Night is falling when we meet our guide at Ekoin Temple in Kōya-san. Our little group sets off towards Okunoin, Japan’s largest cemetery and one of its most sacred places. The cemetery has over 200,000 tombstones and is famous for being the site of the mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi (Kūkai), who is believed not to be dead but in eternal meditation.
We pause at Ichinohashi bridge (meaning first bridge), as our guide shows us how to put our hands together in prayer and bow in respect to Kōbō Daishi before entering the sacred grounds. Okunoin means ‘temple at the end’ and refers to Kūkai’s mausoleum, which will be the final stop on tonight’s pilgrimage.
As we follow the path into the cemetery we leave street lights of Kōya-san behind and soon the centuries-old cedars are towering above us and the only thing we can hear is the sound of our own footsteps. We had expected a night-time cemetery tour to be eerie, maybe even a little scary, but the sensation we have is one of total tranquility.
The path is beautifully lit with moon-shaped lanterns. One side of each lantern shows a different phase of the moon, while the other side has the shape of a full moon. Our guide explains that the moon is very important in Shingon Esoteric Buddhism. Kōbō Daishi said that the moon is bright, round, clear and pure like our original mind, however the way we see it changes every day, just as our mind changes every day. The side of the lantern with the full moon represents the ‘full moon’ mind of free and clear consciousness of the moment that everyone has by nature, while the other side symbolises the different minds that people have at different times.
Our guide brings our attention to the shape of the tombstones that line the path. The most common shape is known as gorinto, meaning ‘tomb of five symbols’. Each of the five shapes that make up these grave-markers or cenotaphs has a symbolic meaning. Starting from the cube at the bottom the shapes symbolise: earth, water, fire, wind and space (or sky of void nothingness). According to Shingon Buddhism, these five elements, along with consciousness, make up everything in this universe. Practitioners of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism believe that everything in this world has consciousness, not only humans but also animals, bugs and plants. The symbols of the tomb therefore represent the universe and the Shingon belief that when someone dies they return to the universe.
A little further on we pass Asekaki-jizo, the sweating buddha. This buddha is said to constantly sweat, as he takes the pain and suffering from the people. In front of Asekaki-jizo is a small well. Legend has it that any person who cannot see their reflection on the surface of the water inside the well will die within three years. We turn down the opportunity to discover our fate and continue along the dimly lit path.
We soon arrive at a unique headstone that marks the ‘tomb’ of Panasonic. Our guide explains to us that there are over 250 ‘corporate tombs’ in the cemetery, which are intended to honour employees. Another well-known corporate tomb honours all of the termites that a large Japanese pesticide company has killed. He tells us that once a year the boss, relatives and executives of these companies visit Kōyasan to pray for all of their employees.
Two large tombs commemorate Japanese Samurais and their enemies who fought against each other approximately 500 years ago. When the war was over, the leader of the Japanese Samurai clans prayed for those who lost their lives on both sides of the war together at Okunoin. We learn that, throughout Japan, there are many tombs dedicated to friends and foes together.
Many of the tombs at Okunoin contain only the throat bone of the deceased. It is believed that this bone is similar in shape to the form of a meditating Buddha and it is believed to be a holy and important part of the body, as it is the part that controls the voice. It is Japanese tradition to cremate the bodies of the dead and to divide the ashes and bones in two boxes. The bigger box contains most of the bones and ashes and is usually buried in a cemetery close to the family. The smaller box contains only the throat bone and is taken to a holy mountain, cemetery or a temple in a place that is special to the deceased – for many this place is Okunoin. Through this practice the deceased can be close to his or her family and in a sacred place at the same time.
Throughout the cemetery, countless statues of Buddhas sport red aprons and hats. Although the exact origin of this tradition is not known, legend has it that this Buddha, Jizo Bosatsu, protects the soles of the lost children; those who are miscarried, stillborn or die before their parents. It is believed that these children enter a kind of limbo and are forced to build and rebuild towers of stones to atone for the sin of causing such grief. Jizo turned down enlightenment in order to save children from the Sisyphean task by hiding them in his robe sleeves and comforting them. Jizo statues take on countless forms and are usually carved from stone. Many people, particularly those who have lost children, pray to this buddha, leaving little stone towers next to them to help the children in their chore and dressing the statues in typical baby clothes. The clothes are usually red, as this colour symbolises fire and protection.
The path leads towards an open square with a building on the right. This is the cemetery’s kitchen, where breakfast and lunch are prepared for Kōbō Daishi every day. Visitors to the cemetery at 6:30 and 10:30 in the morning can see the monks carrying the meal from the kitchen to the mausoleum.
At the other side of the square is the final bridge of the cemetery, which marks the entrance to the most sacred place on Mount Kōya. Before entering this sacred land, pilgrims, buddhists and other visitors would traditionally wash their bodies in the river. Today this purification ritual is done by gently splashing water on a buddha statue, while imagining washing oneself and one’s buddha nature. With our Buddha natures cleansed, we once again bow our heads and pray to Master Kōbō Daishi before crossing the final bridge. No photographs are allowed past this point and we instinctively lower our voices to a whisper.
We pass the lantern temple, which holds around 20,000 lanterns, each dedicated to a person who has died. Soon we arrive at the gate to the mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi, who entered into eternal meditation in 835, at 62 years of age. For over 1,000 years people from all over the world have made the pilgrimage to this spot to honour and pray to Kōbō Daishi, the most important monk in Japanese history.
The entrance to the mausoleum is decorated with golden lotus flowers. The lotus is very symbolic in Shingon Buddhism, as they are beautiful and strong flowers that grow in dirty and muddy waters. The flowers appear fragile on the surface but in fact the plants are flexible, strong and securely anchored beneath the water. Kōbō Daishi said that the real buddhist teachings are hidden everywhere – in nature, in the full moon and in the lotus. He said that the teaching we learn from the lotus is one of the most important; although we may be in bad environments or situations, we can banish evil thoughts from our minds and be strong and beautiful like the lotus.
We are asked to bow our heads once more in prayer to Kōbō Daishi. The chanting of a sutra fills the air.
- Information provided by guide during cemetery tour