During a recent trip to China I was fortunate to visit Henan and the sites associated with Shaolin. Here are few images collected during this trip:
For the detailed captions, please see the original Gallery on SmugMug: China Gallery by Michel Mohr.
In December of this year Kagyu Thegchen Ling (also known as KTL Meditation Center) celebrated the fortieth anniversary of Lama Rinchen’s arrival in Honolulu on December first, 1976.
The Kagyu (bKa’ brgyud) lineage of Tibetan Buddhism claims to have been transmitted directly from India by the Indian master Nāropa, via Marpa, Milarepa and Gampopa. It constitutes one of the Red Hat sects. The Karma Kagyu subschool is headed by His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, a modern teacher eager to reach out to the younger generation. See his official website: http://kagyuoffice.org.
The website you are seeing here has just been migrated from another hosting platform. Its design still needs improvement but it provides more flexibility and has the advantage of being visible on all electronic devices. It was about time to move away from the venerable “iWeb” application, which is not supported anymore. I hope that you will enjoy the new “minimalist” presentation!
This story begins with my study of Hori Shitoku 堀至徳 (1876–1903), a neglected young Buddhist priest who went to Bengal as a result of his quest for the truth. It proved necessary to look into his initial teacher in Japan, Maruyama Kanchō 丸山貫長 (1844–1927), who initiated an attempt to reform Japanese Buddhism. This drove me to visit one of the temples where Kanchō resided as abbot, Mirokuji 彌勒寺 (simplified 弥勒寺, Maitreya Temple) in Dongo 土庫 (irregular reading), a small village in the prefecture of Nara. Thanks to the introduction by Professor Ikeda Hisayo 池田久代, Reverend Itō Kyōjun 伊藤教純—the current abbot—and his wife Taeko 多永子 extended a warm welcome.
Everything began by being formally introduced to the main Buddha, Maitreya, whose statue recently came back after undergoing restoration work following its designation as an important cultural property (Jūyō Bunkazai 重要文化財) in September 2012.
This amazing and elegant statue is more than a thousand years old .
Its distinctive long earlobes—which display patterns representing Brahma’s net (bonmō 梵網)—helped determine the date when it was carved because they have been found on other artworks from the same time period.
Moreover, it was carved from a single piece of wood, except for the left hand added later. No other known ancient statue of Maitreya shares this feature, since many wooden Buddhist statues are hollow and made of two halves (yosegi 寄せ木) assembled in the last phase of the statue’s completion. Another rare feature is that it represents Maitreya not as a Bodhisattva (Buddha to be in the future) as it is more common but rather as a full-fledged Tathāgata. Nothing more is known about where this statue came from, because it predates the construction of Mirokuji in 1538 (Tenbun 天文 7) as a temple commissioned by the Dongo 土庫 clan. It may have been linked to a period during which belief in Maitreya (miroku shinkō 彌勒信仰) was becoming increasingly popular during the Heian period. This type of messianic belief consists in believing that Maitreya represents the coming of a new cosmic Buddha, born five billion six-hundred-seventy million years after the Buddha Śākyamuni, who allows those still unaware of his teachings to come in touch with the truth.
In any case, Maruyama Kanchō is a fascinating figure, who was also a gifted calligrapher and, apparently gained access to the imperial court to teach the consort of Emperor Meiji. He married at the age of fifty and then divorced before marrying again… As a result, he had six children, five of whom survived and occupied various positions in local Buddhist temples belonging to the same branch of the Shingon denomination (Shingonshū Buzanha 真言宗豊山派).
Maruyama Kanchō and Hori Shitoku’s ambitions for reforming Japanese Buddhism can be surmised by the petition they submitted in 1899 to the Interior Minister Saigō Tsugumichi 西郷從道 (1843–1902) for the recognition of their movement under the new name of “the True Teachings of Nonduality” (Funi Shinkyō kōshō negai 不二真教公称願).
You can find additional images related to this temple in the following gallery: http://www.smugmug.com/gallery/n-gJGTSH/i-P9h56RB
Today’s Kyoto is increasingly getting disfigured by Pachinko buildings, convenience stores, and modern high-rises. Yet this city still harbors some stunning assets, particularly temples and shrines, which testify to its previous beauty. One of them is the Sanzen-in 三千院, in the Ōhara 大原 area Northeast of Kyoto.
Let me share with you one remarkable image found in this temple, which conjures tales of magic and ancient beliefs. Guess what the following picture represents:
Well, as indicated on the caption, this demonic figure is called Ganzan Daishi 元三大師. So far so good but what is more surprising is that this is one of the posthumous names given to Ryōgen 良源 (912–985), the eighteenth abbot of the Tendai school.
The belief is that he had acquired supernatural powers (reigen 靈驗), in particular the ability to transform his body into that of a demon. According to legend, this proved useful when the whole area was struck by an epidemic and he was himself suffering from high fever. He swiftly transformed into a horned demon, thus frightening the demon who had come to terminate his life. At that time, there was a widespread belief in epidemic deities (yakubyōgami 疫病神). Thereafter, images of the horned Ganzan Daishi, also known as Tsuno Daishi 角大師, were used to ward off evil and illnesses. Here is a modern example of an amulet from Jindaiji 深大寺 in Chōfu, Tokyo metropolitan area:
What also picks our curiosity is the resemblance of this image with Daoist talismans. These similarities would require further research. The other fascinating aspect is that the same Ganzan Daishi is credited for having invented the usage of O-mikuji 御籤 (fortunes written on strips of paper). One doesn’t need supernatural powers to see the resemblance with similar divination devices used in China (língqiān 靈籤), often made of wood.
Should you wish to see more of the Sanzen-in, you can visit my photo gallery.
This post resembles a bottle thrown into the ocean with a message inside. Will anyone pick it up, or will it keep drifting with all the meaningless information clouding our senses and reason? It results from a dream I had in October 2014. Although it may sound presumptuous, this message is titled “Open Letter to Asia: Soul-Searching on the Occasion of the Seventieth Commemoration of the Pacific War and Suggestions for Japan’s Reconciliation with Asia.” Let me append the full text below. A PDF version if available from the following links: English PDF version, Japanese PDF version, English and Japanese bilingual version. These files are designed to be in the public domain. It depends on each of you whether these small seeds grow. It is only a matter of finding the right soil and the proper conditions, isn’t it? I welcome suggestions for improving the wording in either language, or constructive criticism of the content. If you agree with what is being said, you are encouraged to circulate this message to friends or acquaintances, or even to translate this message into your own language. In this case, please be kind enough to leave a note in the comments. May all beings be happy!
Open Letter to Asia
Soul-Searching on the Occasion of the Seventieth Commemoration of the Pacific War and Suggestions for Japan’s Reconciliation with Asia
Although seventy years have elapsed since the conclusion of the Pacific War, wounds are still vivid and even tend to be exacerbated by the lack of sincere reflection and unambiguous apology from the Japanese government. Those of us who love Japan’s traditional emphasis on sincerity (makoto) cannot watch this scene without being appalled and without thinking that with minimal effort Japan could reconcile with its neighbors and finally turn the page of its militaristic past. Coming to terms with past atrocities may sound difficult but is the only way forward. Germany has shown that it is possible. This nevertheless implies genuine reflection on the complex historical factors that led Japan to lose touch with the rest of Asia. It should also be emphasized that this reflection is not limited to Japan and could apply to any country losing touch with reality and treading the path of militarism. Here are a few suggestions on how to express such sincere reflection and apology in the spirit of this open letter. Precisely because nothing can be expected from the Japanese government, intellectuals and private citizens feeling a sense of responsibility must take the lead.
Written on April 19, 2015.
Kyoto is a place of contrast, and the quick transition from its freezing winter to an explosion of blooming trees is not the least of them. When is the turning point, then? One popular belief is that it coincides with the Buddhist ritual called Mizutori (technically Shunie 修二会 but known as Omizutori お水取り) taking place at the Nigatsudō 二月堂, a subtemple of Tōdaiji 東大寺 in Nara. It used to be performed between the first and the fifteenth day of the second lunar month but now takes place between March first and fourteen. Once this ritual involving a spectacular display of huge burning torches being shaken across the temple (Otaimatsu お松明) is over, this is is believed to mark the end of winter. You can watch a video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9V70idM0wA. This year (2015), the cold seems to have miraculously abated on March 13, right after the peak of this ceremony.
Now to the cherry blossoms. Let me introduce the topic with a picture taken today:
Well, this is so pink that it seems almost artificial. Maybe you prefer the white ones:
Aesthetically speaking, I think that the contrast between the various colors is what makes these trees so stunning for a few days:
These petals will soon scatter, following the universal law that whatever is composed eventually dissipates and returns to a state of dispersion. Of course, human beings are no exception but it does not prevent them from enjoying their own transitoriness or the flowers’.
Instead of pontificating about the philosophical implications of the above, dear reader, I want you to make your own conclusions. Let me conclude with yet another color:
Should you wish to see more, you can visit the photo gallery that I just created: http://www.smugmug.com/gallery/n-j6wNbR/i-LFBLThG
Everyone living in Japan is bewildered by the unusual status of the clergy in this country, where Buddhist monks (there are also very few nuns) do not pay attention to the monastic precepts of their own tradition. A convergence of complex historical factors created this situation but the result is that supposedly ordained individuals are not held in high regard by the Japanese population, and that they are the object of ridicule in other Asian countries. Being currently conducting research on Taiwanese Buddhism, it was natural to visit one of their branch temples in Japan. Thus, I went to Pǔdōng Chánsì 普東禪寺, the Japanese branch temple associated with Zhōngtái Chánsì 中台禪寺, which is located in Kadoma-shi 門真市, slightly outside the center of Osaka. Here is a picture showing the outside of Pǔdōng Chánsì:
I was fortunate to be allowed to discuss with the Abbess, Venerable Shì Jiànxuān 釋見瑄, who speaks fluent Japanese because she used to be a teacher of Japanese in Taiwan. Among the topics discussed, I had to touch the delicate question of possible interactions with the Japanese Buddhist schools and ask whether any exchanges were taking place. The reply was that there were no such interactions, because both perceptions of values (kachikan 価値観 ) are so radically different. This was a very diplomatic way to hint at the gap separating a strictly monastic, celibate, and vegetarian clergy from the Japanese pretense of monkhood. More than a century ago, the Indian monk Swami Vivekananda was attracting attention worldwide after his spectacular interventions at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago and the following lectures he gave across the United States. Among Japanese figures impressed by his charisma and spirituality was Okakura Kakuzō, who hoped to invite him to Japan. Unfortunately, because of health issues, this project never came to fruition (although Vivekananda made a brief stopover en route to Chicago). In any case, barely one month before his passing, on June 14, 1902, Vivekananda sent a letter to his disciple Dhira Mata, also known as Mrs. Ole Bull or Sara Bull. It included the following passage relevant to the Japanese situation:
Modern Buddhism—having fallen among races who had not yet come up to the evolution of marriage—has made a travesty of monasticism. So until there is developed in Japan a great and sacred ideal about marriage (apart from mutual attraction and love), I do not see how there can be great monks and nuns.(accessed March 30, 2015)
Mirroring the diversity of Buddhist traditions across Asia, the celebration of the Buddha’s Awakening takes place on various dates, depending on the country. In Taiwan and in the Chinese cultural sphere relying on the lunar calendar (nónglì 農曆), it occurs on the day corresponding to the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month, which this year was Saturday, January 24, 2015 (year 104 in the Taiwanese calendar beginning in 1912). Thanks to the kind invitation of a Dharma friend, I went to attend the celebration at Zhōngtái Chánsì 中台禪寺 in Pǔlǐ zhèn 埔里鎮, central Taiwan, one of the flagship Chan monasteries known for its magnificent architecture and the quality of its teachers.
Since I had no idea about what to expect, I was there for a surprise when finding out that more than ten thousand followers were gathering for the occasion, with hundreds of buses full of people coming especially for the occasion, often travelling more than four hours (one way) to come from remote hometowns. I simply had never seen so many people in a Buddhist temple! We were not allowed to take pictures inside the monastery, but this may give an idea of the first few buses who had arrived around 4 p.m.
Participants were grouped in different units, identified with jackets featuring distinctive colors and indicating the subsection from which they came. The leader of the group, carrying a placard, would be responsible for taking care that the individuals in his or her group would stay together. Here is one example:
Around 5 p.m., everyone moved into different spaces, including the huge dining hall in the basement of this structure, fully equipped with video screens retransmitting live all the events taking place in the main hall. The highlight was the arrival of Great Master Wei Chueh (Wéijué Héshang 惟覺和尚), who gave a substantial address to his many guests. At the age of 86 his speech is still precise and his memory phenomenal. He often illustrates his teachings with poetry quoted from his vast repertoire.
This was followed by several performances, in particular by pupils attending the neighboring schools belonging to this denomination. The banner in the dining hall read “Friendly Gathering and Dharma Assembly of the Year 104 Zhongtai Chan Monastery Celebration of the the Buddha’s Awakening” (Zhōngtái Chánsì yìbáilíng nián Làbā wéilú fǎhuì 中台禪寺一百零四年臘八圍爐法會). It is interesting to see the expression wéilú 圍爐 (tentatively translated as “Friendly Gathering”) being used in this context, because it literally refers to a circle of people [chatting] around a fireplace or hearth. The Taiwanese climate usually does not warrant setting fireplaces but I imagine that this must be a remnant of traditions from colder areas in mainland China. In any case, this provided an invaluable glimpse of the vitality of lay supporters coming from all wakes of life, including teenagers, young parents, and children. The gorgeous vegetarian meal was far from frugal and included the traditional làbāzhōu 臘八粥, a nutritious rice gruel enriched with nuts and dried fruits.
To return to the various approaches to the Buddha’s Awakening, this joyful gathering around a dinner table contrasts with the more austere way the same event is celebrated in Japan. In Japanese Zen monasteries, it is called Jōdōe 成道會 (Ceremony [to commemorate] the Realization of Awakening) and takes place at the end of the harshest meditation retreat known as Rōhatsu Ōzesshin 臘八大攝心. The ceremony is usually performed at dawn on December 8, after a whole week during which practitioners barely slept and were pushed far beyond their usual limits. This week of extreme asceticism stands in stark contrast with the laxism prevalent in the way Buddhist precepts are practiced, or rather disregarded, by the modern Japanese clergy. In Southeast Asia, they have regrouped the three celebrations of the birth, awakening, and passing of the historical Buddha on a single day called Vesak. An official United Nations Day of Vesak (UNDV) has even been established. This year an academic conference will coincide with the event and will be hosted by Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University in Thailand between May 27–31, 2015. This plethora of interpretation begs the question of whether it may be more accurate to speak of “Buddhisms” in the plural, as suggested in scholarly circles.