The Bodhinyanarama Monastery is at the far end of a wooded valley in Stokes Valley. There had been heavy rain in the night before we went out there and all the ground and the grass and the trees were still wet; the Hutt River high, and thick with silt from the Rimutakas. The bus edged its way to the end of Rakau Road with all the caution of a bus driver who has found himself at wrong end of a narrow, winding drive with no turning bay before. At the end of this road we found the gates to the monastery and the abbot waiting to meet us in his burnt orange robe.
I had been here once before with a friend in 1991. My friend and I finished school in 1990 and were planning (to the extent that 18 year old boys plan) to get jobs and then go to Europe. Unfortunately 1991 was the year that youth unemployment hit its highest rate since the Great Depression and jobs were hard to come by. Especially if you were a barely articulate 18 year old with no previous work experience. Half way through 1991 I gave up and went to university, and my friend came too. Because it was half way through the year we picked whatever courses were still taking people: Problems of Philosophy, World Music and Eastern Religions in my case.
When I went to be signed into the Eastern Religion course the lecturer, a small Indian man in a grey suit jacket over a jersey, was ensconced in a little book-lined room. The room was very well heated, and there were a clutch of students in there: some sitting on the floor, some on chairs, all – I feel now – female, and gazing fondly at the lecturer when I entered. Coming into that room was a little bit like gatecrashing, but the lecturer was avuncular and reassuring. “You’ll be fine in the course,” he told me. “You have a nice name and glasses”. Even though he was fired a few years later for publishing the same bit of research over and over again in different journals his course is the one I remember most from 1991.
Mostly I remember being told about a little group called the Ajivikists, and the trip to the Buddhist monastery in Stokes Valley. I remember that my friend and I were told to bring food for the daily offering and we did, but it was pate and it slowly dawned on my friend and I as our food was presented that this may not have been the best choice for a group of ascetic monks. We watched them pick up the little plastic tub, sniff it, and then pass it down the line untouched. Hopefully it was the thought that counted. There was chanting, and a lot of uncomfortable sitting, but the whole experience was rather nice in a way that would be impossible to really describe. That was in 1991 when I was 18 and I imagine I never thought I would go there again. Certainly not at the unimaginable age of 41 as a teacher.
The Abbot took us from the bus and up the drive into a gravel area in front of the main temple building. In front of the temple was a bronze statue of the Buddha – one hand raised; the fingers of that hand engaged in counting the four noble truths – and to the left, against a back drop of bush – a bell hanging inside what you could call a fale. The Abbot told us about the statue of the Buddha, and the buildings we could see, and how the journey from the gate and into area by the bell, and on into the courtyard ahead, and then finally into the hall, was meant to symbolize the spiritual journey from the outside world to inner reflection.
When we entered the main hall it was the incense that reminded me most of Japan.
The first time Cathy and I went to Koyasan we stayed the night at one of the monasteries that Cathy’s boss had recommended. Koyasan is about one hour from Osaka by express train. The express train is not very express at the end when it goes very slowly up a long valley that narrows gradually as it enters the mountains. Eventually you find yourself at the final stop where the valley ends and there is a cable car that takes you straight up the side of a precipitous hill. At this point you often find yourself accompanied by retired Japanese couples wearing white and carrying staves. From the top of the cable car to the town is about ten minutes by bus along narrow, winding roads that unwind through forest.
The reason there are so many temples in Koyasan is that Kobo Daishi entered “eternal meditation” here 1200 years ago. As a result there is a large cemetery at the end of the township where thousands of the dead have sought proximity to one of the originators of Japanese Buddhism in the hope of a better chance at nirvana.
When Cathy and I went there for the first time we were really just kids. And hicks.
The greatest difficulty was negotiating the footwear at the temple where we were guests. Shoes off at the entry foyer and then into the corridor. A monk ushered me back down the corridor to get some slippers so that I could walk up the corridor to a room where he hastily indicated that I needed to remove my slippers before stepping on to the tatami. After that everything went smoothly. We took photos in our beautiful tatami room with sliding screens that looked out on to an internal garden, we ate our dinner which was brought to us on little tables and set on the floor, we rose early in the morning to go to the fire ceremony, and then walked through the cemetery at the end of the valley to see the small hut where Kobo Daishi is fed and dressed every day on his journey of eternal meditation.
I think it is because of Koyasan’s relationship with that cemetery that I have until quite recently associated Buddhism with death, and missed its message about life.
The Abbot waited until we were all comfortable on our mats in the main hall. He was sitting at the front facing us with a large statue of the Buddha behind him. The Buddha was surrounded by vases of flowers, and behind his head was a large circular disk of wood carved with flowers and plants from New Zealand.
After a moment he began speaking to us. Because we asked he told us about himself. His wild life as a teenager and young man in Auckland and Tauranga; his looking for something more in almost every possible place, and his eventual discovery of Buddhism. He told us about the pictures on the wall, and the colour of his robes and the four noble truths.
Recently I have been reading The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer. I have been reading it because Russell Brand recommended it. Normally I would never read a book called something like The Untethered Soul, especially not if it had a picture of a horse running along the beach on the cover… which it does. This shows two things: (1) I respect Russell Brand a great deal, and (2) I am still judging books by their covers at the age of 41.
The Abbot, as it happened, spent some time talking about identity. Just as Michael Singer does in his book. The Abbot and Singer ask us to reflect on the question: who are you? Not your name, not your relationship to others, not your life story, not even your body. It was at this point in the chapter I had been reading that I began to pay attention because no one had told me this before. Your body changes with time, your body functions without you, you are in some sense not really your body. There is something else giving you continuity. The same internal self that experiences emotions; that observes the feelings of love, fear, and frustration but is not actually those things.
I am the one who sees, from back in here somewhere. I look out, and I am aware of the events, thoughts, and emotions that pass before me. If you go very deep, that is where you live. You live in the seat of consciousness.
Cathy and I made a habit of taking people to Koyasan when they visited us. When Matt came we took him to stay the night at the same temple we stayed at the first time we went there. It was an eventful night at the temple as it turned out.
After our dinner in our room, after the monks had come to clear away the trays and lay out the futons, we decided to go to bed. There was a portable gas heater on and we thought it was probably best to turn it off before we went to sleep. Cathy stretched out her finger and pushed the button to switch it off and there was a huge, rolling boom all across the valley, and our room – and the whole town – was plunged instantly into inky darkness. It was one of the most extraordinary coincidences: the moment of Cathy touching the button and the moment of the lightning strike that knocked out the town’s electricity supply. Matt and I shouted like startled five year olds before we composed ourselves, and our eyes adjusted, and we all made a fumbling expedition down pitch black corridors towards the flickering lights of the main entrance. The monks at the main entrance suggested we might like to take a hot bath while we waited for the power to come back on. Matt and I spent and awkward half hour together bathing in the nude while attempting not to look at each other. When the power came back on we were both cleaner, and feeling slightly dirtier for the experience.
Very early in the morning we were roused for the fire ceremony. Guests stumbled bleary-eyed into the gravel courtyard and then into a small building where two monks begin to chant. One provided the accompaniment of a simple drum and bell, while the other constructed and ignited a fire that – like the chanting – built to a climax and then faded away into murmurs and ashes. The great difficulty for foreigners witnessing this morning ritual is the kneeling. I remember the increasing restlessness of Matt by my side as the ceremony gathered pace and he tried to rescue his legs from their slow deadening, and his ligaments from their wrenching torture. It is hard to be in the incomprehensible moment while you are wondering if you will every walk again, and how your body managed to get so old.
It was the chanting at the daily food offering that reminded me of the fire ceremony. After our talk in the hall we went out and into another building where the monks received the food that had been given to them by the community. Upstairs in this building the three monks – including the Abbot – sat and gave thanks: a steady low rhythmic chant which must be an aid to meditation.
After we had been for a walk up to the stupa in the hill while the monks ate we returned to the main hall for a final talk from the Abbot. The final talk ended with an opportunity to meditate.
In the hall with perhaps 30 other people it was silent except for the sound of the Abbot’s voice guiding us sometimes, and the sound of the trees outside moving in the wind. I have tried to meditate before without success. My inner voice won’t shut up. It worked better this time because he said two things. Firstly, that you could count your breaths in tens as a way of focusing, and secondly that you weren’t trying to get anything by doing this.
Floatingly, against the knowledge of the trees moving outside, and the consciousness of myself, and the day ahead, and tomorrow, I also drifted for some time out of and into myself. Do you escape or become the consciousness that is yourself?
Out of the silence came the deep, gentle sound of the bell and I emerged from a faraway place back to now.
We put away our mats, and said our thanks. The bus was waiting and so was school.
Thanks for the moments out there.
Thanks for the moments with Cathy out in Koyasan, and the chance to share it with Matt before he went. Thanks for the chance to be 41, and be a dad, and the ongoing opportunity to fumble at finding out who I am.