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Saturday, April 29, 2006

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Purification process is painful


I'm pretty sure Shiraishi Island was once inhabited by giants. When you look at all the boulders perched in precarious spots around the island, and piled up in certain formations, you would swear someone was saving them for ammunition.

News photo
An islander tends the sacred fire of cedar sticks while others pass the "juzu" beads.

Other evidence is the 100-year-old string of "juzu" beads up at the temple and still used for ancient Buddhist ceremonies on the island. Where normal juzu beads are small and resemble rosary beads, the wooden juzu beads at our temple are the size of tennis balls. A normal juzu strand has 108 beads, each representing one of the 108 sins of man. The juzu at our temple has three times as many beads. That's a lot of sins. Giant sins.

So it is no wonder we are constantly engaged in festivals to ward off evil and to purify ourselves. Most recently our temple held the Kobo Daishi festival to honor the founder of Shingon Buddhism. Also called Kukai (774-835), Kobo Daishi is the wandering priest who 1,000 years ago visited temples in Shikoku. He found enlightenment at 88 of them, thus creating the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage, which pilgrims still walk today.

Kobo Daishi also visited Kairyuji Temple on our island while on a ship headed for Kyoto to ask the emperor permission to form the new Shingon sect. The temple has a "daishi-do" in his honor and a small pilgrimage that encircles the island and comprises 88 shrines to commemorate his Shikoku route.

For the festival, "yamabushi" ascetic priests shoot arrows into the air while blowing through bullhorns, and a giant juzu, which is believed to have spiritual powers that would purify us from the 108 sins, is passed around a giant "goma" sacred bonfire of cedar sticks that burns our equally giant sins.

But inside, something else was going on. Upon invitation by one of the islanders, I removed my shoes and entered the temple, where old ladies were sitting "seiza" style around the perimeter. I recognized some of them, who moved over to make room for me. We all sat, the giant juzu on the floor in front of our knees, waiting.

Soon, three Buddhist priests clothed in yellow-and-purple silk robes entered and took their places in the seiza position in front of the altar. As one priest started pounding a drum, the ladies picked up the juzu beads and started passing them with much vigor all around our circle while chanting the Hanya Shingyo.

The Hanya Shingyo is one of the most popular sutras and is especially popular for use with "shakyo," or the copying down of Buddhist sutras by hand. Shakyo is said to be good for the mind, and many claim it brings inner peace. If shakyo is a way to reach inner peace, then surely sitting in the seiza position inside a temple and chanting the Hanya Shingyo over and over for 40 minutes while passing giant juzu beads is enough to bring enlightenment. This is achieved by attaining a state of mind that can only come from the lulling of the Hanya Shingyo accompanied by a complete cutting off of blood circulation to the legs. And brain. I suspect most enlightenment is a result of the "seiza effect."

In my now heady state, I watched as the Buddhist priest lit a fire inside the temple and started throwing sticks into it, feeding it and feeding it with more and more sticks until the flames were jumping high above my head and ashes fluttered down. A lit ember settled on the floor in front of me. I was beginning to understand where all these sins were coming from.

A torch was lit from the fire, and passed outside to the yamabushi to light an even bigger fire, where dozens of people had gathered to pass another set of giant juzu beads around the fire to the chants of the Hanya Shingyo being broadcast from inside through a speaker. Meanwhile, the priest inside continued to feed the fire with more sticks. The bigger the fire, the more vigorously the women chanted and passed the juzu.

Unfortunately for me, the evils did not leave my body, but instead had repositioned themselves inside my legs. After what seemed like hours, when the ceremony was finally finished, I stood up and felt the harsh tingling of blood rushing to rescue my moribund limbs.

This is when I finally understood the process of purification. Giant evils were definitely leaving my body.

Amy's One Dollar Bookstore: dollarbooks.tripod.com/


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