by Lillian Csernica on November 22, 2015
Higashi Hongaji, the Eastern Temple of the Primal Vow, and its gardens across the street from the temple complex kept Pat and me enthralled during our second day in the magnificent city that is Kyoto. There is also Nishi Hongaji, the Western Temple of the Primal Vow. The two temples have been awarded affectionate nicknames by the local Japanese. For Higashi Hongaji, that is “Ohigashisan,” or Dear Mr. East.
We walked down one of the main streets to reach the temple complex. Both our hotel and the temple were in central Kyoto, but that still meant we walked at least six to eight blocks to get there. (We had not yet considered, much less mastered, the subway options.) Major construction work on one of the buildings made a massive amount of noise. That has to be hard on people who come to the temple to pray and meditate.
Photos really don’t do justice to the main temple. The pillars are so big my arms could reach only halfway around them.
Down in the basement of the temple was a large amphitheater . Pat and I watched an audiovisual presentation on a big screen about the history of the temple and its modern day events. My Japanese is nowhere near good enough for me to follow the commentary, so I now have a lot more questions about the specifics of worship in Shin Buddhism. I did learn a lot. For example, I had no idea Buddhist services include choirs. There were dozens of people chanting “Namu Amida Butsu” (Adoration for Amida Buddha).
The Visitor Center reminded me of the Department of Motor Vehicles here in the U.S. because there were four numbered “windows.” I have no idea what the sign over each window said, but it’s safe to assume each window dealt with a particular purpose one might have for coming to the temple.
It was here that I attempted to do some serious research. For one of my Kyoto-related writing projects, I need to know how a monk would address the Abbot of Kiyomizudera. After a good fifteen minutes of trying to convey this question to a very nice young man named Toshiko who wore one of those black scholar’s robes like the men at Bukko-ji, I was struck by the realization that I was asking the wrong person the wrong question. At Higashi Hongaji, there aren’t any monks. Therefore there is no abbot. My question was meaningless in the context of this particular sect of Buddhism.
Lesson to the gaijin: I watch too many movies. I thought the monks of Zen Buddhism were what all Buddhist monks must be like, and I thought every temple must have monks. Wrong!
Out of gratitude for Toshiko doing his best to help me figure out the answer, which he did, I gave him one of the “souvenirs of California” I brought with me. It was a small pewter turtle with “patience” stamped on its belly. (In Japanese, patience is “nintai.” The poor fellow certainly had a lot of it!) Toshiko asked me to wait a moment, then he dashed off. He came rushing back to give me a bookmark. On it was a photo of Higashi Hongaji, along with a magnifier for easier reading. This is another excellent example of how wonderful the Japanese really are. Gift-giving is a very important part of Japanese culture, with all its own protocols and nuances.
In the gift shop we found lots of incense, an amazing variety of prayer beads, and those colored stoles. I was on the look-out for shrine tokens, the ones for long life, good fortune, etc. Higashi Hongaji has temple charms, but they’re the kind meant to dangle from one’s cell phone. That’s OK. They’re quite pretty and I did buy one.
The gift shop includes an area with padded benches and vending machines. Pat and I took a rest break there. The ladies who worked in the shop were quite helpful, answering questions about the temple and even asking us about our trip.
We left the temple complex via a walkway across the narrow moat. As I crossed the walkway, I looked down to see a koi as long as my hand and forearm put together! That meant it had to be at least a hundred years old. The koi was a solid shade of deep gold. What’s more, three black koi swam with it. My fairy tale-packed imagination promptly thought of them as a prince and his three ninja bodyguards.
I rushed back into the gift shop and bought a bag of cookies. I don’t know what made those cookies special, but there they were. When I came back to the walkway the koi were still there, looking up at us humans with that air of placid expectation. I took out a cookie and broke off a small piece, then tossed it to the golden koi, who promptly ate it. The black koi got their share as well.
I became aware of a Japanese lady standing next to me. She was all excited about the koi, practically bouncing up and down. I know a kindred spirit when I meet one, so I broke off another piece of cookie and offered it to her with a polite, “Dozo.” That made her really happy. I didn’t understand why until she looked down at the golden koi and began to speak. I do not know what she said, but the formal way she called out and then tossed the bit of cookie to the koi made it seem like an important ritual. The black koi backed off and the golden koi ate the cookie. This made the Japanese lady even happier. Something about the koi accepting her offering meant a lot to her. With a big smile, the lady put her hands together in a wai and bowed to me. I gave her a big smile in return. I don’t know exactly what happened there, but I am positive it was something good.
Next up: More adventures on Day Two as we visit the Shosei-en Gardens!