala made by visiting Tibetan monks, displayed beneath an acrylic shield.

Prostrating myself before the photo of His Holiness, I attract the attention of a middle-aged woman with a broad smile and an enthusiastic rapid-fire delivery. The only word I catch in her entire speech is roshi, “teacher,” but it’s clear from her gestures that she wants me to descend a staircase cut into the floor below the hall’s central entrance.

I have some idea of what’s below: a pitch-black course through a narrow, winding corridor, emerging up a flight of stairs opposite these that go down into the earth. Another Kannon temple, the Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, has a similar arrangement. To descend is to enter the womb of the Boddhisattva.

At Kiyomizu-dera the beads of an enormous mala strung along the wall serve as guide through the labyrinth. Here, there’s nothing but an uneven floor and walls that fall away from my blind groping on one side, then reappear on the other. I half-consciously intensify the sound of my breathing, in part to reassure myself, in part to signal my position to those ahead of me or behind.

And then out of thick darkness, limned in dimly glowing lines of gold on backgrounds of pale rose or blue or purple, a rank of boddhisattvas materializes on my left, each coming into view just as a partition I only perceive as an absence of light obscures the last. I can’t distinguish one from another by details of their dress or gesture. This is no time for detached analysis, even if I could. To identify and catalogue would accomplish nothing. They float here to light the darkness of a mind poised on the narrow ridge between calm and rising anxiety.

As the last of them disappears behind me, the darkness thins near the curtain that veils the exit. When I’ve ascended, I’m greeted again by this woman whom I can’t understand at all, and whom I understand , and who understands me, perfectly. At last, the words that only divide us fall away. Bows and a final smile are enough.

A few minutes later, I leave by the temple’s lower gate, where a sign in English reads, “It was prayed well today. Please return carefully.” I start up the mountain.

A few hours later, about 3 p.m. on Friday, 11 March, out beyond the protective barrier of Shikoku, a tsunami will claim thousands of lives.

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