Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Layer 148 The Phoenix Hall, Tokyo, Spiritual Intelligence, Mountains, Warrior Monks, Zen and Bushido.

The Phoenix Hall of the Byodo-in Temple in Uji City, which we visited on Monday, is phenomenal. It’s a magnificent wooden pavilion, built in 1053, with a highly elaborate roof, on top of which are perched two silver phoenix birds. It stands in its own small park, facing a lake that’s surrounded by cherry trees, maples and azelias. To enter the hall you cross an orange-painted bridge and then approach it shoeless through a covered colonnaded walkway, on polished boards.

The hall’s only purpose is to house a very large and beautifully carved figure of a seated Buddha. With the doors open, the statue is visible from across the small lake. When it was still covered in its original gold leaf it must have looked stunning. To stand close to it within the confines of the hall is amazing.

On the inner walls of the pavilion are painted what are now faded murals. There are also fifty or so carved figures mounted high around the inner walls. These beautiful figures are airborne on small clouds, most of them playing musical instruments - stringed, wind and percussion.

The figures seem like some kind of reminder of the importance of music and its connection with the spiritual and the enlightened. With exquisite sound and melody, and with graceful rhythm and a steady pulse, we give musical expression to intense feelings of joy and spiritual bliss. Our master musicians do this on behalf of the rest of us, who can only listen, and enjoy.

In such a place it’s easy to imagine the morning and evening meditations of the monks and their novices, as they sit facing the beauty of the lake and the garden, with the magnificence of the Buddha immediately behind them.


In our frantic world, how often do we have time for morning meditation? Or even find time to listen to music properly - to really listen to it and to lose ourselves in beautiful uplifting sound? How often do we experience awe and wonder?

To lose one’s ‘self’ in meditation is clearly essential to living well, but our lives are for the most part lived in such a way that we fail to connect with our essence, except on very rare occasions.

To gather our thoughts, to recollect, to re-live, to reflect - these things seem so easy to do, and yet so hard to achieve. And we rarely take time to give silent thanks for the beauty and love we experience in our lives. We take so much for granted, and then feel resentful when life is less than perfect.

How many wonderful experiences do we forget because we can’t afford the time to consolidate our memories? And to what degree do the riches of our best moments then disappear by the wayside - lost in the recesses of memory, and never to be recalled?

To allow stillness and silence to enter our souls, to let troubling thoughts and preoccupations fade and disappear. To listen to our inner voices and to allow their intuitions to speak, if only we have ears to listen.

To sit in silent places of great natural beauty is so beneficial to our souls. To consider beautiful trees and shrubs, to contemplate flowers and blossoms, and to listen to the songs of birds and the sound of the wind in the leaves. How fortunate we are if we can create or discover, and enjoy, such places.


On a hillside just above the Phoenix Hall, amongst pine trees and maples, stands a small, unobtrusive, minimalist masterpiece of architecture - a modern museum. Within it are more of the flying figures that have been taken from the Buddha hall, and reproductions of the murals within the Buddha hall. The mural reproductions show how beautiful they looked originally before the passing centuries caused them to fade.

The interior spaces of the museum are wonderful - some of them dimly lit, some containing glass display cases. There’s a replica of the massive prayer bell that hangs in an orange framework outside. There are beautiful calligraphic manuscripts and carvings. The museum shop has lots of tasteful gifts and memorabilia, including superb books of photographs. There’s an all-glass wall with an exit to a stone, gravel and moss garden with benches and meditation platforms, where people sit and rest before moving back into the outside world..


It’s now three weeks and I’ve still not seen a single police car driving hell for leather with sirens blaring and lights flashing to some incident or robbery. And that’s in spite of having spent a fair amount of time in the main cities - Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. In fact I’ve only seen three police cars on the motorways and the city streets.


I’ve reached the conclusion that in true Zen style it might be easier to describe what spiritual intelligence and enlightenment are NOT, rather than describe what they ARE.

They’re the absence of malice, spite, viciousness, violence, anger and hatred. The absence of racism, sexism, snobbery, elitism and other forms of prejudice and self-aggrandisement.

It’s the absence of greed, envy, jealousy, pettiness and unpleasantness. It’s the absence of exploitation, abuse and other forms of immoral behaviour.

Some of these things can be attributed to a lack of social and emotional intelligences, but through the grace of spiritual intelligence we see the need to work on our current levels of these other intelligences in order to raise them higher.

Through spiritual intelligence we aspire to make ourselves and our world a better place. We aspire to raise levels of wellbeing and enlightenment in ourselves, and crucially to assist in raising them for others, since in order to live well ourselves we need others to also live well.

As the story says, it was impossible for Siddartha to find contentment and happiness when he was aware of the sufferings of others. Through doing what we can to assist others to overcome ignorance, want and suffering we enjoy happiness and wellbeing ourselves as a kind of by-product.


In the afternoon yesterday we drove up to Enryaku-ji Temple - high on Mount Hiei, looking down on Kyoto on one side of the mountain and the enormous Lake Biwa on the other.

DK’s Eyewitness guide says this about it:

“A once mighty monastery fortress with 3,000 sub-temples and thousands of sohei, or warrior monks . . . the solemnity of the isolated mountain-top setting and the grandeur of its remaining buildings make the trek up the mountain worthwhile.

Founded by the monk Saicho in 792 it became the main temple of the Tendai sect. Although initially entrusted to protect the city from evil forces, the temple itself became the bane of the then capital, Kyoto. Emporer Go-Shirakawa (1127-92) once lamented that there were only three things beyond his control: the flooding of the Kamo River, the roll of the dice, and the warrior monks of Enryaku-ji.”

I like the idea of warrior monks who are prepared to do their own thing, live in their own way, and not take any crap from puffed-up so-called emperors and rulers.

The main building is massive, and the nearest thing to some sort of ‘gothic’ temple I’ve yet seen - a very dark interior with huge black columns holding up the high roof. Candles and ancient oil lamps provide a little light, and seated figures of Buddha are dimly seen in the recesses where visitors are not allowed to enter.

There was a very hospitable senior monk who explained to us some of the temple’s history, and spoke about the functions of the various parts of the building.

The courtyard had in it two ancient cherry trees that were still in full blossom, despite the cherry blossoms having faded long ago down in the warm valleys and the coastal strip. It seems the cold up in these mountains can be intense in the winter, and the snow very deep. There was a plaque outside commemorating the gathering of world religious leaders that took place at the temple some ten years ago. I’d love to know what those of other faiths made of it all.


In Tokyo Professor M gave me two books - a classic text by D.T. Suzuki - ‘Manual of Zen Buddhism’ - and another well-known book called ‘Bushido - The Soul of Japan’ by Inazo Nitobe.

Prof M told me that Suzuki was educated at the famous Zen monastery at Kamakura, which is on the coast in the little-visited northern region of Honshu, Japan’s main island. He reckons that on my next trip to Japan I should make a point of visiting it, and also the island of Sado, also in the northern region, which is where the Kodo drummers are based.

I’ve seen the Kodo drummers a couple of times in London, and used to have a CD of their drumming and playing, till someone ‘borrowed’ it and didn’t give it back.

Many years ago I bought and read a Japanese classic by Basho, ‘The Road to the North’, which way back then instilled in me an ambition to retrace his walk in the remote parts of the northern district.

And then there’s the large island of Hokkaido, the island of ‘fire and ice’ - the most northerly, and the coldest and the most volcanic part of Japan. That’s definitely one for a summer visit.


Tokyo was very enjoyable. The organised tour took me and Rio, Prof M’s doctoral student who was invited to be my guide for the day, to the Tokyo Tower, the gardens of the Imperial Palace, and the Asakusa Temple.

I’d been to Asakusa in 2001, but you can’t have too much of a good thing. The Tokyo Tower is built in the style of the Eiffel Tower, which it prides itself on being higher than, by about 20 feet. The palace gardens are an enormous area right in the centre of the city, but somehow just a great big open space, mainly grass and small pine trees. It’s not really possible to see the palace, which is open to the public just twice a year. Apparently the Emperor and his wife come out on to a balcony and wave to the crowds at regular intervals on visiting days. It’s a hard life, but someone has to do it.

The view of the city from the tower is - well, panoramic. But not too exciting. Lots of modern architecture, but none of it particularly stunning. Thanks to the day being a bit hazy, and to the bullet trains both to Tokyo and back to Osaka running in the dark, I’ve STILL not seen Mount Fuji. But sooner or later I will spend time around Fuji, and I’m determined to climb it. Kilimanjaro’s the other mountain I still want to walk up.

Come to think of it, the last substantial mountain I walked up was Mont Doree in the Massif Central - the highest mountain in France, aside from the Alps and the Pyrenees. That’s definitely one to do as well.


I’m still having problems getting my head around the idea that in Japan it’s impossible to include Zen, Bushido, Buddhism, or learning about any religion in the curriculum. These key philosophies have been crucial to the formulation of the spiritual intelligence of Japan, and yet there’s no real sense of pride in or ownership of any of them, nor even any awareness.

Liberal Japanese people just shrug their shoulders, and tell me that the conservative government won’t allow such knowledge of their cultural heritage to be examined in schools. Japan has been governed by conservative governments since the War, and it looks likely to remain that way.

The sub-title of the Bushido book is ‘An Exposition of Japanese Thought’, and it’s dedicated to Tokitoshi Ota, “Who taught me to revere the past and to admire the deeds of the Samurai”.

The introduction says, “He who would understand twentieth-century Japan must know something of its roots in the soil of the past. Even if now as invisible to the present generation in Japan as to the alien; the philosophic student reads the results of today in the stored energies of ages gone.

All the spiritual senses are keen in those nursed by Bushido.

This little book on Bushido is more than a weighty message to the Anglo-Saxon nations. It is a notable contribution to the solution to this century’s grandest problem - the reconciliation and unity of the East and the West. There were of old many civilisations: in the better world coming there will be one.

As the efficient middle term between the wisdom and communism of Asia and the energy and individualism of Europe and America, Japan is working with restless power.”

That was written by one William Elliot Griffis in 1905.

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