Dharma

I am not religious, nor particularly spiritual, but today I explored the question of if I wanted or needed something that a religion could provide. I was visiting ancient temples, seeing statues of deities that a thousand years ago were revered with such dedication that huge halls were built in their honour. Religion cannot offer answers; I do not trust it for advice or morality or explanations of creation. On the other hand, is there anything wrong with its use as a method of internal examination or achieving peace with the world? The topic rattled around in my head all day.

In sharp contrast to yesterday's glare and heat, today the rain set in. It drizzled constantly all day, and the cloud cover kept things humid and warm. It was one of those days that wears you out just from the added effort of moving around in the swampy stickiness of the weather. I had bought bread to make toast, and was saddened to discover I am nearing the end of my Vegemite. At least it lasted the distance pretty well.

I headed out to do a self-guided walk past local sights of interest as recommended by the hostel. My first stop was Sanjusangen-do, an 850-year-old temple that contains one thousand and one statues of the Buddhist deity Kannon. There is one large seated statue in the middle of a long, 120m hall. In rows of ten on either side are one thousand mostly identical six foot tall statues. It's an impressive sight but due to the design of the hall it's a bit hard to fully take in the rows of Kannon as there are limited angles in which you can see everything. They are accompanied by twenty-eight other statues of guardian deities. It was a nice enough place, but a bit sparse and once you'd read one guardian's description you'd read them all.

I passed the Kyoto National Museum, sadly closed for a month for construction and/or renovation, and continued up to Kiyomizudera Temple. As I headed up the rise towards my destination, I started to recognise the streets. By the time I reached the temple itself, I was certain I'd been there before. We'd visited Japan for just a day or two on a family trip six years ago, and had caught a bullet train down from Tokyo. We'd made it to the temple but I don't think we went in.

I walked through the grounds and up to a shrine. It had an ancient Buddha that couldn't be illuminated for preservation purposes, so there was a pitch black underground walk you could do. I paid my hundred yen, took off my shoes and descended some dark steps. The man repeatedly said to hold onto the handrail on the left wall and follow it through, and I kind of shrugged it off. As I entered, though, I realised why he emphasised it. It was pitch black. Not just dim, but absolute darkness. No points of light to give a sense of distance or direction - just the wooden handrail and muffled voices. I stumbled, one cautionary step at a time, through the chambers, until I rounded a corner and discovered a large stone sphere illuminated with markings. Apparently you touch it and make a wish. I found the exit and climbed the stairs up into the light. It was pretty awesome.

I didn't feel too inclined to enter the actual temple since I'd just done one, but when I realised I'd have visited twice and not actually gone in - prompting the question of how many times I'd have to come here before actually entering - I relented. Again, it was nice enough. I enjoyed the opportunity to watch another culture's religious practices, from the hand-rinsing in lucky waters to the clap before a prayer. There were some nice views of the city, and pleasant landscape at the back of the property. A couple of buildings were being renovated, so the shriek of buzzsaws would ring out regularly. There was an arcade, if you like, of good luck buildings, with shrines to many different gods and different ways to make a wish come true. Buy a plaque and hang it, close your eyes and walk to a stone, rub the lucky statue. I think I should have some serious karma built up from it all.

The rain had increased by the end of the walk, so I ducked into a cafe for a cream puff (with real vanilla bean filling) and a mocha. After a little bit of disorientation in the backstreets I found my way to what is apparently the prettiest street in all of Kyoto, a fairly innocuous alley with traditional wooden houses. It being now late afternoon, I passed the next stop, Kodai-ji Temple, and hesitated. Was it worth entering so late in the day? I climbed the steps to check it out, and ended up buying a ticket.

It turned out to be the best thing I did all day. I saw the sign to the park walking loop but passed it to see what was behind it. I came across a cemetery full of stone memorials that rose up the hill on steep cliff-face tiers. It was very impressive. I think returned to follow the tour route and rounded a corner onto a stunning outlook. It was picturesque, stereotypical Japan, and it was beautiful. I paused on the verandah of the main hall and sat peacefully in front of the meticulously raked stone garden as the rain trickled down the gutters. The ponds in the surrounding garden, as well as the many other buildings and bamboo forest, offered plenty of intrigue and natural beauty. The best and least expected find of the day.

For dinner, I walked about four and a half kilometres total to visit one of Kyoto's best restaurants and get some ramen. The waitress was friendly, and my seat at the bar (a wide bench space, really, with plenty of legroom - nothing like a Canadian or Australian bar) offered an interrupted view of the kitchen in front of me. Watching the chefs dart around preparing a meal is a joy in itself, and the food and drink (burnt miso ramen, and citrus with shochu and soda respectively) were fantastic. $16 total. Brilliant.

My experience with Kiyomizudera suggested that religion is like a bad RPG. You grind your way through menial tasks to boost your stats - luckiness, prosperity, health, etc. - and then have to spend money to buy favour. Stalls were selling 'examination success' plaques for 500 yen, and various candles, incense sticks and wishing papers. Before praying in front of a statue, you dropped a coin into a basket. The place would be raking it in. There's something strange about paying money for heavenly fortune - even the old Christian collection plate is a little suss. Feels a lot like conning the gullible to me. And yet, I queued up to taste the spring water and touch the statues, out of curiosity, not a scientific expectation that it would be anything but water and bronze.

I had seen how Eastern religions had bled together, with Buddhism, Hinduism and other diverse beliefs all being joined and interconnected. The spring at the base of Kiyomizudera was non-denominational, and said to mean whatever you want it to mean - it will grant your one wish, regardless of who you're ascribing the power to. I had seen the aesthetic appeal of the buildings, the atmosphere, and can admire the physical and mental effort it takes to make one thousand statues or maintain a garden. I get how it could ease the mind. If it helps you sleep at night, or deal with your own mortality, or treat other people nicely, go ahead and pay the 500 yen for the woven fabric good luck necklace. Personally, I don't think I need it. A nice walk through the hillside in the rain is cleansing enough for me. Though I kind of want a rock garden.