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Saturday, Nov. 20, 2004


Shiraishi, island of mists and trances

Shiraishi is an island of trances, a place where one is lured into long contemplative pauses. I can sit on top of the mountain and look out over the sea for hours, awed by the beauty of the Inland Sea. Like getting lost in your favorite song, or an entire CD, these are the moments when our mind is so completely open that we are at peace with ourselves and at peace with the world.

Any short walk into the mountains here will give one numerous geological wonders to ponder -- rock formations and boulders in the most precarious teetering positions, launching the mind into considering the geological origins of the island and the answer to that nagging question: why hasn't that one dropped yet? Yet other times I get captured unaware, such as this morning when, lured by the chanting of priests, I followed the path up to the temple, the Bussharito.

Bussharito is a Thai-style temple built in 1970 in the fold of the mountains where early morning fog likes to gather. The building itself is a white dome with a golden spike on top. Inside, among Thai paintings and luxurious gold accouterments is said to lie some of the sacred ashes of Buddha. At this time of year, the building is open for people to go inside in a yearly ceremony called the Bussharito Matsuri, and this occasion was cause for the Buddhist chanting today.

It was still early morning and just before the festival would begin. As I neared the temple, the chanting became gradually louder. From the bottom of the steps, I could see that the building was open inside, and when I climbed up the steps -- there I saw it: a cassette tape player! The chanting was being broadcast over a PA system. Ah, modern Japan, I lamented. Lazy priests! But wait. No.

As I continued to walk around the temple grounds, something happened. Drawn in by the endless chanting, I was soon applying this sound to the sights around me. I could wander far away to the other side of the temple grounds, and speakers would carry the chants of the "o-kyo."

Like watching a movie, it was a chance to apply music to everyday activities. The sight of a 90-year-old "o-baa-chan" in kimono making the long climb up to the temple one step at a time in her "tabi" socks and "geta" becomes the most precious moment when accompanied by o-kyo. I saw the pulses of island life -- women serving "amazake," men preparing the grounds for the ceremony, people beginning to gather -- all to the rhythms of o-kyo. And did you know that a forest looks completely different when accompanied by the sound of chanting priests?

At this moment, events were happening all over the world, while here, priests were chanting. Somewhere, someone was having a moment of joy while another was having a moment of tragedy, while here priests were chanting.

A slow procession started ascending the hill toward the Bussharito. In front were Buddhist priests in colorful robes and women with bells walking behind them. The procession passed seamlessly by me in one motion, drawn inside the Bussharito in one flowing motion. The chanting never stopped. When I looked up, what I saw in the distance took my breath away. It was the Inland Sea, more splendid than I had ever seen it before.

People often ask me why I chose to live on this small island so removed from modern Japan, and my only answer is: Why would I want to live anywhere else?

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