Reading the Air: Daimonji – 1

DaimonjiNohmen and Kokoro woke up extra early on the morning of the Daimonji farewell ceremony, chanted quickly, and then rushed to the city wearing strong boots and sun hats.  They met with members of their special group, where they filled their backpacks with firewood bundles, batches of prayers sticks, and huge paper sacks filled with pine needles.  They must carry them up the assigned mountain pathway.

During the previous week they had been occupied with the writing of prayers on gamagi, thin sticks of consecrated wood, which their group will carry to the site and position ready for the burning, which will start precisely at 8:00 that evening.

Some say that writing is a kind of prayer, so that to write prayers on the products of the earth must be something very sacred.  In fact, thousands upon gamagithousands of prayers will be burned this evening to send the spirits off back to the spiritual world after their visit to the visible world. In Japan, the burning of prayers has historically been a form of purification to drive out evil and disease-the combined power of fire and of the written word together to cleanse deeply.

On the five mountains of Kyoto, there are five giant and ancient Chinese characters burned into the Earth, one on each of the mountain sides.  The first is called Dai, the human spirit preparing to return to the spirit world; the second, a combination of Myo and Ho, which is part of the Buddhist mantra, Myo Ho Renge Kyo from the famous Lotus Sutra.  The visiting spirits are said to chant this as they make their final tour around Earth for the year.

toriiThen funagata, the character Nohmen and Kokoro can see from the river-bank near their apartment, in the form of a primitive ship with sails for their tour.  Hidari Daimonji, ‘the mirror,’ can reflect everything so wisdom can be developed; and finally, Torii, the red arched gateway to a Shinto shrine so common in Japan, through which the spirits return.  This year, Nohmen and Kokoro will help to light the many small bonfires of the ship character, funagata.

They climbed slowly with their group in the north of the city as the sun intensified, wearing the characteristic white towelling headbands to signify purity. They got to the final rises, and the site, where the shape of the ship was clearly marked in the ground.  The small hearths, seventy-nine of them, were laid our symmetrically in the flattened and cleaned clearing.

One person had been assigned to fuel each hearth, but before they unloaded their sacred bundles, they stood together.  Their names were called to which they answered, Hai, and placed their hands together in gassho, turning to bow to the rest of the group.  Together they chanted the preparation chant in ancient Japanese, and stood in silence for a few moments to deepen their prayers.

The time came to place the bundles of wood in the hearths linked together by deep channels to be filled up with water later so that the fires will not pine needlesspread. Nohmen stood before his assigned hearth and reached down to undo the bundles of pale prayer sticks mottled with exotic Japanese characters. He carefully spread them out in the hearth, and then emptied the bags of pine needles on top of them.

His eyes were moist, as he suddenly grasped the joy and the closeness with nature that these symbolic gestures represented.  Wishes for the well-being and happiness of others, conveyed from the heart via the arm, and through the fingers into the pen, and so on to flow through the ink on to the wood of graceful and selfless tress. The magic of fire would be finally applied to them, so that they were transformed into ash, and became Earth once more.

He had, at last, learned with every fibre of his body and soul, how everything-which seemed solid and permanent to the limited mind-comes from the Earth kyotoand returns to it, passing freely from the visible to the invisible worlds, if humans do not interfere with their clinging. The holy words of these wooden prayers would soon fill the night sky, blown up in the air by smoke, and as the fire became hotter, they would settle down into the ash bed, and so be drawn back into the substance of the Earth.

He turned, standing strong and straight to look out at the view over Kyoto and the mountains, between the blue sky and green and grey Earth. He embraced with a wide smile all the 84,000 kami sama, the gods of all things, but especially the gods of the Sky and the Earth. The preparations were complete. The prayer sticks would be exposed to full sun for the whole day to dry out, and when they returned at sunset, the burning and the send off of the spirits would go smoothly.

kami sama

 

 

 

 

 

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Reading the Air: coming home alone

shrine 1

They had been together 36 years. He found you in late August, the 20th you always remembered, in a university in the mid-west, then came home to Japan. He busily packed his few possessions, withdrew his savings, and bowed at the family grave offering incense and water to be sure the ancestors approved.  He dressed more smartly than usual in his best suit, and people were curious about where he was going and what he was planning. They plucked up courage to ask him eventually, and he told them tersely he was going to a wedding. He didn’t tell anyone whose wedding it was.shrine

He had set his mind on having you once the ancestors agreed and the rice wine was offered at the shrine of the Fox.  The long flights and jet lag were of no consequence to him. The Christian ceremony was over quickly, your family adoring and thankful, the pastor smiling and clean-shaven, his hands joining yours together smooth and warm, and you both came back to Japan together bound for life. It was your first visit.

You settled in slowly to the miniature world, losing your way on immaculate and identical train stations, your breath taken away by the precision, the order, the incredible control.  You became talented at using public telephones to be guided back home. He encouraged you with your memorisation of the magical symbols of Kanji until you have memorised all the station names on all the local routes. You read them slowly with determination in your deep affirming voice as you travelled around to learn your way.

Japanese trainsYou worked together, shared the same driving passion in academic accuracy, travelling to conferences in foreign countries whenever you could. He was happiest working on his theses and papers, preparing to give presentations, and you wanted his happiness above all. So, you worked alongside him, always supporting,

It was August 20th in Holland, in the city of Groningen, one of the most northern. You arrived for a summer conference. You planned to attend the reception and then go out to celebrate the day of your meeting 3 or so decades before. But you were both weary from the long journey so lay down in the hotel room to snooze. The pains in the chest were thought to be indigestion, but then his pulse disappeared and his breathing stopped. It was sudden but somehow not unexpected in perspective.

You stayed with him until all the formalities were completed. You must leave first and he would follow when clearance was granted. Now you return home sakuraalone, walking towards the secluded apartment beside the small river edged with resting cherry trees. You say, ‘I’m not the same person as the last time I walked home.’ You cannot find him or the blossom in late August in Japan.

The Buddhist wake and funeral is a long affair. You and family and friends will spend the night with him, lifting him to replace the ice packs, cleaning his skin, sharing sushi and sashimi. You are the chief mourner and must speak to him, addressing his smiling photograph among the serried rows of white lilies, speaking in his native tongue. You have asked your God for strength and it has been granted.

The announcements of his death and progress back to the family grave on a mountain side flow fast and thick over the internet and via international mail.

The monk will chant steadily to him, his voice dark and accented, the rite a secret initiation. His striking of the drum will be determined, and there will be no chanting monksmiles, no warmth, only three pinches of grained incense placed on to the smouldering pile of ash, and deep lingering bows.   Hands will be used to make gassho, their palms touching, their fingers long, to honour his life and that of the Buddha.

The nails that you finally hammer into the coffin lid after shouting out to implore him to return to life, signal another world for you to settle into.

Gassho

 

 

Word Fellas: a creation story

kunapipi

Father Earth instructed Kunapipi, the Great Mother, to make everything needed to live on his skin. She used her huge store of sacred words to do this, making selections very carefully for each item. First she created Day and Night, and then the seasons so that all the plants and creatures she made next would have a rhythm to their lives. A good rhythm meant a time to rest and a time to work. Father Earth always said that the Great Mother’s middle name was ‘Balance,’ as she was so determined to keep everything equal and working together as a beneficial whole.

As she created each animal and tree, each bird and rock, each wind and river, she pronounced their names loudly with her contralto voice into the universe. Next, she enlisted the help of a huge snake called Rainbow Serpent, the best of her creations, to shape the land into mountains and valleys. He made high places and low places, so that water could flow, cool places and hot places so everything could have the best conditions for thriving. She watched with delight as he slithered his huge colourful body rapidly around, creating bright sparks like fireworks! High mountains appeared in a trice for frothy streams to cascade down, and lush valleys opened up to allow the wide rivers to flow.

The invisible power of the sacred sounds the Great Mother selected turned the words into form. As she stared with huge yellow eyes like suns, each item she needed appeared in its place.

When everything was ready, she went about her final task which was to create special human beings.  She used her most precious words to create them, and she made two types: dark humans like Night, and white humans like Day. 

day and night beings

She also gave her people special words for rituals and ceremonies, for speak-stories and sing-stories, and for the Balance Laws.  She didn’t think that they would need more words than that for they could see and hear and smell and taste and feel things in their bodies. But more importantly, they could just-know things, and they could make things from everything she provided.  This just-knowing and making skill was something that all the plants and mountains and oceans and creatures could not do so well.

When each human appeared she presented them with a sparkling package to welcome them. Each package contained a supply of simple gratitude for everything which made their lives possible. All she asked was that they sprinkled it around liberally during their human visit on Father Earth’s skin.  Mother Nature decided that instead of bird-song for birds, and snake-hiss for snakes, and tail-wag for dingo, and croak for toad, she would give people singing with words so that they could communicate with each other. This was because people were not exactly like bird, or mountain, or dingo or toad. 

gratitude

She knew that they could live happily on her skin where she would provide everything they needed, and that they could sing and speak, and paint and carve and sculpt and dance, to entertain each other.  But the most important thing about human people was their huge, generous hearts which were filled with a very special substance Mother Earth dreamed up and named ‘Love.’ Then, all their pure hearts joined together in harmony to make the Great Heart of the Universe.

So her people lived happily on her skin.  They loved the words of their rituals and stories and songs. Lastly she created wise Laws which ensured that everything the Great Mother had created would please Father Earth, and would thrive and multiply. The people didn’t need to use words for their everyday lives because they just-knew everything, and they were so full of Love that they didn’t need to express anything else.  Her people had everything they needed because she had thought of everything, so they trusted the Lands and they trusted their lives. 

Often life was hard for people without fur or feathers or scales.  So, when rain came and nights froze, and sun was at its hottest, she provided caves and waterholes and fire to keep their smooth skin warm and dry. 

But in time, and only sometimes, to her puzzlement, evil spirits crept into some of her human’s large hearts causing them to break the Balance Laws. They became frightened of the fierce anger of Mother Earth and Rainbow Serpent, her assistant. Of course, they were anxious about the punishment for their crimes.

white fella landsThen some of her people broke the Law more and more often.  They were impatient to have the things which Mother Earth provided at the wrong time.  They wanted to eat all the huge green speckled eggs of Jabaru when there weren’t enough young.  They wanted to eat emu when there was no celebration.  They wanted to drink sacred water in times of drought.  They wanted to cut wood when moon was old instead of new.  They picked all bluebells to make medicine leaving nothing for other people.  They became impatient, dissatisfied, thinking that they knew best. 

Then one day these few ungrateful people invented money so they could buy things from other tribes exactly when they wanted them. Great Mother asked them where the gifts of supplies of gratitude were.  But they told her they were lost and that they had grown tired of searching for them. When they got money they immediately stopped wanting to share with others as they had done before. Instead, they visually dominantgreedily made stores for themselves. Thinking only of themselves in this way made their eyes grow and grow and grow.  And as their eyes grew their ears got smaller and smaller. 

They did not listen to Kunapipi’s kind wise voice any longer, and turned their backs when she held out her hand to them to give them little surprises to encourage them back. 

They no longer noticed her smiles and her signals because they weren’t listening or sniffing or feeling, but only stuffing their greedy eyes until they were satisfied.  

Life on Father Earth’s skin became harder and harder for them, so now they needed money to buy food and shelter in order to survive.

Eventually, feeling pale and thin, one day out of desperation, they illegally plundered Kunapipi’s precious store of sacred words, and used them illegally to talk-talk-talk. In time, they learned how to make pictures from the stolen words since they were blessed with the gift of making things. But the more pictures from wordspictures they had, the weaker their just-knowing and intuitions became.

Eventually they needed the pictures and words merely to remember everything.  They were addicted to them, unable to stop producing them, and then going on to make thoughts to fit with them.

They were no longer like plants and mountains and oceans and creatures. They were no longer ‘Here’ and ‘Now’ with Mother Earth.  They called themselves ‘Word Fellas’ and made themselves separate and different from all her other creations.

word fellas

Gradually the Word Fellas just-knew less and less and hid themselves away from the Great Heart of the Universe. They almost entirely stopped expressing their heart Love through painting and carving and sculpting and singing and dancing, and became envious of those who had not lost their abilities. 

They forgot all that the Great Mother had to offer. They even turned their backs on the big red heart of Earth below his skin.

They forgot all about the tasting of stars, sniffing at moons, the looking at the endless song of all the other planets, and her big desert and vast ocean.  So instead of just-knowing and being ‘Here’ and ‘Now’ with the Lands, the rituals and the Laws, they had to see things to be sure they existed, and talk-talk-talk about them endlessly.

They spent most of their time checking and double-checking, looking and looking, and looking again withwhite life their big sad eyes.  In truth, they were lonely without the Great Mother and all her creatures and plants, without that warm deep-down knowing feeling and calm way of listening. 

But they never talk-talk-talked about their loneliness because they had acquired the poison of pride in pull-string purses. They kept them hidden behind their huge eyes. They used all their money and even traded sacred words in order to buy pride secretly from evil and negative spirits.

Then the word fellas decided that they had hoarded enough words to make new skins out of.  Their new skins were white and smooth and soft, and made them even more separate from the Great Mother and Father Earth, and all her sharing creatures.  This made them want even more words and pictures, and white fellasmells and feelings stuffed inside their minds, which became inflated like balloons, while their pink hearts shrank. 

They stockpiled more and more of Kunapipi’s supplies, so that they could be bigger and better than some people, and not so big or better than others.  This meant that they had power over some, and wanted the power that others had over them.

So they were always measuring and striving, and doing and getting, and watching and thinking; all the things which Mother Earth’s sharing people of the Great Heart never needed to do.

One day it was decided by the elders that they would have two types of words: inside words and outside words.  The outside words were to share with other people, and the inside words were stored up behind their eyes and kept secret from everyone else. 

At night when they closed their eyes to sleep they would nativebring out all the inside words they had collected during Day and look carefully at them.  Soon Kunapipi’s other creatures did not want to know all their extra words. They didn’t see the need for them.  And so they ignored the Word Fellas, passing them by.  It was as if they could no longer see them.  They had become invisible pale ghosts living outside the Great Mother’s warm embrace.

The Word Fellas were surrounded by endless stores of everything they needed which they could access whenever they needed them. They spent all their time and energy seeking out new pleasures because they were bored and at a loss out on their own.  Their appetites for exotic foods and endless alcohol, for pleasure seekingpleasures of the flesh and feeding their lust, in time replaced the Great Mother and their place in her kingdom of Balance.  Or so they thought.

But because their hearts had shrunk away from the Great Heart, and they made their own worlds inside their huge minds fitted out with everything they needed, they could no longer hear the calling of Kunapipi.  She was the Great Mother of all, so she protected them when Father Earth asked for an explanation about the strange Word Fella tribe she had made. He was shocked by their lack of contribution to the Great Heart.

Secretly she continued calling out to them, longing for them to come back to join all her other creations.

Eventually they realized that they needed a place where they could be on their own.  Their huge eyes had made them very good at counting and measuring, so they all moved to new Lands of Measuring and Counting, of ‘Then’ and ‘There’, of ‘Easy-Happy-Sexy.’ Because there were so many new kinds of words urban landswhich they had grown from the original words they stole, they divided up this new Land into lots of different places, each with a new name. 

But once they had made the long journey there and were installed in their new Lands, they discovered that if they stopped talk-talk-talking their bodies gradually fell apart because their skins were made of words.

Then because their hearts had become so tiny and they hardly breathed in any of Father Earth’s rich air, without their word-skins, they simply did not exist. They became white ghosts. So, they were constantly searching for secret recipes and commodities to stop their bodies from disintegrating. Now they became white fella ghostsknown as white fella ghosts.

In White fella Lands they no longer sheltered in caves or made fire, but instead made pointed roofs to put over their heads. They made windows and doors with seeing-stone glass in them which they could always look through. They could close and lock their doors with keys whenever they wanted to keep all their words safe.  And this is how they lived.

But even though they had left the warm wise ways of Mother Nature, she, because of her mother’s love, allowed them to take and take from all her supplies.  They were, after all, still her creatures, and she couldn’t bear to see them hungry, cold and pale.

Soon Father Earth began to notice he was in great pain in certain places on his skin. He called Kunapipi great motherto him and asked her the reason for this. She confessed that some of the people she had created had stolen sacred words and created a separate life for themselves from them. That they had broken the Earth Laws and their living places were very much out of balance. 

He scolded her for being too kind, but inside he was crying for their suffering.  He asked if she had reasoned with them, and she told them that they were no longer able to hear her voice, and their eyes, although so huge, were unable to see the Earth Lands. She lowered her head when she told him that they had ceased just-knowing, using their balloon minds instead, and that their supplies of gratitude had been totally lost. 

Father Earth’s skin began to crack badly as a result of their abuse. The Earth Lands were changing rapidly, the cold places getting colder and the hot places getting hotter.  The rivers were no longer in tune planet damagewith the oceans, and all the creatures which had so harmoniously fitted in with their environments at the start of their creation, were confused. They easily became angry and eventually they too became sick,and some died.

Despite many attempts to reach the Word Fellas, Kunapipi could not make them hear.  She tried making the winds blow harder and harder, making the rains pour endlessly to flood them out. She instructed Crocodile man to make big fire outside their cities and the Storm Heroes to create terrifying storms to shock them into realising. 

But nothing worked.  They were deaf and blind, obsessed only with their own pleasure and gain. She wondered how the Great Heart of the Universe could have let this happen.

Things had become so bad that Father Earth decided he must take the last resort.  So, he allowed his painful skin to erupt instead of tolerating the pressure inside. This release caused mountains to explode damage to earthspewing out the poison which had built up. He could no longer hold back the melting of the great snows because his agonising body was over-heated due to the white fella’s poison and pollution. This caused violent flooding.

Regretfully, he gave into the huge cracks which had developed at the bottom of the great oceans. This caused earthquakes and the massive shaking of the Earth. His greatest hope was that this shaking would wake the Word Fellas up.  Soon, massive waves gathered momentum and size in the oceans and rushed towards White Fella Lands, eventually bombarding their roofs and uprooting their metal and see-through stone homes, and destroying all their earthquakehiding places.   

Father Earth and Kunapipi watched on with pain in their eyes. They regretted that many Word Fellas lost their lives and became marooned in the World of the Dead.  It would be difficult now to rescue their souls so that they could travel on into the sky and learn the next lessons after being humans.

prideThey still had hope that the White Fellas would wake up and hear their cries, but they had become so terrified of severe punishment by the hand that fed them and the pain it might entail, that they ignored the cries if they did hear them.  In truth, they knew they had gone too far, but their purses of pride were even larger now. Indeed, they were bursting at the seams.

Then to try to help, Kunapipi decided to send one of her strongest women leaders into white fella Lands.  They called her Black Mama because she had the biggest heart of all. She went to console the suffering white fellas and to learn about their purses stuffed with pride and their empty shrivelled hearts. She went with grass baskets filled with Love to hand out to them, and although Black mamathey abused her too at first, her heart was big enough to tolerate their evil ways. 

Eventually as they walked aimlessly about their polluted cities piled high with debris and ravaged by disease, desperate for their alcohol and pain killers, lashing out at others who they blamed for their misfortune, they suddenly saw the bright light of her genuine happiness and grace. It was as if they had to go to the very limits of their endurance so that they could realise the truth of the Universe once more. 

Black Mama’s fragrant irises of sincerity and caring woke their original senses up, and they longed to feel the warmth of her embrace.  She did not attempt to punish them, saying that they had suffered enough, but she told them that she could show them the way to recover all their damage and pain. 

So, reveling in her delicious fragrances and kindness, and embraced hard by her huge heart, they agreed to follow her back to Kunapipi’s Lands to start all over again with her help. They cried and told her that some evil spiritsincere heart had leaked into them and had convinced them that they could live in a different way, and that they had truly believed that they could surpass the Great Mother’s wisdom. 

In time, balance on the Earth’s skin was regained, and people lived in original harmony with everything they could ever need. There was no punishment for the white ghosts, only a strong shaking to wake them up from their ignorance. Soon they found their bright packets of gratitude again, and their fragile skin began to thicken up in Father Earth’s honey air. balance 1

They solemnly gave back all the sacred words they had stolen, and destroyed the extra ones they had created from them.  They realised that they could never hide away from the Earth’s firm surface under their feet and his pure pockets of air to fill their lungs with again.  They could never hide away from the Great Mother’s creatures and plants always reaching up to the heavens and sun to be fed and delighted.

They were so happy to be back in the Lands, and to go on making their contribution to the Great Shared Heart.

shared heart image

Reading the Air: Lantern Floating

 

Mount Fuji moonlightThe moon was almost full and hanging to the left side of the great silhouette of Mount Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan. Its soft but intense radiance dropped like the cloth of an amply skirt over the entire surface of Lake Kawaguchi in the east, at its foot. It was soundless and light, and the hundreds of people gathered together on the lake shores were easily able to resist chattering in their characteristically excited way in its presence.

It was as if they are witnessing the most entrancing of all Geisha girls dancing: every simple movement, the tilt of the head, the bending of a supple knee, and the easy ripple of an opening fan is sheer delight. Such simplicity, such restraint, fully engages the Japanese spirit.

Nohmen and Meredith Capethorne, the American professor visiting Japan to research temple consecration, were standing at the scene together at the back of the huge crowd in the dark, but their minds were not as satisfied at their spirits.

toro nagashiMeredith closely questioned Nohmen and he was obliged to meet her at her world of the mind, though he found it disturbing. It was Meredith’s first attendance at a formal public ceremony, and as they arrived in and departed from many subjects neatly connected with Tourou Nagashi, the traditional Lantern Floating to convey prayers to the visiting ancestral spirits, Meredith’s hungry mind directed the proceedings.

The ceremony commenced with thegassho 2 procession of dignitaries who were accompanied to their seats at the front of the platform on the shore edge.  Then the taiko, a huge Japanese double-ended drum mounted on a strong frame, was beaten in syncopated rhythm to announce the beginning of the ceremony, and this was imitated by a delicate silvery bell sound.  next, a huge brass bell, hollow and bigger than a man’s head, further imitated, and so the counterpoint continued until the assembly was complete.

Everyone attending was silent, their hands placed in gassho as a mark of respect for the entrance of the head priest. He walked slowly, preceded by a tall priest in a shimmer of green robes, who was beating a handbell with a long silver beater to warn of his arrival. he was quite small, his robe of vermillion heavily embroidered with a design, which traditionally portrays the geometry of the rice terraces of Japan.

hand bellEventually, the priests were settled in their places, and busily adjusting the folds of their voluminous robes.  Kokoro was amongst them, so she could not watch the ceremony with Nohmen and Meredith. Meanwhile, the high priest was seated by several attendant priests at the table, which would serve-for the purpose of a secular ceremony-as his altar.

He faced the expanse of the lake where the sun was tipping rapidly off the end of the earth, performing a special ritual, chanting special prayers alone, his voice mellow and perfectly at home.  His whole life had been devoted to his father’s teaching, Nohmen and Kokoro’s Master.

Next the lanterns were lit one by one and brought for him to bless.  A long line formed, filing along the wooden pier to the small boats waiting to carry them out to the centre of the lake, so that they would float easily when launched. The lake was calm, the moon serene in tis unrivaled power, and the flickering lanterns  danced close to the sky.lanterns

The head priest stood watching, his whole being filled with prayers and blessings, as the lanterns were loaded.  Later, they would float down the many tributaries to the ocean, and so to all the oceans of the world. There was total silence as everyone present generated prayers and blessings for their ancestors. They concentrated as one huge body in reverence for their existence, which they had no doubt they owed to their ancestors.

ancestors

 

Reading the Air: the grave

the grave

It is the spring equinox. Kokoro and Nohmen make an O Bon pilgrimage back to Kokoro’s hometown on the northwest coast of Honshu, by the Japan Sea. Her family had always lived in the small fishing village called Takeno. Her father and her grandfather were both mayor of this small but important town.

The journey there was so beautiful. Up through high mountain passes and forests, and then winding down towards the unmistakable light of the ocean. As they drove along, Nohmen always in charge of driving, they continued on with the strategies and devotions of their mission. He constantly thought about how to reach as many western people as possible with the teachings of Buddha. Kokoro worked with him spiritually, and valued being able to learn about how the European mind works and just how dominant it is.

the grave 1Frequent attempts were made to distract Kokoro from her concentration on Nohmen’s people by countless phone calls flashing on her golden mobile phone, ornately decorated with many lucky charms which dangled down, and are very fashionable in Japan.

They arrived at the family grave to begin to clean it on the first evening of O Bon when the spirits are due to arrive. The small graveyard was a stone’s throw away from the huge old wooden family house, with its high wall outside, and inside one of the largest butsudans Nohmen had yet seen.bamboo forests

Behind the plot of sacred land accommodating four generations of Kokoro’s ancestors, there were steep slopes of mixed pine and bamboo forest. The slender trunks of the bamboo were buried deeply in undisturbed heaps of pine needles of a rich brown colour. In front of the tall gravestones in their raised beds, the beach and open sea stretched to Mongolia and the Arctic Circle. This prized position was especially chosen by Kokoro’s distinguished family to provide a beautiful environment for the spirits of their dead to bask in.

Fresh flowers had already been offered and as they looked at the inscriptions on each stone, Kokoro set about translating them. Her blended Japanese and English, suffused with a continual shiver of discovery as she unearthed meanings for her native kanji, echoed through the now deserted graveyard. Everyone had left to drink best sake and wait for the arrival of the unusual visitors.

incenseThe sun dropped into the shimmer of ocean turning the grey granite of the stones to dusky pink. The regular burning of incense left its brown traces along the speckled stones, accumulating in the stone burning vessels. ‘This is the place for stone,’ Kokoro said, ‘because it will last forever whilst accepting the changes nature would make to it.’

Jizo 1In Japan, stone is only safe for the dead whose once fragile bodies cannot be damaged any further. Incense is a household item providing a means of real contact with the invisible world for everyone. The squat stone figures of Bodhisattva Jizo, wearing a red apron and hat, guard the entrance into most graveyards, usually positioned close to a source of water which must be always present so that it can be poured over Jizo’s head. This soothes him as he works in the flames of hell to rescue the suffering.

Kokoro and Nohmen stand in the perfect stillness. The ancestors arrive for their brief visit with the dark.

Reading the Air: Lucky Heron

heron

Kokoro and Nohmen prepare to leave to go to the temple in Kyoto. They continue to talk about the suffering of others and how they can be released from it. Nohmen drives their simple van with ample headroom for his long back and legs, along the roads around their apartment building which are narrow and ancient.

The single-carriage way systems are based on a grid design, which is difficult for Nohmen as a foreigner to remember because all junctions look identical, but Kokoro knows by heart.  There are also numerous rivers and canals traversed by quaint bridges, some ancient and some new.

Then, as they drive along a narrow river bank, the tall windscreen is suddenly obscured momentarily by something large. Nohmen comes to a dramatic halt.  At first, they have no idea what it was, but then he steps out of the driver’s seat to see a large grey heron flapping away with its shaggy wings towards the river. It lands to stand still in the shallows.

Hora! Look! Sagi-san.  Heron!’ Kokoro shouts in delight.

‘Amazing!  They are not afraid of humans or cars!  This would be almost unheard of in a city in Europe. We must have disturbed its fishing down in that ditch.’

backstreet Kyoto

Nohmen is also delighted, excited by one more unusual thing to discover about his adopted country.  The plentiful bridges provide good hunting places for the large numbers of herons and white egrets, and many other rare birds. The busy centre of Kyoto is not very far from their apartment, and yet, because the mountains are always nearby, people and their dogs, and large fishing birds exist in close proximity.

Sagi-san. This very lucky, Noh-chan.’

She uses the familiar short form of his name.  Kokoro adds the polite suffix of ‘san’ even to a bird, all designed to avoid using the pronoun ‘it’ which is considered disrespectful.

They continue on cautiously through the streets packed with singular dwellings, for there have been very Kyoto small bridgesfew building regulations for residential areas until recent years when Japan has become more and more prosperous.  Some of the rickety structures and dilapidated older houses have been removed, and instead light, smart earthquake-proofed houses built in a trice.

The hushed bicycle is the most favoured form of transport for local people, their riders fearless and determined to take the shortest route to their destination. This often means travelling the wrong way on one-way streets.

Kyoto bicycles

Life here is vigorous and energetic but quiet.

 

 

Inspired by Sophie’s Choice

Sophie's Choice

You and your ancestors have survived so much in the name of civilization, of progress: imprisoned, lynched, persecuted, contaminated by plagues, deformed by fire and calamity, raped, poisoned, oppressed by the rich and powerful, or haunted by those you have oppressed, living death in the camps. All of the worst of human acts and conditions can be found somewhere in the unbroken circle of your historical family and related spirits.

So, do not separate yourself away from these unspeakable things with an arrogant flick of the wrist, or stiff turning of the high jaw. Your eternal spirit has known all evil during the struggle to keep the log of goodness and purity afloat.

Joy and sorrow and the millions of gradations in between fill the pages in the yellowing book of you. You can turn to them for reference at your leisure, but remember that this book is on loan, and one day you must return it, and then return yourself to the air and the earth.

Sophie's Choice 1

Each moment of your human journey is a vibration arranged in the revolving spheres. A foreigner fainting in the library, lifted in the arms of Nathan – a romantic mad man, waking to the taste of candle light and vintage red wine, iron-rich liver and leeks, a piano for your birthday in an alien but plentiful land. You are recovered and your handsome destiny slides in behind you on the piano stool, reaching around you to play your childhood Schumann as Dixie, and read glorious female poetry to you before bed. Bed – the ample stage of birth and death, and of cyanide suicide in fancy dress. There your destiny becomes a spoon at your back.

Sophie's Choice 2

These riches from our life moments can entertain and transport others, but you are merely the projectionist, the player.

And what of your choice Sophie? On the screening platforms outside Auschwitz, your Aryan beauty and your flawless German attract attention from Hesse, who wants you in his bed. You are given the choice of keeping one of your two beautiful children with you, and sending the other to the gas chambers. You choose your daughter and she is carried away by jackboots screaming. Your helplessness is off the scale.

Beneath the fading POW camp number on your white forearm, the suicide wrist scars, your decision has broken you. You lie, you protect what little remains, you sacrifice yourself to a mirage of romantic happiness and distress, waiting in and out of drowsiness to be ravished or rejected by the twins of jealousy and delirium. Always alcohol drunk straight to kill the pain.

There is surely a curse on your life set by the good gods for what your father contributed to the extermination of the Jews. Your Nathan, Jewish, consumed with hatred for all goy except intermittently for you.

Sophie's Choice 3