Joseph Anderson

Japan: Into the Chant Vortex


We had taken taxi, train, subway, train, cable car, and bus to get to Mt. Koya, south of Kyoto in the Wakayama peninsula. The crisp warm mountain air felt like Lake Tahoe, and the tall cedars looked familiar too – to that point it might have been a ski resort – but then we found ourselves among tall wooden pagodas, mysterious hidden-away statues of peacock and fire deities (their gold gleaming in the darkness, visible only through tiny peepholes in their shrines), massive Buddhas and bodhisattvas arrayed in a three-dimensional mandala, with monks, incense, bells, and chanting everywhere. 

The form of Buddhism brought to Mt. Koya in the 8th century came from China, and not long before that from India. There is a palpable sense of lineage here, the awareness of a 1200-year-long chain in this place, connected to China and from there to Buddhism’s birthplace in India.

That lineage hit me most strongly during the morning chanting service at the temple where we are staying, Shojoshin-in. There is no choice on Koya-san but to stay at a temple: no other lodgings are available. So that’s what we did: we arrived by the mandatory 5pm checkin time, had our vegetarian dinner at 5:30pm, and called it an early night to be ready for the mandatory chanting service at 6am.

During the night we heard monkeys scampering over the roof of our ryokan room, and shared our futons with a number of large and brazen but ultimately harmless ants.

The bell rang at 5:30am; we rose and made our way with a dozen or so other sleepy Westerners to a meditation hall provided with chairs for us. We could hear various clangings and liturgical goings-on emanating from other parts of the temple; the hall we were in seemed designed for a handful of monks to provide chanting for the visitors.

I have had some previous exposure to the style of chant they used: it’s called shomyo, and is wonderfully melodic but also very strange in a characteristically Japanese way – its not-too-distant cousin is the music of Noh theater, and there are some resonances with Gregorian chant as well. (Here’s a good example.) So hearing this, in person at a Buddhist temple that has been in this place for twelve centuries, was certainly an unforgettable thrill.

And then something kind of unexpected happened. Without skipping a beat the monks shifted their chant into something that to my ears sounded incomparably older still, what I have learned as Vedic chant, a style – thousands of years old – that predates Buddhism, predates Hinduism as we know it, and might even predate spoken language itself. My spirit was drawn by this new and more rhythmic chanting through a sort of vortex into a very ancient place of common ancestry and spiritual wisdom. Down, down, down through the roots of the tree to where consciousness itself began. It was as though the earth itself was chanting, and I and my fellow monastery-visitors, the monks, the monkeys sleeping off their night of fun up in the trees, and the trees too, were being chanted into being by this deep inexorable ancient vibration. For a few moments there I thought I was going to just float away permanently.

The service ended at last, everyone filed out, and after a very nice vegetarian breakfast we spent the rest of the day walking through Japan’s largest (and probably most amazing) cemetery, the entrance of which is right next to the temple.  Then we visited some of the most wondrous religious-goods stores I’ve ever encountered, and made the long and complicated trek back to Kyoto.

What has stayed with me was that precious experience, during the chanting, of being powerfully, unconditionally embraced by the cosmos. And what makes it still more present, even now a month after returning from Japan, is that I was profoundly moved in similar ways many times during our trip; it was not limited to Koya-san alone. I wrote about one very different but related experience here, and there were several others of comparable depth (though each one unique) that I hope to share with you further in the course of time. As I continue to seek to understand the significance of all this for my ordinary life here in Seattle, I have come to two provisional conclusions:

The first provisional conclusion is that these moments of transcendence in Japan are signaling an important shift for me–and they also feel like triggers of that shift. The way I understand this today is that my longstanding relationship with Buddha dharma, going back some twenty years, is being reawakened to some purpose within me. It’s time, really time, for me to bring the wisdom of this tradition back into my life after a few years away. There are many good reasons for the hiatus, and many good reasons for a reawakening to happen right now. With all the usual caveats and provisions, and a recognition that such journeys don’t ever seem to unfold in a straight line, just thinking about it is making me very happy.

The second provisional conclusion is that it’s really important for me to ground this experience in the texture of my everyday life. Chogyam Trungpa wrote a marvelous and important book called Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, and that notion of “spiritual materialism” feels like a wise phrase for me to hold on to during this time.  On Koya-san I definitely felt – and weeks later am still feeling – the aura of glamour that so often surrounds peak spiritual experiences, especially in incredible and amazing pilgrimage situations, especially (for me anyway) when powerful music is involved. The point is to stay awake, stay aware (just as I advised myself before going), and keep doing the hard and important work of ordinary life, even as those experiences at Koya-san (and Nishi Hongan-ji and Honen-in and Toji and Sanjusangen-do and…) continue to do their work within me.

At the moment much of my ordinary life is wonderful: I have a rich array of shamanic practices that nurture and sustain me every day; I lead a new Soul Cartography class starting on Tuesday; Orchard Oculus will be shared with my community at Carkeek Park on July 23; in my day job I have a new role that is taking a ton of energy and attention, and rewarding me with energy in return. These (along with the inevitable difficulties) are the daily responsibilities that keep me grounded and attentive, even as that deep, deep, ancient well of chant and practice continues to feed me, more powerfully than ever, through its underground springs, all the way from Japan and beyond.