Nohmen 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 thousands 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.
Then 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 spread. 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 and 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.