Return of the Dragon

It was a very tough winter for the priests working at Keishi-in temple on the top of Shichimensan. There was so much heavy snow that it snapped the utility poles. Repairs couldn’t be done until the spring. Chief priest Kochi Uchino described the scene. “We were without power and pumps for running water. All we could do was scoop up the snow and melt it over the wood fire. We had never experienced anything like it.”

Nothing in recent memory prepared them for an endless string of natural calamities: unusually heavy snow, multiple typhoons passing directly over the mountain, torrential rains washing out huge swaths of the upper trail, the main path to Keishi-in temple for pilgrims and supplies, a holy mountain for Nichiren Buddhists with a history dating back more than 800 years and roots as a holy place of practice for wandering Shugendo mystics.

It seemed like cruel irony, all this after the Edo period Keishi-in main hall had undergone a long restoration, 100 years of grime and soot were carefully removed with new gold leaf applied so that the main altar enshrining a statue of the protective goddess Shichimen glittered again in the dim light. There was also a magnificent new painted ceiling. The old soot covered painted ceiling with its protective Dragon dating from 1802 was carefully removed. Each 4 meter board was wrapped and taken down the mountain to a safe warehouse in the Kuon-ji temple compound in Minobu, where plans were made to do something with it eventually.

The calamities continued. The popular Monk’s Race Trail Run was cancelled due to the washed out roads, then washed out trails, then nearly undone by the COVID pandemic. But the faithful pilgrims who continued to climb told Uchino, “You should not have removed the old Dragon ceiling, it was a ‘kekkai’ protecting the mountain.”

Kekkai is a tricky word to translate from Japanese into English. It originally comes from Shinto, as do all esoteric Japanese Buddhist practices do from Shingon to Tendai. Some of the Tendai esoteric lineage can still been seen in Nichiren Shu practices. It’s a kind of spiritual barrier, to protect or to keep ‘bad things’ out, or sometimes keep humans out. The definition of what constitutes a bad thing also varies because it depends on how humans define bad, in their very limited and selfish ways, at any given moment. Protective deities see things differently. Nevertheless the old Dragon ceiling was not only protecting pilgrims and priests, it was protecting Shichimensan too.

A simpler explanation came much later from a friend who was raised in a Shinto household, “You mean to tell me the priests of Keishi-in didn’t know that? I guess the ignorance of Buddhist priests knows no bounds. The Japanese dragon is a completely different creature from the Chinese dragon, far back in Shinto lore. Priests used to know these things.”

With no respite from endless calamities Uchino thought about asking for the old ceiling back but didn’t know how to take up the subject with Kunon-ji Temple, the most important temple in Nichiren Shu. Maybe they had already made plans. Then a terrible electrical storm hit.

“It was the worst, most intense lightning storm I’ve ever experienced,” Uchino said. “Cloud to ground, bolt after bolt, dirt flying in the air. That’s when I make up my mind to call Kuon-ji. I was just about to dial when the phone rang. It was Kuon-ji…they wanted to return the old ceiling.” The carefully wrapped Dragon ceiling boards were taken out of storage and back up Shichimensan, half-way by a small wire lift, the rest by backpack.

But there was no way to put it back, the new ceiling was in place. Uchino consulted with the Miya-daiku. Miya-daiku are a special breed of Japanese carpenters, shrine carpenters, the nobility of their craft. Only they know how to construct traditional wooden shrine and temple buildings in the traditional manner, without nails or other modern techniques. As chance would have it the miya-daiku had re-hung a big new main hall re-dedication sign from the left wall to the front. “The sign was mostly hidden by the big paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling on that side. We decided to move it to the front but it was a difficult job, just barely fitting.

“As luck would have it, when the old ceiling boards came back the miya-daiku pointed to the now vacant left wall and said, ‘It will fit there.'” And it did, a perfect fit, ” As Rev. Uchino explained, “the moment they finished installing the old ceiling, the weather returned to peace and quiet like somebody had pressed a button.” The kekkai Dragon ceiling was back on the job, completing a mysterious chain of events. After it was all over, having served a longer term than usual, nearly 4 years instead of the normal 3 years, he reflected on the adventure. “I don’t want to criticize the former Chief Priest but there wasn’t any thought about preserving the classic art of the Keishi-in main hall when repainting the ceiling.”

It was a very nice story, just like a lot of Nichiren Shonin legends, but they are important beyond being true or not. It’s not superstition either. Nichiren Shonin put enormous energy into teaching the power of belief. Belief in the Dharma, belief in the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, belief that Eternal Buddha is always with us and in us. I think it’s the power of belief, belief in the Dharma, belief that there is a Buddha in you, that brings people to Shichimensan where they are watched over by the Goddess Shichimen, and protected by the Dragon of the Dharma.

Special thanks to the Chief Priests of Keishi-in Temple Shichimensan for their time and special permission for taking pictures inside of the Keishi-in main hall and the Dragon wall. The pictures of the temple interior may not be shared without their permission.

Climbing Mt. Shichimen

I had not been to Mt. Shichimen since golden week vacation 2020, during the very first COVID pandemic ‘state of emergency’. It was a surreal trip to say the least. Shinjuku station and the Chuo Expressway were completely deserted on a Saturday as I rode all alone, the only passenger on the Keio Highway bus to Minobu.

This time, golden week 2022, there were people thank goodness, at Shinjuku station, on the bus and in the highway rest areas. Even Minobu looked somewhat lively with day tourists enjoying a vacation day drive in the countryside. But there were signs of decay from two years of COVID restricted travel. A shop closed here, a vacant lot there. There were visitors, but few pilgrims. The temple inns for them (shukubo) were mostly empty at a time they should have been full.

And because they were mostly empty the staff were generous with food and drink. When I ordered a cup of sake to go along with dinner, the head priest of Chijaku-bo brought an opened sake bottle urging me to finish it off saying, “I don’t drink now and this will go to waste.” I obliged but drank far more than bargained for. I took a bath then stood outside in the cool evening air to let my head settle, listening to the sounds of the river as a crescent moon slid into a black outline of mountain peaks.

Next morning I took the early bus to the Shichimen trail base. The climb is recorded in the video. I tried to capture all 50 ‘chome’ point markers but missed a few. The video is a kind of experiment to see what works and what doesn’t in preparation of another climb to record the protective dragon legend of Mt. Shichimen. Until then…

History Preserved and Lost: Nichiren & Lotus Culture

Shinji Ebinuma , Assitant Curator of Yamanashi Prefecture Museum stands next to the exhibit he helped create

The “Nichiren Shonin and Lotus Sutra Culture” exhibit that ran from October 2 until November 23 at the Yamanashi Prefectural Museum was one of the last Nichiren Shu events in connection with the celebration of the 800th Anniversary of Nichiren Shonin’s Birth. The exhibit is co-hosted by the Niigata Prefecture Museum of History in Nagaoka City and was on display there during July and August.

Shinji Ebinuma, Assistant Curator of Yamanashi Prefectural Museum, who is also a part-time lecturer at Minobusan University, gave me a tour and explained the importance of the items on display. The exhibit also honors the 750th anniversary of Nichiren Shonin’s Sado Exile and there were many rare, and rarely seen, pieces including many in Nichiren Shonin’s own distinctive handwriting. The most moving one for me was well preserved humble pilgrim’s ‘Goshuin book’ with the page open to stamp of Keishiin temple on Shichimensan.

Ebinuma san explained, “It belonged to a Sado woman believer in the Edo. Iems that illustrate the spiritual life of ordinary people are extremely rare.” It’s impossible to imagine a person in this day taking the journey from Sado to the top of Shichimensan and back, on foot. The most amazing things is that those kinds of pilgrimages were extremely popular enough to support some 180 shukubo in the Minobusan area alone, spread out far and wide compared to what you can see today clustered around Kuonji temple. In the Edo period pilgrims did not hike to the top of Shichimensan and stay at Keishiiin Temple like they do today. Instead they stayed at a pilgrim’s temple/inn (Shukubo) near the base of the mountain and a priest would climb to the top lugging the pilgrim stamp books, perform a ceremony, get the books signed and stamped, then go back down, do another ceremony for the pilgrims and the stamp books, then finally hand them over.

I asked Ebinuma san how he would explain this exhibit to a visitor from abroad with no knowledge of Nichiren Shonin or the Lotus Sutra. “I would first show them the statues of Shakyanumi and Many Treasures Buddha and the 4 Bodhisattvas from Underground and explain the background. Then I would show them Nichiren Shonin’s Gohonzon Mandala and what they mean.”

He also explained the preparations necessary for the exhibit. There are 175 items that cannot all be displayed at once, either due to space restrictions or the short loan time from temples. “We would go to each temple to assess  handling and transportation issues. Sometimes it took two on site days to get the job done.”

When asked what his personal favorite item was Ebinuma san looked slightly apologetic saying, “Niccho Shonin’s books impress me the most. His output was tremendous.” In addition to producing hundreds of books, Niccho Shonin also moved Kuonji temple from its old location, now the Gobyosho, to the current one we use today by cutting and clearing the mountain. His effort is amazing when you consider he did this in the Sengoku period when Japan was in constant civil war.

From famous mandalas of great priests to household Goshuin books of ordinary followers, the Lotus Sutra culture of Nichiren Shonin was a special sight to experience.

A quick video tour

History Lost: Fire destroys Myoshoji Temple

Two weeks after the Nichiren and Lotus Culture exhibit was over, a disaster struck: on December 6, 2021, Myoshoji Temple in Ichinosawa Sado, Niigata Prefecture was destroyed in fire. This temple has particular importance to all Nichiren Buddhists as this was place that Nichiren spent the 2nd year of his Sado exile (1271~1274), where he first inscribed the Mandala Gohonzon in the familiar form that we see replicated today, and where he wrote his most important treatise: the Kanjin Honzon Sho, A Treatise Revealing the Spiritual Contemplation and the Most Venerable One. None of the treasures were lost but the Edo period temple structures were all destroyed and cannot be rebuilt.

The temple itself has not had a resident priest for some time, a growing crisis for temples in rural areas with declining populations. The preservation of Japanese Buddhist culture is becoming more difficult and challenging with each passing year.

Frodis Seeds

I’ve been thinking of The Monkees a lot this year, I knew there was not much time before it would be just ‘The Monkee’. Mike Nesmith was in poor health before the off again, on again Farewell Tour was announced, almost torpedoed at the last minute by the most recent COVID wave. Somehow they pulled it off. Less than a month after the final concert Mike passed away. Mikey Dolenz is the last Monkee standing, which is fitting but I’ll get that in a bit.

The Monkees legacy has long since revived and survived as Mark Rozzo pointed out in his Vanity Fair piece:

if anyone cares about the semantics anymore…the Monkees are, in fact, very much real, no matter what Nesmith or Dolenz may think—a talented and original band, a pop-culture force, a touchstone for multiple generations, a lasting influence, and even today, a viable commodity. Nesmith’s vast résumé alone practically proves the point.

I’m glad that I live in Japan where such stupid distinctions as real or fake rock bands are meaningless. The Monkees have always been popular with the Japanese who don’t have the ‘yes, but’ negative western cultural snobbery of ‘my music is good, your music sucks’. The eighties witnessed a great Japanese language Daydream Believer cover by The Timers that reached #2 on the Oricon charts in October 1989 (the original version peaked at #4 here in 1967). It’s known and played everywhere now as the official 7 Eleven theme song. Ka-ching!

The conventional wisdom is that the Monkees legacy has endured because of the tremendous concentration of talent behind the TV show and the records. That’s true of course but I’ve always felt this ‘yes, but’ take is a slight to the tremendous talent and creativity of the four Monkees themselves, Mikey, Mike, Peter and Davy. Everything had to work through the magic of their talents to make it real, and it did, spectacularly.

From the Buddhist point of view, there is another reason the Monkees legacy endures. In the very last episode of the series, The Frodis Caper directed by Mikey Dolenz, written by Mikey and Dave Evans, there is a particularly surreal scene in a very surreal episode. Mikey, Mike and Davy are trying to save the world but are trapped. They need Pete’s help but he is hypnotized and trapped back at the Monkee pad. Mikey gets an idea to reach out to him.

We’ve got to concentrate real hard and then we need to repeat this chant I learned…

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo…

A chant that he ‘got from sending in a cereal box-top’. The chant works to free Peter’s mind and he goes to help the other Monkees. They all get trapped again, escape and free the world of evil television waves in typical zany Monkees style that was the good natured charm of the show.

How did the Monkees end up chanting Odaimoku on prime time TV? Was it Mikey’s idea or Dave Evans? We’ll probably never know. The practice of chanting Odaimoku, the title of the Lotus Sutra, is central to all Nichiren Buddhist schools and lineages but the most important thing about it is this: no matter where you are in your life, you have a connection with the Buddha and your own Buddha nature when you chant it.

What does this have to do with the Monkees? One of the things the Buddha repeats again and again in the Lotus Sutra is the merits gained by teaching the Lotus Sutra to others, even with just a word or title, a seed that eventually causes receiver to seek the way of the Buddha and strive for enlightenment.

In Buddhist terms the Monkees, especially Mikey, have gained countless merits for planting the seed of the Lotus Sutra in the minds of millions with their silly TV program. In Nichiren Buddhist terms they are the Bodhisattvas of the Earth reaching out to save others, but they probably never knew that or cared. But like the whole Monkees phenomenon, it worked on levels they were never aware of. I know this because when I encountered the Odaimoku much later in adult life, it was nothing to fear or disdain, it came wrapped in a fuzzy happy Saturday morning memory from long ago, ‘oh yeah, that’s the chant the Monkees used when they were having crazy fun adventures saving the world.’ It was a positive thing…like the Monkees.

So yes, the lasting influence of the Monkees, Micky, Mike, Peter and Davy, makes perfect sense. A multi-cultural touchstone of many levels, wrapped in a prime time TV program with some great music.