Seeking Solitude in Japan's Mountain Monasteries (Koyasan)

The New York Times
By Anna Hezel

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Bishop Clark Watanabe

Inauguration Sevice 2-25-2017




Maui Convention 2013


Written by Margaret Shiba, a member of Pa’auilo Kongoji Mission on the Big Island, who is sharing her perspectives as a newcomer to Koyasan Shingon Buddhism in Hawai’i

When the Layperson Convention on Maui was first announced, it sounded like an intriguing idea, and we were interested in participating, even without knowing what the program would be.  Then we heard there would be something called “Osunafumi” the next day in Kula, and we definitely decided that we would attend.  We had very little idea of what to expect of either event, but the weekend turned out to be something that we will remember for the rest of our lives!

The convention on Saturday, June 8 gathered approximately 65 Shingon temple members from across the state at the Maui Beach Hotel.  Rev. George Kitagawa of Wailuku Shingon Mission served as emcee and interpreter, welcoming everyone to “my island” for what he said was Shingon Shu Hawaii’s first convention in a decade or longer.  He issued a challenge: why not organize a convention on every island?

After an opening prayer service, and welcome remarks from Bishop Sohko Kuki and Rev. Shoko Hagiyama from the Education Department on Koyasan, Rev. Taiken Akiyama of Haleiwa Shingon Mission made a presentation on the “Shikoku Pilgrmage.” Rev. Akiyama shared personal recollections of one of his walking pilgrimages--the travails of getting lost, feeling hungry and finding the nearest restaurant closed, etc., as well as many kindnesses received from strangers who open their homes to pilgrims along the route.  The pilgrimage, or “omaeri,” he said, reflects a very different world from the everyday post 9/11 world around us characterized by a lack of trust.   Rev. Akiyama concluded with comments about Hawaii’s special place in the middle of the Pacific (“the ocean of peace”), where we enjoy a good climate, harmony, respect, and good relationships among cultures; our duty, he counseled, should be to send “peaceful vibrations to the outside world.” 

Continuing the theme of the Shikoku pilgrimage, we were then treated to a performance of six pilgrimage hymns impressively presented by the Koyasan Kongoryu Gasshodan Goeika Chorus.  Twelve priests from various part of Japan form this chorus, coming together to perform sacred songs with accompanying hand bells and metal gongs.  The printed program suggested that we “slow down and locate ourselves into a relaxing stream of time,” and indeed, the effect was mesmerizing and meditative, sort of a Japanese version of a Gregorian chant.

Rounding out the formal convention was another unique performance called “Uta Katari,” combining the recitation of folktales by Rev. Koyu Amano with folksongs sung ‘60’s style on an acoustic guitar by Ms. Keiko Kobayashi.  Rev. Clark Watanabe translated each folktale, which was thematically linked to the folksong which accompanied it.  The folksongs needed no interpretation, at least for those of us who nostalgically remember the era of Judy Collins and Joan Baez!

A fellowship dinner concluded the Maui convention, as were joined by more members of the Maui temples and enjoyed more music from Keiko Kobayashi, a delicious buffet, and good conversation among the members of the 10 temples in attendance.

On Sunday morning, June 9, we boarded a bus at the Maui Beach Hotel and traveled 30 minutes outside Kahului to Kula Shofukuji Shingon Mission for the special “Osunafumi” service which Rev. Takayuki Meguro and his congregants had prepared to commemorate the 1,200 years of the founding of Koyasan.  Each of us who had registered for this service had been mailed a package containing a white “oizuru” pilgrimage vest (hand-sewn by Mrs. Miho Meguro and her friends) along with a homework assignment: 88 “osamefuda” prayer slips to fill out with our name, address, age, and prayer request. 

Shofukuji Shingon Mission is a beautiful country temple located on the slopes of Haleakala.  Over 100 years old, it has been lovingly maintained by many generations of loyal congregants, whose family names are enshrined in the hillside cemetery overlooking central Maui.  Kyodan president Jeffrey Komoda welcomed everyone, and Rev. Meguro conducted a short prayer service in the temple hondo, with the 12 members of the Goeika Chorus seated along the center aisle, lending their powerful voices to our recitation of the familiar sutras.

The “Osunafumi” was set up along the broad veranda of the temple, with 88 positions marked by sandbags containing earth from each of the 88 temples that make up the Shikoku Pilgrimage.  The congregation of 100 or so lined up and quietly made our way along the path, stopping at each location to leave a prayer slip and recite the Gohogo three times.  Never having been on the Shikoku Pilgrimage nor having participated in a “Osunafumi” ceremony before, it felt strange at first, and I was preoccupied with timing my prayers to the pace of the person immediately in front of me and the one following on my heels.  But after about 10 stops, I began concentrating on my “osamefuda” and rereading the prayers that I had written out before coming to Maui, and suddenly the ceremony took on a new dimension.  Each stop became an opportunity to focus intensely on the person or the desired outcome which I had written out, whether it was thinking with gratitude about my mother, who passed away nearly 20 years ago, or wishing good health for the new grandchild we’ve just learned will be born next February.  I actually had to wipe tears from my eyes, and suddenly I felt that I understood the purpose behind this mysterious ceremony.

At the end of the ceremony, Bishop Kuki taught each of us the “kongo gassho,” a special mudra which symbolizes the union of Buddha and man in a strong connection.  He commented that ceremonies like the “Osunafumi” make our ancestors and Buddha happy, and therefore we, too, will be happy, and he urged each of us to go home and tell ten other people about our experience and to encourage them to come to the temple.

A Fellowship Luncheon hosted by the Shofukuji congregation capped our visit to Kula, as we enjoyed delicious food and several traditional dance performances.  Whether stimulated by the country air or the intensity of “Osunafumi,” we ate heartily and savored each dish (my personal favorites were the cucumber tsukemono and the pickled Maui onions!), ending with a delicious cake provided by Komoda Bakery in Makawao.

The events on Maui made a profound impact on all of us, and we brought home unforgettable memories: formal presentations that explored the nature of Shingon Buddhism, informal conversations with priests and members from all over Hawaii and Japan, the haunting sounds of the Goeika Chorus, the discipline of composing and delivering 88 heartfelt prayers…the knowledge that we are part of a religious tradition that extends back many centuries and that will hopefully continue for many more centuries to come.  Thank you to everyone who worked so hard to make this experience possible!