Saturday, August 3, 2013

Japanese Pilgrimage: The City of the Dead

In order to attain serenity of mind and become a person who is like the clouds in the sky and the whirling snow, consider that everyone's fate is to be become a corpse.                                                                           -- Kobo Daishi (Kukai) translated by Nobuhiro Tamura

It is night-time, and we are walking through an immense and ancient graveyard. All around us, the huge, straight trunks of 600-year-old cryptomeria, trees, like giant coast redwoods, rise up and disappear into the darkness above, so it feels that we are walking through a forest rather than a graveyard. Stone memorials line the wide pathway where we walk, and continue beneath the trees to either side, as far as can be seen. Some monuments are fresh and white, perhaps only a few years old, while others are covered in a deep layer of moss. Some are massive and pretentious; others are humble, clustered together and leaning toward one another like whispering children. The remains of 200,000 people from the last 1,100 years are all around us.

It is very quiet, except for the chitters of the flying squirrels, high in the trees above. Our little group speaks nearly in whispers as we walk in the dark: it doesn't seem like a place for raised voices. Unlike a cemetery in the West, there are no bodies here, or even the ashes from cremations. Beneath each stone memorial is a single bone: the nodobotoke, or Buddha bone, a small bone from the neck, shaped like a seated Buddha, carefully separated from the rest of the ashes after cremation.

This is my introduction to the Okunoin cemetery on Mount Koya, one of the most sacred places in all of Japan, where the spirits of commoners, samurai, monks and aristocrats have all lain down together in silence beneath the great trees.

We walk a gentle uphill slope through the dark graveyard, and across a series of small bridges. Before the third bridge, the monk who is guiding us, Nobuhiro Tamura, stops and tells us solemnly that beyond the bridge is the heart of Mount Koya, the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, or Kukai, the 9th century monk and teacher who brought Shingon Buddhism - esoteric Buddhism -  from China to Japan. Kobo Daishi founded the first monasteries on Mount Koya, at 2,600 feet in the remote wilderness mountains of southern Honshu, the main island of the Japanese archipelago. Since the 9th century this place has been the heart of Shingon Buddhism in Japan, and once had more than 1,000 temples nestled between its eight mountain peaks. The whole complex is like an immense mandala, and at the center of the mandala is the Okunoin graveyard and the mausoleum.

Our monk/guide tells us that it is believed that in the year 835, when he was 61 years old, Kobo Daishi walked into that mausoleum, sat down in meditation, and has been in a deep meditative state ever since, for 1,178 years. He has been receiving teachings in the Tushita heaven from the next Buddha, Maitreya. When he wakes and speaks, he will give the greatest sermon the world has ever known, and that's why 200,000 people have chosen Mount Koya for the final resting place of their Buddha bone, so they can be there when the great sermon is given.

The lonely cloud has no path home, and loves a distant peak. I don't claim to know worldly things; I just watch the moon and lie down beneath a green pine.                                                                                    - Kobo Daishi (Kukai), translated by Nobuhiro Tamura
 (This poem by Kukai is particularly touching to me because there is a kind of beautiful conifer on Mount Koya called the Koya pine, or Japanese umbrella pine, known as the koyamaki in Japanese. I walked beneath it in the mountains around Mount Koya and saw many offerings of its branches on altars and on memorials in the cemetery. It is a living fossil, a species more than 230 million years old with no known close relatives. It is also one of the five sacred trees of Japan. There are so many koyamaki around Mount Koya that I can only imagine that it was this kind of pine that Kukai lay down beneath, illuminated by moonlight, so long ago.)

Offerings of koyamaki

Our group of Zen pilgrims (17 Canadians and me) stayed in a temple on Mount Koya, Ekoin, for two nights. (To learn more about our pilgrimage, read this.)

There are still more than a hundred temples clustered in a high valley amidst the peaks of Mount Koya, and a thousand monks and nuns, and Shingon pilgrims come from all over Japan and walk (or more frequently, ride the vertiginous tram) up the steep mountainside to stay for a night or two in a temple, along with curious Japanese and Western tourists. It might be possible to visit Mount Koya, eat some good temple food (and Japanese vegetarian temple cooking is deservedly famous), buy a few souvenirs, gawk at the famous gravestones in the cemetery,and get back on the tram and go home, relatively unmoved. But I found that the place, and the teachings there, seeped into me like pure mountain water, so even without understanding Shingon, I found myself moved, opened, and touched by something without name.

Perhaps we were also lucky. Our guide that first night in the graveyard was a young, very sincere monk from the temple where we were staying. Nobuhiro-san speaks and writes English. Here are some of the notes I took, as he offered his understanding to us, standing in the dark in the Okunoin:

"The purpose of Shingon meditation is to understand that 'inside' and 'outside', which we normally think of as opposed to one another, are actually one thing....Buddha Nature is everywhere...What makes esoteric Buddhism 'esoteric' is that the teachings cannot be really properly spoken in language. Instead, they are hidden in the world -- in the moon, in plants and trees and animals. The world is speaking the teachings....Kobo Daishi said that our minds are like the moon. The moon is bright because of the sun's rays, and our minds are bright because of the primordial sun Buddha. Just as the moon appears to change from day to day, so do our minds, but actually it is always the full moon, clear and bright."  - Nobuhiro Tamura

Wagtail on a painted fusuma door at Ekoin temple
But there was another side to our time there. Until 100 years ago, half of our group would not have been allowed to enter the precincts of Koyasan. I would not have been allowed to enter. From the 9th century until 1870, no living woman entered this most sacred place.

At each of the entrances to Mount Koya there was a women's hall where nuns practiced, always outside the gates. There is a path of many miles that leads from one gate to another, skirting the very edge of the sacred area, and this was the women's pilgrimage route, as close as any woman pilgrim could come to the center of the mandala, that mausoleum where Kobo Daihsi sits in meditation in the valley far below.

Three of us on our pilgrimage were ordained women priests, and we three decided to walk the women's pilgrimage trail. We began at the only surviving women's hall, the Niyonindo, where we read about Kosugi, who founded the hall:
According to an old story, there once was a young woman named Kosugi who lived at an inn in the province of Echigo. Her life was full of hardship, but she was saved by Kobo Daishi. Kosugi became a nun and opened here, at the top of the Fudo slope, along one of the pilgrim roads leading into Koyasan, the first so-called "women's hall". She looked after women pilgrims, who at the time were not allowed to enter Koyasan. Kosugi is now venerated as Kosugimyojin, a guardian deity of the Nyonindo hall.
We spent a day on the steep, up-and-down trail, often in silence, considering those women who had walked here for a thousand years in prayer, those women who had lived in the nun's halls, helping the weary pilgrims as they reached the gates, watching the men pass through, the women stay outside, century after century. Only one of the women's halls still stands, but at each place where there had been an entrance and a hall, we stood in silence, considering.

The following photos are from the women's pilgrimage route.

Reproduction of old map of women's pilgrimage route

The outside of Daimon, the grand gateway, with the guardian deities on either side. A woman could not cross through.

Kate McCandless on the women's pilgrimage route, beneath a koyamaki

A view to the main temple precincts from the women's pilgrimage trail

Irises at the Niyonindo nun's hall

A Jizo shrine along the trail. Women often pray to Jizo for children lost to miscarriage, abortion or early death.

From right to left: Kate McCandless, Flo Rublee, and me (buried under the hat), at one of the gates where a women's hall once stood.

On our last morning I returned to the Okunoin, the great graveyard, this time in daylight, and wandered among the stones in early morning light. I had brought a brush and black ink with me on the trip, and I sat on a mossy root and sketched the leaning stones, the tree trunks, the offerings of Koya pine.

I found that I could both celebrate the grandeur of a place of such deep practice and great piety, and mourn the way it had excluded women for so long. I don't really understand - how can I understand, from the viewpoint of a woman of the 21st century? - but I know that the practice of Koyasan did not stop at its gates, that the gates themselves, and the women who lived at the gates, were integral to the mandala.

I wish I could meet one of those women who sat outside the gates for a lifetime, waking up as she served the pilgrims. I wish I could do three bows to her, offer incense to her, and tell her that her practice inspires this woman of the future, as I walk the hills she walked, stand in the place where she once stood.

And really, as Kobo Daishsi himself taught, "inside and outside are the same."

A statue in the Okunoin graveyard

Clear streams on the mountain never stop flowing with compassion.                                                                                             - Kobo Daishi (Kukai), translated by Nobuhiro Tamura                                                                                              

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Japanese Pilgrimage: Entering Asia

Gio-ji, Arashiyama

I am alone in the garden of a tiny nunnery called Gio-ji, in the village of Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto, and before me, in the late afternoon light, is a luminously green space, floored by moss, roofed by Japanese maples, the golden light streaming across it.

It is very quiet, all sound muffled by the maples in full leaf, the bamboo groves below. I have been alone in this dream-like precinct of temples and quiet lanes all afternoon, and my heart is simply bubbling over with happiness.

This last May I traveled to Japan for the first time in my life - my first time to Asia. This, despite nearly 30 years of Buddhist practice and ordination as a Soto Zen priest. For the first years of my Buddhist practice, I didn't have a strong desire to go to Asia, and later my life circumstances didn't allow it. Three years ago I almost traveled to Japan with a group of senior students from Everyday Zen, my home Zen sangha, but needed to take work in Alaska instead (you can read about those adventures here and here).

Finally, nearly miraculously, everything ripened for me this spring, and I was able to travel to Japan for nearly three weeks with the Mountain Rain Zen sangha from Vancouver, British Columbia, with old friends and dharma companions from my days of living just south of the border in Bellingham, Washington.

Mountain Rain in the onsen (hot springs) town of Yamanaka, wearing the cute little yukata one puts on after the bath

About half the time we stayed in temples: Rinso-in, the 600-year-old family temple of Suzuki Roshi (who brought Soto Zen to America); Eiheiji, the great 850-year-old mother temple of Soto Zen in the mountains near the Japan sea; and Koya-san, the complex of Shingon temples in the mountains south of Kyoto, dating from the 9th century. The rest of the time we were in a small, unpretentious ryokan (traditional Japanese lodging-house) near the train station in Kyoto, free to explore Kyoto and its environs on our own.

Like all truly transformative travel, it is all much too large to fit on the page, or the blog. I think that's what's kept me from writing about it, since I returned. I've been daunted by what to write - every day was filled with such richness and beauty. But I truly want to share it, somehow. I kept a journal during my time there, and did a lot of photography. Perhaps I will try to offer some of each, and see where it goes...

This ancient set of guidelines was offered to us by our friends/guides/teachers, Kate McCandless and Michael Newton, before we left.

The Five Excellent Arts of Pilgrimage, 5th century

Practice the arts of attention and listening
Practice renewing yourself every day
Practice meandering toward the center of every place
Practice the ritual of reading sacred texts
Practice gratitude and praise singing

Roadside flower arrangement, Arashiyama

So in the spirit of "praise singing", here's what I wrote as my plane lifted off from San Francisco airport on May 11th, turning west into the setting sun, above fog and the Golden Gate bridge, headed across the Pacific

Flying west
the way the dead go
When I come back
it will be a different life

Then, as we approached the Japanese coast the next day (two days later, because of the international date line), after a night in Honolulu and many hours of travel across empty ocean, a verse from the moment I first saw land:

I keep looking for land
but each time: ocean, clouds, the wide calm wing below me.
Asia, awaited so long, still just over the horizon.
Ah - mist-blue islands!
Mountains after mountains
soft as smoke or dreams

Mountains from the Women's Pilgrimage Trail around Koyasan

In Japan I experienced, for the first time, the deep roots of my own tradition and spiritual life. And it's changed me in subtle and important ways that I couldn't have imagined, that I can feel every time I bow, light incense, or sit zazen. The person who practiced Zen before going to Japan is not quite the person I am now.

Torii gates on the Women's Pilgrimage Trail, Koyasan

To be continued....

Friday, April 12, 2013

Zen Priest Goes to Seminary

A Buddha in New Mexico

The spiral above the main doorway to Starr King School for the Ministry. Photo by Jim Lewis

Over the last year my life has made a dramatic – and for some people, somewhat mysterious – turn. I am, for the first time in twenty-five years, back in school, in the Master of Divinity program at a Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, California: Starr King School for the Ministry, which is part of the nine-seminary Graduate Theological Union.

People ask me, with some concern, “Does this mean that you aren’t a Buddhist any more? What about your path as a Zen priest?”

The short answer is: “I am as much of a Buddhist as ever, and this is an integral part of my path as a Zen priest and my path as a human being.” This post is a deeper exploration of what I mean.


First, a bit about Unitarian Universalism, or "UU," as it’s known to its friends. (If you already know this history, feel free to scroll down).

UU is a merging of two American liberal denominations, with separate histories until the 1960s:  Unitarianism and Universalism. American Unitarianism was born in Massachusetts just before and during a time of cultural flowering in the first half of the 1800s. This was the time and place of fabulous thinkers and writers like Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, Margaret Fuller, the young Whitman, and a host of others.

Massachusetts had been dominated by a particularly rigid and vicious form of American Calvinism since the 1600s. Only a few were the “elect” and destined for heaven, and the rest of us poor shlubs were headed for eternal damnation by a judging and unforgiving God. Those who suggested alternative views, like the Quakers, were publicly executed. By the early 1800s this system was beginning to crack at the seams. The water inside these cracks were some radical ministers, and one of them was a brilliant preacher who drew crowds of hundreds, William Ellery Channing.

Channing was convinced of the perfectibility, rationality, and innate goodness of all people, believed in a loving God, and questioned the divinity of Jesus. Ironically, a “Unitarian” was one of the worst things you could be called at the time. The “Unitarian heresy,” rejected and punished by Catholics and Protestants alike since the 4th century, denied the theological concept of the Trinity in favor of a whole-hearted commitment to the unity of God. This might seem like a small theological difference, but believers in Unitarianism were martyred with a passion in Europe for hundreds of years.

Unitarians, both in Europe and America, were also believers in the tremendous importance of religious freedom, freedom of thought, and the absolute separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin held many of the views of Unitarians, and these ideas found their way into the documents that formed the U.S. Constitution.

Had Channing been preaching a hundred years before, he probably would have ended up a martyr himself, but by the early 1800s, even Massachusetts had to grudgingly support religious freedom. They could, however, try to deny him, and other liberal ministers, the right to speak from their pulpits.

Unfortunately for the old guard, Channing and others were speaking to the spirit of the times, and the structure of the churches in New England were such that a congregation could vote on their minister and the teachings. Congregation after congregation voted in favor of the liberal ministers, with the losing minority forced to leave the church. Eventually, Channing and others embraced the slur that had been thrown at them, and even now, “Unitarians” occupy many of the oldest and most beautiful churches in New England, preaching social justice, activism, and freedom of thought from pulpits that once taught near-universal damnation.

First Parish Church (Unitarian Univeralist) of Ashby, MA
I learned some of this history as a child, because my mother came from a long line of liberals, knew her Unitarian history well, and even spent part of her young adulthood as a Unitarian minister’s wife. I went to Sunday School at the UU Fellowship in my home town in Indiana, and can say, “Oh yes, I was raised by one of those liberal feminist secular humanists that the Moral Majority worries so much about!”

Unitarianism and liberalism runs deep in my family. My mother’s family came from a small town in northwestern Iowa, called Cherokee. In 1890 my great-great-great grandfather John Potter, great-great grandmother Julia Cowles, and great-grandmother Hattie Allison, along with other liberals in Cherokee, formed a Unitarian church and invited two of the leading woman ministers in Iowa, Mary Safford and Eleanor Gordon, to be the first ministers of the church. This was at a time where virtually no denomination in America allowed women ministers. Over the next few decades, the church had other women ministers too. I feel proud of my family and their commitment to both a radical form of religious practice and to women’s rights and freedoms while living in rural, Midwestern America. It feels like the ideals of Unitarianism are in my blood.

I knew less, growing up, about Universalism, which merged with Unitarianism in the early 1960s. Universalism was also largely an American denomination, dedicated to the belief in another heresy (still considered a heresy by most Christian churches): the universal salvation of all people. In other words, no one goes to Hell. Universalists say, quite reasonably (I think): “How could a loving creator God commit so many of his/her creations to damnation?” This American Life did a beautiful radio show about a contemporary evangelical minister who had a deep insight into his own universalism, and what happened to him because of it:
So these two radical “heresies,” with Protestant roots, both dedicated to freedom and social justice, came together in about 1961 to form an even more radical form of religion, one which embraces absolute freedom of religious belief, up to and including atheism. UU has become a place where gays and lesbians, transgender people, pagans, atheists, Christians, humanists, agnostics, and yes, Buddhists, can all be part of religious community with one another. In fact, that’s the point.

In a way, I see UU as an ongoing exploration of a deep koan: is it possible to create a loving community which genuinely embraces difference of all kinds, and works together for a better and more just world?

There are many gay and lesbian UU ministers. There are atheist and agnostic UU ministers. There are pagan UU ministers. And yes, there are Buddhist UU ministers. The most well-known is James Ishmael Ford, who is also a writer and Zen Buddhist priest and teacher (and has been a generous resource for me on this path). James Ford works as a minister but is also an active Zen teacher, with a large community of students throughout the Northeast. To read more from James Ford, click here:

To read more about my own exploration of the mutual history and issues of UU and American Buddhism, click here:


So this brings us back to the original question: why am I, a Soto Zen priest and field botanist, attending a Unitarian Universalist seminary? Well, the beginnings are probably back there in the 1890s in Cherokee, but more personally, I think it starts just south of the Grand Canyon...

I was living in Flagstaff, Arizona, about five years ago. A chronic illness flared up, and I found myself in pain and in bed much of the time. I gravitated toward the small UU church in town, where the lesbian minister read beautiful poetry from the pulpit. The first time I went, I sat in the back row and cried. I often cry in UU services, and I think it’s because I grew up in such a conservative part of the country. It’s still amazing and moving to me to encounter a "church" so determined to love and care for the world and each other.

California had just legalized gay marriage (briefly) and every week there were members of the congregation coming back from California wreathed in smiles, and getting up during the “joys and sorrows” part of the service to announce that after 10 or 20 or 30 years of loving one another, they were married. The whole congregation would break into cheers and clapping.

A sweet woman, who is still a friend, heard that I was ill and immediately offered the help of the church “caring circle.” I didn’t need physical caring, exactly, but I did need community, so I joined the caring circle myself, and felt like I had a place and something I could do, even while sick myself. I started a gratitude circle, and joined the weekly meditation group. And I started thinking about ministry, and had my first conversations with James Ford, whom I knew through the Buddhist community.

I began to have the feeling, stronger over the years, that as much as I love botanical work, something else wanted to happen in my work life. It was a strange feeling, as if something was growing in me, without my will, and something else was going dormant, ready to be quiet and underground. I’ve taught myself to pay attention to these things, and so I was paying attention, wondering what it was that needed to happen.

Then, last spring, suddenly, almost overnight, it was completely clear. And as soon as it was clear, everything fell into place, and it’s been like that ever since. Doors and opportunities opening, people around me affirming this path, and a deep sense of “this is where I need to be.”

When asked why I am in seminary, what I say is, “This world needs people who are dedicated and trained to be of service to the tender spirits of others, especially as we enter a frightening and uncertain time globally. I want to bring my years of dharma practice and marry that deep bodily steadiness with skills that will help me be more present with others. I want to keep growing up, and I think this is a way.”
Symbol of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship
That doesn’t mean that it isn’t scary, at times, to be doing something so far from what I’ve known, or such a big commitment. That doesn’t mean that I don’t wonder, at times, if and how I will integrate my Buddhist practice and commitment with practice as a minister in a Judeo-Christian tradition, however radical. I trust that I will know, as I walk along.

What I do know is that being in seminary is tremendous. I’m in classes at the Graduate Theological Union with brilliant, deep-thinking teachers and the most diverse group of people I’ve ever experienced: a Mexican Catholic nun, an ex-Marine studying for military chaplaincy, a Latina transgender woman, a Chinese Buddhist monk, a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist minister, a woman working with homeless people in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, an Episcopal priest, a young Muslim, a young gay Filipino man….each person unique, wise, and extraordinary. This makes me very happy. I’m learning how to be present with another’s pain, about my own ageism, about how I might respond to the climate change crisis in a soulful way, about how to best companion a grieving person, and many other things.

I can feel myself stretching and growing, intellectually and spiritually. I can see possibilities of integrating many parts of who I am: the writer, the environmental advocate, the pagan, the radical, Zen priest, the Unitarian liberal, the compassionate listener, the believer in the equality and dignity of each person.

During the orientation and entering ceremony for seminary, the group of us who were beginning spent one afternoon with the president of the school, Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, and the dean of faculty, Rev. Dr. Gabriella Lettini. They did a ritual with us, where each one of us went forward and the two of them washed and dried our hands, then held our hands in their own and blessed our hands to ”do the work of love.”

I’m traveling from San Francisco to Baltimore, with a stop in Dallas overnight, on my way to a convocation of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship. I rode a shuttle last night to the hotel. When I can, I like to talk to shuttle drivers, to catch a glimpse of their world, which is almost a world of immigrants. Last night the van driver was a young Hispanic man. My assumption, based on past conversations with shuttle drivers, was that he would be working three jobs, struggling to survive and take care of a family. But no. He is in his first year of a seven-year architecture and interior design degree at the University of Texas, after graduating from high school with a 4.0 GPA. So much for assumptions.

On the way back to the airport this morning by taxi, the driver was an African man, with a beautiful lilting African accent. I asked him where he was from originally, and he said, “Nigeria.” We talked for a quite a while after the taxi arrived at the airport, the meter off. He had left Nigeria ten years before, with his wife and child, after twice being attacked by rebels and finding himself on the ground with a gun to his head. He is a trained pilot, and a Christian. He told me about the politics of Nigeria, the role of the British in creating a divided country, the Muslim north, and his desire to go back someday and help bring something better to his country.

When I think of ministry, or the pastoral vocation, these conversations seem like a piece of it. To meet whoever is in front of me, to learn from them, to see through my own assumptions and prejudices, and to love. Most of all, to love, to do the work of love.

A Buddha of Aynak, an imperiled ancient Buddhist site in Afghanistan