I spent last week at Anrakuji temple in rural southwestern Japanís Kamiita town observing the wrestling match between Japan and its spiritual history. The temple is a small, neat complex of three interconnected buildings filled with ancient Zen Buddhist iconography and surrounded by perfectly manicured plants and trees. The templeís spiritual leader, Abbott Yasuda is a large man with giant, gong-like earlobes and a deep, silken voice. He drives a BMW Z1 roadster and smells distinctly of cigar smoke.
While I was at Anrakuji, or "the temple of ever lasting joy", the Abbott led myself and a group of 50 other foreigners through a 30-minute prayer session. Before the official prayer began we were given 20 minutes of instruction on how to sit and hold our hands in a position that would let evil out of our bodies and welcome in good. After the instructional period we marched in ordered silence through the temple hallways, past the Abbottís office where several of his secretaries were feverishly working the phones, toward the main prayer hall. Outside, beside a large gift shop and the temple gateway, I saw a man sitting with his small backpack beside him, holding out his hands to strangers in hopes of acquiring spare change to afford a room for the night.
I am not sure of the significance of the positioning of his hands.
The temple is one of an 88-temple circuit on Shikoku, the forth largest and least populated of the four major islands that make up the Japanese archipelago. The Island is filled with jagged mountains and pristine beaches. Mint green surf and endless mountain forests curl in sharp peaks across opposite horizons, yet concrete blunders pock the most rural of these vistas reminding one of the committed, if not desperate, attempt by the Japanese government to spur the economy through public works projects. Nature be damned.
All across the island one can find pilgrims clad in white, wearing bamboo hats and carrying only the simplest of worldly possessions in their tiny backpacks. This very distinctive garb is known as henro. It is said that if a pilgrim makes a visit to all of the 88 temples on Shikoku they will be cleansed of the 88 human evils. Started in the ninth century by Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, the 1,647 KM trek takes about two months on foot and is completed by over 100,000 people yearly. Daishi walked the original path in his youth for ascetic purposes, searching for truth. It is one of the oldest and most revered of religious traditions practiced in Japan. However, many pilgrims now drive rather than endure the arduous walk.
Making our last turn into the dim hallway before the main prayer room, the strong smell of inscence and cedar drifts up my nostrils and into my lungs, disrupting my equilibrium and throwing my vision into temporary chaos. When my surroundings become clear again I am confronted by the eight armed warrior image of Myo-o, a fierce representation of the "King of Light" that stands to assist the Buddha with its strength, seeking both to vanquish evil and to help human beings resist temptation.
When we finally arrive in the main prayer chamber of the temple, each of us takes our seat around the beautifully ornate golden shrine of the Shakyamuni Buddha, his many Bodhisattvas, and other familiar Buddhist symbols. With some difficulty I adopt the lotus position and try and block out the journalists and photographers that study our every move from the corners of the ancient complex.
The fat Abbott, beautifully dressed in an embroidered tan smock and pants, offers us several words of encouragement in a calm voice before he strikes the smooth, black gong and announces the start of the 30-minute prayer session. His words repeated by a timid, thin Aussie clad in board shorts and a T-shirt advertising Arnette sunglasses surely looses something in translation. Regardless, I try and free myself of all thought, concentrating at first on the sounds of insects that whistle through the open temple doors.
After a few moments I feel the footsteps of the Abbott as he walks around the room scrutinizing our positioning. His smoky scent swirls in my imagination, conjuring thoughts of him cruising the highway at 130km with the top down, clearing his mind, becoming one with the wind, white lines, and blacktop. The ghost of Dean Moriarty sits wide eyed beside him, scrutinizing his position, drinking in the moment, humming Charlie Parkerís Back Home Blues.
My thoughts switch from the insects to the Abbott to a pilgrimís bell and finally to the sounds of my own breathing. After several more minutes I start to feel as though I am able to forget everything, even my cynicism and the painful cramps that have developed in my bulbous, inflexible legs.
For a moment, as bright bursts of white light reflect on the backs of my eyelids, I even believe I see the infinite gems of the universe reflecting off of one another, something I vaguely remember reading about in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I am temporarily excited and surprised at the brilliant power of this newfound spiritual ritual. Then I remember the photographers struggling to capture the simplest of western mannerisms to send back to their respective newspapers and television stations.
The prayer is cut short by about seven minutes because the Abbott notices that several people are labouring at the strain of sitting still for even the length of an episode of Friends. I thank God before opening my eyes and remembering where I am.
Before rushing off to tend to official temple business, the Abbott tells us through the translator that he hopes we enjoyed the ritual and will attempt the prayers again someday. My partner, seemingly moved by the spiritual experience, opens her large almond eyes and turns to smile at me with tears streaming down her face. Sweating profusely, I return to the guest quarters, plug six dollars into the fluorescent white beer machine, think for a while about Myo-o and wonder how long it will take me to make it to the other 87 temples.
Miguel Strother is not alone.