Searching for Buddhist priest Kobo Daishi's grave in Japan

2014-09-14 15:00

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At first the train stopped at bustling stations with hordes of Japanese businesspeople, smartphone-wielding teenagers and American tourists pressing up against each other.

Then the crowd thinned and as we neared the end of the line, the stations became older, more contained.

At the end of the line, a tall figure at a lone station in navy military attire stepped from his post to salute the train.

Only a few of us were left, en route to our magical destination, Koyasan (Mount Koya).

To get to Koyasan, we had to trade the train for a red cable car that took us high up into the mountain. As the car creaked up the steel ropes, the cold air began to frost and soft snowflakes came dancing down on our heads. A typical South African, I had packed leggings for the trip.

Koyasan is the holy resting place of Kobo Daishi, a Buddhist priest who is said to still “reside” in his temple. He continues to meditate throughout the centuries, and the novice monks take him food and drink every day.

Sacred spaces

His resting place is inside the sacred cemetery, where you can find modern businesses that have erected shrines to appease the spirits. On our night-time pilgrimage through the cemetery?–?during which I had to borrow tracksuit pants from one of the handsome monks?–?we found a tomb erected at a pesticide company in memory of the white ants it exterminates to usher the ants into the next life.

In the early morning, the young monks rang the gong and before we had our breakfast of tea, broth and vegetables, we stumbled into the main temple, where we sat on our knees and meditated for an hour. As fatigue set in, my eyes and ears were filled with the smoke and the chants, and I could feel the world I used to know drain from my pores as peace settled in.

The rat race

Now that I’m sitting in my office answering emails from irate clients and dragging my heels in the ratrace, I still feel the warmth and cleanliness I felt on top of that mountain. For an hour during the fire ceremony and meditation, I found KoboDaishi.

I saw what he saw. That men are doomed to die, but the souls of everything around us will continue to live in the plants, the air, the earth, the fire. I saw that all life is sacred and precious, but wasted on us as we run from one meeting to the next, always chasing deadlines and money, never satisfied with what we have.

I left a piece of myself on that mountain as I traipsed through snow and sleet, and slurped noodles through my teeth like we were meant to.

I found myself shouting at the call centre woman this morning and felt my cheeks burn with shame.

What’s the point of travelling if you don’t allow it to change you?

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