9th temple: Jyoshin-ji

After ramen lunch, we wander toward Jysohin-ji. From a block away, we spot Hotei beckoning, a pearl cradled in his left palm. In China he’s called Budai. This particular representation at the gates of Jyoshin-ji has travelled all the way from Taiwan. In the west we’re familiar with him as “Fat Buddha” or “Laughing Buddha”, but he is not Gautama. He is a jolly fat monk with a huge sack slung over his right shoulder, a bit like Santa Claus, but without the reindeer and elves and fixed address: no workshop at the north pole. His cloak is red and his skin stark white, his belt a black sash, like a martial artist or sumo wrestler.

Budai lived in China over a thousand years ago. He left a death note claiming he was an incarnation of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, a millenarian messianic figure who will return to teach the pure dharma to the suffering world. He’s part of a long procession of travelling monks, but at the same time stands outside the mainstream of a tradition extending all the way from Gautama himself, to ascetic monks meditating on mountaintops, to troubadours and other pilgrims (like us), to tramps and hoboes, with their meagre belongings in sacks tied to sticks carried over their shoulders. Today they might push a shopping cart. Hotei is different because of the size of his sack and because of the smile on his face. Most of his brethren are a sorrowing and sorry crew of travellers, like Beckett’s tramps. Somehow, Hotei came to represent luck and abundance. Some say he stores blessings in his sack. Someone told Ranjini that he hauls away our worries.

His smile makes me think of Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp, though he carries more flesh. A Zen koan tells how a monk approached Hotei and asked him the meaning of Zen. Hotei dropped his bag. The monk then asked him how one achieved Zen. Hotei picked up his bag and continued on his way.

We enter the gates of Jyoshin-ji feeling blessed with abundance. Near the gate we meet Kannon holding a baby, another child draped over her shoulder, like Hotei’s sack. We think of our four children in Canada and Dubai.

Jyoshin-ji distinguishes itself from the other temples we visit in Bunkyo-ku (we’ll visit six today) by its size. For a local temple, it is large, though this morning we are almost alone on the huge grounds. Jyoshin-ji is mainly used for funeral services and as we approach the main temple we are surrounded by the dead, their graves stretching away all around. After dropping off our go-shuin books with the monk in the office, we climb the long stairs up to the temple, pausing to take photos at the incense burner wrapped around by a dragon with yellow eyes.

At the top of the stairs we find the main hall closed, but glassed completely so that we can peer in at the altar. This is a Pure Land temple. Amida Buddha is flanked by Seishi Bosatsu and Kannon.

To the left is a life-sized carving of a tiger, and to the right is the largest mukugyo in all Japan. The mukugyo is a fish drum, used in Pure Land Buddhism to keep the rhythm as the devotees chant the name of Amitabha. Simply speaking the name is enough to awaken oneself to our home in the Pure Land, which exists right here all around us in the world we sleepwalk through each day. This mukugyo drum is a metre-and-half high, two metres wide, and weighs over five-hundred kilograms.

We descend the long temple steps, retrieve our signed go-shuin books and, like wandering Hotei, proceed on our pilgrimage.

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