It is early morning, long before dawn. The energy which is clasped between heaven and earth is at its peak immediately before the sun comes up. It so easily accommodates the patchwork of roofs of nearby dwellings, together with those of vast temple roofs sloped and sleeked nearby, and on the wooded hill to the south east, the tiered roofs of the local samurai castle.
It is the beginning of autumn, as the sweltering basin of the city of Kyoto in western Japan, begins to cool down from the summer or record humidity. Everyone is waiting keenly for the leaves on the trees in countless temple yards and those adorning near at hand hillsides to turn gold and vermillion.
Two pre-dawn risers are perched on small stout cushions placed directly in front of the gigantic home altar known in Japanese as a butsudan. It is an unusually ornate and lavish specimen. They kneel with their feet tucked neatly around the round shapes of their buttocks, wearing comfortable loose garments.
Again and again they comment on the bliss of having dry, cool skin, repeating the word tengoku, tengoku, which means ‘heaven,’ and on the pleasure of wearing soft fabrics after the slab heat and humidity of Kyoto, when the weight of clothing was unbearable.
The small room is still dark in the centre, although silvery at the window edges as dawn smudges the dazzling sky with a pot of spilled ink. But, it would seem to be ignored in favour of the glow of the tall candles which reflect the solid gold devotional carvings inside the fiery crucible of the home altar. This is multiplied to light up their two faces, and somehow, it is as if the couple are easy and smiling whilst sitting inside a furnace.
The lingering darkness makes it easier to watch the ribbons of incense smoke, moving against the intricacies of the deities, each with their daily offerings of clean water and green tea, fresh flowers, and young fruits washed and polished up, placed in front of them.
The partner’s chanting of ancient Buddhist scriptures brought from India across the Silk Roads a millennia before, from gold-edged pages dense with kanji-the Chinese characters employed by Japanese to convey content-is another kind of offering to the Buddha and the attendant deities. They mostly know the verses by heart through daily repetition, but they still focus their eyes on them avidly so as to be purified by the mere sight of the words.
The cup-shaped brass bell with its wooden beater sits on a lavish cushion on the low lacquered table in front of the butsudan, and is lightly struck with a flick of the wrist periodically during chanting. Practically speaking, it signals a change to a different chant after three repetitions, but in actuality, its main purpose is to awaken the oblivious and sleeping heart. It is small, but its ring can occasionally be detected by neighbours, to their delight.
As the silver streaking across the city sky steadily infiltrates the room from large windows, and the chanting is complete, the taller of the devout pair walks towards to dazzle of natural sunlight, and steps on to the balcony. He looks towards the castle hill and the sun climbing up the sky behind it.
The street below the sprawl of roofs is quiet, but for several dog-walkers and cyclists, and in this pause before the traffic starts to flow, he is aware of an unbidden feeling rising inside him. It is not a conscious thought or reflection, but something ancient, akin to déjà vu, which comes up from the pit of the stomach and envelops him from behind.
“How did I foreigner, come to be here on an archipelago, floating in the middle of the Pacific, devoting myself to the Buddha?”