Joseph Anderson

Japan: The Wisdom King and the tripod

We’ve been back from Japan for nearly two months now. Though there have been an abundance of riches, what has really stayed with me has been my encounters with Japanese Buddhism.  Each of the three main streams has impacted me in a different way: I have written about the aesthetic power of Zen (in Grid and Grain), and about the devotional power of Pure Land (in Grace Along a Golden Cord) as well as its strong communal aspect (Belonging and Not Belonging). The third of the major streams of Japanese Buddhism is the oldest, a tradition much like Tibetan Buddhism and commonly referred to in the Japanese context as “esoteric Buddhism”. Shingon and Tendai are the main sects. I wrote a post about an important experience at Shingon temple on Mt. Koya (Into the Chant Vortex); in this post I want to go a bit more directly into my encounters with Shingon in several temples, and especially one particular figure, Fudo Myo-o.

Shingon is a translation of the word “mantra”, and although the practices are highly complex the concept is very simple: certain words (mantras), certain hand positions (mudras), certain configurations of images (mandalas) are manifestations of Buddha nature, pure enlightened reality made visible and available here in our world of conditions. By saying those words, holding your hands in those positions, gazing at those images, you participate in enlightened reality. It’s pure embodied awakeness, more elemental than aesthetics or even devotion – just an endless fountain of Buddha-mind, pouring forth in an endless, unstoppable, and really rather impersonal way. This is cosmic consciousness; it’s not about you.

On one of our first days in Japan I stood before a statue of Fudo Myo-o, one of the esoteric Buddhist “Wisdom Kings” (not a Buddha or a Bodhisattva, but a “guardian of Buddhism” – a fierce-looking figure as you can see to the right), and felt he was saying to me:

This is why you have come:
To encounter the stripping away of your limitations
The surrender of your sense of yourself.

In many ways, travelling in Japan is a shortcut to surrendering your sense of yourself. Can’t speak the language, can’t read anything, don’t know how to behave, perpetually flummoxed by complex social systems that clearly work well for everyone but are otherwise baffling: it’s excellent training in letting go. So there was that, but what I encountered in Fudo was more than that, too.

I saw his statue time and again throughout our trip; I even acquired a small Fudo figure to bring home with me. Each time I was called to reflect again: “…the stripping away of your limitations…”

Time and again he blasted me with his uncompromising fierce promise: “I will help you surrender your sense of yourself…”

I came home and learned the Fudo mantra:

Nomaku sanmanda bazaradan senda makaroshada sowataya un tarata kanman

and began reciting it every day. Ready to surrender. Ready to strip away limitations. Ready to bathe in the impersonality, the cosmic intensity of what Fudo offers.

And then, on my way to Portland to visit my family I pulled off of I-5 at Castle Rock and drove up toward Mt. St. Helens. I stopped where the Toutle River was rushing by, and made my way across a large pile of basalt pieces, remnants of the 1980 explosion or some other cataclysm in the distant past. I sat there and picked up a hunk of basalt and made my prayer to Fudo: “What do you have for me? What does it mean to surrender my sense of myself?”

And I got a response, clear enough, spoken out of volcanic fire, through whatever subterranean passageways connect my home with the fiery world of Japan. It was not impersonal at all, but spoke directly to my situation and the choices I have to make. Fudo said to me: “Your life is a tripod. One leg is your shamanic connection to the spirit of nature. One leg is your root teacher Jesus. One leg is the Buddhadharma. Without all three of these legs you cannot stand. Stop trying to stand on one. Or two. Without all three legs you cannot stand.”

So this is what the pure encounter with the fierceness of Fudo is leading me toward: not a tearing-apart but a weaving-together. The “stripping away of my limitations,” the “surrender of my sense of myself” is not the obliteration of my past. What I am surrendering is my resistance to all that I am.

(I have to put in a caveat: my life is shifting sands and fluidity (hello, moon in Pisces!). That fluidity will continue, I am certain.)

But through that hunk of basalt I got in touch with something solid and stable: the tripod of shamanism and Jesus and Buddhadharma. It’s what esoteric Buddhism promises: a vehicle for the direct encounter with reality. A mantra, a mudra, a mandala. Not fully realized, still emerging, but promising. I’m working with it and will let it become what it needs to become.

And with that, I’m going to stop writing about Japan for a while. I wanted to capture something of the impact of the three Japanese Buddhisms on me (Zen, Pure Land, esoteric), and there let it rest. I went today to a Shinto shrine in Granite Falls. While there the priest, a dear man I like to think of as a friend, offered me a powerful blessing ceremony. It was in some sense a completion of this “Japan” process, though of course it will never be complete. But good for now.