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Koyasan: the Mountain Kukai Built
An inside view into the world of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism.

commissioned by Tricycle
October 2000

The most important structure on Mt. Koya, Japan is a small, unremarkable mausoleum the color of balsa-wood that sits directly behind the enormous Oku-no-in temple on the outskirts of town.

Last July, on a clear mid-morning, a crowd of worshippers had gathered and stood facing the weathered tomb. Hands clasped together, they bowed silently or mumbled incantations. Some wore white pilgrims' shawls with Japanese writing on them, and some lit sticks of incense or thin candles to place in a blackened repository. All bore reverent expressions when gazing up at the mausoleum, which peeked out from behind cedars and umbrella pine trees.

My eyes, too, had been focused on the tomb, and my fiancee Naomi and I had not noticed the elderly man in a sports shirt who sat quietly beside us. Glancing at the devotees and back at us, he leaned over and whispered, "The faithful believe he is still living in there."

This made me look again, and harder.

"He" is Kukai (774-835,) posthumously called Kobo Daishi, the founder of the esoteric Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism and the intellectual architect of Mt. Koya. Koyasan, as it is called in Japanese, is the sacred mountain complex Kukai built. Construction of the town today known as Mt. Koya began in 819, after Kukai gained permission to build there from the emperor Saga. Located on the Kii Peninsula in rural Wakayama prefecture, Koyasan was meant to be a place for the practice of Shingon away from the secular world. My summer visit there confirmed Kukai's wishes had been fulfilled: Priests and nuns walk the streets en masse. The town of 6,000 people has a staggering 2,000 temples, according to a guidebook we read. Pilgrims arrive by the busload.

But present-day Koyasan is also something Kukai did not plan: It is part of modern Japan. It is a place where a visitor may watch hopelessly corny Japanese game shows while sitting in one's room in a temple, wearing a yukata robe and eating vegetarian monks' food. Tonsured priests wear funky Swatch-brand wristwatches and maintain a Web site and e-mail. "Who will read my e-mail if I send one?," I asked three monks sitting in front of the Daito pagoda in the center of town on a sunny afternoon. "Our Webmaster," was their blasť response. (Said Webmaster was, of course, a fellow priest.) Koyasan today is in the world, though still-at 3,000 feet above sea level and at the end of a difficult journey by train or car-not quite of it.

"Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"

"Sekai!," the man in the garish satin shirt said dramatically to the breathless 28-year old teacher sitting in the guest chair. "You're right!"

"Yatta!!," the teacher screamed, pummeling the air with his fist. "I did it!!"

Naomi and I were watching on our small television "Quiz Millionaire," the Japanese version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," at the Tentoku-in, the Shingon temple and guesthouse where we spent two comfortable nights. Boasting a nationally-recognized garden and a Shingon altar dating back to 1622 (as well as a reasonable room charge,) Tentoku-in made for us a quiet place of repose as we explored Koyasan.

Tentoku-in was also the site of our most intimate contact with Shingon, Japanese for "True Words." The ritual-heavy sect emphasizes the one-ness of matter and mind, separating it from other Buddhist schools. According to Kukai, the practice of Shingon, with its employment of visualization and chanting, can lead to enlightenment in only one lifetime. "In speed and in excellence," Kukai wrote, Shingon and exoteric Buddhism "differ as much as Buddha with his supernatural powers and a lame donkey."

One day at Tentoku-in, Naomi and I rose at 6:30 a.m. to witness morning devotions. We arrived slightly late: Sliding open the shoji door to the main sanctuary, we saw two priests kneeling already at the ornate gold-red altar, as well as a group of about 50 bemused Dutch guests, scratching their blond heads and trying to figure out how to sit on the straw tatami mats. A cloud of incense smoke hung over the room.

The guests' murmuring and shuffling came to an abrupt halt as the two priests began without warning to chant a sutra. Though unintelligible to us, the priests' simultaneous warbling drifted outward from the altar and provided a calming blanket of sound. The deep-voiced chanting went on for some 30 minutes, the pitch quickly rising and falling, interrupted only by the striking of a large bronze bowl and the click-clack of rosary beads.

It was perhaps fitting that the ceremonial language was incomprehensible to us and our Dutch compatriots. For the study and practice of Shingon are not casual. Teachings and meditative practices like the Morning Star and the A-syllable visualization are passed on to disciples from masters in this monastic tradition. Koyasan first earned a reputation as a center for serious contemplation of Shingon Buddhist doctrine in the Kamakura period (1185-1333.) Shingon is "not something that you practice on your own," in the words of Francisca Cho, a professor of Buddhist studies at Georgetown University.

But the closed nature of Shingon practice does not deter ordinary Japanese visitors and oblates from trekking to Koyasan. Why? One answer lay in the form of three Japanese who sat with us in Tentoku-in's sanctuary that early morning: All were carrying out the traditional pilgrimage to Mt. Koya, a ritual first popularized in the late Heian period (794-1191.) Each wore white garments signifying their journey. Traditionally, pilgrims receive the imprint of each temple visited in a special book as a record of their holy sojourn. In the case of the three at morning services, a blessing was conducted for a deceased loved one, and each pilgrim was given a special certificate at the end of the ceremony by a young priest named Mr. Machida. They bowed deeply to the young priest while the rest of us looked on in hushed silence.

The ceremony thus ended, we went in peace and off to our breakfasts of sesame tofu and seaweed.

Respect and Reverence

While Shingon has been criticized as being remote from common people, its founder enjoys legendary status in Japanese history and may explain why Koyasan attracts two very different kinds of visitors.

To some, Kukai is Japan's original Renaissance man: "Even today," as a Koyasan brochure somewhat awkwardly puts it, "his name Daishi is a household word in remote places, not only as a saint but a scholar, a savior, a Buddhisattva, an inventor of Japanese alphabet Kana syllabary, a nationwide pilgrim, a spiritual healer, a calligrapher, and the founder of Japanese Buddhism and public school." The name Kobo Daishi means literally, "Dharma-Spreading Great Master."

The list may be slightly embellished-it is a bit of a stretch to call Kukai a "nationwide pilgrim," for instance. But it is a fact that even today Kukai's name is instantly recognizable in Japan, and commands respect. "I know he is a great o-bo-san," or priest, an unreligious Japanese friend of mine in her twenties said when I mentioned Kukai's name to her.

But other Japanese take their respect for Kukai a bit farther, into reverence. The brochure continues, "More than ten million followers believe that the Daishi is still alive in this world and saving them through the time of history."

The elderly man from Nara who sat beside us in front of Kukai's mausoleum confirmed this assertion with a telling fact.

"The priests bring him meals," he said sotto voce.

"Meals?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied. "Ever since he died."

I checked this later with a volunteer selling amulets on the temple grounds. "That's what I understand," the black kimono-clad man said. "One meal at 6:00 a.m. and one at 11:00 a.m."

In other words, two meals per day for 1,165 years.

Spreading the Dharma

One evening in Mt. Koya, while walking the streets outside Tentoku-in, Naomi and I spotted a middle-aged, slightly stooped woman hurrying deliberately toward a weather-beaten temple. It seemed wise to follow her; she had an expectant air that drew us in Siren-like.

Our decision was rewarded. For after ascending a steep staircase, removing our shoes, and looking around for signs of disapproval from the watching priests and townsfolk who were gathered, we stepped onto the tatami mats and took our seats beside the raven-haired matron and watched a group of children and teens practice for their ceremony initiating them into the Shingon clergy.

"All these children," she said with a wave of her hand to indicate the 30 or so youngsters milling about in front of the huge altar, "are going to become priests and nuns tomorrow." She pointed out a comely girl of about 12 or 13 and said, "that's my granddaughter."

The kids were a disorderly bunch, decked out in Pokemon T-shirts and jeans or sweatpants. Disorderly, that is, until a bespectacled young priest clapped his hands and brought them to attention. "Listen hard," he commanded, and the children lined up in neat rows between two pillars (one of which curiously read, in English, "universal assistance.") "Now repeat after me."

The priest led the gaggle of children through a series of promises and vows. While the group and the priest had their back and forth, the woman kneeling beside us explained what was going on. "For the boys, they leave three tufts of hair on their heads until tomorrow," she said. "For girls, they only cut a lock of hair off for now."

As we were talking, the woman's granddaughter looked over at us and cocked her head, no doubt wondering who on earth her grandmother was talking with. Then the girl turned back to join her soon-to-be initiated Shingon brethren.

And it was here, I later mused, that we stumbled onto the essence of of Mt. Koya, an old-world sanctuary still prospering amid a very new Japan. For before us, draped in Adidas T-shirts, were the new disciples who would spread the great master's dharma in the 21st century.

We bade the grandmother good night and strode through the cool evening air back to Tentoku-in.

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