Buddhism Q&A: The Power of Written Odaimoku

These ‘Senbon Hata’ (One Thousand flags) are found on the trail and around Ichinoike (First Lake) of Shichimensan are offerings for ancestors, a wish for good health, etc. They used to be plentiful but have declined along with the number of pilgrims climbing holy mountains.

It is said that one of the reasons Toki Jonin went to so much trouble traveling all over Japan to collect Nichiren Shonin’s writings and letters was not only to preserve them, but preserve them from being eaten. Much like Nichiren Shonin writing the Odaimoku on the rough sea waters for safe passage on his way to exile in Sado, followers of that time revered his words of the Lotus Sutra teachings so much they believed the kanji characters had special protective and healing powers. They would cut out pieces and eat them.

You can find this today in traditional cures or with Kito blessings, some temple give packets that contain tiny slips of flat edible paper like substance with handwritten Odaimoku on it. Followers take them with tea or water as part of the healing. You can also see it in various protective amulets for people or buildings or even farmers’ fields.

The Buddhist history invoking the power of written sutras is long and varied, but the distinctive Ippen Shudai (Odaimoku Mandala) created by Nichiren Shonin has a special power and style found nowhere else. But the power is not in the object, the paper, the calligraphy, or the priest’s hand. Ultimately, it is the power of the Lotus Sutra expounded by Shakyamuni Buddha transmitted to our eyes and our minds from the heart and mind of Nichiren Shonin.

Buddhism Q&A: Shukubo and Omiage

Takenobo Shukubo in Minobu

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.

Kuyo: the importance of remembering and forgetting

The Japanese Kanji and meaning for Kuyo (供養), apparently has no real direct equivalent in Chinese; I occasionally run across online questions from mainland Chinese exchange students in Japan asking what it means. The standard English translation, ‘memorial’, is worthless and does almost nothing to convey what Kuyo really is.

Kuyo is praying for the spirit of the deceased to be nourished by our earthly efforts so they attain enlightenment. In this way Kuyo is closer to the original ancient Indian Buddhist ceremonies and also elements of Vietnamese Buddhism which suggests that the culture traveled the southern trade routes to Japan.

In traditional Japanese Buddhism the 50th memorial year was the usual cutoff up through the Showa era, but these days the cutoff is the 33rd memorial since most of the people directly connected with the deceased aren’t around to do Kuyo for them, and it’s not the responsibility for later generations.

Japanese Buddhist practitioners say that forgetting is just as important in Kuyo as remembering. That sounds like a contradiction but it’s part of letting go of the past even as one honors it with Kuyo prayers; an important natural progression not only for the living, but also for the spirits of the deceased to leave past lives and become enlightened.

2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. The annual Kuyo ceremony for all victims of the war and prayer for world peace was held on August 15 at the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery. This years event was drastically scaled down because of COVID but I see it staying small as the number of people with direct connections with the war dwindles away.

When it disappears entirely I hope people will remember to forget, in the right way. I don’t believe that the people of the war generation wanted Kuyo to go on forever or burden future generations with the responsibility. They wanted them to be free from the past and lead happy lives, because that is the ultimate goal of Kuyo: happiness and enlightenment for all beings of the past, present and future.

Remembering Ryusho

Rev. Ryusho Jeffus and I were thrown together for a few months in a furious march through the Nichiren Shu priest education system, from the written exam, to Sodo Rin and finally Shingyo Dojo. The powers that be decided I would be the on-call simultaneous interpreter for Ryusho who had no Japanese though it was not an easy job as I had my own studies and practice to do.

Ryusho was kind and cut me free when a lecture or instruction didn’t seem important. “Give me a recap later,” he would say. He was a former Marine and it showed: he was used to receiving orders and dashing around and joked that Shingyo Dojo was “like being in the military again,” even though his health was not robust and it was difficult for him. Twice we had to go to Minobu Hospital to get special asthma medication to get him through the 35 day training.

We had a special Shingyo Dojo shared memory. Near the end as we were to climb Shichimensan, it was touch and go if he could make it but he was absolutely determined to try. I was put in charge as his climbing partner. It was a hard long climb in cool drizzling rain. Just as we walked past the Wakomon Gate, the sun peeked out from a rift in the clouds and we walked in a tunnel of light the last few steps up Shichimensan as though we were entering a mystical world.

That will always be my memory of Ryusho. His memory of me was the next day as hiked down the North Sando trail in beautiful clear spring weather: I walked immediately behind tightly holding onto his obi the whole way down to keep him from tripping and falling, which he nearly did many times from fatigue. But we made it.

It is said that the followers of Nichiren make one last climb up Shichimensan as they leave this world. Gassho Ryusho, I hope you made it okay on your own.

Rev. Ryusho Jeffus passed away on August 11, 2020.

Tanabata and Obon

Many festivals are canceled this year because of COVID but you can still go to a local shrine or temple and tie your Tanabata wish to the bamboo. It’s always fun to read what other people have wished for: good health, happy family or the very appropriate ‘go away COVID’.

In the old lunar calendar Tanabata and Obon came together, 7/7 and 7/13 respectively. The western calendar mixed things up in the Meiji era because both events herald the last hurrah of Japanese summer and fall during the western August when calculated by the lunar July. This is why the events are July in Tokyo and August in the countryside.

There are plenty of hot days after Obon but summer feels done, you can feel wisps of autumn in the night air. The Japanese enjoyment of seasons is never the full gaudy glory but in catching the first faint whispers of change.