In the Pali Sutra, Buddha tells the gathered monks to imagine the world an ocean containing a blind turtle that rises to the surface once every hundred years. On the surface of the ocean floats a single wooden cattle yoke.
“What chance is there the blind turtle will rise to the surface and pass his head through the wooden yoke?” Buddha asks.
“Not bloody likely,” the monks answer.
“The likelihood is comparable to that of any non-human sentient being’s chances of being reborn as human,” Buddha says. “Only humans understand the dharma, follow its teachings, and find peace. Only humans can achieve enlightenment and be reborn in The Pure Land.”
The secret Kannon of Saikai-ji (like many Kannon, she’s hidden from prying eyes) stands on a turtle’s back. It’s an unusual representation, as there doesn’t seem to be any narrative explaining why she’s there. One educated guess is that this manifestation relates to the Pali Sutra and the blind turtle: Kannon is reminding us of how grateful we should be for our precious human lives.
Her choice of perch may also relate to her role as a protector of sailors. One can imagine her appearing to them riding a turtle.
Many of Ranjini’s New Year’s prayers are for her dad. Only a month ago, she was called to Atlanta to be by his side. His health was failing and her mother and sister feared he might go at any moment, so she booked a flight from Dubai and rushed back to see him. By the time she arrived he had rallied. I flew down to spend a few days with her and her family in Atlanta.
My mother had died only six months before, on June 4th, 2015. I’d gone to Saskatchewan to visit her on Victoria Day weekend and was lucky to spend time with her before the end. Less than two weeks later she fell and fractured her knee. The doctors operated, and when they cut her open they found bone cancer. Then, on the operating table, her heart stopped. The medical team revived her and were surprised when she stabilized long enough for us to gather around her hospital bed. My sisters, my son Adam, and I were there with her when she died.
Ranjini’s father and my mother never met. Though from opposite ends of the earth, they had many similarities, the most obvious being that dementia had left them confused in their final years, the only time that Ranjini knew my mom and I knew her dad. Mom didn’t always know who I was at the end, and Ranjini sometimes wondered if her father knew her.
A more important similarity was the sense of calm watchfulness that I saw in Ranjini’s father and had always associated with Mom. They were both quiet, caring, and supportive parents.
In Hindu mythology a turtle holds up the earth. Ranjini’s father and my mother held up our two worlds.
Another important similarity was that neither feared death. My father, who died of lung cancer almost a decade before, fought the reaper to the very end, but my mother met him calmly, and if you asked Ranjini’s father where he was going, as he set off somewhere, he would often point to the sky and say, “Up there.”
Saikai-ji, once the French Consulate, has more the air of a government building than a place of worship. It functions now as a funeral home. We walk through the imposing gates to find ourselves in a parking lot, beside a small wooden shed. I snap a photo of Ranjini in front of the shed, knowing from Marcus Powles’ book that this is the Kannon-do. We peer through a gap in the frosted glass but can see nothing inside.
Nearby, centuries ago, fifty Christians were executed after refusing to step on the cross.
We enter the temple office, ring the bell, and a woman tries to send us away before we get a chance to show our go-shuin books. The woman offers some pre-stamped pages. Ranjini points to the calligraphy from the previous temples and the woman impatiently asks for our money and tells us to wait outside. We stand in the parking lot and a few minutes later a friendlier woman brings us out our go-shuin with the new stamps and calligraphy. She smiles, bows, and we bow and go on our way.