This past weekend I went to Koya-san, a famous mountain temple complex in Wakayama prefecture. As I was travelling with a group of colleagues from the consulate, it was not the solitary, peaceful, reflective ramble I might have wished. But it was very informative. Our guide was a swiss buddhist monk who was kind enough to share his knowledge about the complex's history and precepts with us. Certainly I know a lot more about Buddhism than I did before.
His stories reminded me of one of my earliest encounters with Buddhism in Japan, in the little town I lived in in Okayama prefecture. I had been trying to find my way to a shrine festival someone had mentioned to me; I only knew that it was being held somewhere in the neighborhood behind my house. I remember I was wearing my grandmother's black velvet winter coat -- I especially remember the texture of it. It was early morning in the Fall, and chill. I can see myself, pulling the coat more tightly around me. My hair was in a braid, because of the wind.
Japanese neighborhoods are not laid out in any logical manner, so naturally I became quite lost. This didn't particularly bother me; thankfully, my hopeless sense of direction is balanced by a robust belief that one can always, somehow, find home. All around the air was still and quiet. The scenery was varying shades of gray, from the sky, to the road, to the walls surrounding the plots of each household. I walked on, not really knowing where I was going, just following the cloud of my breath.
The sound of highly animated talk and laughter from behind one of the tall, concrete walls was not startling so much as comforting, and I crossed over the empty street to discover the entrance to a gigantic graveyard. There was a large, dark, wooden building in the center, and the densely packed stone gravemarkers seemed to flow out from the sides of it, peaking here and there like waves where an occasional pillar stood taller than the rest. I didn't fully understand it at the time, but I had come across a temple complex. The wooden building -- the temple -- looked like a ship floating on a sea of stone. A group of elderly Japanese women was performing ritual grave cleanings; they continued on as if I wasn't there, ladling water from buckets over a grouping of gravemarkers. Their involuntarily stooped backs and chatty voices provided a soft contrast to the hard, somber edges of the stone. One broke away from the group and trundled towards the building, limbs moving at impossible angles, to place a mikan she'd drawn from her apron pocket at the foot of a carved granite Buddha. The seated Buddha's hand was raised in what looked to be a sign of benediction; his eyes were half-closed, serene. The mikan shown like a neon sign, the brightest object in a square city block. Then abruptly the women and their voices were gone, having moved back behind the temple, and I was alone again.
I'm not sure how long I stood there, considering the Buddha and his offering, looking out over the sea of graves, and running one hand over the sleeve of the opposite arm to feel the nap of the velvet. The moment felt very pregnant. My ears stung a bit from the cold.
Then, as if on cue, a gray and white shaggy dog appeared from the far corner of the complex, moving briskly and silently towards the Buddha with purposeful intent. Without breaking stride, he lifted the mikan off the statue's pedestal with a single practiced motion, and continued his journey across the yard and out the entrance to disappear around the wall. It happened so quickly and so efficiently, I almost couldn't believe it; I'll never forget his eyes rolling up at me in a strange mix of pride and guilt as he hurried past. I turned to follow, but there was no sign of him on the street. He'd made a clean escape, mikan safely in tow.
Relating this story later to my friend Kana, she chuckled and said, "That dog was very bad. I do not think he will enjoy his next life." Perhaps not. But at least, I suppose, he appeared to be enjoying this one.