At the Monbou Kaikan

Today I checked out of my ryokan in the Gion district, and moved over to the Monbou Kaikan, a hotel that is right next door to the Nishi Hongwanji, the mother temple for Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. A colleague from the GTU who teaches at the nearby Ryukoku University [a Jodo Shinshu school], helped me check in, and even took me to lunch at a vegan restaurant! As you might imagine, it is not hard finding vegetables in Japan, but many of them are prepared in fish oil, so finding true vegetarian food can be a little harder than it first appears. There aren’t many vegan restaurants, either, so he had really done some work on my behalf: the food was fabulous, including veggie meatballs and brown rice [which I hadn’t seen yet in Japan].

Anyway, I am all settled in, and I feel a little guilty saying it, but I am actually very happy to be in a Western-style room [they have both Western and Japanese style rooms here–this hotel caters specifically to Buddhist groups from all around the world who are coming to visit the temple next door]. I have been on the floor for the past week: sleeping on a futon on the floor, writing/typing on the floor [at a little mini table, just off the ground], reading on the floor, etc. I have managed just fine, but sitting up at a regular chair and table as I type this blog is pretty nice: my knees are much happier!

So, just two quick sites to report on today. Before I left the Gion area, I visited Shoren-in, a Tendai temple with amazing gardens. It has two enormous camphor trees at its entrance, which were also beautiful. I never get tired of these temples: I love their seamless integration with the natural world, simple rooms and open architecture. It just FEELS good, physically, to be in that space.

Then, once I came over to this part of Kyoto [across the river–but close enough to be able to keep running there every morning!], I walked down to Toji temple, which was built in the 8th century and given to Kukai [founder of Shingon Buddhism] a few decades later by the emperor. This made it the first urban center for Shingon Buddhism, and to this day, it houses a wonderful collection of items brought back from China. The two things that are most noteworthy to see are the five-storied pagoda–the highest pagoda in Japan; and the amazing statuary in several of the halls.

The statues themselves were beautiful, of course, but what is even more noteworthy is the way they are designed and laid out: the 21 statues in the lecture hall are meant to embody a physical representation of a perfect buddha realm–a three-dimensional mandala. I would never have known this had not my friend Richard sent me an article describing this process in detail. Again, it is such a humbling reminder of all that I am sure I am missing as I walk through all these different temples. Without guidebooks and brochures, the particular purpose and intention behind various rock gardens, landscape gardens, images, etc. would be completely lost on me–I simply don’t have the “mind’s eye” that allows me to see the deeper meaning behind it all. But, with practice and repetition, I am getting more familiar with certain standard elements of these temples, and I have begun to look for them. I wonder if this experience might help me to see the different churches I attend differently when I get back–I hope so.

One more thing: while I was walking around Toji temple, two young [junior high age] schoolgirls [they are all in uniforms, so you can spot them a mile away–and they are usually in small herds also!] came up to me with what was clearly an English language exercise book in their hands. “Excuse me, may I ask you a question,” one of the girls asked, reading from her book. “Yes, of course,” I said. “Where are you from,” she asked. “The United States,” I said. [Keep in mind there was much giggling going on throughout the conversation]. “OH” she said–“Would you take a picture with us?” “Of course, I would love to,” I said. And they both handed their cameras to someone nearby, and took the picture. It was very cute–I was clearly their English lesson for the day

(I couldn’t resist the picture of the dog–isn’t she adorable? Kyoto seems pretty dog-friendly to me, but of course, all the dogs are small–where would you put a Saint Bernard in a Japan-size apartment? I have seen lots of Chihuahuas and Shiba Inus.) The building that is clearly not a temple is my hotel.

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