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)

A Blessing from Buddha: Banteay Kdei at Angkor


 Whether one believes in a religion or not,
and whether one believes in rebirth or not,
there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion.
~ Dalai Lama

The Temple's Inner Sanctum

The Temple’s Inner Sanctum

“Come here Lady,” the Buddhist nun said to Jody with an almost toothless smile. Like all nuns of that faith in Cambodia, her head was shaved, just as the male monks do. She was well into her 60s, thin and somewhat feeble, but seemed perfectly and happily suited to be the keeper of her faith at the central Buddhist altar in the Banteay Kdei temple.

Our Buddhist Nun Friend with our Guide

Our Buddhist Nun Friend with our Guide

She reached out her hand to Jody without getting up from the rug-covered stone floor at the base of the statue, and held out two loops of thread, one red and one gold. “Blessing from Buddha,” said more as a statement than a question. How can anyone turn such an offer away?

Blessing Bracelet from Buddha and His Nun

Blessing Bracelet from Buddha and His Nun

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, carved Khmer face WMIt was our third and final day in the Angkor Archeological Park, and the morning had been consumed with exploring the famous, massive and crowded Angkor Wat, a truly moving and spiritual experience for even hardcore atheists. Our Khmer guide had done well in the previous two days, moving from one temple complex to the next in a loose chronological order, approaching each site to both minimize crowds and position light to the best advantage of our cameras. And it appeared that she had saved the iconic tourist site of Cambodia as the climax of our visit to Angkor.

Idyllic Ruins

Idyllic Ruins

But she held back one final surprise. After cooling off and refreshing ourselves at lunch back in the nearby city of Siem Reap, we headed yet again back into the park, to a much lesser known and visited temple called Banteay Kdei.

Like the More Famous Ta Prohm, only BETTER!

Like the More Famous Ta Prohm, only BETTER!

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, doorways WMBanteay Kdei (Khmer: ប្រាសាទបន្ទាយក្តី; “Prasat Banteay Kdei”), means “Citadel of Chambers” (or “Cells”), but is more commonly known as the “Citadel of the Monks.” Built in 12th-13th centuries CE during the reign of Jayavarman VII, the temples’ mixed architectural features are contained within two successive enclosure walls. Within each, visitors will find concentric galleries from which emerge towers. It is believed that the site had been occupied by monks almost constantly since construction through the 1960s.

Still an Active Buddhist Temple

Still an Active Buddhist Temple

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, banded temple tower WMOur guide, like at most of our other visits to the various temples of Angkor, had us enter this center from its rear, where the angled afternoon light danced on the best features of the sanctuary. Compared to some of the other temple complexes nearby, Banteay Kdei is not large, but instead is tightly packed in a series of tight rectangular enclosures. Functioning originally as a Buddhist monastery during, it remains largely unrestored, resulting in an atmosphere similar to the stylistically famous Ta Prohm.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, tree root HDR WM

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, face-topped gate tower WMBanteay Kdei has suffered more deterioration than most other more famous temples found at Angkor, since soft but easy-to-work sandstone was used in much of its construction rather than the harder stone used extensively elsewhere. 13th century vandalism of Buddhist images is apparent and common here, as the temple and region waffled between Buddhism and Hinduism with the changing decrees of differing Khmer rulers through the centuries. Many of the originally vaulted galleries have collapsed at several locations, putting a good portion of the enclosures off-limits.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, tranquil wooded ruins WM

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, tree rooted in the ruins WMThe monastery is small and dense, packed in an area of only about 160×200 feet and consists of only a single level, making it easy to explore in its totality. Getting to the central area of the ruins, however, will take a bit time since the outer wall of the complex measures roughly 1000×2300 feet. The temple houses a treasure trove of sculptures in the architectural styles of the Ta Prohm, which it eerily resembles. Except without the paparazzi-like draw of Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider fame of that other hectically crowded place (see Tomb Raiding Angkor for more on Hollywood’s impact on the other side of the globe).

Buddha or the King?

Buddha or the King?

Column Carvings in the Hall of Dancers

Column Carvings in the Hall of Dancers

The smiling faces found here are thought to be of King Jayavarman II, although most visitors seem to be perfectly happy to assume they represent a very happy Buddha. Wall niches are found throughout the facility and many contain figurines of apsara (celestial nymph) and/or devatas (lesser deities) in single poses or in pairs as dancers. The temple is famous for its “Hall of Dancers,” where open courtyards display pillars covered in multitudes of sophisticated carvings of these supernatural females. The temple’s tiny inner sanctum (~9×9 foot square) is flanked by similar carvings and contains traces of long-lost statues. The temple is complete with tumbling and overgrown courtyards, where lichens and defacing oxidation add interesting splashes of color to the already spectacular Khmer architecture.

Apsara and Devatas Everywhere

Apsara and Devatas Everywhere

Within the temple one can find several small shrines safeguarded by female Buddhist nuns, all who offer you blessings and Buddhist-colored red and yellow threaded yarn bracelets, of course all in return for a small donation. We both offered a donation of a dollar or two, received our bracelets, and in return placed a freshly lit stick of incense for Buddha to enjoy.

Incense for Buddha

Incense for Buddha

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, dry fit falling down WMIn close proximity to Ta Prohm and every bit as beautiful (or even more), this temple does not get nearly as many visitors as the former more famous location. Banteay Kdei offers a uniquely quieter appeal than most other Angkorian ruins, a place where a visitor can sense the isolation and oppression of the jungle while they contemplate the many carvings and still-active shrines and altars protected by nuns and often visited by local worshipers. Like Ta Prohm, this temple offers a prime setting for photography, where the scenes are compact and close, and the tourists thin and subdued. In these ways, this set of ruins is the perfect antidote to the crowds suffered at Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm. It is, however, located conveniently close to those “big three,” so it’s an easy addition to most any itinerary, and a site visit that should not be missed.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, ruins by the jungle 2 WM

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, looker WMThe peace, quiet and solitude found here is alone worth the visit. “Tranquility” is not a word that is often used to describe a visit to Angkor, but it should be and can be found at this out-of-the-way place. It may be best to start your day early at this temple, then visit the other more popular sites in the afternoon when the Cambodian heat and humidity has driven those crowds down to more manageable numbers. The ancient breezeways running through the temple’s enclosures allow visitors to lose themselves, literally, in time.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, temple passage WM

Similar in layout to Ta Prohm, but less overtaken by the surrounding jungle, the approach to the ruins is shaded and cool, lined with more Cambodian concessionaires than fellow tourists. Some quality merchandise can be found here, from stone rubbings, to wood carvings, oil paintings, and rice paper reliefs. But of course all the other cheap trinkets and unwanted souvenirs you might expect at such a site can be had as well. After the initial asking price tumbled as we politely haggled (the lack of visitors I think helps drive prices down), Jody and I purchased a rice paper relief, something that had caught my eye the day before.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, wooded ruins WM

I continued to wear my Buddha-Blessing-Bracelet 24/7 after our visit (yarn is very hardy). And only recently lost it when changing out of a wetsuit after a scuba dive. Jody still has hers, but unfortunately can’t wear it to work; worries about possibly leaving it in a patient during surgery or something….

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, one of our favorite temple visits and our last

Even though the physical manifestation of my blessing is gone, the blessing of our visit to the delicate loveliness of Banteay Kdei lives on, in mind and spirit. It’s hard to fathom how anyone could be disappointed by its understated and underrated charms. Make this your final visit, make it in the afternoon, and enter the site from the rear. You will be blessed in more ways than one.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, dwarfed by tree roots WM

For More Photos of Our Visit, See:  Banteay Kdei on Flickr

For More Information, Please See:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banteay_Kdei

http://www.canbypublications.com/siemreap/temples/temp-bankdei.htm

http://www.travelfish.org/sight_profile/cambodia/western_cambodia/siem_reap/angkor/356

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

Tashmioo’s Tomb: Please Pray for Him


“A tomb now suffices him for whom the whole world was not sufficient.” ~Greek Proverb

“We know little of the things for which we pray.” ~Geoffrey Chaucer

Tashimoo's Tomb

Tashimoo’s Tomb

“Tashimoo,” the large white sign, sized and placed to be easily seen from the frequently traveled road on Torii Station, began. “Please pray at this blacksmith’s tomb because he made tools for farmers.”

I had driven by this “tomb” probably at least 50 times, and with each pass, my curiosity grew. Who was this blacksmith, and who was responsible for placing and maintaining this sign on an active United States Army station? And where exactly was his tomb at this site? All it appeared to be was a small rise in the ground, serving as root foundation for a very large shade tree and associated sub-tropical jungle.

Deciding to stop and explore his resting place on foot, I realize that this tomb appears to be very old, and basically has been reclaimed by nature. Oddly situated next to a modern American style gas station where a woman was loudly vacuuming her car, I can find no real trace of what I would consider an Okinawan tomb, at least not like those ubiquitous turtle-back mausoleums seen all over the island.

Okinawan Turtleback Tombs (Yomitan)

Okinawan Turtleback Tombs (Yomitan)

Turtle-back tombs are exactly one of those things that make Okinawa…oh so Okinawan. They line hillsides along the coasts, prime property for what in essence are neighborhoods of the dead. But they are not seen in other parts of Japan; they were introduced only in the Ryukyus through Okinawa’s long and prosperous seafaring tradition with China.

Turtle-back tombs or turtle shell tombs (Japanese: 亀甲墓, kamekō-baka) are a particular type of tomb commonly found in some coastal areas of China’s Fujian Province and in Japan’s Ryūkyū Islands. In the original Chinese form, the tomb main chamber’s roof is made to look like the carapace of a tortoise. A vertical stone tombstone bearing the name of the deceased is placed where the turtle’s head would be, and serves as the “door” access to the burial vault.

Smaller, More Literal Turtle Tombs in  China

Smaller, More Literal Turtle Tombs in China

In the Ryūkyūan island chain, the turtle-back tombs are thought to have been introduced from China in the late 17th or early 18th century, but there are academic claims that reach back to their origins in Okinawa to the 15th century. The Ryūkyūan version has the same overall shape and layout, but on a much grander scale. Whereas in China the tombs are for individuals, in Okinawa the enhanced size of the body of the “tortoise” serves most often as a family tomb.

Why a turtle? In China, the turtle has long been considered a sacred animal. The reptile’s shape, with its flat plastron (the belly of the turtle) below and its domed carapace above, is said to represent the universe, at least as it appeared to ancient Chinese. But the interpretation in the Ryukyus has the tomb shaped to resemble a woman’s womb. One of the Eastern Buddhist ideas surrounding death is that it is only another form of rebirth, or a means of returning from whence you came.

Turtle-Back (China) or Womb (Okinawa) Interpretation

Turtle-Back (China) or Womb (Okinawa) Interpretation

Okinawa 2015, Kadena Tombs, broken burial urns WMOkinawa 2015, Kadena Tombs, overgrown and reclaimed WMBy the 20th century, the turtleback tomb became the predominant burial chamber in most of the Ryūkyū Islands. These tombs contain a burial vault, where bones of many generations of a particular family could repose. In the long-standing tradition of burial in Okinawa, a coffin and body are placed in the central part of the tomb and the vault is sealed with a massive stone. The newly deceased remains there for some number of years until wholly decomposed. At that point, the bones would be washed, usually by young female relatives of the deceased, placed into a large earthenware vessel, and stored on shallow tiered shelves lining the back and sides of the vault’s interior based on seniority. Larger tombs offer up to 150 square feet of burial space.

Preserved Tombs on Kadena AFB

Preserved Tombs on Kadena AFB

Okinawa 2015, Kadena Tombs, large shaded tomb WMOkinawa 2015, Kadena Tombs, overgrown tomb WMThere are large preserved tombs on Kadena AFB, complete with placarded information. Stopping there one day, I find a substantial picturesque tomb and a brief, generalized explanation describing the aged, intriguing structure. Although the signage claimed that the tombs were still being utilized today, a closer inspection of their interiors clearly shows that no one is home, living or dead. I can only imagine, perhaps, that the family was whipped out in totality during the Typhoon of Steel which occurred here back in 1945….

Empty Tombs

Empty Tombs

WWII Intelligence on Okinawan Tombs

WWII Intelligence on Okinawan Tombs

That spring, during the Battle of Okinawa, many Okinawan civilians sought refuge from naval and air bombardment of the island inside their ancestors’ tombs (as they also do for typhoons). Later, many of these tombs were also used by the Imperial Japanese defenders of the islands in essence as reinforced fighting positions. (See Turtle Back Tombs for an excellent overview of the role the tombs played in WWII) Pre-invasion military analysis of Okinawa included instructions on the explosive firepower required to destroy such tombs. When you consider the propensity of the Japanese to use the tombs in military roles, grave danger emanated from the literally thousands of turtlebacks that dotted the island of Okinawa.

Militarized Tombs 2

Okinawan Tomb along the Hiji River showing scares of War

Okinawan Tomb along the Hiji River showing scares of War

14560717418_1a6bcfc297_bUnfortunately, war often presents just such dilemmas: should the destruction of local culturally significant sites be avoided at the risk of increased casualties, or should they be leveled to discourage their use and save as many of the invasion force as possible? The way it went, it is the Okinawan people who suffered most. And doubly so. The Japanese, who cared nothing for the welfare of the Okinawan people, occupied, militarized, and sacrificed this island chain as a way to simply slow the Americans down on their march northward to the Japanese homeland. The Japanese were directly responsible for the destruction of almost every important Okinawan cultural relic, either by their own hand or by placing such sites in the crosshairs of the American invasion force. The desecration of tombs – many which were destroyed on the mere suspicion of being military strongholds or hideouts – was a terrible and lasting affront to the Okinawans.

Shiimii Observance at a Family Tomb

Shiimii Observance at a Family Tomb

In Okinawa, where highly superstitious and spiritually attuned people actively engage in ancestor worship, the tomb is not only a place for resting the dead, but a place of tangible joy and transcendent comfort for the living.  One such event is known as Shiimii. Each spring at the beginning of the third Lunar month (the Okinawans still use the traditional Chinese measure of time to mark cultural events) Okinawans participate in memorial services of a sort for their ancestors. But these observances are much less solemn that you might think. The practice is, of course, based on Chinese traditions passed along to the Ryukyus with the Chinese tombs. During this festivity, blood relatives gather at tombs in a family reunion, but one which includes both the living and the dead. The entire site is cleaned and neatened; weeds are pulled, trees are trimmed, bushes cut back and debris and trash removed. Irritated forebears, upset at the tidiness of their eternal home, are believed to cause illness or even death when their descendants don’t take good care of the family tomb or participate in important annual ceremonies which take place there. See Banzai for more on the rituals and rites of honoring the dead in Okinawa.

Buddha Standing Guard

Buddha Standing Guard

Once the site is presentable, a brief ceremony is held which includes prayers and the burning of imitation paper money for the dead to use in the coming year. Then a picnic is enjoyed at the tomb. Family members unpack special Okinawan ceremonial foods like mochi, fruits and pork, along with beer, saké and awamori. Offerings are made first to the resident ancestors, and then the extended family consumes the rest graveside. Children are seen laughing and playing while the adults appreciate their adult beverages. Often a strummed sanshin, the traditional Okinawa three-string instrument, offers a musical background where time-honored folk songs are sung in hogen, the local dialect. This joyous time, one which strengthens and reaffirms kinship and ancestral ties, is cherished by the Okinawans.

Modern Gable-Style Tomb

Modern Gable-Style Tomb

But there’s less and less of the turtleback tombs being constructed on Okinawa. More recent trends, given the exorbitant cost of purchasing land and building large kamekō-baka are to build gables, smaller tombs that more resemble a shrine or small home than animal. And given the reduced floor space available, cremation is now the norm.

Scattered Earthenware and Bones

Scattered Earthenware and Bones

Tashimoo's Tomb

Tashimoo’s Tomb

Okinawa Apr 2015, Tori Blacksmith Grave, bones shells and urn fragmentsTashimoo, the blacksmith of Yomitan, had neither. His tomb is crudely formed by stacked chunks of ancient coral. Moving up into the manmade elements of his hillside grave, I spy fragments of earthenware and what appears to be bone fragments, possibly animal, but maybe not, scattered in a leveled area immediately against a small coral wall. The site, adjacent to a busy road serving the base’s gas station and across the street from the construction site where the new base headquarters is going to be, is quite shaded and tranquil.

Tashimoo's Tomb

Tashimoo’s Tomb

And he still has people stopping to pray. In my few moments of silent contemplation of this man’s life – and death – I focus the very nature of his tomb and the fascinating Okinawan interpretation of the circle of life. And I reach a necessary conclusion.

Tashimoo's Tomb

Tashimoo’s Tomb

We all can only hope to be as lucky to be so well-remembered.

What Does the Fox Say: Kyoto’s Fushimi-Inari Shrine


What does the fox say? It says it all – silently – at the Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shinto Shrine, one of the most impressive visits one could make in all of Kyoto.

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14060715578_2141ddd704_bFoxes (kitsune), regarded as messengers of Inari, play important roles at Inari shrines. Like the song that went viral, there are hundreds of stone foxes scattered and hidden across the Fushimi Inari complex. Often they are depicted holding a granary key in their mouths, visual symbolism reflecting Inari as the protector of rice and cereals, a role so revered in ancient Japan that foxes are often referred to themselves as Inari.

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With endless expanses of crimson-colored wooden torii (See Trampled Torii for more on those iconic contours of the Far East) layered amongst a wooded and peaceful mountain spared from the city’s urban sprawl, the massive religious complex offers an escape to a spiritual world unto its own.

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14328992688_f96798e4a7_bJF4_029682Yes, it’s a Shinto Shrine. But this place is oh so much more. Ancient. Mysterious. Moving. Immense. Describing it as “just another shrine” would be like saying that the Vatican is just another church…. What Fushimi-Inari encompasses is an entire realm of various shrines large and small, nestled amid thousands of torii, all spread across an entire mountain just outside Kyoto proper. For me and Jody, our repeat visits to the shrine – during the day and at night – are some of our more memorable adventures in our flirtations to date anywhere in the Far East. It not only ranks as one of the most impressive sites in Kyoto, but it’s one of the most important to the Japanese people who live there. See Honeymoon’s Atomic Fireworks Saves Kyoto for more on what makes this locality so special.

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Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社) is the lead shrine of Inari. Situated at the base of Inari Mountain, the complex consists of four major religious areas along with dozens and dozens of sub-shrines and alters winding through numerous trails spanning over 2.5 mils and ascending to the mountain’s peak 725 feet above.

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14801914150_8fc1376c87_b 14766524022_1a6a317b62_bInari was initially dedicated to the gods of rice and sake in 8th century Japan. But as the role of agriculture diminished, the Inari deities were repurposed more broadly as protectors of business and commerce. Thus, the guardian spirit or god Inari became the patron of business. Since times distant merchants and manufacturers have traditionally worshipped Inari. This explains, in fact, the shear and almost uncountable number of torii located here, of which over 10,000 are said to be standing. Each has been donated and inscribed by a Japanese business or business person thankful for their prosperity and in the hopes of gaining additional favor with the gods for the future. The resulting long tunnels of torii are some of the most iconic visions in Japan; the torii.

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14056204387_14037f94ec_bThe earliest structures were built in 711 CE, but were re-located in 816 to the present-day site. However, the main shrine structures we see today were all built around the 14-15th centuries, including the main gate (楼門, rōmon, “tower gate”), and the main shrine (御本殿, go-honden). Today the shrine, one of the earliest Shinto Shrines in Japan, is the country’s most popular, most visited, and serves as headquarters for some 40,000 Inari shrines scattered throughout Japan.

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Interspersed along the shrine’s paths, small food stands serve Kitsune Udon (“Fox Udon”), a noodle soup topped with pieces of aburaage (fried tofu), a treat favored by foxes. You can also try Inari sushi, fried tofu wrapped around sweetened rice.

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The hike around the shrines long and crossing paths is impressive to each and every sense. Light plays with the torii tunnels during the day….. But it is in the late afternoon and throughout the night where it takes an eerie and more spiritually moving turn. There in shadows of the descending day, the small graveyards, miniaturized shrines and silent alters take on a mysterious air.

Leaving our own Ema

Leaving our own Ema

14041109430_846d3c1c88_b14041146147_28a3f9dc03_bThe Japanese, being a very superstitious people, hold that the Inari shrines are possessed by foxes at night. While foxes are generally seen has sacred and benign, they also are known to be somewhat mischievous – as foxes are everywhere) – especially at night. Jody and I, just to be safe and in the hopes of avoiding any accidental mammalian-based bewitching, visited together, even though the bitter cold of the night was calling Jody back to our lukewarm Machiya in Kyoto’s Gion District (read Timeless Townhouse for more on our stay at a traditional Geisha home at the turn of the last century). For the record, Jody was a foxy lady even prior to our visit.

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We recommend that, if possible, a visit to the shrine should be timed for the very late afternoon, when the crowds start to fade along with the harsh light of the day. The chance to explore the torii tunnels alone in the tranquil forests is both spiritually moving and all-things romantic. Having these sites and sights to yourselves is simply a magical experience.

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“The secret of the fox, Ancient mystery, Somewhere deep in the woods, I know you’re hiding…My guardian angel….” ~ The Fox – What Does the Fox Say?

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See my Flickr Set “Kyoto” for more photos of our visit to that iconic Japanese city.

Reference

http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/spot/shritemp/fushimiinaritaisha.html

http://www.pref.kyoto.jp/visitkyoto/en/theme/sites/shrines/temples/fushimi_inari/

http://www.sacred-destinations.com/japan/kyoto-fushimi-inari

http://www.insidekyoto.com/fushimi-inari-taisha-shrine

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/japan/kansai/kyoto/sights/religious/fushimi-inari-taisha

Shinto Shrines & Snake Oils


“Crooked creatures of a thousand dubious trades…sellers of snake-oil balm and lucky rings.” ~ Stephen Vincent Benet, from John Brown’s Body

snake-oil

Snake Oil. The phrase, for most of us who watched cheesy Western reruns on Saturday afternoons, immediately conjures up images of shabby swindlers exploiting the naïvely unsuspecting public by peddling fake cures. The Oxford English Dictionary defines snake oil as “a quack remedy or panacea,” a characterization that most Americans would not dispute. The OED, however, doesn’t note that the phrase’s genesis is linked inextricably to American flirtations with the Far East.

Wild-West-Snake-Oil-Salesmen

Makes the FDA not seem so bad….

Snake oil is an expression that, 100 years ago, referred to fraudulent health products or unproven medicines. In more modern times it has come to refer to any product with questionable or unverifiable quality or benefit. By extension, snake oil salesmen are people who knowingly sells fraudulent goods or who are themselves a fraud, quack or charlatan. But why?

coolies-promontory

Coolies and Our Railroads

During the mid-1800s, America was in the midst of a fantastic building project: the Transcontinental Railroad. To support such a massive and dangerous undertaking, and to do it at minimal cost, thousands of Chinese workers were “imported” to the United States where they basically became indentured laborers, responsible for most of the most dangerous, heavy lifting of the rails. About 180,000 Chinese immigrated to the United States between 1849 and 1882, the vast majority coming from peasant families. In the “New World,” these unskilled Asian laborers came to be known as “Coolies.” See my blog Beauty and Honor Enshrined for another Coolie connection between East and West.

snakeoil

And of course the Chinese brought with them their culture, customs and traditions. Which included various medicines, such as snake oil. Made from the Chinese water snake, the oil actually did help reduce inflammation, and was used primarily to treat joint pain (specifically arthritis and bursitis), from which the Chinese no doubt suffered from their back-breaking daily labors. The Coolies would ingest and or rub the oil on their joints after surviving yet another day toiling across America. And, of course, the Chinese workers began sharing their ointment, used for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years in the far-away Far East, with Americans, many of who marveled at its healing properties.

Snake Oil/Patent Meds We All Could Use!

Snake Oil/Patent Meds We All Could Use!

Too Good to be True

Too Good to be True

Due to the massive lack of government oversight at the time, there was a massive explosion in “patent medicines” at the same time. Sold by shady traveling salesmen, or advertised in the obscure classifieds of questionable newspapers, such tonics promised often an unbelievable wide range of cures, including chronic pain, headaches, “female complaints” and pretty much anything involving the GI track. Over time, as these “cures” became more and more known as false, they came to be known as “snake oil.”

Shinto Sales

Shinto Sales

14725978451_679b92773c_bThe Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples here in Okinawa and Japan have, like most religions, their own versions of snake oil. And, like all other houses of worship in the world, raise a good deal of money from their sale. Now I’m not saying that these talismans are all false or that they don’t offer their sacramental protections or blessings to the buyer. But, like most religiously based claims, little concrete proof of their efficacy can be offered, other than rather subjective spiritually improved prognoses. What is obvious, though, is that the mere promise of help, protection, or just plain good luck leads to their massive popularity here in what is already a highly superstitious culture. And that leads to the “ching-chinging” of cash registers….

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For instance, we visit our local Shinto Shrine at Futenma each New Year, and well-attended ritual throughout Japan. Kadomatsu (門松) can be purchased and serve as much more than New Year decorations to the faithful. They are intended to welcome the kami (spirits or gods) of harvest to ensure the coming year’s crops. Other examples of local Shinto Shrine snake oils are described below.

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Kadomatsu

11812222966_3157ccdfc2_bOmikuji (御御籤 or 御神籤) are oracles written on strips of paper, nothing more than a fortune. For the Japanese, their oracles are chosen using the time-honored Chinese method of selecting a fortune-telling stick; for us gaijin (foreigners), we just reach into a box and select one from the thousands found there. These are often found at shrines wrapped around tree branches, a way to either multiply a good fortune, or to leave a bad so it won’t follow you home….

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My Omikuji tied at the Shrine

16199643279_80b0af4be5_bOmamori (お守り) are amulets on sale at shrines and temples for particular purposes. And by particular, I mean particular. There are hundreds to be found and purchased, with each Shrine or Temple having a specific focus. For example, there are suction-cup charms designed for car windshield to protect the vehicle’s occupants. Students can purchase trinkets to assist them in studies or test-taking. Businessmen buy trinkets to ensure success and prosperity in the coming year. But the most can be found to support health or fertility!

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A Collection of Various Omamori for Sale

Hamaya (破魔矢) is literally an “evil breaking arrow,” sold during the New Year at shrines and kept at home all year to keep evil at bay.

Hamaya For Sale

Hamaya For Sale

16359893076_50ddb00b30_bEma (絵馬) are small wooden plaques on which worshippers write their prayers or wishes, which are then left hanging where kami receive – and hopefully act on them. They bear various pictures, often of animals or other Shinto imagery, and many have the word gan’i (願意, “wish”) written along the side. The ema of today are stand-ins for more traditional offerings to the religious houses of the past, such as animals and food-stuffs. And then there are specific ema which can be purchased, such as for success in work or on exams, marital bliss, to have children, and for good health.

The Futenma Shrine's Ema

The Futenma Shrine’s Ema

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Shinto Sales

Shinto Sales

As you might be able to read from between the lines, I’m not a firm believer or supporter of any one type of organized religion. All are a creation of man, and based on highly suspect scriptures, rooted in no longer relevant tradition and practices. And there is simply no escaping the financial aspect of all these talisman for sale, a seemingly rather transparent notion that the faithful everywhere take for granted. But clearly there is a spiritual dimension to our shared human condition. And in embracing and trying to capture that spiritual quality, I have no issue in partaking of the best of each religion that happens to be at hand.

Leaving our Prayers and Wishes in Kyoto

Leaving our Prayers and Wishes in Kyoto

So, yes, we display Kadomatsu for the New Year, and we take great pleasure in getting our Omikuji each year. We purchase various Omamori for help in the coming year, for protection on the roads and to help in insuring our health. We even bought a very nice Hamaya, which remains protectively poised at the threshold of our home, warding off evil on a continual basis. And not only do we collect Ema for their artistic quality, we take great care in crafting our wishes each year so that they will be heard and cared for by the kami.

Brisk Sales!

Brisk Sales!

Because, like for most snake oils of the past, the cure is often times in faith, not whether the ingredients actually work or not. And besides, what is lost other than a few bucks that hopefully are put ultimately to better use? No, there is nothing lost here buying from such sellers of snake-oil balm and lucky rings, but everything to be gained.

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