It’s a shame that the famous Kyoto Okuri-bi send off bonfires will be limited again this year. It’s an outside event and I don’t see the point of caution. Hopefully the souls of family ancestors will still be able to find their way home and back again in these dark times. A friend of mine, Rev. Sensho Komukai wrote a nice article that describes the event and the Buddhist tradition behind it. Hopefully the bonfires will burn in full glory in 2022.
August 13-16 is the traditional Obon period, when the souls of deceased family members are believed to return home from the other world. A fire is burned as a guide sign to welcome our ancestors on the evening of the 13th (mukae-bi) and to send off the spirits on the 16th (okuri-bi).
Great okuribi bonfires are seen on five mountains in Kyoto on the evening of August 16th. Each bonfire has a different character as follows: Dai (大), Myo (妙), Ho (法) a boat shape, and a shrine gate shape. At 8:00 p.m. the character of Dai is lit first. Myo and Ho are then lit ten minutes later.
Myo and Ho bonfires have been prepared for centuries by the Nichiren Shu supporters of Yusenji Temple and Myoenji Temple of the Matsugasaki district in North Kyoto. Myo has 103 burning woodpiles, and Ho has 63. Each woodpile has been traditionally allotted to a family member of the two temples.
One woman who came to Matsugasaki after marriage said with a sigh,
“It is still hot in August. When the bonfires are lit, there is no refuge area from the heat. I was all sweaty, dying of thirst. I helped the bonfire event out of a sense of obligation. Once we finished, I went down the mountain with a sense of great relief. However, when I arrived home, my grandmother-in-law had brought a family ihai tablet out into the garden and was holding her palms together in Gassho toward the bonfires on the mountain, I felt ashamed of myself. People in Matsugasaki respectfully send off their ancestors with all their heart. Their religion and culture have been handed down with high esteem. It was my mistake to think so little of the bonfire event.”
After the bonfires of Myo and Ho burn out in 30 minutes, the Bon dance starts in the precincts of Yusenji Temple. The dance originated in 1307, when a Tendai priest, Jitsugen, who was very impressed by Nichizo, converted his faith to the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren Shu teaching.
All village people of Matsugasaki became devotees of Nichizo and Nichiren Shu. Priest Jitsugen felt joy chanting the Odaimoku while beating the drum. The villagers began to dance, and this “Daimoku dance” became the origin of the Bon festival dance. In modern times, people dance with simple beating of the drum and quiet chanting rather than a joyful dance. They want to think back deeply to the days they spent with their beloved families and silently express gratitude toward their ancestors on the Obon send-off day.
One of the sharpest quotes from 2020 was James Lindsay on American life post 2020 election:
It’s rather important that more people take the gift of the Trump era while its fresh: being able to see extremely clearly that “normal” was completely messed up and that “back to normal” politically (and in media) is not just garbage but positively dangerous.
Each and every day it’s clearer that ‘back to normal’ in the USA, and by extension much of the west, is not normal at all. When the heady hysterias of 2020: Pro and Anti Trumpism, racism and COVID misinformation-ism, continue to thrive in the media and political arenas, it means somebody has a vested interest in keeping them alive.
We like to think that humanity has evolved past the witch hunts of the distant past and more recent cultural/political created witch hunts like McCarthyism or the CCP cultural revolution, but we haven’t. We also like to think that computer technology, the internet and social network media have created a new culture of wisdom and awareness. It has not. We’ve created a world of fighting demons.
The world of fighting demons, a never ending struggle of ‘I’m right, you’re wrong,’ is one of sub-human realms in traditional Buddhism. In Nichiren Shu Buddhism these are realms of our mind. You choose to live in the mind of fighting demon or you choose to live in the mind of a human being or bodhisattva. It’s up to you.
The teachings of Nichiren Shonin are based on the Lotus Sutra but he did quote a very useful part of the Nirvana Sutra, known as the four reliances. They are extremely useful in daily life. They are: (1) rely on the Dharma and not upon persons, (2) rely on the meaning of the teaching and not upon the words, (3) rely on wisdom and not upon discriminative thinking, and (4) rely on sutras that are complete and final, not on those that are not complete and final.
The context here is the Buddhist Dharma, the body of Buddhist teachings and practice but if you examine the four reliances carefully you see that it compares things that don’t change vs. things that do, real vs. false. One of the greatest challenges of our era is that we have collectively lost the discerning wisdom of previous generations. It’s impossible to nurture the discerning wisdom true when blindingly reacting to or tweeting something false ‘in the moment’. Let’s leave the realm of the fighting demons to the demons, and choose our better natures.
A recent strong aftershock in a wide area beyond the Fukushima epicenter, that sicking feeling of a very different kind of earthquake, was a rude late night reminder that March 11, 2011 is never far away. 3-11 as the Japanese call it was terrifying on a ground floor Tokyo building, it’s difficult to imagine what it felt like near the epicenter in Sendai and Iwate. But the terror of the quake pales in comparison with the tsunami devastation. I will never forgot the horrifying live TV coverage of a huge fiery wave engulfing Natori. The aftershocks were endless and disorienting. After a few days you couldn’t tell if the ground was shaking for real or was in your head.
There are many tsunami videos, and I have watched countless of them over the years, but there is one taken near Minami Sanriku Irizen harbor that shocks me every time. The location is slightly inland on a hill just behind a Chofu Boiler dealership. The video was taken almost on top of the tsunami as an entire town is completely obliterated in the first 4 minutes. The cacophony of destruction is particularly horrifying with headphones, but even that cannot match the quiet otherworldliness at the 8 minute mark as the tsunami silently peaks then groans back to the sea.
In 2013 I had the opportunity to visit Iwate and see the effects of tsunami devastation. I rode the Shinkansen to Morioka then a local train to Miyako. From there I had to take a local bus to Yamada Machi as the train line beyond Miyako was completely destroyed. I will never forget the disconnect as I watched the scenery looking for destruction but there was none. It looked like a pleasant countryside. Then I finally noticed endless foundations covered in weeds and grass. Everything was scraped clean, of destruction, of life. I wrote an article from the experience for the Nichiren Shu English newsletter and repost it here in memory of the warm friendly people of Yamada Machi to mark the 10 anniversary of the disaster. Their quiet positive outlook in the face of devastation and great loss was a revelation and remains a constant inspiration.
Recovering from the Tsunami Disaster
Yamada Machi in Iwate prefecture is a beautiful area on a bay in the Tohoku coast famous for oysters and scallops. From the top of a steep hill with a commanding view of the bay is Zenkei-ji temple. From there, on March 11, 2011, Reverend Eishin Miura watched the tsunami flow over the top of the sea wall, quickly wiping out the entire village below. “The first wave was was held back by the (7 meter) sea wall, so everybody thought it was safe and ran back to their houses to grab belongings,” he said. “And then the second wave hit….”
The Tsunami The second wave that crashed over the sea wall in in front of the temple hill was over 8 meters high. One kilometer down the coast it was 15 meters. Further down the highest tsunami was recorded at 25 meters.
“That first night we had over one hundred people staying in the temple,” Reverend Miura explained. “It became an evacuation center for over a week until people could make it to the official evacuation centers.” “There was no running water so we had to haul buckets up from the bottom of the hill everyday when the water truck came,” Rev. Miura’s wife added. The main hall of Zenkei-ji still has boxes of emergency supplies, covered with blue plastic tarp, which spill out into the side-hall.
“Right now the temple is just an afterthought for our temple members. Which is as it should be. The most important thing is for them to rebuild their lives and make a living,” he explained. Making a living applies to Zenkei-ji as well. At present there is not enough work to make ends meet, so Rev. Miura and his two sons all travel to different temples far away from Yamada Machi. They only gather at the temple for special ceremony days such as Setsubun, Higan and Oeshiki.
The 60 temple families of Zenkei-ji are rebuilding their lives as best as they can. Rev. Miura took us to visit and talk with some of them to see exactly how this temple and its community are reconstructing. A short drive from the temple, we visited one of the temporary housing sites where a temple member has lived after her home was swept away.
Miki Sato, 71, lived with her husband in a flat area just north of Zenkei-ji. Shortly after the earthquake hit, her husband drove an elderly neighbor to the evacuation center. “I was waiting for him to come back when all the neighbors started running and yelling for everybody to escape. I barely had enough time to get out before the tsunami came. 5 minutes later and I would not have made it,” she said. “We ran to the North Elementary school with the tsunami right behind us. It inundated everything, even the school playground (in front of the school).”
Mrs. Sato said there were 500 people crammed into the gym floor the first night. “All we had was a single rice ball per person that night. It was 3 days before we finally had hot miso.” She did not hear from her husband after the tsunami hit. The next morning people went out from the school and started searching for family and loved ones. It took 14 days to find Sato’s husband under the debris in the front school yard.
Shortly thereafter she went to her daughter’s place in Kamaishi and stayed there until the temporary housing facility was completed in August 2011. In early February 2013, the local government was getting ready to unveil a housing plan to Yamada Machi residents. It has taken more time than anybody anticipated to purchase private land in the surrounding hills and mountains. For residents who want to rebuild their home at a designated higher elevation, the local government will buy the old land at 70% of the old value. Nobody wants to take a 30% loss but there isn’t much choice.
Sato said she would not rebuild. “We had only just finished rebuilding our home when the tsunami swept it away and I still have to pay off the loan. Because of my age it makes more sense to move to the new public housing they plan to build in the hills.”
Rebuilding the Industry Temple member Masashi Shiohara, a former boxing champ in his youth, is head of the Yamada fishing association and working hard to restore the local industry. Every morning at 2 a.m. he gets up and heads out to rebuild and tend the oyster beds. “It might look nice,” he said waving his hand towards the sea with neat rows of beds floating on the water, “but most of the beds you see out there are empty. It will be 3 years (from the tsunami) before we see income again.”
Shiohara was on his boat when the tsunami struck, and could even feel the earthquake on it. He spent the night there, avoiding and steering away from all the tsunami debris. When he finally got to shore he found his home, right next to the sea wall, had been washed into the mountainside, miraculously intact and spared from the fires that destroyed most of the village. “I found my father hiding in a closet on the 2nd floor, wrapped in a futon. I grabbed him, what dry clothes were left and headed for the evacuation center,” he said.
“Speed is the most important thing,” he said about the rebuilding effort, “the longer you wait the harder it is.” Shiohara said it took 6 months just to clear Yamada bay of tsunami debris. And then there was a year of rebuilding basic infrastructure since all the packing and processing facilities had been destroyed. “Last year was the hardest as we started with nothing. We had to do work on our ships because there was no place to work on shore,” he said. The fishermen have places to work now but they are mostly makeshift tents of blue plastic with wooden stoves for heat.
Labor is also a problem. Older fishermen are getting out rather than starting over, while other people moved away to find temporary jobs. Mr. Shiohara said they can overcome the shortage of workers but will have to consolidate. Before the tsunami, Yamada fishing association shipped 5,000 tons of oysters a year but he is not sure they can or should recover to the same level. Quality and “branding”, not quantity, will be keys to reestablishing the industry, he says, but convincing the other fisherman is not an easy job. As we were leaving Rev. Miura asked “How are you sleeping?” “I only get 2 or 3 hours a night at best,” Shiohara said. “I went to the doctor and got a prescription to help.”
Planning the Future On the top floor of Yamada Machi Town Hall, Village Council Chairman Teruo Kon briefed us on all the tsunami disaster facts: Fires broke out 3 minutes after the earthquake, the tsunami breached the seawalls at 15:22, 35 minutes after the earthquake. Fires quickly destroyed most of what was left. There were 776 victims, 46.7% of all homes were destroyed. 50% of those will rebuild on higher ground, 30% will go into public housing, 20% are undecided what to do.
There is 26,700 tons of tsunami debris, 60 years worth of work but concrete debris will be recycled for the new seawalls which will be 9 meters high. “A good rebuilding plan takes time,” Chairman Kon explained. “It takes 3 years to do all the necessary surveying and research, 5 years to plan and 10 years to build.”
Chairman Kon showed us old maps of damage from the 1896 Meiji-Sanriku earthquake/tsunami and the 1933 Sanriku earthquake/tsunami. The areas of damage back then, when there was no seawall, exactly matched the current ones. “When you read the journals of those times, there is so much to learn from. Unfortunately we neglected history and based all our protection plans from the 1960 Chile tsunami,” he explained. “If we had remembered our history, we would have been better prepared. My mission is to make sure our experience is recorded for future generations so that they won’t suffer what we have.”
The role of the temple On the morning of February 3, the members of Zenkei-ji temple were busy preparing for Setsubun. A group of wives were busy in the side hall preparing a simple lunch. In the main hall, bags with Ofuda and small gifts for the temple members were lined up in front of the altar. Members squeezed in the main hall and sat talking, hand drums ready for the service to begin. The service started and was similar to any service at a small country temple with chanting, a Kito blessing performed by Rev. Miura and his son Rev. Edo Miura, and a Dharma talk.
After the Dharma talk members set up tables in the main hall for lunch. After lunch everybody cleaned up and got ready for the final event of the day: the Setsubun raffle. Prizes ranging from sake and large slabs of omochi, to clothes, candy and more were lined up in front of the altar and raffled off. Everybody got a prize. Everybody had fun and left with a smile. But something deeper was going on.
Rev. Miura explained, “The worst thing in these times is being on your own or feeling isolated. That kills. It is important to remember we are all in this together.” Whatever was going on in the lives of the Zenkei-ji temple members, they were all coming together to chant, to take part in running the temple, and to share good times.
There are still tough times ahead for the community. Zenkei-ji temple could be swept away, literally: there are huge cracks in the hill right outside the small temple kitchen window. “The town hall officials came, took a look and told us to evacuate the temple,” Rev. Miura’s wife explained cheerfully while endlessly preparing huge meals. “The hillside could give away at any time. Any construction work has to be done manually because the road is too small for a hydraulic excavator, but those guys are all booked up for the next year.”
It will a long haul to full recovery, but after after talking with Rev. Miura and the Zenkei-ji temple members, their spirit of endurance and fellowship are remarkable. In the next 10 to 15 years, Yamada Machi could well be reborn into a vibrant and beautiful community.
In our era of unending overheated news cycles I take comfort in the cold dispassionate analytic Japanese cultural characteristic. Its helpful not only for keeping a level head but also making interesting connections between seemingly unrelated things.
For example different cultural responses to the COVID crisis: in Japan people went out and bought pets, in America people went out and bought guns. Japanese like making those kinds of comparisons that seem to come out of left field, but for me provide ‘think outside the box’ context sorely missing in public discourse these days. And again when Bloomberg ran a piece titled “Buddhist Monks Are Snapping Up ESG Bonds in Japan,” that wasn’t getting any traction in the Japanese news space.
As a Buddhist priest (monks live monastic lives outside of society, priests do not) it stuck me as odd that a Rinzai Zen temple would advertise investing in ESG bonds as future proofing the temple instead of working to get younger people involved in temple activities. The Bloomberg piece also reads like stealth marketing, if Zen temples and the Vatican are investing in ESG bonds it must be good…right?
I asked a Japanese trader friend about it and he set me straight without blinking an eye, “With this coming out on Bloomberg just when the Dali Lama and Greta Thunberg are hooking up online to discuss environmental issues, it sounds like investment funds and players are gearing up to make a lot of mischief. The only difference is that they used to be better at hiding this kind of nonsense and now they suck.” Bingo…helpful context to divine where things are going. There is also online discussion of a COVID-19 ‘vaccination mafia’, but that’s another subject for another day.
Japanese pilgrimages are never about just visiting a temple or shrine. It a total experience that mixes religious duty with fun, good food and life on the road with fellow human beings, where all the vexing problems of any given moment ripen over time into warm treasured shared memories.
Shukubo is a lodging for pilgrims attached to a famous temple or shrine but not all temples with a ‘bo’ character in the name indicate a lodging. One example is Hongyoji Daibo in Ikegami Honmonji where Nichiren Shonin passed away. In this case bo was attached to the name to indicate it was the former residence of Lord Munenaka Ikegami.
Shukubo flourished in Japan towards the end of the Edo period and Nichiren temples were no exception with some 180 shukubo in the Minobusan area alone, spread out far and wide compared to what you can see today clustered around Kuonji temple. Since the late Edo early Meiji days the number of Minobusan shukubo has slowly declined to the current 32. Fewer pilgrims and fewer people left in rural areas to take care of them.
An interesting side story is that temples and shrines in rural areas had many shukubo while famous temples in big cities like Ikegami Honmonji had few or any, which makes sense as people of those times wanted to travel and this was enoucourged because traveling people meant money flowing into local economies.
Which brings us to Omiage, the ubiquitous souvenir stores that line the approach of any famous temple or shrine. Pilgrims buying presents supported both merchant and temple as the temple charged rent. Edo merchants also had a keen sense of ‘branding’ which you can see today in all kinds of famous local foods and souvenirs, but there was also a sense of sharing because not everybody could afford travel. Buying ‘omiage’, as the sound of the name but not the kanji characters suggest, was a way to share the travel experience with family, friends and neighbors who returned the favor, and the fun, when they in turn traveled on a pilgrimage. Sharing good things around to all is Buddhist ‘en’ in action, even when it involves money and commerce.