Japan Day 1b w1500Visiting the national treasure sites in Nara, we were all overwhelmed and awed, like everyone else who visits them, by the sheer scale and majesty of the temple buildings, and the statuary they contain. There is something about standing in the presence of these massive, towering works of transcendent art, further enhanced by the meaning they are meant to convey, of such power radiating from compassion, that is impossible to describe. It is a bit like looking at the Grand Canyon, or the Hubble images of the far reaches of the universe, and wondering how could this possibly be.

But the effect of the temples on your mind is compounded by the stunning fact that these architectural and sculptural masterpieces were built by mere mortals, with full awareness and intention as to their effect upon others of the time, and far into the unforeseeable future. At this time, there was no communications technology such as we have today - no movies, TV, radio or other broadcast media - so, if you wanted to make an impression, what did you have at your disposal? The construction materials of the day, the giant cypress trees, stones, and the combinations of grasses and clay to make stucco and ceramics, as well as metal ore mined and forged, and the beginnings of alloys of copper, tin and iron, for example to make bronze. And, not to mention, various combinations of pigments and vehicles to make surface finishes, such as whitewash and paint. And, of course, gold and gold leaf, tons and tons of gold leaf.

But the main dimension you had at your disposal was the sheer size and scale you were willing to undertake. Going from temple to temple on a trek like this is exhausting, physically, but also mentally and emotionally. It also challenges credulity that there would be yet another, and then another, sometimes many in the same neighborhood. One area alone, at the top of a mountain range accessible by cable car, is said to boast 117 temples, each of which occupies an incredible amount of land, and features uncountable buildings, statuary, paintings, and any number of skillfully designed and constructed amenities and necessities to support the ritual devotions of the pilgrims and visitors, and to properly honor the sponsors with monuments.

When you see these, one after another, compressed into a few days time, it distorts the reality. It begins to appear as if today’s shogun or emperor looked at the efforts of his predecessors, dating back to the dawning of Buddhism in Japan, when it arrived from Korea somewhere in the early 600s or so (Google it), and said, essentially: “I’ll see that and raise you this.” The testament I leave to my legacy, and devotion to the propagation of this Buddhist ideal of existence, will exceed your expectations. That bar is already extremely high, but I will raise it even further. And I have the minions and resources to prove it. Seeing it now, in rapid sequence, is draining. At least, in the propagation of Zen to America, we do not have to do that. It has been taken care of.

But if you ask yourself, again, how would we make an impression on the indigenous populations, and the itinerant monks and pilgrims, the answer would be BIG. As you approach, trudging over the hilly terrain, these artifacts, such as the pagodas with the antenna-like towers on top, representing the smaller-scale stupas of India, loom over the trees, and as you crest the hill, seem to rise impossibly higher and higher toward the sky, until, finally standing at the base of the structure you feel appropriately diminished in stature, craning your neck to look up at their towering grandeur. And whoever was responsible for this is appropriately elevated in stature, in reverse.  

And all this was necessarily done without access to the advanced technology available to the construction processes available today, witnessed in current additions to the wonders of the world, such as the recent widening of the Panama canal, already inconceivable in its scope and level of difficulty of engineering. These ancient environments were built and sculpted by hand, aided not by electrical power and machines, but with hand tools and engineering akin to that which built the Pyramids, both in Egypt and South America, and other ancient wonders.

If you have ever designed and built anything yourself, you know how difficult it is to achieve something simple, let alone something so ornate and complex as these works represent. You simply stand before them in abject wonder, as to how they were accomplished. How many artisans and workmen did it require to accomplish the original project? How did the architects, designers and sculptors guide the process, which must have incorporated hundreds if not thousands of highly skilled and coordinated workers to pull it off? And how and where did they find the inspiration to undertake the specific initiative at hand, and to motivate the huge implementation, with its knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns? You may be able to Google this as well, but you will not find the answers. I think the threat of death at the hands of the Emperor or Shogun, which we conjectured, is far too facile and limited an explanation. The level of inspiration and commitment that is still dedicated to these places, if for different reasons, bespeaks the importance of their original provenance, which started with the simple act of one person sitting in meditation. It is the same impulse that drives your meditation today.  

Over the centuries, moreover, the destruction of fires and natural disasters such as earthquakes has been repaired, in one case completely replacing the massive head of one of the largest bronze Buddha statues in the world. How did they remove the old head without damaging the body or setting? And even more, how did they move the new, multi-ton head into position, within the confines of the existing building at the time? Further, how did they manage to move whole statues, the size of a small building, from one hall to another, during renovation or rebuilding, for safekeeping during the purge of Buddhist icons that took place with a shifting political climate? Part of the answer is illustrated by a photo of a huge 1,000-armed Kannon statue (Quan Yin in China; Avalokiteshvara in India) at one of the sites, illustrating the many parts and pieces arrayed around the torso, when it was disassembled for repair. The joints are fashioned in such a was to facilitate this process, and it is reassembled without resorting to fasteners or glue.

But to say this display of devotional virtuosity  boggles the mind, or beggars the imagination, is a gross understatement. It turns out to be quite a challenge just to visit the sites, comprehend the scope of the presentation, and assimilate the details of the content, let alone to imagine how our forebears must have conceived and produced them.

I made the mistake of sitting on one of the sloped stone end-pieces bordering the huge (12” square ±) stone steps that lead up to the entries of most of these giant buildings. The climb is not as high, but it reminds me of the pyramids in Mexico, which I visited many years ago. The slope in this case is 45 degrees, and the stone surface turned out to be very smooth and slick, so much so that when I perched sideways on it to rest my legs, I slid rapidly down the slope to the crushed-stone ground, much like a child on a sliding board, but without the style and grace. I ended up landing on my left shoulder, which is still stiff and sore as of this writing. It may not sound like much of a trauma, but try sitting about 4’ off the ground, and hitting the ground about 1 second later, with a weight approaching 1/8 of a ton. When you wrench your shoulder at my age with that kind of impact, it wrenches everything else, including your neck, lower back, and by extension, the knee on that side, owing to injuries sustained earlier in life, which keep coming back like a bad penny. Not that I am complaining, just reporting for your entertainment and edification. And just in case any were feeling jealous or resentful of my good fortune in traveling, for the second time in my lifetime, to the country of origin of our founding Dharma father. Just in case.

I made a cold compress to wrap it by soaking a hand towel and placing it in the freezer of the small room refrigerator. Of course, the terry cloth stuck to the freezing surface, so I had to turn the refrigerator off, in order to get the towel to release, to having the foresight to place it in the plastic bag first. Such are the vagaries of travel. Stuff happens, mainly if we are paying insufficient attention. But our response can not be nearly as pat as when we confront the same conditions at home. We are forced to improvise on the fly. Tomorrow we begin again.

Similarly, the tale of my new shoes, purchased especially for this pilgrimage, a bit tighter than a comfortable pair of old shoes (which reminds me of the vow that Nyojo Zenji, Master Dogen’s teacher in China, was said to have taken, to leave his bed “like a pair of old shoes” immediately upon awakening each day), and the resulting blister that arose, for now will remain my little secret amongst my cohort, despite the compelling significance of the story.  

I have not yet shared this little drama with my travel mates, as it is not clear how determinative it will be to my role in tomorrow’s activities, visiting yet more national treasures — the body recovers more slowly as we age. They have enough to deal with, just keeping pace with the hectic schedule demanded by our itinerary. Besides, my personal problems are none of their business, forgive me, until and unless they become a problem for them. Which I will do my best to avoid, without slowing them down.

I must admit that there may be a bit of the survival instinct at play here, recognizing that the weakest must often be abandoned to the wolves. We cannot be held back in our pursuit of the Truth, surely hidden somewhere in the innards of these monuments. Stay tuned.