And so we arrive on New Year’s Eve in Ryusen-ji, home of the black-eyed fire-god.
Our friendly guide leads us through the grand Nio gates, the monstrous horned guardians scowling down at us as we pass. I remember them from yesterday at Senso-ji, but at night, brilliantly illuminated, they are much more menacing.
Once inside, we are met by Fudo Myo-o, every bit as frightening as the Nio twins. Like us, he has come a long way: his origins are in India, as the Hindu god Acala. He perches to our left on a large stone. He has two fangs, one pointing upwards and the other down, and clutches a sword in his right hand, and a lariat in his left. Nearby two small waterfalls flow from a natural spring presided over by another image of the fire-god. Here initiates sometimes perform a purification ritual associated with the god by standing under the torrent of cold water.
We’ve arrived early and our guide and the few others at the temple are just setting up, readying for the celebrants, who will come closer to midnight. No one, though, seems to mind our presence. I snap a photo of Ranjini in front of a tall Kannon statue.
We climb the stairs alone to the upper temple and circle around behind to discover Dainichi Nyorai, the Cosmic Buddha, haloed in gold. Ranjini sits while I take more photos. We have no idea that the wrathful fire-god, Fudo Myo-o, is an emanation of this peaceful figure. Once frightened by the fire-god into believing, you are beckoned by Dainichi Nyorai toward the Pure Land.
People have begun to arrive. At 11:30 a procession forms, led by two men walking abreast in purple robes (are they monks?), followed by eight monks in multi-coloured robes walking single file. We follow the crowd toward the temple bell-tower, where we stand and watch and listen to the 108 gongs of the bell. I’ve heard it explained that there are 108 human sins and as we begin again in the New Year we are made mindful of them by this ritual. People snap photos on their phones. The final gong comes a moment after midnight.
It is 2016.
We kiss and join the line and follow the crowd up the steps toward the temple, which houses Ennin’s original sculpture of Fudo Myo-o, now 1200 years old. We pass the dragon incense burner and Ranj directs the smoke over us; throw coins in the offering box, clap our hands twice, and bow. Exhausted, we make our way back down the steps, past the fire-god and through the Nio gates, by the sleeping lovers, who we still do not notice, and plod wearily back to the station to catch our train to the Hotel.
Lee and I make our way up the steps of the main temple. Time on our hands, not exactly sure what we’re waiting for, we begin to circle the temple, turn the corner, and see an immense Buddha sitting in absolute stillness. He is Dainichi Nyorai, especially important in Esoteric Buddhism: Vairocana Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism.
This New Year’s eve, I pray especially for my father. Last summer, Lee and I had visited my parents in Atlanta. Sitting out on my sister’s screened porch, my father would say, all-smiles and cheer, “See! See, God!” and point to the trees, or, “Listen, God,” and bow his head before birdsong and cicadas.
“I’m ready to go.”
His deep-set eyes still bright, “Up there.”
Some weeks before Japan, I had flown again from Dubai to Atlanta and on the day that I was returning to Dubai, we had admitted my father to the retirement home. I pray to the Christ whom my father loves with all his heart to release him from the limitations of his body. I pray now that my mother will know when to bring him home so that he can leave this world from the bed that they have shared for decades. I pray that he can transition from this world to the next with her by his side, from their home.
George and Sarah enjoyed a simple love and like the fabulous hikyoduri, they had flown together for almost 56 years.
Lee and I line up, throw coins, clap hands, and enter the temple where the goma fires burns away wooden plaques with last year’s wishes and prayers. I linger before the deities, smoke, and chanting.