Reading the Air: life-magic in Japan – Temple Consecration


In Kyoto, it was long before dawn as Professor Meredith Capethorne prepared to take the specially ordered taxi out to the south of the city in an easterly direction. She must meet the staff of the temple she was to view before dawn. The taxi had been ordered by the International Centre where she was staying, She came down from her fifth-floor room by elevator and waited in the deserted hallway, her briefcase containing her notes, temple plans, and the specifications for the subject of her visit today.

As she waited, a young dark-skinned student, wearing pink earphones, pushed through the double glass doors into the foyer, startling her. They exchanged greetings and she guessed he was returning from his part-time work at a popular 24/7 convenience store, which most students in Japan take on to help with costs.

Then the black Toyota taxi arrived—a low comfortable saloon—and the driver jumped out eagerly to check her identity, taking off his peaked military hat as he did so. He called her deferentially kyoju, or professor, and she did not argue with that. The back door opened automatically ready for her to get in as he stood by it until she was comfortable. Then he ran nimbly around to the other side and got back inside the cab, carefully positioning his hat, and driving away across the car park smoothly.

They talked little. Meredith was nervous of not understanding him, and he had been briefed not to gossip and bother important customers. Soon, they arrived at the meeting point outside the large temple gates. She paid him, took the receipt from his minute printer on the dashboard, and said arigato gozaimasu, ‘thank you,’ and he left.

Meredith stood for a few moments outside the massive wooden gate, looking up at the huge structure on the hill behind in amazement. She had studied the plans intensively, even poured over the photographs for hours, but they could not have possibly prepared her for the reality of this colossal structure, or its atmosphere. She looked at the neat lanterns in the form of spotless glass globes engraved with the wheel of Dharma—one of the principal Buddhist images—which flanked the driveway leading up the hill, and the internal lights of the main building flickering a little, and felt that it was like a self-contained walled town.

She was slightly frightened standing in the dark, but then she heard footsteps and a light tenor voice calling her name in whispered tones. She acknowledged the call and saw a blade of torchlight coming towards her through the gates. Then, she heard a buzzing sound and the gates began to open automatically.

Several sets of footsteps approached now, and several torch beams appeared. Meredith was convinced she would be greeted by shaven-headed priests in robes, white leather bootees, and geta, the crude wooden sandals which monks and geisha usually wear in Japan. Instead, as the gate opened widely, she was greeted by a group of young men with slicked-back hair, wearing smart suits with neat collars and ties. The leader came forward ahead of the others and bowed deeply, smiling and greeting her in perfect English.

‘Professor Capethorne, it is such a pleasure to meet you at last. We are truly honoured that you wish to research our temple. Please come inside and allow us to carry your heavy bag for you.’

He bowed again, signaling the others to do so.

‘May I introduce myself, by the way? I am Izumi, temple staff. And these are other members of the staff who will assist you during the day.’

He introduced them one by one, and they each bowed deeply and displayed great energy even this early in the morning.

‘Please follow me and I will lead you up to the viewing point. Sunrise will occur in about twenty-one minutes, which gives just enough time to get to the roof.’

They walked briskly through the arch and past the gatehouse, then, on they went, up to the pavement alongside the roadway, which led under the temple, and up the long flights of shallow steps said to lead to ‘enlightenment’ itself.temple steps

‘It’s a shame you can’t see the temple full of the followers. It’s quite a sight!’ He spoke with passion.

‘Oh don’t worry! That’s not my area at all. I’m strictly interested in structures and rules of construction, not people,’ she clarified.

‘But I hope you will at least attend a ceremony while you are visiting Japan?’ He said, wanting to convince her.

‘No thank you. I’ve made an extensive study of the lay rituals you employ, so have no need to see them in action,’ she responded.

The view from the roof with its 108 seated cross-legged Buddha figures, which Meredith counted for completeness, was exhilarating. Now, it was so clear to see the divisions of the temple into three parts in Indian style: the head, where the inner sanctum was located; the body, where the administration and offices were; and the foot, where most of the spiritual training was carried out.

She marveled at the ancient Indian wisdom in ways of living, which so strongly connected the human body to the gods in the form of a temple building. This had been firmly acknowledged by experts as representing a perfect microcosm. But then, she was momentarily irritated by these ancient peoples’ need to have any gods at all. She certainly had no doubt whatsoever who and what constituted her own god.

kamiThis ‘Japanese’ body covered a massive area, and she truly wondered what the actual construction must have been like. She also speculated on how integrated the eighty thousand Japanese gods, or kami in Japanese, were with this gleaming temple building, contemplating the mystical phrase from her studies, which said ‘and the gods walked among them, as one of them.’

‘This conservation is a major project then. And how long do you expect the enhancements to last?’ She quizzed Izumi-san as he stood silently by her side. He turned slightly and stiffly to her as he spoke.

‘We are targeting eternity. For as long as this teaching lasts in fact.’

Meredith looked at him quizzically. ‘Eternity? Is that a joke?’

‘No, no! We intend to make the site eternal for all future generations to be able to embrace!’

Meredith stared into his eyes and smirked, ‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’

‘Yes, of course. And so are our two million followers.’

‘But you don’t seriously believe in the notion of eternity do you?’

Her tone was mocking, disbelieving. Izumi-san was too polite to disagree with her, too respectful, and her tone was perhaps unfamiliar to him culturally.

‘We Buddhists do generally believe that there is something more than time and space, which, I trust you will agree, are recognized by experts as mere intellectual concepts,’ he retorted.

‘Yes, but with respect, no one has ever proved that such a thing as ‘eternity’ exists. Surely, you realize that?’ Meredith could feel her indignation seeping out.

‘I understand that, yes. But proving is only one way of believing. There are many other ways to believe in something, I think you might agree, Professor Capethorne?’ He reasoned.

‘I’m not sure what you mean,’ she answered, ruffled. She continued on about her business.

‘So, the consecration ceremonies are what I need the details of next, if it’s possible; their format, which dialoguerituals will be used, the venues, and lengths of ceremonies, the dignitaries invited, and of course, the expected date of completion,’ she said.

Izumi-san agreed that he would let her have this information as soon as it became available if she could leave her contact address in Japan. He slickly made a note of this on his wafer-thin iPhone, adroitly manipulating the small touch screen. But then he hesitated and stopped walking. They stood together, Meredith not prepared for what he would say in anyway.

‘Professor Capethorne, I’m sorry to say this, but I feel I have to inform you that this consecration is not only a number of very precious and unique ceremonies, and a question of reaching the required target in terms of dates, and so on.’

Meredith looked vacantly at him.

Izumi-san asked her if she could spare a few moments for him to talk to her about the spiritual aspects of consecration. Meredith at first refused, saying emphatically once again, that it had nothing to do with her research, but Izumi-san assured her that it had everything to do with her.

She agreed to listen if it was important. The temple had begun to buzz with activity. He led her through the main temple office, which contained many suited temple staff standing behind counters and dealing with people’s requests.

Meredith noticed that they were handing over money and filling in forms of different colours, and she asked why. Izumi-san tried to explain that they were requesting special prayers for the people they were practising for or with, or for their ancestors and related spirits. Meredith said nothing and simply followed him.

Eventually, they arrived at a comfortable white-curtained sitting room.

‘Professor Capethorne, it is important that you at least listen to the following. I have a feeling you may not like it, but it is really important for your understanding of Buddhist consecration in general. In your research, you may have come across the specialness of consecration and the intensive preparations which are necessary for it.’

‘I’m listening. Please go ahead,’ she said.

Kamakura buddha‘Professor Capethorne, we are so grateful that you wish to research our temple, so honoured in fact. Please understand that. And we sincerely hope that we will be able to help you in every way during your stay in Japan. As you know, consecration or any dedication of a temple or image is a very special event. In our case, as we are a lay organisation in which equality is a key, it is very special for each follower. During our preparations for it, we intensify our practice towards the goal, which means making extra efforts to bring the happiness of other people into sharp focus.’

Meredith stifled many comments. She wanted to enquire about the opulence of the temple, its sheer scale, and was curious about how much salary the battalions of temple workers received. She quickly imagined Izumi-san’s life, scrutinizing the silk fabric of his perfectly fitting suit, his expensive shoes, and his impressive English accent, which must have surely been bought for him.

‘Our founder referred to this joyous state of mind as one in which we feel gratitude for everything in the Universe, gratitude for everything that makes our lives possible, gratitude for being able to accept everything with appreciation, both the good things and the bad.’

It seemed to her that he was speaking a foreign language. She could not remember the last time she had felt grateful, for she truly believed everything which happened in her life was brought about only by her own efforts, due solely to her own merit. She moved towards the edge of her seat, starting to bring up excuses to leave, which he detected.

‘I’m sorry to detain you. Of course, we can perform all the necessary rites and construct our extensions in accordance with ancient laws, but Professor Capethorne, what if we were to do these things without sincerity? The powers of the universe, the vigilance of the Buddhas, should know immediately, and consecration would not go smoothly.’

She fidgeted. He was determined.sincere heart

‘We have to be 100% sincere and devoted to create a sacred site for all eternity.’

Meredith felt a strong impulse to stand up and start collecting her things together. She made what she decided was her final remark of the conversation, stood and picked up her bag. He stood with her and made gestures to show her out, but he had clearly not finished what he wanted to say.

‘Professor, please bear in mind that consecration is not merely the physical. It is the condition of the faith of those who consecrate that really matters.’

She offered her hand to him, and he took it lightly, bowing whilst he shook it. He saw her out to the reception area in the main foyer, instructing the young woman in temple uniform to ring for a taxi. Then he said goodbye, and rushed away to deal with something urgent.

Meredith had several minutes before her black-uniformed driver arrived. She watched the crowds of followers rushing around the temple office wide hallway. There were frequent announcements over the PA system as she wandered towards the well-stocked bookshop.

getaAs she browsed the shelves she was suddenly aware of a young woman wearing a dazzling pink kimono teetering on high geta clogs close at her side. Meredith turned to smile and saw that she was holding a large, carefully decorated package complete with a small ribbon-tied posy of fresh flowers.

‘Please Professor, accept this gift from our High Priest, Izumi-san.’

She smiled radiantly, then bowed deeply and proffered the gift extending her arms to full length towards Meredith, and as she did so she revealed an immaculate chignon of thick black hair adorned with startling white gardenias.

Meredith was embarrassed, especially after her rather rude behaviour towards someone she thought was a glorified office boy, but in fact was the High Priest! She put down her brief case and accepted the dazzling gift, holding it closely beneath her eyes. The young woman bowed again reverently and backed away slowly from her with tiny wobbly steps restricted by the pink painted silk of her tightly wrapped kimono

Meredith tried to smile, but found it impossible to bow in return. She was in no position to refuse this gift in this country of formal gestures and procedures, which indicated respect. At that moment, the counter clerk having called the taxi came across to inform Meredith of its arrival. She helped her by carrying her brief case to the sleek black vehicle outside the electric glass doors.

The automatic door was open ready for her, the uniformed driver standing aside to escort her inside. They drove away down the Temple drive. Meredith looked back to see the clerk bowing deeply until the car was out of sight. It was clear that this was going to be no ordinary assignment.temple assignment






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