SYNOPSIS:  About a circus that was no longer Buddhism.  Or was it?  Kobo Dainichi’s birthday.  About parades and drumming bands and a special fire ritual.

The festivities started last night and focused around the main plaza.  There was also some singing in town at various temples before the main event, but the poster I had gotten hold off was all in Japanese and not very intuitive.  And “my monks” don’t speak English.  So I went for the safe spot.

Vendors had set up in the afternoon and there were interesting food specialties, knickknack shops with religious paraphernalia, and other booths selling such items as Nintendo games or comics.  Old and young had gathered in anticipation of the parade.

I did not know what to expect, but the poster showed a broadly grinning comic character clearly representing Kobo Dainichi surrounded by fire.  Really?   We waited for almost an hour.  I sat next to a young couple who had gotten one of the few benches and did people watching.  There were a lot of young men dressed in coordinated outfits —  turns out, they were part of the four different drumming groups that were performing that night.

Finally, the parade rolled in.  I recognized the music.  For the last two days I had heard it on and off and had always wondered — was that Buddhist meditation music or the ice cream truck?  (which of course does not drive around here as it does in the States).  I bet those were practice runs for the various floats that were pulled along.  Three or four events in the life of Dainichi were represented and a couple of scenes that may be related to his life.  That much was clear.  But since I am not familiar enough with his life it was hard to pinpoint them precisely.

All of this was fine and dandy, a circus for the people.  Religion gone to the street.  But I was quite taken aback when the parade stopped at the centre of the square, the music was turned off and a monk over the loudspeaker read presumably an excerpt from a sutra.  Some kids kept playing, some vendors’ music kept going but many of the people now stood in prayer.  That seemed very odd.  I felt this was way too much of a cross over of cartoon fest and temple practice.  Doing one is bad enough, but diminishing the other to that level seemed sacrilege to me.

Then the drumming started.  These bands were obviously not the pros but the local town’s bands.  But they were good!  First the youngsters — grade school. Then the high schoolers.  Then a family band — quite impressive with the five year old at the small drums, the 12 year old girl on the big drum, mom on a small one and dad on the massive standing one.  This was all rhythm-based.   The droning of the drums at full throttle made my throat vibrate.  And when this was all over, the parade moved on through the rest of town.

I don’t know what I had expected, but not quite this.  Perhaps, this was the folksy side of the birthday festivities and tomorrow the serious religious ones would follow?  Indeed at 9 AM at the Buddhist centre and open for visitors a full-scale service was performed but I was too far away to attend.  Also at my temple, the Sekishoin, the prayer hall was lit to full capacity whereas on ordinary days the focus seemed to be mainly on the central deity.  But I went across the street to yet another type of morning service specific to the Ekoin Temple: the fire ritual.

I had heard about it from Glen (see Okunoin entry) who stayed at this temple: every morning at a small substructure of the temple complex a fire ritual is performed.  This temple specializes in praying for the dead.  A price list will tell you what is available.  You can pay for one prayer on one specific day.  You can pay for daily prayers for a week, a month, a year.  And yes — you can pay for prayers eternally!  That made me pause.  It implied the confidence of eternal existence on the part of the provider.  I have encountered a confidence like this only in Egyptian culture where the pharaohs’ tombs were outfitted with mortuary temples and endowed with a priesthood that would provide for the deceased eternally.  You see what happened to them…

Again, I was just completely surprised about the discrepancy of the Buddhism I once studied, the pure and focused, the doctrinal and spiritual which in reality was not anything like it.  Unfortunately, I did not get a hold of the price list.  But a prayer for a day runs something like $3 and a prayer for a year about $500.  The eternal price was not listed — I guess you have to inquire in person, perhaps even negotiate.

If I get this right, it works like this: the monks write the name of the person they are paid to pray for on any given day on a piece of wood.  The next morning two monks enter this temple — the public is welcome to watch.  They recite sutras, ring the dorje, swing the vajra, and light a fire with small kindling.  It is sprinkled with incense and oils to fuel it a bit and to make it smell good.  Then the stack of wood with the names is picked up and the monk reads every one of them, bows, and throws it in the fire.  The recitation of sutras continues until the fire has died down.  Then the people in attendance are invited to waft of the smell by waving their hands over the fire and directing the smell toward them.  And then it’s over.  As much as I  was baffled by the idea of eternity, I liked this ceremony.  Praying for the dead is something quite central to many religions and most comforting for the survivors.  The monks did a great job of it.

Today was the actual birthday of Dainichi, and I eagerly awaited the parade.  It would start right in front of my temple and I got a high spot early on, looking down into the street where the participants gathered.  To my surprise the parade was no more solemn than the one last night.  Instead of five floats, only the most impressive one, that of Dainichi shooting an arrow into the woods, surrounded by fire, was the jewel in the crown finishing the parade.  Several groups of children, pilgrims, and nicely dressed women were walking the streets performing ritualized gestures with their hands and walking in a coordinated set of steps (sideways and backwards as well as forwards) to the same “ice cream” tune which by now I was intimately familiar with to the point, that it will not leave my head!  The handicapped were given a block in the parade and several other organizations, too.

I watched only the start of the parade.  Again it would wind its way to  the central square where today no vendors were holding the spot, but a stage had been set up on which the monks would lead prayers.  For me it was high time to leave.

My next stop is Ise.

See you there.

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  1. HI Elizabeth, in the photos I noticed the children dressed in colorful clothes (blue pants) with interesting caps walking with mourners. I had attended a funeral in Hikone with many children dressed the same. I wonder what their purpose is.
    Yes, Japanese love “cute” things- even cute blow up pilgrims!

    • I wish I knew…!