Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Many Meetings with Monks
"Even the trees look Japanese!" Shao Min exclaimed as we viewed the forested mountains that encircle Kyoto.
Last Saturday, Gao Hong and her husband, Paul, and daughter, Alida, picked Shao Min and me up from Carleton and headed to the Minneapolis airport at 4am. After a layover in Houston we arrived in Tokyo, Japan and were greeted by Rui, who played in our Chinese ensemble last year, and Ava, the fourth member of our research team. With their help we ate and made it to the station to meet the Night Bus. We played our instruments briefly at the bus stop before we were informed that our music was a menace to society and that we "Please must to stop!" We boarded the bus at midnight and arrived at 7am in Kyoto after traveling for 38 hours. We all were in desperate need of showers. I claimed that I could cook breakfast with the oil I scraped off my face. Shao Min laughed, examined my face carefully and then informed me that she believed that was honestly quite possible.
The rest of the day we explored the city together.
On our second full day in Japan, we traveled by bus to a Zen Center and met with a 77 year old Buddhist monk named Eshin Nishimura. He was an expert on traditional ceremonies and had taught at Carleton many, many years ago. He taught us the basics of Japanese Buddhism and mentioned fascinating tidbits like a group of secret Christians living in Japan that sing Gregorian chants despite not understanding them. Before leaving the Zen Center we were given green tea flavored Kit-Kats and introduced to another monk, Matsuo, who said he we could attend a ceremony at his temple the next morning.
On our third day in Japan, we took full advantage of our jet lag and got up at 4:30AM to make it to a temple at 5:30 to chat with the monk we met before heading into the ceremony. We waited outside the temple until we heard a honk from a neon green car that whizzed passed us. I jumped away from the curb managing to simultaneously avoid being vehicularly manslaughtered and keep just enough wits about me to recognize the shaved head and wrinkled forehead of our friend, Matsuo, leaning out the window as he waved and drove to the temple parking lot.
Matsuo led us around his painfully beautiful temple. There were colorful banners hanging from the temple roof which he explained were there to represent the natural light and colors of the world, which is the same as stained glass in Western Cathedrals. We visited the cemetery which houses the remains of donors to the Temple and is adjacent to very cheap housing because it is terrible luck to live next to a cemetery.
Finally, we headed into the daily chanting. We sat seiza-style, kneeling with our legs folded under us. This is fun at first but extremely painful after about 2 minutes. When the chanting started I just wanted to scream, "YES!" It made all of the jet lag and getting up at the crack of dawn totally worth it. It began with a female monk leading. Then the other two dozen monks and a couple of the other attendees joined in and despite its simplicity the chanting was unexpectedly moving. The chanting continued for 50 minutes and when I tried to stand I toppled right back down with a whimper of pain. My legs were simultaneously on fire and completely numb. After three minutes I hobbled next door to another chanting ceremony but this time there was added taiko drumming and a giant fire in the altar. The head monk was tossing in prayers written on little pieces of wood. The fire and drumming made everything extra exciting. Next we hopped in our monk guide's blindingly green car and he drove us to a Starbucks for some coffee and muffins. When Mistuo dropped us off he demonstrated his instruments and let me play his conch shell which had a brass mouth piece. Naturally I played reveille on it which made him laugh. Continued on next post. . .