While in Japan visiting our son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter I have had various adventures going to playground, the zoo, and some of the cultural sites. This morning’s activity was to climb seven hundred ninety two steps up, and I mean up as like building stair cases, with only slight landings at the points where the stairs change directions. The goal was to visit Tachikikannon (a temple dedicated to the standing tree bodhisattva), a Buddhist temple fairly close to Granddaughter’s home. A bodhisattva, as I understand it, is a person who is able to enter nirvana, but chooses to remain behind to assist people in their life journeys – much like an angel.
It was a challenging climb for me – I’m not getting any younger. It was nice that the climb was shaded by trees. Even Granddaughter needed help, with her papa carrying her off and on the entire way. Finally, we were at the top.
The following is a description that is based on my very naive understandings – I don’t know the correct words, nor am I familiar with the exact rituals, or the names and uses of the buildings we encountered. We stopped first at a building, part of which had things for sale. I paid for an entry into my temple book – each temple has a set of stamps, which are overwritten with ink, which includes that date. It is interesting to watch this beautiful art form in practice.
My son purchased in Om-mamori, which is something like an amulet or charm or talisman of protection, for Granddaughter. He was given a piece of paper, and instructions to visit other parts of the complex (more stairs, I refused to count them!). We came upon a bell (at least a meter tall, covered in designs of deer – messengers of the gods) that is struck by pulling a rope attached to a log so that the log strikes the bell. We were given instructions to strike the bell three times. We let Granddaughter do this, helping her listen to the sound of the bell fade away before striking it again.
We walked a bit more, then returned a different way to our starting point, where the woman, wearing what to me looked like my communion kit stole, prayed a blessing over Granddaughter. Granddaughter stood stock still, hands in prayer pose (palms together), listening with care to the stream of words. I heard only her name and the word “Genki” (health, energy) amongst the stream of language. It was a solemn moment. The paper was then taken into another room (dedicated to the Bodhisattva?), Granddaughter waited with uncharacteristic patience, and then the woman returned with the paper. Again Granddaughter was prayed over, hands held together (papa’s and grandma’s, too). Then the paper was carefully rolled, put in an envelop, and handed to Granddaughter. She held it for a while, then gave it to her papa.
Something special had just happened, even though none of us really knew exactly what. I actually don’t think it matters too much because the “language” of ritual is built of gesture and movement and relationship and sound and color and posture – all richly engaged in this ritual. This “language” is read with the heart. It is also about something “bigger” than the three people who climbed 792 stairs. Standing still, hands together, listening to a prayer spoken in words I rarely understood, a handprint on a paper moved with great ceremony from one space to another and then back again, paper that was treated with great care, attention given and focused – these were all elements of a language that I suspect is as ancient as human life. Recognition of the sacred and the desire to engage that sacredness comes in many forms.
My son married a woman who identifies herself as Buddhist. (Granddaughter lives in a land where about 1% of the population is Christian.) I cannot believe that there is only one way to encounter, acknowledge and enter the sacredness that grounds and supports all that is, so I, too, will honor the reality of the Japanese religious traditions in my Granddaughter’s life. I have chosen and embraced a Christian tradition for myself, and in time I will share this with Granddaughter. For now, I am blessed – I receive life from – watching her encounter the sacred through the language of ritual.