Friday, July 1, 2011

Esther did not reveal her birthplace

It happened again. This time in the least likely of all places, on Shoshazan, Mt. Shosha, a mountain where Tendai Buddhist monks receive their training. One would think that such lofty places are shielded from the world, that certain pieces of information would not reach such heights…

It had been a great morning, I had explored mountain paths for more than three hours, looked at stunning views, and sat quietly in a corner of the Maniden, the main structure of the Engyouji for some time. As I was about to exit the hall a monk, one of the few human beings I had seen on the mountain, addressed me with the simple, innocent, question: "Where are you from?"

His was the first voice I heard since entering the mountain’s precincts earlier. Even in the rope-way, on the first ride of the day, there was silence this time. As I was the only passenger the hostess asked me if I cared for a recorded explanation, and probably she was quite relieved by my “no.” So we both stood in front of the glass wall of the cabin, silently looking at the breathtaking view of the trees below us. On top of the mountain we greeted each other good-bye with a silent bow. How lucky! Because of the freezing cold no one else was on the mountain, no pilgrims or tourists. The elderly, bundled up couple inside the ticket booth were the last ones who addressed me: “Gambatte, ne – do your best!” After them the sparse barefoot monks walking hastily on the freezing ground, the handful of workers tending the small patches of green and the forest, didn’t even acknowledged me. Along the path up to the top - no one, just the silent statues of Kannon in his many forms.

Shoshazan. Quieter, more beautiful, more peaceful than my previous visits.

Before the monk in the Maniden, earlier in another building, the Jikidou, I had interacted with a younger monk. A wordless interaction, but with a strongly conveyed message. The Jikidou, formerly a dining hall, stores and displays some of the treasures of the monasteries of the mountain. But to my eyes the real treasure of the Jikidou was this young monk copying with the tip of a thin brush what must have been a text of his esoteric Tendai sect. He was sitting seiza-style next to a display with the usual trinkets for pilgrims (amulets, pocket sutra books, blessed cell-phone straps etc.), and so his assumption that I was looking at those chachkes gave me some time to spy on his gentle, steady hand. Both manuscripts, the source and the copy, looked extremely neat, as if they had been printed. The page he was copying must have discussed how to perform in, mudra, because it had 3 beautifully drawn hands with the fingers in different positions. The vertical lines of text framed the images of the hands, some characters had the standard print-like form, others where more like cursive calligraphy; some words were in red; some kanji had their pronunciation written next to them. My spying lasted for as long as it lasted. When the novice lifted his eyes and saw me staring at his work, took a piece of black cloth from his lap, covered with it the books, stretched his arm out, pointed me to the arrow marking the beginning of the tour route, and kept it firm and stretched until I moved in that direction.

I have to confess I was glad that the monk in the Maniden had addressed me, so I happily answered his simple, innocent, question "Where are you from?" After all, it was a chance to practice some Japanese.

“Italy.” “Sugoi, Excellent!” “Where in Italy?” “Sicily.” “Mafia?” asked he with smiling eyes, pointing his finger at me, in a surprisingly un-Japanese way. Will there ever be a spot on earth where I will not be asked this question? How on earth would any ascetic living on a mountain, allegedly without TV, know about mafia? “Yes.” “What do you do here?” “The mafia sent me to you!” He found it funny, and it was indeed. As for me I was pleased that I had remembered the appropriate verbal form that shows respect and benefit for the listener. After a chuckle he started telling me the history of the monastery, which I didn't understand but kept nodding and uttering very Japanese sounds of approval and marvel. Towards the end of the narration he added a detail he thought would impress the gaijin, i.e. that the movie The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise had been shot there. I knew about it. This piece of trivia is written in every pamphlet that mentions Shoshazan, as if it could add anything to the beauty, the history, the energy of this mountain. I didn’t really care, and I told him instead that this was my third visit to Shoshazan and I had never seen the 如意輪観音坐像. The bewildered expression on the monk’s face at this point betrayed his thoughts: How does the gaijin know about the 如意輪観音坐像? How can he even say 如意輪観音坐像 all in one breath? After a short embarrassed laugh he answered: “The Nyoirinkannonzazou is closed behind that door. None can see it. Not even the abbot. Here’s a picture of it.” Thank you. Really thank you! It’s exactly the same thing. As beautiful as the original! That's why I came up here, to look at this 250 yen picture!

“So, what do you do in Japan?” “I’m a rabbi.” I could see he had no clue of what the word meant. What I really wanted to say was: Man, like, you’re in the religion business and you don’t know about rabbis, but you do know about mafia from Sicily?! Really!? However I realized I wouldn’t know how to structure so long a sentence without sounding really rude (jokes, sarcasm, funny stuff, still don’t work well in my Japanese…), so instead I gave him my usual gloss to the Japanese word rabi, “priest of the Jews.” I guess that must have been too much information because, after an initial deep bow feigning respect and admiration, he said “Sorosoro…four syllables from which I understood it was my time to leave.

By the way, the 如意輪観音坐像 is a 13th century statue of Kannon, a National Treasure kept there.

Written on February 2nd, 2011 returning from a trip to Himeji, and finally edited.

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