The roof of a temple that we passed while driving from Kaoshiung to Kenting in the southern part of Taiwan. (Click photo for larger view.)
Okunoin in Japan is one of those special places. Centuries old, it holds the ashes of famous emperors, shoguns, samurai and poets. Sprawling into the forests of the Koyasan valley, it has an enchanted feeling. Indeed, it is enchanted.
Koyasan is a valley between eight mountain peaks that make its geography like the lotus flower that is the symbol of enlightenment in Buddhism. The location was chosen in the ninth century by the Japanese monk Kukai, who brought esoteric Buddhism to Japan from China. He built a monastery here, and now this little town in the mountains has over 100 shrines, temples and monasteries.
The entire valley is infused with spiritual energy. The monk, Kobo-Daishi as he is now known, requested of his disciples that he not be cremated, contrary to Japanese tradition. Rather, he asked them to place his body in a mausoleum in the forest. Legend has it that his body, in spite of not being embalmed, has not decomposed. Like the Jesus fable, believers say that Kobo-Daishi did not actually die, but rather he has entered a state of deep meditation and samadhi, and is waiting for the rebirth of The Buddha.
Regardless, it is certainly true that the cemetery around him has an amazing power of attraction and peaceful spirituality. We saw new, polished monuments and graves, modest but well tended markers and some whose family has forgotten, died off or moved to other lands.
I myself would love to have my ashes placed in the shade of those graceful pines and the spot marked with coral rock (something geologically out of place I hope). Here, on this special mountain, it’s easy to imagine an afterlife communing with Japanese poets, having ethereal tea ceremonies or learning skills from legendary samurai blade makers. All the while, we will keep an eye on Kobo so we will be among the first to learn of Buddha’s rebirth.
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One of the reasons we love to travel is to learn about other cultures and traditions.
Even though I’m familiar with Judeo-Christian rituals, I could not imagine what worshippers were doing in the Dianji Temple in Keelung, Taiwan. Outside the temple, I watched people put stacks of paper, folded, one page at a time, into a furnace. Why a whole stack? Why one page at a time? And why folded in a certain way? Inside, I saw a few people throwing red crescent-shaped wooden blocks onto the ground. Others were drawing sticks from what looked like an umbrella stand. All this activity was in addition to the expected praying and lighting of incense.
Fortunately, this mystery of rituals was explained by our Taiwanese friends Elizabeth and Phillip. We met them on our cruise and became friends. Lucky for us, we happened to bump into them in the Miaokou Night Market just before we arrived at the Temple.
The people throwing blocks were posing a pressing ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question to the gods. If the blocks landed one flat side up, one flat side down, then ‘yes’ was the answer to their question. If both curved sides landed up, then a resounding ‘No’ was the answer. If both flat sides landed up, then the gods were uncommitted and the answer to your own question was left up to you.
As for the sticks chosen from the umbrella stand, they were fortune-telling sticks. A hidden mark on the bottom of the stick directs the worshipper to their written fortune in a specific marked drawer in an adjacent chest of many drawers. If they don’t fully understand or perhaps don’t believe what they read, then they can take the slip to an interpreter in the Temple. There are several waiting by but I didn’t learn if they were monks or trained lay people.
We noticed that Taiwanese Temples had furnaces just outside the gates for paper offerings. Offerings were made for health, prosperity and to petition for almost anything imaginable. In addition to praying for themselves, offerings are also made for their ancestors. It is believed that the paper money offerings are sent to heaven for their ancestors. This ensures their ancestors’ continued well-being in the after-life and enables the ancestors to purchase necessities and even luxuries for their comfort.
Worshipping their ancestors also ensures their positive disposition towards the living. It is believed that the spirits of the dead continue to live in the natural world and have the power to influence the fate and fortune of those living.
We were told that if someone wished for an iPad, for example, either for themselves or for their ancestors, they would design a paper version of an iPad and include it in the package of other papers that they folded and placed into the furnaces.
The downside of burning offerings is the huge amount of carbon pollution. Lavish amounts of papers tend to be burned to make sure that offerings are well received. During the 7th month of the lunar calendar, called ‘Ghost” month, there is a tremendous increase in paper burning.
In an effort to reduce carbon emissions, bakeries in Tainan City came up with an out-of-the-box alternative. They make layered mango cakes that look just like a stack of paper money. Tainan City was the capital of Taiwan during imperial times and is still considered to be the cradle of Taiwanese development. It boasts almost 2,000 temples.
Some people came upon Nasruddin one night crawling around on his hands and knees under a lamppost.
“What are you looking for?” they asked him.
“I’ve lost the key to my house,” he replied.
They all got down to help him look, but after a fruitless time of searching, someone thought to ask him where he had lost the key in the first place.
“In the house,” Nasruddin answered.
“Then why are you looking under the lamppost?” he is asked.
“Because there is more light here,” Nasruddin replied.
I heard this story from one of my first Vipassana meditation teachers, Satya Narayan Goenka. S. N. Goenka, who recently passed away at age 89, was one of the most important teachers of Buddhist meditation in our time.
This particular ancient, Sufi story of the wise fool, Nasruddin, was told at the 10-day, silent meditation retreat that I attended in 2006. It was the year my mother died. My house had just burned down to the ground with everything in it. My marriage had ended. The time seemed ripe to learn this valuable tool.
The Vipassana retreat was comprised of 10 days of silence, meditating, eating and resting. At the close of each day was an hour-long, recorded video talk by S. N. Goenka. His talk always included teaching stories, the kind that showed us the world, or ourselves, differently. A good story has levels of meaning and on first hearing, you know something’s up because of your reaction… a grin, a shiver, a whimper, a laugh. Yet, the strength of the story is not always obvious or immediately understood.
Whew, you could have heard me groaning on hearing this story. To me, it was not at all subtle. It smacked me awake to the folly of looking for truths outside of myself. I believe that every one of us looks in certain places for the “key” to happiness. But perhaps we are like Nasruddin looking under the lamppost, when we might profit more by looking inside our own homes. It was clear to me that I should look inward for the answers I was seeking. Learning to look, instead of react, turns out to be the key.
Goenka’s teaching of living each moment happily with an equanimous mind, in order to progress toward the ultimate goal of liberation from suffering makes a lot of sense to Ivan and me. We have scheduled a 10-day, silent meditation retreat in the Kaufman, Texas Vipassana Center for March.