The Fiery Passion of Mounting Mount Misen


“Our love is written in the stars and burns bright on Mount Misen.”  ~Our Ema left in the Lover’s Sanctuary, the Hall of the Eternal Flame

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Kiezu-no-Reikado, writing our Ema WM

The interior of the diminutive Buddhist hall was dark and uninviting. The top half of the open entry was filled with thick, sooty smoke attempting to escape confinement within the enclosure. The imposing yet mysterious chamber was too much to pass up, and like a curious cat, I ducked below most of the effuse and entered, all senses alert….

Mount Misen Attractions

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, mountain creek and waterfall WMMiyajima 2015, Mount Misen, stone steps WMAt more than 535 meters (~1,800’) above sea level, Mount Misen (弥山) is the highest peak on Miyajima. It is considered a holy site situated within the World Heritage area of Itsukushima Shrine (the subject of a soon-to-be published blog). On clear days, it affords spectacular views of the dramatic Shikoku Mountains in the distance and the beautifully island-studded, oyster-farming waters of the Seto Inland Sea. A number of Buddhist structures, most of them near the summit, are found here, including the gloomy Reikado Kiezu-no-hi (“Hall of the Eternal Flame”), described above.

Reikado Kiezu-no-hi, The Hall of the Eternal Flame

Reikado Kiezu-no-hi, The Hall of the Eternal Flame

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Kiezu-no-Reikado, leaving our lovers' ema in the shrine WMMy eyes quickly adjusted to the gloom, but not to the smoke of the smoldering fire. The effuse continued to sting my eyes, and the acidic vapor irritated my nostrils. But the scene that assaulted my very consciousness was something out of Tomb Raider meets Indiana Jones (see Tomb-Raiding Angkor for more adventuresome explorations). The ceiling of the space was covered in soot so thick that stalactites were forming, as if to reach down to the Eternal Flame from wince it came.

The Eternal Flame and Cauldron of Curative Waters

The Eternal Flame and Cauldron of Curative Waters

Floating Shrine

Floating Shrine

Buddhism was first practiced here by Kobo Daishi, founder of its Shingon sect and one of Japan’s holiest religious persons. The “Eternal Flame” is a holy fire said to be lit by he himself in 806 and continues to burn here, uninterrupted, even now. The temple structures near the summit all are satellites of the fabulously intriguing Daisho-in Temple found at the mountain’s base on the outskirts of town.

There's more smoke in there than this picture does justice. TRUST ME.

There’s more smoke in there than this picture does justice. TRUST ME.

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, sacred ground during our climb WMThere was no flame visible, only the red-hot embers of a number of logs meant to feed the fire for quite some time. Smoke filled the cavity, tainted the walls black and stained dark brown all the recently hung wooden ema (see Shinto Shrines and Snake Oil Sales for more on this intriguing way of praying). The far recesses of the chamber were home to a whole wall of various statues and figurines, whose meaning was lost on me. We were the only visitors, the silence broken only by the crackling of the fire pit. The full frontal blitz of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell created an ambiance that was transformative.

The candles seem oddly redundant....

The candles seem oddly redundant….

Fire God

Fire God

Water boiled in a large iron cauldron over this fire is believed to provide curative powers over various ailments, and although we didn’t know it at the time, the water is always available for anyone to drink. The flame here also served as the source of the Flame of Peace in Hiroshima’s Peace Park (see Atomic Footprints in the Sands of Time for a blog about that moving place), a pilot light transferred in 1964.

The Rear Wall of the Hall.

The Rear Wall of the Hall.

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Kiezu-no-Reikado, eternal flame under a temple cauldron WMThis holy fire, burning continuously for over the last 1,200 years, is designated a Lover’s Sanctuary by no less than Japan’s First Lady of Brides, Yumi Katsura. Seems a logical connection has been made of an eternal flame being akin to the burning passion of eternal love. Yumi, Born in Tokyo, spent time as a young woman studying haute couture while living in Paris. Returning to Japan in the 1960s, she realized there was no bridal industry of which to speak. Seeing an opportunity, Kumi opened her first bridal salon in 1964, and soon after presented the first bridal collection show ever held in Japan and published The bridal Book, the first Japanese book specializing in bridal fashion. Now one of the world’s most prolific wedding dress designers, she has expanded globally, her collections now found in some of the most exclusive stores, such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel and Neiman Marcus.

Ema Prayers and Wishes Hanging in the Hall.

Ema Prayers and Wishes Hanging in the Hall.

A Desperate Prayer

A Desperate Prayer

The Hall itself, however, is a relatively small building. Although the interior is completely unlit and filled with murky smoke, the lure of the eternal flame proves irresistible to most. If you enter, be forewarned: you will smell like delectable beef jerky for the rest of the day, until your clothes are changed and hair thoroughly washed! Of course those leaving locally purchased ema inside are said to be granted their loving wish(es). I, more cynically, believe it’s yet another way religion has found to keep itself – like the eternal flame, self-sustaining.

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Kiezu-no-Reikado, Jody with our Ema in the darkened temple WM

A Sad Prayer

A Sad Prayer

Jody and I, of course, left our own personal ema within the hall. While more of a declarative statement than a prayer or wish, surely we would not tempt the gods without paying our respects. To them and to our shared Love, both of which hopefully remain eternal.

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Kiezu-no-Reikado, Jody playing our couple's ema in the temple WM

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, approaching the Kuguri-iwa (Duck-under-rock) WMMiyajima 2015, Mount Misen, heading down the mountain WMWhile the hiking courses to the top advertise a 1½ to 2 hours climb, a more realistic number is probably actually closer to three. That is, if you stop to admire the scenery, check out the temples you might pass along the way, take a few photos, and rest to enjoy a swing of water every now and then. Even taking the ropeway roundtrip, we were still gone for easily 4 hours. Hiking the mountain up and down is clearly at least a full half day’s endeavor. But the true beauty of the area’s national forest, replete with rugged landscapes and giant rock formations, along with the dotted islands floating on the Seto Inland Sea below, are all probably at their most enchanting on foot. Thankfully, for those lacking the time or the willpower, a ropeway (cable car) leads up most of the mountain.

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Miyajima Ropeway

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Jody climbing the mountainMiyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Kiezu-no-Reikado, Lovers and their eternal flame 2But when the ropeway ends, don’t believe that you’re close to your goal! Getting to the summit and seeing the main attractions that the mountain has to offer will require a consider amount of further walking. The ropeway station near the summit sits more than 100 meters (~330’) lower than the peak, and situated across a small valley. The path climbs and drops and then climbs again. Besides the energy-draining up and down serpentine design of the course, the summit is about 1 km (~0.6 miles) in horizontal travel away.

Red Oriental Bridge Along the Way

Red Oriental Bridge Along the Way

When you’re in Miyajima, take the time to journey up Mount Misen, if not to the summit, than at least to enjoy Reikado Kiezu-no-hi, either with that special travel partner you might have in tow, or in the hopes of gaining one in the very near future.

Selfie at the Summit on a Hazy Day

Selfie at the Summit on a Hazy Day

Getting Around Mount Misen

The ropeway station is about a 15 minute uphill walk inland from Itsukushima Shrine or a 25 minute walk from the Miyajima ferry pier. The ropeway ride up the mountain takes about 20-40 minutes, the exact time depending on any delay in ropeway transfer that is required along the way. From the ropeway’s upper station at Shishi-iwa Observatory, it is still at least a 30 minute fairly strenuous walk to the summit. The Misen Hondo (main hall) and Reikado buildings are located along the trail, about five minutes before the summit.

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, temples and shrines along the way

Miyajima Ropeway

Hours: Daily 9:00 to 17:00 (hours of operation vary slightly by season)

Fees: 1000 yen (one way), 1800 yen (round trip)

Lotus Flower Folding & Enlightenment in Cambodia


“The spirit of the best of men is spotless, like the new lotus in the [muddy] water which does not adhere to it.” ~From the Lalitavistara, a sacred text of the life of Buddha by Dhrarmaraksha (308 AD)

“I worship the Buddha with these flowers; May this virtue be helpful for my emancipation; Just as these flowers fade, Our body will undergo decay.” ~Buddhist Chant upon offering flowers

Hand-Folded Lotus Flower Bouquet

Hand-Folded Lotus Flower Bouquet

“Those petals ARE folded,” I whispered with excitement to Jody as we watched our Cambodian guide quickly fold back the green outer petals of the lotus flower she just purchased at the temple.

We had noticed various lotus flower bouquets in the high-end hotel where we were staying, and Jody was convinced that the green outer petals of the flower were all hand-folded and tucked away to show the flowers’ beautifully colored hearts. I was not yet a believer; some of the bouquets literally have hundreds of flowers, and thinking about the work that goes into folding each individual bud, I thought maybe there was another way or that the folds were a natural result of this flower’s blooming mechanism.

But of course then there is Occam’s Razor, of which I am a firm believer: simply said, all things being equal, the alternative with the least complex assumptions (the simpler one) is usually the “right” one. Yes, these flowers – and bouquets – are all individually hand folded and arranged.

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, central tower of a village temple WM

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, temple tower in stone WMWe were visiting the ruins of a 12th century Buddhist temple well off the tourist-beaten path about 20 miles south of Phnom Penh. Ta Prohm, a temple built by Jayavarman VII, was still a very active religious temple, where local poor people were allowed to maintain various Buddhist altars in what’s left of the individual towers of its compact complex. Our guide felt compelled to buy lotus flowers during our visit, and I too joined in with a few American dollars. I had learned earlier in the day, quite surprisingly, that it is the locals in Cambodian who predominantly support beggars, rather than tourists. The purchases weren’t just a form of charity; the items are worldly and long-standing offerings made to Buddha, and there’s little doubt that we all could use a little more karma in our lives.

Buddha is very often depicted sitting on a lotus flower. But why is this particular flower the symbol of such a long-standing philosophy which teeters as a religion?

Huge Buddha on Lotus at Peace Prayerl Park, Okinawa

Huge Buddha on Lotus at Peace Prayerl Park, Okinawa

In Buddhism, the lotus flower represents good fortune. But please don’t think about this in terms of prosperity or abundance as in material wealth. Rather, the flower represents spiritual fortunes in this life…and in the next.

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, facial carving WMThe lotus grows in muddy waters, where it rises above its dirty and humble beginnings to blossom to its full potential, attaining a form of natural enlightenment. Coupled in this process of fully flowering is the notion of purification: we are all born into the muddy murkiness and dirty suffering of our physical lives, where we must strive to rise above and purify our spirits. This itself takes faith and perseverance, more important symbolism found in the lotus blossom.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, rustic flowers and gates WMFlowers, especially in a religious context, can be thought of as exceedingly pure, and proper in every respect. They are rich in beautiful colors, emit soothing fragrances, and offer soothing touch. Worldwide, flowers are a supreme source of joy and comfort; they are used in celebration of birth, marriage, and even death. Flowers cover the earth, and can be obtained without engaging in evil or tainted deeds. Even the most humble among us can collect them without fear of depletion and without exchange of monies or other types of barter. Likewise, flowers can be offered without fear of regret or loss (as opposed to, say, tithing), so such offerings can be made with a pure mind and heart.

My Attempt at Lotus Flower Folding

My Attempt at Lotus Flower Folding

But they are offered in a certain way to the Buddha in Cambodia. The unopened bud’s green protective petals are individually peeled back, folded over on themselves and then tucked back under in order to uncover the next layer of wrapping. But soon the inner “heart” of the lotus starts to peek into view, and then is completely revealed, uncovering its sublime beauty for all – especially Buddha – to see and admire.

Jody's Folding her Flower

Jody’s Folding her Flower

I was surprised at how well my folded lotus turned out. Although Jody and I took much longer than our guide did in folding, and ours looked rather like a 5-year-old attempted the task, we were all ready to provide our own offerings at various altars within Ta Phrom.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, folding a lotus flower for Buddha 4 WMCambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, folding a lotus flower for Buddha 3 WMLotus coloring also holds important meaning. White flowers, like in most of the rest of the world, implies purity and perfection, of both the mind and the spirit to the True Nature of Things, called Bodhi in Buddhism. It generally has eight petals corresponding to the Buddhist “Noble Eightfold Path of the Good Law,” and is the lotus on which depicted Buddha’s sit. Red, again like in most of the rest of the world (we are more connected than we are different), refers to compassion and love that is the original nature of the supreme heart (hrdayam). The blue lotus represents the perfection of wisdom, logic and knowledge, all of which are needed to obtain true enlightenment, always displayed only partially opened with its center never fully in view. Pink flowers, or the “Supreme Lotus,” help to recall the history of Buddha and the legends and myth which surround him. And finally, gold, the color which Buddha wears, reflects awakening or enlightenment.

Temple Ruins

Temple Ruins

Our particular flowers were purple, which reflect the magical mysticism found in following the teachings of Buddha. A perfect choice for non-Buddhist lay people with only the most basic understanding of what is not so much a religion but a way of life, one which seems to circumvent most of the thorny issues that make monotheistic faiths so exclusionary, divisive, and generally incompatible with even their own core teachings.

Temple Gate Ruins

Temple Gate Ruins

The growth cycle of the lotus holds other important symbolism in Buddhism, primarily as physical representations of the stages one moves through to attain enlightenment. When closed they represent those in search of enlightenment, while a bloomed and open lotus flower signifies divine rebirth in the form of full enlightenment and self-awareness.

Temple's Central Tower

Temple’s Central Tower

Buddha Altar

Buddha Altar

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, celestial dancer carving 2 WMWe had three flowers to offer to Buddha, one each: our Cambodian guide Thalay’s (her nickname pronounced Tah-lay, where an “h” is not pronounced in Cambodian unless it’s a double consonant), Jody’s, and mine. Thalay offered hers first at the main altar in the temple, always found under the tallest, most central tower. Hers was a ritual we watched closely to help ensure that we didn’t later offend any of the locals…or more importantly, Buddha! She presented her folded lotus, took and lit incense, dropped to her knees and placed her hands together in the Cambodian sompeyar, a form of greeting and show of respect. In praying to Buddha (or showing respect to the King), the hands are held in front of the forehead while the upper body is bowed. Monks are greeted with hands in front of the face, while a standard show or respect is with the hands over the chest. Basically, the higher the hands, the more reverence shown. This type of prayer is very common to both Thailand and Cambodia, countries of the Therevada tradition of Buddhism. In such traditions, the offering of lotus flowers is commonly supplemented by incense and/or candles.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, incense offerings WM

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, crumbling tower WMCambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, facial carving WMThe act of offering is called dana – an act of generosity, itself an emotional and physical expression of veneration not just to the Perfectly Enlightened One (Buddha), but also to Buddhism’s Dharma – The Truth – and to all the other lessor but still Noble Enlightened Ones, like the Bodhisattvas. And since flowers are the some of the most beautiful, pure, and untainted creations of the natural world, they are perfect offerings in most any setting. Even when they fade, they often remain at Buddhist altars as a reminder that all things in this life fade as well; as a Buddhist teaching goes, “whatever is of the nature to arise is also of the nature to cease.”

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, lotus flower for Buddha WM

Jody and I placed our offerings at two smaller altars under minor towers to the sides of the main, central tower of the temple complex where Thalay left hers. When we provided our flower, and in return were given freshly lit incense to also place before the Buddha statue, which often are missing their heads, most stolen eons ago since they are much easier to transport than entire solid-stone effigies.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, lotus flower for Buddha 2 WM

Incense is thought to have a calming effect on the mind, although you must see my blog Serene Sanctuary for quite a different take on the role of incense in Buddhism served up by a head monk himself. In offering incense to Buddha, we are, in essence, offering our own peace of mind. It serves to remind us that we always wish to offer a little bit more patience, calmness, and peace to the world, thereby attaining those qualities for and in ourselves.

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, temple attendant WM

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, incense for Buddha WMOf course not being practicing Buddhists, Jody and I only did what we were comfortable doing. I have and always will respect the worlds’ great religions, but I will admit that I feel much more spiritually centered and less conflicted in a Buddhist setting than I do or have in any other religious setting. In making my offering, I paused to reflect on all that I have to be thankful for, and for all that I still have left to do in my own journey forward towards fuller awakening. In no way do I claim to be on the path of enlightenment. Or on any path to that end. What I will admit is that I remain a student to what spirituality can teach me, and love, unity, and peace in our lives is an obtainable goal worthy of which to strive.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, weather stone and wild flowers WM

In the meantime, however, I continue to swim in the muddy waters to which most of us seem relegated. For me, however, the lotus blossoms at the surface become clearer every single day.

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, ladies peek WM

 

 

Sources used in this Blog:

http://buddhists.org/buddhist-symbols/the-meaning-of-the-lotus-flower-in-buddhism/

http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/history/b_lotus.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Offering_(Buddhism)

http://www.lotsawahouse.org/tibetan-masters/dodrupchen-III/offering-flowers

https://essenceofbuddhism.wordpress.com/2013/09/28/why-do-buddhists-give-offerings-to-the-buddha/

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/theravada.html