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A Pilgrimage in Japan: The 33 Temples of Kannon

A Pilgrimage in Japan: The 33 Temples of Kannon

by Joan D. Stamm


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Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is the one who 'hears the cries of the world and vows to 'assist anyone in distress.' As the author embarks on the pilgrimage route that extends from the Japan Sea to the Pacific Ocean, through the ancient city of Kyoto and the modern city of Osaka, and to the many mountain tops in between, she allows the special characteristics and sacred presence of each place to bring forth relevant Buddhist teaching; letting go of attachment, contemplating impermanence, engaging in right livelihood, being of service, and other teachings found in classic Buddhism. The dharma, or doctrines of Universal Truth, intertwines with rich descriptions of mountain hikes, remote temples, modern Shugendo practices, sacred icons and the author’s spiritual insights.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781785357503
Publisher: Mantra Books
Publication date: 05/25/2018
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Joan D. Stamm is an award-winning author and essayist, currently residing on Orcas Island, Washington where she co-founded Cold Mountain Hermitage, a Buddhist study and practice group. She holds an MFA in writing and multi-cultural literature from Bennington College.

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Preparing for Pilgrimage

It is often said that when you embark on any spiritual journey, whether it's a trip to meet your guru, to engage in retreat, or, in our case, to begin a spiritual pilgrimage, obstacles pop up to try and thwart your good intentions. By November 1, 2012, the date of our flight to Japan, most of our obstacles had been waylaid except for one: an unexpected missed connection in San Francisco due to hurricane Sandy and the shortage of a flight crew.

Worry Mind, tested and re-tested, didn't easily give way to its higher sister. Anxiety would plague me at different stages along the pilgrimage. Still, confronting Worry Mind the previous year and its antidote Kannon Mind, would begin to dissipate the insidious wormy maneuvers of raw fear that seeped in now and then, even little anxieties about whether to begin with Temple 1 and proceed methodically from 1 to 33 (as recommended by pilgrim tours), or devise some other route that better fit our needs, circumstances and the ever changing fall weather in Japan. Did a consecutive route really matter?

Arriving a day later than planned, we opened to "guidance," and plotted our course. In one month's time our goal was to visit the first 19 temples, but not necessarily in consecutive order. In spring of 2014 we hoped to return to finish the remaining 14. (In reality, although we didn't know it at the time, we wouldn't complete our pilgrimage until October of 2015.)

So, where to begin?

Noting the words of Joseph Campbell who said, "Unless you leave room for serendipity, how can the divine enter in?", we followed an intuitive course and began at our home base, Kyoto; and one of the busiest and most beloved temples in all of Japan: Kiyomizudera, Temple 16.

Like millions of pilgrims who had traveled the Saigoku route for the last 1,000 years, my prayers for global and personal healing would be left in the hands of Kannon — not as an act of powerlessness, but with the intention of filling those hands until they overflowed. Maybe all the world needed to set off a flood of positive change was one more heartfelt prayer.

With the feeling of being "the hundredth monkey," (the famous macaques observed by Japanese scientists in a moment of evolution) I heeded Kannon's whispering call to set sail into the uncharted waters of spiritual pilgrimage, hoping that her wise and compassionate guidance would bear delectable fruit.

But first things first, which meant partaking in our pre-pilgrimage ritual.

In The Art of Pilgrimage, by Phil Cousineau, he relates that, "All sacred journeys are marked by ritual ceremony." Our "ritual ceremony" took place at Shunkoin, a sub-temple of Myoshinji, the largest Zen temple complex in Kyoto. The head abbot offered morning zazen with a dharma talk, the perfect prelude to our Kannon pilgrimage.

Stone walkways that zigzagged from north to south and east to west transported us further into quiet interiors of Myoshinji with its myriad sub-temples, each one solemnly contained behind high walls. Open gates invited us to peek into hidden places, sanctuaries with white stones raked into wave like designs, black pines pruned into natural sculptures and autumn maples dropping scarlet leaves into placid ponds. All of Myoshinji, one vast compound of cultivated beauty, transfixed with the asymmetrical and minimalist aesthetic of Japanese gardens: peaceful designs that tended to induce immediate tranquility.

We came upon a small sign in English indicating arrival at our destination: Shunkoin, or Ray of Spring Light Temple. The stone path led us through the front gate and garden where, we learned later, D.T. Suzuki, the father of American Zen, had planted several azaleas in years past. Captivated by the impeccable landscape, we hesitated momentarily until warmly greeted by Rev. Takafumi Kawakami (or Taka) who appeared in his monk's samue (Zen meditation/work clothes). He had learned English in the States while attending college, and, as Japanese culture prescribes, returned to Japan to assume responsibility for the family temple. Not your ordinary Japanese abbot, Rev. Kawakami, per his website, openly advocates for equal rights of the LGBT community, advertises open marriage ceremonies and offers himself as "a bridge between East and West."

He led us down a long polished wood corridor into a tatami mat zendo, where he offered either a cushion or chair for our meditation. After one period of zazen — about twenty minutes or so of silent breath counting — Taka gave a dharma talk on the ordinary aspects of the Buddhist life. He insisted that Westerners not romanticize Buddhism or monastic life. He discouraged any impressions that Buddhist monasteries contained anything mysterious or exotic. On the contrary, he explained that Buddhism: the practice of engaging in ordinary life just as it is; contained nothing lofty or idealistic. Rev. Taka, a no nonsense kind of guy, struck a resonant cord, even though I had long since given up dreamy notions about monastic life. Later in the day, and many times after, I would be reminded of the importance of his down-to-earth teaching about "life as it is" versus my preconceived ideas of how life ought to be — how pilgrimage ought to be, or even how the world order "ought to be."

After zazen, he led us back to the waiting room for wagashi (a Japanese confection) and bowl of matcha (whisked powdered green tea). I felt calm, peaceful and inspired. Taka's teaching grounded me in the here and now of Buddhist practice, and set the proper mood for what lay ahead: the beginning of our "official" pilgrimage. We had been blessed through the simple practice of zazen, by receiving a Buddhist teaching and drinking a bowl of tea — a simple ritual imbued with the principles of "harmony, respect, purity and tranquility." We would repeat this centuries old ceremony of Chado many times throughout our pilgrimage.

After a relaxed and informal chat with our host and fellow guests, the time had come to leave this timeless inner sanctuary for the greater world that awaited us. Once we said our goodbyes and zigzagged back to the outer gate of Myoshinji, the serenity of our morning Zen experience soon faded into the task of figuring out bus, train and subway routes as we headed off in the direction of our first pilgrimage temple on the other side of the city. If Kannon had set up a test on keeping and maintaining a peaceful mind, we were about to fail.


With the wind in the pines, Cupping my hands to drink The pure waters Of the Otowa waterfall, Brings coolness to my soul

Kiyomizudera – Temple 16

The Bodhisattva Birth Canal

Forced to confront a few disquieting thoughts about pilgrimage, namely that "temple" did not mean "quiet and contemplative," and "pilgrimage" did not always mean "a solitary journey of the soul," Kiyomizudera taught me that pilgrimage cannot be separated from life. Taka's dharma talk immediately became quite relevant. Buddhism emphasized that we should remain in the here and now without the overlay of judgment, expectation or preconceived notions. We had to "get it" the way "it" is.

As soon as we disembarked from our standing-room-only bus experience, followed the packs of tourists turning the corner into a narrow street, and observed the throngs making their way up Otowa Mountain toward our destination, the only attitude one could take and still have a positive experience was surrender. Before long, we landed at the foot of one of the most beloved temples in all of Japan: Pure Spring Temple. The name itself promised renewal.

I would soon learn that the power of pilgrimage resides not only in physical place, icons and rituals, but also in other pilgrims. If allowed to take in the various aspects of pilgrimage without judgment or resistance, the journey itself tended to induce a higher level of thinking, doing and intending. The vibrations, or life force (ki in Japanese) of sacred place and the actions or rituals performed there had been accumulating for centuries. In a still moment, without distraction, one felt this reservoir of spiritual power.

What we brought to each moment, to each action, was our intention, presence (or non-presence) our good or bad, positive or negative thoughts. This could be said for pilgrimage, daily life or world events. I imagined then — imagination being a powerful tool in a mob scene — a positive, exalted bubble of invisible energy enveloping each pilgrim as they entered the hallowed ground of Kiyomizudera, the temple dubbed "the spiritual heart and soul of Kyoto." Among the thousands of pilgrims who visited that day, some appeared to be truly devoted and reverent; others perhaps dazed, duty bound or slightly bored; still others — mostly school kids — giggly or goofy. This temple, our Temple #1 on the Saigoku Pilgrimage, had the effect of pilgrims on a conveyor belt — bodies moving by some unseen hand — resist and you'll have a stressful, rotten time; don't resist and you might enjoy being part of an international spiritual love fest.

Kiyomizudera reflected all of humanity: thousands of seekers jostling metaphorically through the gates of heaven and hell. The spirit of Kiyomizudera manifested the myriad aspects of "letting go"— of preconceived ideas and romantic notions; the desire for peace, silence or solitude; and later, when we traveled through Daizuigu Bodhisattva's birth canal, the letting go of certainty, sight, safety, and even clinging to one's own incarnate existence.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First we needed to follow the pilgrim's etiquette and acquire the pilgrim's paraphernalia — the latter being one of the reasons for starting at Temple 16.

To gain a sense of orientation, we stopped at the temizuya, or purification basin to read up on "pilgrim etiquette." We had been so distracted by the swarms of school kids, hand-holding couples, senior bus tours, and other foreigners moving as one body up the steep stone stairs, that we lost certainty about whether we had crossed through the main gate, the traditional place where the pilgrim should bow in humble gratitude.

One glance at our "Places of Interest" guide told us that, yes, we had missed the main gate, the famous "Red Gate" or Akamon. In looking back at the masses still moving as one up the stone stairs, we decided to bow at some other strategic spot and proceeded with our purification ritual. By then the day's travel snags, delays and general irritations, had accumulated; we had a lot to purify.

As instructed, we filled the purification ladle with water that gurgled forth from a dragon's mouth, held it over the area around the basin (never over the basin), poured a little over one hand and then the other, saved enough to pour a bit into our cupped hand for a sip (never drink from the ladle itself), and used the remaining water to purify the ladle by tipping it vertically, allowing the rest of the water to run down the handle before placing it back. This ablution ritual, performed at all Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Japan, goes back to the days when pilgrims stood naked in ocean or river and purified their entire body. Luckily for us the ritual has been modified, but the intent of purifying thoughts, ill health, negative tendencies or disturbing emotions, is still the same. My mind always felt a little clearer, lighter and reverential after this purification rite.

Once we paid our fee and officially entered the temple complex, we performed our next bit of pilgrim etiquette: ringing the bell inside the hondo or main hall. Out of respect we removed our shoes and placed them next to the dozens of others lined up in rows along the base of the hondo platform. Now we were ready to step into the inner sanctuary.

At the toes of a ten-foot gold statue of Amida Buddha — the word "Amida" means "infinite or immeasurable light" and personifies Ultimate Truth or non-conceptual reality — pilgrims kneel on a flat brocade cushion to strike the giant bronze bowl. When it came my turn, I knelt down and struck it once. A Japanese woman standing in line immediately corrected me. "Strike three times. Buddha, dharma, sangha."

Ah, of course. In the frenzy of it all I had already forgotten the three jewels of Buddhism. But over the course of the pilgrimage, I would get many more reminders and opportunities to honor the Awakened Mind, the Truth of the Teachings, and the Community of Practitioners. I corrected my mistake, moved out of the way for the next person, and stood under the giant statue trying to capture the beauty and essence of "Amida" in my camera.

A replica of the original Thousand-armed Eleven-headed Kannon could be viewed distantly in the back of the ornately gold tabernacle. Surprisingly few visitors ventured into this inner sanctuary to take a peek at Kannon or Amida Buddha, but I found the blackened walls and dim lighting of the hondo to be a quiet respite from the thousands of visitors milling about elsewhere. For at least a few moments, I had time to turn inward and make a few prayers for inner guidance. Kannon's symbolic thousand arms (in actuality 42) and thousand eyes testified to her ability to see and reach out in one thousand ways to heal, inspire and teach. Her eleven heads signified the stages of the bodhisattva path, with the 11 head being that of Amida Buddha, indicating that Kannon was an emanation, or a form appearing out of the formless in service to Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light.

All the symbolic representations of the vast and complex teachings of Buddhism contained in this one inner sanctuary alone could be studied and contemplated for years; and I would soon discover that all of the temples had too many rare statues, historical points, founding stories, and sheer beauty of landscape and architecture to adequately absorb. Mostly, I had to let the spirit of each sacred site flow over and through me in much the same way Christians let the divine reading of scripture (or lectio divina), pour over and through them, letting God's truth be revealed. So too, Kannon's wisdom would arise spontaneously out of contemplation and reflection.

Already late afternoon, the temple would soon close. We had to find the office where they sold the nokyocho, or pilgrim's book, a place where the temple steward records the pilgrim's visit.

Reluctantly, we re-entered the "crowd stream" and let ourselves be carried along like two kayakers running the rapids. A little building right after the hondo held promise of our intended destination. We carefully maneuvered toward our access point, made ground, and stepped inside a shop selling books, incense and other pilgrim paraphernalia. The clerk, all aflutter now at the two gaijin (foreigners) expressing interest in the Kannon pilgrimage, showed us a rainbow-colored brocade book with thirty-three pastel temple images and thirty-three blank pages for the seal and calligraphy. We crooned delight, and purchased two with a box of incense; then proceeded next door to the nokyo to receive our first Kannon pilgrimage "we were here" stamp.

The smiling priest, equally impressed with these two Western "ladies" on their way to the remote hinterlands of the Kii Peninsula, stamped our book as we watched him perform the ritual of Shodo, the Way of the Brush, overlaying the temple seal with the name of the temple and the date of our visit. Calligraphy looked deceptively easy, yet like all of the "Dos" or "Ways" of Japan, it took years and years of practice and discipline to be able to perform "brush writing" with ease and grace; and like all of the Dos, Shodo involved the spiritual practice of observing the mind and letting thoughts go by like so much flotsam in a mountain stream. Perhaps for the priest, the years of "stamping" thousands of pilgrim's books had smoothed away any boredom or irritation that might plague a person in his job.

When finished, the priest handed us our books with a satisfied smile. We handed him the customary 300 yen donation, but he declined to take it. Instead he sent us on our way with encouraging words, a packet of white paper slips, and instructions on what to do with the paper slips — "prayer" slips we discovered later.

With the thousands of pilgrims and tourists who pass through the nokyo every day, the priest's cheerful and generous disposition, so remarkable under the circumstances, made a lasting impression on us, and served to remind how small seemingly insignificant acts of kindness can impact an individual, a city, a country and the world. Ah, our first live bodhisattva experience!

With the priest's blessings and incense in hand we returned to the censer to offer the symbolic three sticks for the three jewels, but the large bronze cauldron heaped with the ash of thousands of incense sticks, had been covered and shut down for the day. Disappointed that we hadn't been able to complete our pilgrim rituals, we nevertheless continued on our way toward the vermillion pagoda in the distance, now illuminated by the late afternoon sun; it beckoned with the promise of liberation, as it had for millennia, and never let us forget that Buddha consciousness existed in the here and now. "Do not seek elsewhere," he had advised 2,500 years ago.


Excerpted from "A Pilgrimage in Japan"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Joan D. Stamm.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Permissions and Credit xii

Acknowledgments xiii

Part I 1

Preface 2

Chapter 1 Preparing for Pilgrimage 8

Chapter 2 Kiyomizudera - Temple 16: The Bodhisattva Birth Canal 12

Chapter 3 Ishiyamadera - Temple 13: Genji's Tale 21

Chapter 4 Miidera - Temple 14: Mara's Conquest 26

Chapter 5 Seigantoji - Temple 1: Eternal Stream of Compassion 29

Chapter 6 Kimiidera - Temple 2: Gifts from the Dragon King 35

Chapter 7 Kokawadera - Temple 3: The Enchantment of Eight 42

Chapter 8 Sefukuji - Temple 4: The Mountain of Sacred Wandering 50

Chapter 9 Rokkakudo - Temple 18: The Magic of Trees, Flowers and Kannon 56

Chapter 10 Hasedera - Temple 8: Behind the Beauty of Seasons 62

Chapter 11 Nan'endo - Temple 9: Lasso of Compassion 67

Chapter 12 Tsubosakadera - Temple 6: Big Buddha Jataka Tales 71

Chapter 13 Okadera - Temple 7: The Five Wisdom Buddhas 76

Chapter 14 Kodo (Gyoganji) - Temple 19: Benzaiten's Blessing 81

Chapter 15 Mimurotoji - Temple 10: The Beautiful Face of Kannon 84

Chapter 16 Rokuharamitsuji - Temple 17: Kuya and the Eleven Heads of Kannon 88

Chapter 17 Imakumano Kannonji - Temple 15: Bokefuji Kannon 94

Chapter 18 Fujidera - Temple 5: The Heart Sutra Under Purple Clouds 97

Chapter 19 Iwamadera - Temple 12: Raven and the Sacred Trees 103

Chapter 20 Kami Daigoji - Temple 11: Women in the Forbidden Zone 110

Epilogue 121

Part II 125

Preface 126

Chapter 21 Yoshiminidera - Temple 20: The Fire Brothers of Purification 129

Chapter 22 Anaoji - Temple 21: Buddha Entering Nirvana 133

Chapter 23 Sojiji - Temple 22: Honoring the Animal Realm 138

Chapter 24 Katsuoji - Temple 23: Bodhidharma Comes to Japan 144

Chapter 25 Nakayamadera - Temple 24: Celebrating Life 150

Chapter 26 Kiyomizudera - Temple 25: The False Buddhist 152

Chapter 27 Ichijoji - Temple 26: Water Babies 156

Chapter 28 Engyoji - Temple 27: The Temple of Light Heartedness 159

Chapter 29 Nariaiji - Temple 28: A Glimpse of the Pure Land 165

Chapter 30 Matsuno-odera - Temple 29: The Real Buddhist 170

Epilogue 175

Part III 177

Preface 178

Chapter 31 Hogonji - Temple 30: Island of the Divine Feminine 181

Chapter 32 Chomeiji - Temple 31: Stairway to Heaven 189

Chapter 33 Kannonshoji - Temple 32: Lost in Kannon's Pure Land 193

Chapter 34 Kegonji - Temple 33: The Taste of Sweet Persimmons 198

Epilogue 206

Directions to the 33 Temples of Kannon 208

Glossary 215

References 220

Bibliography 222

About the Author 225

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