From Abbot's Journal Vol 55 July 17, 2006 (Japan)

by Norman Fischer | July 17, 2006 at 7:19 PM

From Abbot's Journal Vol 55 July 17, 2006 Written at Kyoto Municipal Zoo

Elaborate morning service at Eiheiji in the great Hatto (Dharma Hall). The Hall features a large Avalokiteshvara enshrined above, on a high altar accessible by steep stairs. There are two giant urns to either side of the altar, full of huge gold lacquered wooden lotus arrangements, leaves, flowers, and seedpods. All this at one end of the room. Hanging from the Hatto's heavy wooden beamed ceiling are four gold lacquered ornaments, two very long rather narrow (possible twenty feet long by five feet in diameter) cylinders hung with bells and filigree and two other wider but not as long chandeliers, with more elaborate bells, filigree, parasols, banners etc. These are depictions I think of the elaborate scenes you find in Mahayana sutras. The Avalokiteshvara figure is enclosed behind screens that are opened up for the service, but still the image seems distant and mysterious: gold. Later Hyakujin explained that it's Avalokiteshvara enshrined in the Hatto because originally Dogen gave talks up on the high altar in Chinese formal style (though now that I think of it, where would he have sat? Original platform must have been much wider up there to have room for a seat) and it is Avalokiteshvara who compassionately explains Dharma in many ways to suit a variety of temperaments. (Monjushri doesn't explain, all explanations being compassionate action, not wisdom per se). 

The rest of the room's large but not excessively so: the two hundred trainee monks and the thirty or so officials filed in and filled it up — or at least that part of it that holds the participants. We sat on the floor in a section behind a row of large pillars demarcating an "outer" section of the room with another couple, Japanese, who, with us, were the only observers. (Because I'd not brought kesa and koromo I'd asked not to do service with the monks; but even if I had my gear I think it would have made a lot of trouble for them to include me, so precisely choreographed is the ceremony; they'd have been afraid I'd get it wrong).

After all the monks had filed in Hoitsu (Suzuki, abbot of Rinso-In, son and successor of Suzuki Shunryu-roshi) arrived as the officiant, approaching huge incense pot at floor level before the altar, up on a table, so that the attendant had to stand on tiptoe to get the stick in. The service was a special one for the 15th of the month, that included a dharani I didn't know, with serpentine walking. Shin Gyo, Sho Sai Myo Kichijo Dharani, Dai Hi Shin Dharani (twice), Sandokai and Hokkyozammai, and names of the Patriarchs up to Nyojo also included, the whole service lasting well over an hour. At one point we four visitors were instructed to offer incense at a special censor that had been put into place for us. In order to do this in the proper way we were moved about twice by our "assistants," then moved back to our original positions.

Most spectacular part of the service was the passing out of sutra books by acolytes who functioned as precisely and delicately as ballet dancers, taking careful sliding steps with mindful white bessu-clad feet, swiveling suddenly to face each priest, swooping down precisely to offer the sutra books held on red lacquer trays, then raising the tray up dramatically, swiveling on to the next person down the line. They arrived of course simultaneously at the end of each row (there was one acolyte for each side of the hall, the officiant's bowing mat and ceremonial space, centered on the altar, dividing the room in two) and turned precisely in tandem up the next row. What they handed out were — I later learned from Hyakujin — names of danka (temple donors), memorial names that the faithful had paid to be chanted daily, weekly, monthly, or annually. These names were chanted simultaneously by the assembly; that is, many different names were chanted at the same time, so it made a pleasant mumbly cacophony. The service also included a traditional food offering, one of the attendants having to carry each of the offering vessels up the narrow steep stairs of the high altar, where another attendant, stationed behind the huge lanterns (each taller and much wider than a person) lighting the altar to either side, could receive it and put it on the platform where Avalokiteshvara sat. 

After the service there was a brief mondo (question and answer ceremony) with Hoitsu, but we were unable to attend. Usually visitors don't, but Hyakujin thought Hoitsu might want to include us. Later on, when we were taken to see the Godo Roshi in his quarters — Hoitsu brought us there, seemingly spontaneously, after we'd spent some time hanging out with him in his room - it seemed that it was the Godo who'd asked that we not attend and he said much about this to us in Japanese, but Hyakujin simply translated "nothing should be secret," and left it at that. I regret now that I didn't press the point, or at least ask Hyakujin to translate more fully what had been said. The Godo was an informal but pretty powerful fellow, with an air of authority about him. He'd been sitting at his low desk in his white kimono when we entered, and put on his koromo as he spoke to us. He had those typical bushy white Zen eyebrows — do they dye them? Hoitsu seemed to have a collegial relationship with the Godo, his immediate superior, though we all bowed low as we stood at the entryway, where we remained as the entire brief exchange took place.


Norman Fischer