Exploring Kiyomizudera

Kiyomizudera is arguably one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Japan. I visited the temple in 2005 on my first of two visits to Japan so far. We came to Kyoto during February, so we got to see this great temple in the snow. The reason why I bring up this temple was that I saw it while watching the Japanese documentary, “100-temple Pilgrimage”, about Buddhist temples that I have written about a few times on this blog. The current DVD I am watching focuses on Temples in the city of Kyoto, so I thought I’d touch on this one both for reasons of nostalgia and some interesting observations for my Buddhist compatriots (and any potential tourists).

Here’s a picture of the famous drop-off under the veranda:

Kiyomizedera drop-off

And here’s me standing on said veranda:

Me at Kiyomizudera Temple

…and if you look down:

Kiyomizudera downward view

You can see that it’s actually a pretty long drop down to the ground. According to Wikipedia, there is an old myth that if you jumped off and survived, you could have one wish granted. I prefer to stay up on the veranda.

Kiyomizudera is a temple of Hossō sect of Japanese Buddhism, which strives to be an all-inclusive Buddhist sect. Unlike newer sects which focus on a particular set of teachings and practices, Hossō and other early sects tend to incorporated all of them. So, when the documentary gave a tour of Kiyomizudera, I was surprised at how many different shrines and altars there were throughout the complex. Shrines and altars included, but not limited to:

  • Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, flanked by two Bodhisattvas:*
    • Samantabhadra (Fugen in Japanese), the Bodhisattva of Vows.
    • Manjushri (Monju in Japanese), the Bodhisattva of Wisdom (his sword cuts through ignorance)
  • Kūkai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism
  • Honen, the founder of Jodo Shu (and ex-Tendai monk)
  • Jizō Bodhisattva
  • Amida Buddha, as mentioned above.
  • and of course Kannon Bodhisattva, who is the main object of devotion there.

As mentioned, Kannon is the main figure of devotion at Kiyomizudera. For the picture above, you can see a building a ways behind me. In that building is a shrine to Kannon, which had a small wood figure carved into the entrance:

Kannon at Kiyomizudera

Kannon here has his/her trademark 1000 arms, symbolizing the endless efforts that Kannon makes to help all beings. Two of the hands are in front of his chest in the Buddhist gesture of respect, while the other arms are stretched out all around him. Like Jizō above with his staff, and Manjushri with his sword, these are not literal, but powerful expressions of the Bodhisattvas, their compassion and their insightful wisdom.

Watching the documentary, I realized I missed quite a bit of stuff on that visit, though in all fairness we were trying to view 3 temples that day: Chion-in where I first encountered Pure Land Buddhism and Ryuanji which has the famous Zen garden. The next time I should visit Kyoto, my wife and I plan on making a much longer visit to enjoy all the Buddhist stuff there. Back then, I was still unfamiliar with Japanese Buddhism, and didn’t appreciate much, but now I feel a stronger affinity and hope to appreciate the visit there more on my next trip.

Anyways, I am impressed this time around by the inclusiveness of early Japanese Buddhism, at a time when I am just exploring Buddhism on a wider scale, and seeing what is there.


* – All three comprise a kind of “trinity” in East Asian Buddhism, just as Amida Buddha, Kannon and Seishi form another trinity within Buddhism. The Medicine Buddha also has a trinity (himself and the Sun and Moon Bodhisattvas), but this is more obscure and popular mostly in early Japanese Buddhism.


Father’s Day

Hello all,

Just a quick note to say Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers out there. It was nice a Father’s Day (my second so far) here in Seattle, and the first real sunny weather we’ve had in weeks. My wife, Baby and I all went out for a nice breakfast in the morning, and managed to beat the rush by about 10 minutes. No joke. After we sat down, hordes of people started coming in. We were super lucky too to get curb-side parking right at Alki Beach, just in front of the restaurant. Anyone who knows Seattle knows just how rare this can be. 😉

Baby had a little trouble this morning because she was Little Miss Silly Pants and filled up on milk instead of eating a breakfast. Thus, she got hungry by lunchtime and very irate, nor did she take a nap for long. I was able to relax on the couch and enjoy Heinlein’s sci-fi classic The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, which is frankly weird, but really well-thought out.

By the way, here is a photo of her from a few weeks back when she visited her great grandmother (my paternal grandmother) up in the Islands:

Baby at Grandma's house

This weekend Baby has been pretty crabby overall compared to previous weeks. I think due to day the being brighter longer, and noise from outside, she’s having trouble sleeping until at least 10 pm (compare this to a few weeks ago when she’d sleep around 8pm). Also, this weekend was hectic and outside her usual routine, which will upset any baby.

On the other hand, it seems like the last month has been a blossoming of her mind as she’s picking up new things at a faster pace than before. She knows how to throw things in the garbage can now by herself, just by watching us do it, and can use a spoon much more reliably than before. Her language skills have improved such that she can understand things we tell her. If we mention a cat, she says “meow”, or “woof” when we mention a dog.

Anyways, the last Father’s Day was pretty cloudy, and I spent part of that day attending the local Shingon temple (being one of the few days I have enough free time), then had fish n’ chips. However, this time around, we took advantage of the good weather to visit the local Zoo, relax then visit good friends who live nearby (the same friends whom we enjoyed Memorial Weekend with).

All in all great weekend. 😀


Clarification on Shingon Initiation, lay practices

Hello all,

I wanted to clarify a mistake I made on the blog in earlier posts. I recently spoke with someone whose an expert on Shingon Buddhism, and he pointed out that my assumption that, as a lay practitioner, I have to obtain initiation was wrong. If you want to ordain as a Shingon priest, you definitely have to receive initiation, but as a lay practitioner, you do not. Traditionally lay practitioners do take part in a ceremony called Kechien Kanjō (結縁潅頂) in Japanese, and this only takes place in certain temples in Japan. However, this is not required.

Instead, what the person explained to me is that lay people develop a close relationship to a Shingon priest over time (attending services, just getting to know people, etc), and the teacher will provide practices that fit that person. So, in my past experience, when I visited the Seattle Koyasan temple, and the priest there taught me some practices related to the Mantra of Light, that was perfectly normal Shingon lay-teacher relationship. Sadly, I haven’t been able to go very often, but if I had, I am sure that he would teach me more over time when the time is right.

In any case there are two things to take from this information:

  • The key to following the Shingon path is not through ceremony as much as it is patience and getting involved.
  • Shingon priests aren’t “mantra machines” either who just give out mantras at will. Don’t go and just ask for stuff. I didn’t, but the priest knew of my interest and just taught the practice one afternoon, so being respectful and patient pays off.

Anyways, please disregard previous statements made. I was being (as usual) over-cautious and thinking too much. Thanks!

Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo

In it for the long haul

So, I’ve been reading a little more about Jodo Shu Buddhism, of which I have become curious about. Then I came upon this nice website about how to practice Jodo Shu. The site is pretty thorough, and covers pretty much all the basics. I enjoyed reading the part about counting the rosary or o-juzu in Japanese (お数珠), because it just so happened I bought one of these rosaries during my last trip to Japan. I bought the rosary at the Kōtoku-in temple where the Great Buddha statue of Kamakura sits. At the time I didn’t know much about it; I just added it to ol’ rosary collection at home.

Anyways, here’s what the rosary looks like on my kitchen counter:

Jodo Shu Buddhist Rosary 2

Buddhist rosaries in Jodo Shu Buddhism are unusual because of the double-ring, plus extra tassels for additional counting. Most of my experience has been with the related, though somewhat different, Jodo Shinshu sect, where the emphasis is not on counting recitations.* So, the rosaries I have in Jodo Shinshu style are used more in services where you drape them over the hands, and the number of beads varies quite a bit.

Like the diagram in the website above this rosary has two rings, and two tassels with 10 small and 6 large beads. You can also see the tiny extra bead where the two tassels meet. So, having read how to properly tell the rosary in Jodo Shu tradition, I decided to give it a try tonight. Here’s how it looks when holding the rosary:

Jodo Shu Buddhist Rosary

Like the website says, the first ring goes between the thumb and forefinger, with each bead counting a single recitation of the nembutsu (namu amida bu), while the second ring counts a full revolution. Apparently, according to the website, I bought a “woman’s style” rosary (tee-hee!) which when using all beads, can count up to 60,000 recitations. Without doing the extra tassel beads, the basic two-ring recitation is exactly 1080 recitations.

So anyways, I sat my chair in front of the Amida altar I have (which is Jodo Shinshu style, not Jodo Shu, oh well) and recited the nembutsu 1080 times, give or take any screw-ups.** At first moving the beads between my fingers was pretty clumsy, but I noticed that if I held the beads right at the tip of my fingers, which are more sensitive, I had better control. Later, as the motions became more fluid, my chanting got much better.

I’ve never chanted anything that long in my life, but it was not nearly as hard as I thought it would be, and was actually a very interesting experience. In a way, I definitely like it over meditation, but that’s my style I guess.

Anyways, if you ever get a hold of one of these double-ringed rosaries, definitely try the chanting suggestions above. Or if you have a regular rosary, try some creative ways of chanting there too. Chanting 1000 times vs. 100 times doesn’t make you a better Buddhist, but once you get into it, it is a challenging, but peaceful experience. Master Yin-Shun, the Chinese Buddhist monk, writes how the chanting of the nembutsu is an excellent approach to single-practice leading to samadhi or “concentration”, not counting the obvious benefit of being reborn in the Pure Land.


* – I’ve confirmed from a few sources that Jodo Shu doesn’t insist that you have to recite the nembutsu X number of times, but simply stresses it as a practice, where one’s mind is gradually transformed and reaches a point of anjin or “peaceful mind” similar to the notion of shinjin, or “entrusting or clear mind” in Jodo Shinshu.

** – If you’re not careful, your speech starts to slur badly, and the recitations run together. It’s a good exercise in mindfulness. 🙂

P.S. Speaking of all things girly, my wife points out that I have girly hands. 😀

My hands for some reason are pretty soft and have no scars. Considering I worked for years in a restaurant chopping veggies, doing dishes in caustic chemicals, and such, it’s amazing my hands look as soft as they do. It doesn’t help that they are chubby too. 😉

P.P.S. The actual design of the double-ringed rosary is credited to Honen’s follower, Awanosuke. Awanosuke was a sincere follower of Honen, but due to his past as a fortune-teller, other disciples tended to pick on him sometimes, or see him as foolish. Apparently, he deserves lots of credit for such a clever design.

Eyes down, there!

I was reading something about the famous Chinese Ch’an master Xu Yun (Empty Cloud), who is among the most famous of Chinese Buddhist masters in the 20th century. One of the most interesting parts of his life (among many) was his intense study of a certain Buddhist sutra, the Shurangama Sutra, which is extremely popular in Chinese Buddhism, but not generally elsewhere. The sutra itself isn’t the focus of this post, but rather, in his autobiography he claimed that the year he spent studying this one sutra was more valuable to his time than the previous practices he did.

I also remember reading a post on Kyoushin’s blog about reading the Kyogyoshinsho (the main text of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism) 6 times and appreciating it more as a result.

From the examples above, I can see some important lessons for those studying Buddhism (including myself):

  • Reading a Buddhist text multiple times is very helpful in appreciating the meaning.
  • Sometimes it’s better to study one text well, than to glance over 10 of them.

So, I am not personally advocating a particular text as something to read, but rather, if you have a text that is important to you, it’s good to study it really in depth, to the point you can quote scripture-and-verse. Once you’ve really internalized that text, then it’s probably more applicable to you. Westerners like myself, tend to do an a la carte approach to Buddhism where we read lots of various sources (unlike previous generations, we have a ton of information at hand), and make judgements based on surface-level understanding. I know that Nichiren Buddhists, for example, read and study the Lotus Sutra quite a bit, so veteran Nichiren Buddhists really know the text well, and it reflects in their appreciation of it. Naturally this can apply to other Buddhists sects as well.

If it worked for Master Xu Yun, it has to say something. 🙂


Appreciating Emptiness

Emptiness is a concept in Buddhism that is both hard to grasp, and tends to get misunderstood by non-Buddhists, or Buddhists just starting on the path. I stumbled on this explanation by Master Yin-Shun in The Way to Buddhahood that I thought bears repeating (citations added by Yin-Shun):

The nonexistence of independent nature is emptiness; emptiness is the nature of things that neither arises nor perishes, and this can be called Buddha nature. These statements are true because otherwise — if all things were not empty and had independent natures of their own — the existence of ordinary people would be real and they would forever be ordinary people. Likewise, the existence of defilements would be real, and they would forever be defilements…there would be nothing for anyone to sever and nothing for anyone to practice, so no one could become a buddha (as is explained in the Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā).

Fortunately, all things are empty and without an independent nature, so defilements can become pure, confusion can become enlightenment, and the common can become holy…Therefore, it is said, “Because existence is empty, all things can be formed.”

I’ve read similar comments from Francis Cook’s book Hua-Yan the Jewel Net of Indra, which I think is the most thorough explanation of what emptiness is. All of this of course relates back to Nagarjuna, but also back to the Buddha’s sermons, the sutras, themselves.

Emptiness is no more than flux and change. If you steer the change in a positive, wholesome direction, the results will be self-evident. If you set your mind on Enlightenment, it will occur. The rest is just details.