...how can anyone be surprised about anything?
I once heard a Buddhist priest say that, but it was on an episode of Dr. Who from the Jon Pertwee era
. Actually, it is still very easy for me to be surprised by new things I come across.
Speaking of Buddhism, today is the 35-day anniversary of my mother-in-law's death, which has special significance. Specifically, it is traditionally believed to be the day in which the departed soul finds its way to Heaven, or whatever fate awaits it. It is observed via yet another funeral ceremony (the fourth so far)
followed by a dinner party. Once again we gathered family and friends together, though not nearly so many as before. I think there were only about forty people in attendance this time...as opposed to over seven hundred for the actual funeral. The atmosphere was also far less grim, especially during the dinner party. We ate at the Yamato-ya restaurant, which is scarcely a stone's throw from my house, and it was actually kind of nice.
It was ironic, too. I've lived in this house for eleven years now, and I had been to Yamato-ya a number of times for meetings plus a funeral for someone in the family that owns and runs the place. However, this was the first time I had ever eaten an actual meal at Yamato-ya. It apparently has a reputation for being one of the better seafood restaurants (and night spots)
in what used to be the town of Aso (now part of Namegata city)
. I'd say it lives up to its name. I was pleasantly surprised. That makes me wonder why my wife was always so reluctant to eat there...
The rite at the temple was followed by the obligatory joss-stick planting at the gravesite. My father-in-law had bought a triple-pack of very cheap (even cheaper than Suisanko!)
joss sticks for the occasion...but managed to forget it. Luckily, I had a BLUE box
joss sticks in my BLUE RAV4
. That saved the day.
Incidentally, I made an interesting discovery about the temple itself. As with joss sticks, I had tended to take the temple rather for granted; it was just the place everyone in our neighborhood went for funerals and to tend their family graves. However, I came to notice a number of things about it. One was its history. (The priest noticed me reading the sign bearing the historical description and immediately gave me a much more understandable, printed copy.)
As a religious institution bearing the name Kōtokuji (皇徳寺), or Kōtoku Temple, it dates clear back to the Kamakura Era in the late 12th century. At that time Lord Namegata, ironically a grandson of the recently-defeated Taira or Heike clan (i.e. therefore technically an enemy of the new Shogun)
, divided his territory among his four sons, who came to be called Lord Aso, Lord Tamatsukuri, Lord Shimazaki, and Lord Odaka. (Gee...where have I heard these names before??!?)
Lord Odaka founded both Odaka Castle and Kōtokuji. At that time Kōtokuji was of the Tendai
sect of Buddhism. Later, during the wonderful carnival of bloodshed that is known as the Muromachi Era (particularly its latter half, which is often called the Sengoku, or Warring States Period)
, the Odaka clan sided with the Shogun and fought on his behalf. That was when Kōtokuji was changed to its current denomination. The Odaka clan, as well as the Aso, Tamatsukuri, and just about every other clan in this area, were finally wiped out by Lord Satake, a powerful retainer of Hideyoshi Toyotomi
. Odaka Castle was taken over, and Kōtokuji was converted into a monastery. Finally, in 1700, during the Edo Era
, Odaka Castle was disbanded and razed, and Kōtokuji was ordered rebuilt in its current location.(This isn't my picture. I can't find my stock pics of the temple and will make a note to take new ones. This image is from a guide to temples in my area.)
This is how Kōtokuji appears today. It doesn't look as old as it is because it is often renovated by the people in the neighborhood. You can see in this apparently recent pic that some of the woodwork on the walls and the deck on the left side have been rebuilt. The inside shows a bit more of its history, though, including a statue of the Bodhisattva Kanon which is a designated cultural treasure.
What surprised me, though, was my discovery (after fifteen years) of the temple's actual denomination. I had always assumed it was either Jodo Shu
or Jodo Shinshu
(what is called "Hongwan" in the U.S.), both Pure Land sects based on Amida Buddha, since the more devout members of my neighborhood seem to believe quite strongly in Amida Buddha. Also, it seems that most temples I've seen elsewhere in this part of Japan, such as in Kashima and Itako, are also either Jodo or Shingon
. In fact, Kōtokuji is a temple of the Soto
sect of Zen
. In fact, I've come to discover that the majority of temples in this area are of the Soto sect. That surprised me until I studied a bit more about Soto and realized that there is a historical reason for this.
Back when Tendai was still the principal school of Buddhism in Japan, it was patronized by the nobility and came to be wealthy and powerful on its own (i.e. rather like Catholicism, especially during the Middle Ages). Zen had trouble gaining a foothold at first, so it aimed for a largely untapped market, i.e. the common peasantry. The Soto sect came to be particularly popular, not only because it had less of the ascetic demands and esoteric "hocus-pocus" of the competing Rinzai
Zen sect, but also because it had the practice of posthumous ordination, i.e. the deceased could be named as monks or priests of the faith. In fact, that's a key part of the Soto funeral ceremony, I'm told. Basically, a lot of these ceremonies I've been attending recently have to do with my mother-in-law being "reborn" as a Zen saint. Soto has never discriminated as to who could receive such an honor, and that really appealed to farmers back in the 12th century. Hence, even today many if not most temples in the rural outback are Soto Zen temples.
All I know is that I've always thought the priest of our local temple to be a very interesting character. Buddhism/Zen is rarely a dogmatic faith, and priests don't usually proselytize (except for some of the Nichiren branches or the related Soka Gakkai denomination)
. They do, however, take advantages of opportunities sometimes. As for our priest, he often sticks a handout under the windshield wiper of cars arriving on regular days for tending graves. The messages on those handouts, however, rarely if ever appear religious. Mostly they're just simple messages for good living delivered with education and wit. I'd hate to think that Zen has been reduced to the status of a mere funeral factory, but hey...if it gets people to come to the temple and maybe get a bit of learning on the side...
Incidentally, speaking of surprising discoveries, I had another one last weekend. It was the Foundation Festival at Ye Olde Academy
, and one of the 9th grade classes staged the musical version of "The Lion King
" as their class project. Having participated in large-scale musical productions in my high school days, I tend to have rather high standards with regard to such things. I had seen other musicals staged by students at Ye Olde Academy
before, and none of them had gotten more than a score of "Meh for Effort" from me. I actually had to be talked into going to see "The Lion King
". I'm really glad I did. I was impressed to the point of mouth hanging open. Yes, there were a lot of points I could criticize (such as the acting ability of a couple of members of the cast)
, but considering this was a non-auditioned class project operating with limited time and budget, I'd call it phenomenal. The stage work was innovative, the dance numbers were well choreographed, the singing was (mostly)
strong and on pitch, the casting was sound, the characterization was reasonable, and the costumes made good use of what little they were able to get. (Yes, you can do a lot with construction paper, twine, cotton balls, and poster paint with a little effort and a lot of love!)
I have to say good job, Grade Nine Room Three. You've set a new standard and probably made history.
Maybe I should add one more discovery. My kids' school's Sports Day was two days ago. I was
forced kicking and screaming
obliged to participate in a couple of competitions. I discovered that I'm terribly out of shape. No surprise there...except that I somehow managed to win both races. Go figure.