Bodhisattva

With Travis off to set up our workshops in Tokyo, Kaori dutifully waltzes yet another workshop leader around the temples of Kyoto for her umpteenth time.

The taxi that wends us around the bamboo grove that clankles in the foreyard of the Hyatt is a Toyota, like many. The driver and most Japanese think our government is harassing Toyota, Kaori translates, because they’ve been more successful than our own.  I don’t point out that most American Toyotas are made in America, so that we would be cutting our own workers’ noses to harass Toyota, but I do point out that people accelerating uncontrollably do not tend to go quietly bow to their mechanic and ask in an undertone if this could ever-so-please be fixed.  “How many people did this really happen to?” he asks, and stopped in my tracks as I have not been following this story, I sit back and let him drive.

Rory McLean, in a rare interview with conservative Afghan leaders – highly religious, nationalistic, but practical men – asked if they knew why the Americans were bombing and occupying them. They had heard a rumor that Bin Laden had maybe successfully knocked down and burned a 5-story building, but the whole story of 9/11 had never reached them, so the fierceness of the American war made no sense except in terms of oil – and of course they may be right. Is the USA out to get Toyota?  I doubt it, but in current atmosphere, conspiracy finds a receptive ear.

Afoot again, we walk downhill into the wooden overhangs of old Japan.  Not so bombed during the war, many of the small old style houses have been saved, as well as these huge (Buddhist) temples and (Shinto) shrines.  Kaori fiddles with the ATM in a Lawson Station (ubiquitous 7-11 equivalent) while I peruse the anime books from back to front.

Our first stop the Sanjusangen-do is a huge traditional Japanese building with the large curved eaves covering verandahs and roof tiles beyond number.  Rebuilt in 1266 after a fire took the first one, this graceful structure is literally way larger than a football field – 390’ x 54’, and set in a field of pebbles. It’s amazing that it has withstood earthquakes and fire for this long.  The construction is specific to earthquake resistance, but it is still just wood and has been lucky for 900 years.

The inside is darkened with incense and candle smoke – again, just one mistake and the whole things would go up in smoke.  The darkness feels sacred and appropriate, but just as the white marble Greek statues were actually painted when the Parthenon was new, these temples were originally garish with color, but that has disappeared under the years of incense rising to the gods – but stopping at the ceiling.

The absolutely awe-inspiring site as you turn the corner into the main hall is of 1001 (literally) golden bodhisattvas.  Arranged in rows up an ascending set of platforms, each wooden statue has his hands folded in prayer, with 20 other arms reaching from behind, each holding a symbol of Buddhism or enlightenment.  Each face is slightly different (whoever you are, it is said, you can find your face among these thousand, but whoever said that must have realized that most of us cannot tell very much about the faces beyond the third row, given all the halos and crowns, and the ‘crowd’ of gold stretches back 40 meters or so).  Though they appear to be young men (little moustaches or beards on some), the whole thing has a very feminine, Quan-Yin compassionate feel to it.  I find them much more breathtaking than the terra cotta soldiers buried with the first emperor of China – and a good deal more compassionate an undertaking in the first place – these are the saviours of the world(s), not soldiers.

In the middle, with 500 of these golden bodhisattvas on either side, sits the Kannon Bodhisattva (again, sounding like a transliteration of Quan-Yin into Japanese, but I don’t know enough to be sure).  More than 4 meters high, sitting comfortably in the large lotus flower, and incredibly intricate, with ‘1000’ (actually 20 pairs, but that’s ok, because each arm saves 25 worlds, so, a thousand) arms, and a background so festooned with gold-leafed carvings that makes Viennese baroque look as spare as, well, Japanese.

This magnificent carving was done by an 82-year-old sculptor Tankei, and his sons oversaw the carving of the other 1000 bodhisattvas over 15 years or so.

In front of the huge Buddha, a yellow-robed priest is banging a little drum and intoning chants.  No matter what devotions I see, I have a hard time thinking that God is fooled for a moment, or that He or She needs a particular form of devotion – here, eat this cracker, here, bang this drum, here, light this incense – but Kaori gently corrects me: “God doesn’t need it, we do.”

In front of the 1000 golden praying youths are 30 guardians, not gold-leafed, just brown wood.  From fierce to kind, rampant demonic figures with crystal eyes to a bent old wise man, these figures are carved with exquisite skill and beauty, and could hold their own simply as sculptures anywhere.  My favorites are the god of the wind (like Aeolus, holding the winds in a bag) and the god of thunder (who seems to hold a series of small drums, rather than a hammer).  A few have their muscles delineated in a decidedly western, uncharacteristic of the rest of the room, or indeed of the rest of Asian sculpture – I din’t know they were capable of thinking that way, and I doubt very much there was much Western influence in Japan in the 13th century.  We Europeans were still groveling in the mud and trying to scare away the Black plague with superstition.

Passing the sculptures to the side as we walk around to the other side, we see they could use a dusting – full time job for several people, if they could be trusted no to break any of the delicate arms, halos, trinkets – it’s a very crowded place!

These 'guardians' are beautifully carved. Have you ever seen muscle definition in an Asian sculpture?

As we walk the entire length of the hall on the way out, we learn of the archery contests in the 1600’s.  The western verandah in nearly 390 feet long, and one kid, in 1686, fired 13,053 arrows in succession on one day, with some 8000 of those hitting the target some 400 feet away.  OK, so it started by firelight before dawn, but this is an arrow every 9 seconds, which has to hit a target from goal post to goal post on a football field, and more than half of them hit the cloth target.  Somebody must have been handing him arrows, but still – notch the arrow, draw the 6’ bow, aim and accommodate, fire the arrow, get another one – 9 seconds at a time, all day?  Whew!

Pictures to follow.

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