This post was supposed to appear August 31, 2008. It is part of the Japan series from my latest visit. I got sidetracked by politics, fleas and the immigration office, but here it is now.
Tanigumi is my favorite temple.
I’ve been looking forward to a return visit for two years now. and I know, no matter what else I do on my visits to Japan, I will always return to Tanigumi. My mother told me recently, when I explained my immediate attachment to this place, she once visited a cathedral in Europe that had the same affect on her. When she entered the doors, before she even walked down the aisle, she said, she burst into tears.
This is how I feel about Tanigumi. Something speaks directly to my spiritual being here. I have written about it before but this time was more intense. Perhaps it is the remembering and the yearning to return that draws us to a more potent experience. I am not a person who attends church, in fact I haven’t been in one in years (other than a funeral or a wedding), but I can see the attachment people might have with a ritual of worship every week. I myself tend to find my spiritual comfort in nature, a kind of walking meditation if you will, and that is how the temple at Tanigumi was founded.
Unlike other temples in Japan that are renewed every seven years, Tanigumi still looks old and resonates the ancient history of the place. And that history goes back– over 1200 hundred years back.
According to material I have been able to find, Honen established it in 798, although this doesn’t make sense because Honen (1133–1212) lived during The Kamakura Period (A.D. 1192–1333). Perhaps it was changed into a temple as we know it today during that time. I have no history books that refer to it, the Obas didn’t know, and the research I’ve found on the Internet is marginal.
I do know that Honen believed in a different kind of Buddhist worship, one akin to the way I find spiritual solace. According to The Japanese Buddhist Federation: “[Before Honen] Buddhism was confined to the privileged classes of court nobles, monks, scholars, and artisans who had enough time to master the complicated philosophy and rituals of Buddhism. It was in The Kamakura Period that a drastic change took place in the field of religion; Buddhism became, for the first time, the religion of the masses.”
It was Honen, dissatisfied with the way things had been, who searched the Chinese scriptures for something more accessible. He found it in this passage by the Chinese monk, Shandao, “Only call the name of Amida Buddha with one’s whole heart —whether walking or standing still, whether sitting or lying—this is the practice which brings salvation without fail, for it is in accordance with the original vow of the Buddha.”
Tanigumi is one of 33 temples dedicated to Kannon, the Japanese name for the Bodhisattva of Compassion, one of whose 33 manifestations (and the only female one) corresponds to our Goddess of Mercy. This is her temple. There is a regular pilgrimage to this and the other temples of Kannon. Tanigumi is the last stop. Normally, pilgrims, who have been doing this since the 11th Century, visit the temples in order. It is certainly easier than in the days of old as they can take day-trips from Kyoto and cover about two temples a day.
Perhaps it is because of Honen and his belief in the “walking practice” that draws me to this place. The way it is arranged encourages an intimate kind of interaction with the goddess at Tanigumi. The entrance is a long and steep flight of steps flanked on either side with billowy prayer flags mounted on tall bamboo poles. As they turn in the breeze, there is a lovely low guttural sound of bamboo groaning against bamboo. Light dapples the steps, filtered through the tall and ancient cedars and vine maples that grace the place.
On either side of these stairs, that seem to ascend to eternity, are small nooks and crannies where people can find solace at altars along the way. Two foxes, each with a scroll in its mouth, guard the steps. The monks who live in residence have clothed them in delicately pleated bibs. The ones I saw had new crisp white ones over all the others. Everywhere nature intrudes on the human design and the place has an organic feel to it.
There are altars to terminal illness, money worries, strife, small children, aches and pains and to Kannon herself. A couple of them were unknown to my daughter-in-law or her family. People laid flowers and tossed coins around many of them, and at others a gong was available. Striking it three times gains the attention of the ostensibly loafing deities.
At the top of the stairs is the main altar. The monks stamp pilgrimage cards and sell others to people beginning their trek. As we circled the main altar, which is huge, there were smaller ones where people were paying homage. I gave money to several, and one in particular that I missed last year. It was a plaque on a pillar of the temple with a bronze or copper carp cast in intricate detail. I asked about it and was told it is the Japanese symbol of struggle, because the carp is always swimming against the currents in its life.
I tucked a coin under its fin, between the wood and the fish. There were many other coins there before mine.
KANNON BOSATSU, KANNON BODHISATTVA
LORD OF COMPASSION, GODDESS OF MERCY
Represented as both Male and Female
Assists People in Distress in the Earthly Realm
Sanskrit = Avalokitesvara, Avalokiteshvara, Lokeshvara
Japanese = Kannon, Kanjizai, Kanzeon, Kwannon
Chinese = Kuan Yin, Guanyin, Guanshiyin
Tibetan = Spyan-ras-gzigs
Kannon’s Various English Translations
Bodhisattva of Compassion
Goddess of Mercy or God of Compassion
One Who Hears the Prayers of the World
One Who Observes the Sounds of the World
One Who is Sensitive to the Sufferings of the World
Hearer of the World’s Sounds (or World’s Cries)
Lord Who Looks Down with Pity on All Living Beings
Lord Who Regards All (Sentient Beings)