You Buddha Believe it

Posted by on Nov 2, 2011 in Travel Volunteer Journey, Wakayama | 2 Comments
You Buddha Believe it

You wait a month for a UNESCO World Heritage site, and then three come along at once, or in the space of a week, at least.
Today we were in Koya-san, a holy site for Buddhists of the Shingon sect. A place of worship for over 1200 years, it was founded by the enigmatic Kukai, a religious scholar who, unsatisfied with the level of Buddhist study available to him in his native Japan, took a government-sponsored expedition to China. He spent two years meditating and praying hard, at which point – and here history and legend seem to intermingle, as they so often do in religious tales – he threw a vajra (a small religious artefact) all the way back to Japan, vowing to build his own version of Shangri-la wherever it landed. To use the American vernacular: the kid had a good arm.

Conveniently, it landed on Mount Koya, where plenty of real estate was available. Not only that, but the Emperor temporarily released Kukai from his state duties to build the religious retreat. Kukai oversaw its founding and growth, but didn’t quite get to see its completion. At the age of 61, legend says he went into a state of “permanent meditation” which in some societies is also known as “death”. Perhaps the confusion arose from his breaking of convention by requesting not to be cremated, but to be interred at a mausoleum in the grounds of his sacred city.

Today, Mount Koya a kind of Mecca for Shingonites, who make long pilgramages to worship here. Unlike the Shintoists at Ise, they’re well catered for. There are said to be 1200 religious structures located at Koya-san, ranging from small pagodas to palatial temples. Unsurprisingly, the most ornate is the one that lies just in front of Kukai’s resting place/meditation area.
There are reds and burgundys in the main temple beautiful enough to make you weep, but unfortunately they’re off limits for photographers. That’s understandable: who wants their moment of tranquillity spoiled by popping flashes and clicking shutters? Still, it seems a pity that we can’t capture the rich beauty, or the candles and wafting incense because of the rules. Maybe that’s just as well though: the monk who was running a holy Hoover over one of the rugs inside would only have ruined our shots (what he was doing to some of the worshippers’ concentration I can only guess).
The buzzing motor seemed hideously out of place because the rest is all so genuinely peaceful. A lot of irreligious people say that of all organised faiths, they admire Buddhists the most, giving them a metaphorical pat on the head and stopping well short of genuinely agreeing with the more fanciful beliefs. And while history tells us it’s not always been about peace, patience and love, there is, in general, a serenity found in places of Buddhist worship that you rarely find in Christianity, and even more scarcely in Islam.

Anyway, the entire area around here is extremely calming, most likely the result of it being a colossal graveyard. Kukai is perhaps the only person actually buried here, but there are countless headstones marking the lives of others. Most of them are a pretty exclusive bunch: in terms of deceased Japanese people, this is the Beverly Hills or Mulholland Drive of the afterlife.
It’s not just people who are remembered here, though: there are shrines to all kinds of dead things, including an unlikely one to dead termites, erected by a pest-control company. Other firms have set up large memorials, logos and all, to their past employees. At times the whole thing feels like a macabre corporate-bonding exercise.

Better than the shiny, new stones, though are the aging monoliths that the forest has started to claim for its own. To us it doesn’t matter what the legends say, or how much money a person had while alive: watching the slow march of nature is strangely beautiful.











  1. Jennifer Lim
    November 3, 2011

    very very appetizing title. lol made my day.

  2. woody
    November 12, 2011

    Is that a shinrei shashin? Seems something ghostly in front of the steps. I have been to Koya 3 times. Love to take pics there. What camera are you using?