Guest post by Duncan
Strangely, a week previous to attending the annual purification ceremony of the Ji-shu sect of Pure Land Buddhism with our friends, Yukiro and Ken, Neil had, unwittingly, whilst exploring some back streets near his workplace, stumbled upon Shojokoji, the temple in which this ritual was to take place. Shojokoji is an imposing institution and Neil was surprised that after twenty odd years of working in Fujisawa, he had not come across it before. But Japan can be like that.
Ken had long been curious about this ceremony because the beliefs of the Ji-shu (‘Time Sect’) are based on the teachings of Ippen Shojin (1234-1289), a charismatic figure, whose ecstatic nembutsu dance gained him thousands of adherents in thirteenth-century Japan. And so, excited by the prospect of a Buddhist ritual performed by (as I rather glibly imagined it) dancing-Dervish-like monks, we gathered on a Sunday evening in late November to witness the spectacle.
Ippen travelled around Japan on foot, embracing poverty and spreading his doctrine, much as you might expect of the founder of a Buddhist sect. His brand of Buddhism appealed to ordinary people because it promised enlightenment based on chanting the name of Amitabha, the primary Buddha of the sect, and dancing – other Buddhist practices were deemed unnecessary and fruitless. The sect would provide a purified space (hence Pure Land) where anyone could reach enlightenment. Ken explained this sardonically in the intermission: to get to paradise all you needed to do was a nembutsu dance – “ONLY that”
Unfortunately, Ken and Yukiro were delayed by thirty minutes owing to a suicide on the train line – sad to say, there have been many delays caused by suicides of late – and so we bided our time in a cafe on the top floor of Saikaya department store, drinking beer and wolfing down a typically retro plate of tamago sando (egg mayonnaise sandwiches) – immaculately manicured white bread triangles with a jarringly strong margarine taste to them, certainly fitting in with the glassed off 80s-ness of the restaurant floor of Saikaya. And I can definitely say that margarine tastes just as awful now as it did back then.
Meeting Yukiro and Ken at the station gates we grabbed a taxi to the temple, arriving several minutes late for the ceremony which had already begun. A monk accompanied us to the main hall and we were surprised by the extent of the temple grounds.
After removing our shoes and placing them in the plastic bags provided, we were ushered into the ceremonial space, a rather large and chilly hall.
About two hundred people were seated on tiny folding chairs placed on the tatami, and they were observing the ceremony in absolute silence. The inner sanctum was occupied by around twenty monks chanting sutra, engaged in various ritual formations. Scrolls were hung up behind them and there were many lanterns and candles. Around the perimeter of the sanctum were seats for the sponsors who were also required to participate in various ways during the ceremony, including at one point moving items from one plate to another with chopsticks.
I only observed one female adherent involved in the ceremony itself and she was among those seated around the edge. We weren’t allowed to take pictures of the ceremony but we did get a few images of the ceremonial space afterwards when everything had been tidied away:
At first, we remained standing in the entrance area as we had to wait for Neil, who insisted on taking a trip to the outside toilet to placate his bladder in advance of an indeterminately lengthy performance. It would have been too disruptive to use the inside toilet. As an inveterate claustrophobe, he dislikes the possibility of being seated in the middle of a row rather than on an aisle seat and so arriving late to crowded events provides him with ample cause for panic. After some fussing over how to seat us noisy late-comers, and Neil fidgeting over where to sit, we settled down into our row near the front of one of the banks of low seats placed on the tatami mats.
The air, dry from all the burning of candles and incense – a characteristically serene but austere kyara blend – made me cough initially, which further contributed to my feeling of being a bothersome intruder. The ceremony, however, was calming and the close harmonies of the chanted sutra were riveting. Occasionally a younger monk would emerge from his line and do a series of movements going from kneeling to standing prayer position several times, which is the modern version of the sect’s dance we presumed, admittedly not as ecstatic as we’d hoped. (Might you move a little faster and maybe spin around a bit just for us?)
I could tell Yukiro, who has a predilection for fiery and passionate performances, was dying a death. And half an hour in Neil passed a note along saying ‘I can’t stay beyond 8’ which was a good thirty minutes away. Fortunately, there was an intermission where everyone queued up to buy souvenir manju – rice flour dumplings filled with sweet chestnut paste which were still warm, presumably from having just been steamed. There was a sigh of anticipation and a palpable delight amongst the crowd as the boxes of manju were fished out and dished out. The shared enjoyment of simple pleasures here can be very grounding. One of my favourite things is a postcard by one of my students which I keep on my desk. The assignment was to make a ‘postcard for peace’ and this is what she came up with:
Eat together! Stop lobbing bombs, sit down and share some food.
Returning to the temple, the second part of the ceremony was rather moving, although unfortunately it was preluded with a long explanatory talk by one of the head monks which felt like purgatory. Again I could sense Yukiro and Neil growing impatient.
The climax of the ritual essentially involved a gradual extinguishing of all the lamps and candles until we were in total darkness. No exit signs or devices or corridor lights to provide even a glimmer of light. That was quite extraordinary – for how often in modern life do you experience a *t o t a l* blackout? And in a public ceremony in our health and safety-conscious era? For me personally, never. Cinema can come close to it but there is always some device or exit sign in view. It was disconcertingly beautiful and almost felt like being weightless ,
in space. . . . . . .
Then a monk who had climbed to the top of a small structure next to us suddenly flickered some kind of light and the spell of complete blackness was broken. Candles and lamps were gradually relit and the ceremony drew to a (relatively) rapid conclusion with invigorated chants and more of the standing sitting dance. We’d come back from the other side.
The finale was accompanied by a rather grim aroma – not unlike the burned meat fat you smell in yakitori restaurants; a decidedly bitter aftertaste. Not knowing anything about the practices of the sect, I can’t really say if this was intentional or not. (Neil said that this was the result of using flaming incense sticks to relight the candles and indeed there are times when even the incense sticks in our kitchen smell almost bacon-like from being inappropriately burned. )The ceremony had a satisfying combination of elements with a pleasurable dip into void. We queued to receive a piece of paper with the nembutsu chant printed on it and pondered the bizarre ritual we’d just observed. We all agreed the blackout was rather special and very memorable.
And yet owing to my limitations, I always have ambivalent feelings about organised religion. Watching this, it did strike me how absurdly random religious practices are. I must qualify that statement, not random in the spontaneous sense, as everything doubtless has a very specific symbolism and is completely meaningful in its context, carefully ordered and evolved over centuries. Understandable on multiple levels as fulfilling the needs of humans for creating meaning to fill the void, bringing people together in peace and prayer, confronting death, and satisfying our appetite for ritual.
At the same time, if the earth and everything on it were to go up in smoke tomorrow, none of this would ever happen again in exactly the same way; well, the laws of physics and of probability may disagree with this hypothesis, and future species of what? aliens? alternative life forms? may come up with something not entirely dissimilar, but essentially, it’s an elaborate iteration of a complex set of circumstances which are probably impossible to replicate…. and of course the same could be said of all of human culture. Each belief system is just another construct, when all is said and done. And that is why I prefer art to religion – you get to play with your own systems of meaning, selfishly and indulgently, rather than slavishly following those of others.
So religion to me is both absolutely sensical and nonsensical.
Of course, pragmatically speaking, anything that prevents human beings from ripping each other to shreds (and that includes religion, the law, dancing, music, communal traditions, breaking bread et cetera) has got to be good.
It was a relief to get some night air and we headed into town for Korean food.
Are you wondering what became of Ippen, the wandering dancing monk, who, as it turns out, was something of an art lover? Well, his sect enjoyed considerable popularity in his lifetime, but after his death, as is often the case in such matters, he had his writings burned and then many of his followers jumped off a cliff in the hope of being reborn with him. The extremity of these acts resulted in a sharp decline in popularity of the sect, which was evidently eschewed by the establishment and the populace, who preferred hassle-free enlightenment with a bit of ecstatic dancing thrown in, to lemming-like self-immolation. After all, there’s only so much crap you can take.
Some of his followers had kept copies of his writings and established the practices of the group but Ji-shu remains to this day a minor sect of Pure Land Buddhism.