When we finally arrived at the Temple, I caught my breath at the sight of the massive statue of the Laughing Buddha. His welcome was unmistakable. I wanted to linger beside it, but Akira hurried me away from it with a smile. “Anita san, they are waiting inside.”
The three-storeyed building was huge. We climbed a short flight of steps to a tall door which was opened by two young male ‘sanyasis’.
“Arigato,” I said, meaning ‘thank you’. It was one of the few Japanese words I had picked up. We were ushered into the foyer where we took off our shoes. I felt rather nervous about being presented to the Chief Sensei who they addressed as Zennin. I could see a crowd of smiling young men and women waiting to greet us. Zennin was a tall, heavily-built lady who stood erect and graceful like a queen. I bowed to her and my greeting was returned. I had heard of how Zennin could tell the spiritual level of a person with just one glance. I wondered what she thought of me.
“You go in first, Akira san,” I whispered.
“No, you go in first,” said the smiling Akira, and I led the group in. Akira had made me tie my thick shoulder-length hair into a low pony tail. Bows and greetings were exchanged. We stood in a line upon the warm grey-carpeted floor, Akira holding my arm, as though to give me confidence. The girls presented us with bouquets of exquisite flowers, and then, with Zennin, in our midst, pictures were taken. As I grinned for the camera, I thought that Zennin did not mind my spiritual level that much, for she stood right next to me.
Straight after that to dinner in a large dining hall. At the entrance rose a tall magnificent flower arrangement that took up an entire table. It was adorned with slender green bamboo and delicately cut white paper leaves. To the left stood a massive wooden Maitreya, polished to a shine.
Flower Arrangement in the Dining Hall of the Temple
I had never seen anything like it, or experienced the kind of hospitality we were showered with over dinner. The middle-aged Hiroto Sensei and the oldest sensei in the Temple, Kurakawa Sensei, sat at our table. Two young sanyasins waited on us. Indian food had been specially prepared for us which gladdened the two men and the women in our group, but I preferred the Japanese dishes – the bean sprouts with soya sauce, succulent ‘shitake’ mushrooms , sticky rice, noodles, and seaweed. The melons were honey-sweet, the giant grapes luscious, the apples crunchy. I had never seen apples and grapes so large. Giant fruits in a tiny country.
The dining hall was filled with holy teachers dressed in dark blue skirts and blazers seated at the tables, while the young male and female ‘sanyasis’ served them. It was indeed the period of yin rising. There were so few males. Just the holy teachers at our table, and the five young men who served the other diners. Akira sat at Zennin’s table. She had introduced me to everyone as ‘the fashion model’. I was probably the only ex-model turned spiritual aspirant that they knew.
There was no dawdling around after dinner. We did not lounge about chatting. Instead, Akira led us up to the second floor, to the main hall where the sacred ceremonies were held. Gorgeous flower arrangements graced the landings as we trooped up the stairs, and a screen delicately hand-painted with a windswept rocky landscape in black and white stood outside the sliding wooden doors that led into the prayer hall. I held my breath. I was about to enter the very heart of the Temple.
The shining altar of dark wood was ornately carved. On it sat a large white Maitreya. The wall behind Him was adorned with panels of sacred script. Also on the altar stood three great golden oil lamps and two brass urns. I wondered what the urns held. Two smaller altars flanked the main altar. On one stood the photograph of the radiant and lovely Sekha Bodhisattva, beside it an antique looking organ. The other altar had a photograph of the Chinese Jinsho Taitei, a charismatic, handsome young man who, together with Sekha Bodhisattva, had the courage to spread the message of The Way in a Japan almost torn apart by the second world war. They had suffered much on their mission. In a starving Japan, they lived on weeds from the little Temple garden.
There were flowers everywhere. Three maroon cushions lay on the grey carpet before the main altar. Zennin walked in. Everyone bowed. We arranged ourselves on the chairs that the male ‘sanyasis’ hurriedly placed before the altar, and more pictures were taken with Zennin in our midst.
Later, when I asked Akira who played the organ, she answered with a grin, ”It plays classical music on its own.”
“Really!” I cried. There was a lot to look at and ask questions about in that hall. I would ask her the next day.
A Japanese Bed
Then we went down to our room. More sliding doors, soft mattresses on a warm wooden floor. Akira’s pink mattress was next to mine. She said she was glad to share the room with us.
“How early do we get up, Akira san?” I asked as we settled into bed, and I tried to adjust to the very hard little pillow.
“I’ll wake you up at five thirty,” she chuckled. “Prayer is at six thirty a.m. You know the routine, Anita san, you’ve stayed overnight in the Temple back home.”
I sighed. I was the only one in that room not used to getting up early, but I knew that every Temple girl dreamed of being able to sleep late. Radhika had told me that. It wasn’t going to be easy to live like a ‘sanyasi’ for two whole weeks.
“Excuse me,” said Akira, getting up from her mattress. “I will be back. I will just go over and visit my friends.” She slid the door open and I could see into the room across the corridor. Young girls sat upon their mattresses, chatting and laughing in muted voices. Akira had told us Zennin’s room was at the other end of the corridor. I slid the door shut and returned to bed.
“I can’t believe I’m here at last,” I said to Vandana, the reiki master in our group.
“Even I can’t believe it,” Vandana shook her head in disbelief. “Zennin’s aura is really big, you know. The whole hall seemed filled with it, and the hall itself…” she shuddered ecstatically. “I have never sensed that kind of vibration in any other temple to which I have been.”
“This place is thirty years old,” I said. “Our Temple in Bangalore will feel like this too in that time."
I was too excited to sleep that night. The sound of traffic outside was like the blowing of the wind. I supposed it was the high speed and the state of the roads that made this possible – so different from Bangalore where one could only drive fast on the highways outside the city.
When the early sun in this land of the rising sun touched the pale white paper doors, I woke. Akira was struggling to open her eyes. She rose upon one elbow, her hair loose and unfamiliar around her face, and then sank into the mattress again. I had never seen her with her hair down before. It was always tied into a ponytail. Sighing, Akira finally got out of bed and immediately rolling up her mattress and quilt, put them away into the closet.
“Good morning, Anita san,” she said very brightly.
“Good morning,” I said, rolling up my mattress.
The other two opened their eyes.
Bhagya stretched and yawned. “Are you going to pray?”
“Good morning,” said Akira to her. “Aren’t you joining us? You are guests, so Zennin may be a bit lenient, but. . . well, it’s your wish.”
We were probably never going to be in the main Temple again. I was going to make the most of it. After the one-hour prayer in the morning, and most of the Temple girls still in their pyjamas, we hurried down to breakfast. We always moved fast, the girls running down the stairs. Punctuality was important in the Temple. I found it interesting that the same girls that cleaned the toilets to spotless perfection, conducted the prayers. It was true humility, and I was inspired by it.
"You are going to attend the Ceremony of the Ritzugan Oath, Anita san," Akira said.
“Oh my God!” I cried. “I’m going to watch people take the Ritzugan Oath!”
“Hiroto Sensei’s grandmother will also be taking the Oath. She’s eighty-four years old.”
“So, it’s never too late,” I said.
“It can never be too late when you have enough virtue,” said Akira. And I hoped once again that I could take the Ritzugan Oath too. I would ask for Zennin’s blessings.
Wonders of the Main Altar
“Those golden urns on the main altar,” I said, “what’s in those? We don’t have them in India.”
“They contain a little ash from The Buddha’s body. This temple is the only one in all of Japan to have that ash.”
“Gosh!” I gasped. “And to think I wouldn’t have known it if I hadn’t asked you!”
The urns glowed in the morning light. Akira laughed and said, “Don’t look inside those urns.”
Painted by Spirit Hands
“And that young green plant?” I pointed at a vase filled with tender green bamboo-like stalks that stood beneath a painting on the wall of a single bamboo stem.
“That’s called the 1000-year bamboo. It’s from Burma. It’s really hardy. It needs only water, but dries up when a woman touches it. Only the male ‘sanyasis’ look after it. The painting is even more special, Anita san. It was painted by Shibo Sensei forty years after her death. She painted it during a ‘Saban’ – you know, the Sand Oracle.”
“What? Her spirit painted it, you mean, through the medium?”
“Yes. See, it’s signed by her.” She led me by the hand to the wall. It was a black ink painting. A delicate slash of the brush across white paper. And on the bottom, the ornate signature.
I felt gooseflesh on my arms. “Amazing,” I said. “I’d love to attend the Saban. It’s only performed in this temple, right? ”
“Yes. Not in the branch temples. You can request Zennin.”
“That will be mind-blowing – the Saban.”
Shibo Sensei’s Sacrifice
“You remember that story about Shibo Sensei, don’t you? She would travel from village to village in the snowstorms, carrying a little portable altar on her back.” Akira’s face glowed with love and inspiration.
“Of course I remember. It’s because of her sacrifices that we can comfortably follow The Way today.”
“She took on our karma, Anita san. She told the Great Mother she would take on our negative karma so we could undergo the Ceremony.”
“She must have really suffered,” I said.
“Yes, she suffered much; she was very ill. Like Sekha Bodhisattva who was bed-ridden for many years till the end of her life. No doctor could tell what was wrong with Sekha Bodhisattva. She took on the evil karma of those who could not keep the Ritzugan Oath.”
My eyes had filled with tears when I had first listened to the stories about Sekha Bodhisattva and Shibo Sensei. It had caused me to examine my own life and motives – so small in comparison.
“There are those who break the Ritzugan Oath?” I asked incredulously.
“They sink lower than hell,” said Akira, “and their faces are terrible in death. I saw the face of an old lady who continued to eat fish after the Oath, Anita san. It was very frightening.” Then she changed the subject. Her voice took on a lighter tone.
“That chair to the right of the main altar with the yellow cushion –”
“Yes?” I asked hungrily.
“No one sits in it. It’s occupied by one of the enlightened souls during the ceremonies.”
“This place is filled with wonders,” I said.
The Wondrous Pipe Organ
Akira then went to the pipe organ and did something to it. I could not tell what, but it suddenly erupted into Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor. The beauty of the sacred music filled the hall, and my eyes became wet with tears.
“This morning, during the prayer,” I told Akira, “I noticed the conductor made a mistake. What happens then?”Akira laughed. “It’s all very easy in India. But here it’s really strict. Zennin never misses a mistake. She blames everyone when it happens, not just the conductor. And we are made to go without evening tea.”
“But why everyone?”
“Sensei tells you, doesn’t she, that each conductor is responsible for the performance of the other? When either one makes a mistake, it means their hearts are not one.”
“Oh yes,” I said. “I’ve had to practise again and again when I’ve made a mistake, or the other conductor has.” I had struggled in those instances to refrain from blaming my fellow conductor, or get frustrated when I myself continued to make the same mistakes. In the beginning, I had thought Sensei too stern, until I realised how important was the divine work I was doing, and how rarely non-sanyasins were given the opportunity which I was given.
“A sanyasin’s life is doubly difficult here, isn’t it?” I said.
“Yes, it is,” she said with a smile. “In other temples, like in India, we can relax a little, but here we polish ourselves even more in Zennin’s presence.”
I admired such instances of candour, and knew these were shared because I was trusted to keep them secret.