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Saturday, Nov. 29, 2008

JAPAN LITE

Festival takes cryptic turn


I was walking home when I saw, up in the distance, four Buddhist priests dressed in purple and gold robes. "Hey, Amy!" they called to me. "We hope you don't mind that we tied our boat up next to yours in front of your house," one said, pointing to their 30-foot (9-meter) motorboat tied to the dock. No problem, I assured them. These priests from the neighboring islands know they are welcome anytime.

The priests turned and proceeded to walk up to the Bussharito, a Thai-style temple where there would be a special ceremony in another hour.

The Bussharito on Shiraishi Island is said to hold some of Buddha's ashes. This temple is so sacred that they only open it once a year for visitors. That day is Nov. 15 of every year, during the Bussharito Festival.

My neighbor Kazu-chan and I made our way up to the festival. As we approached the temple grounds, the first thing you usually pass through is a Shinto torii gate, but as we were headed to a Buddhist ceremony, Kazu-chan steered us around the torii gate. From there we climbed the cobbled walkway up to the Bussharito, a stupa that sits in the side of the mountain.

The matsuri is always a grand affair. It starts with a procession of women women in black kimono with shiny gold obi leading nine Buddhist priests in purple and gold robes up the cobbled walkway. They file up the steps and into the temple and conduct the ceremony inside.

Kazu-chan and I approached the temple and made some offerings. Then she turned to me and said, "Have you seen the boxes?"

"The what?" I said.

"The boxes. Have you been down into the crypt?"

"The crypt?" After 11 years living on this island and having attended the Bussharito ceremony half a dozen times, I had never known there was a crypt in the bottom of the stupa.

We walked around to the back and sure enough, there was a door. After we left our shoes outside, we stepped into the smoky room that was so thick with incense it gave a surreal feel to the place. Candles glowed, small lanterns were lit and I thought: So this is what it is like to pass into the afterlife. A large Buddha presided over the room, the boxes all lined up along the walls like children sitting around the perimeter of a round classroom.

"This is for people who don't have a grave in the cemetery," Kazu-chan explained. We watched as some people went to their respective family boxes, unlocked them and opened them up. Inside was the ihai, which represents the deceased's soul, and where is written the person's Buddhist name they were given upon death. The living took care of these boxes just as they would a grave, with candles and offerings inside.

"Isn't this great?" Kazu-chan said to me. "If you have a box in here, the living only have to visit it once a year," she said, referring to the time-consuming job of maintaining family graves.

True, but you'd always have to make sure you were free on the 15th of November every year. Do you think you could get off work? But she did have a point. It would certainly get you out of O-higan, the designated grave-visiting times during the spring and fall equinoxes. I don't think it would get you out of doing O-bon (summer Festival of the Dead) obligations, however.

"It's nice and protected in here, out of the elements," she went on. I was beginning to think that Kazu-chan was feeling entirely too comfortable in here.

"And," she paused, as if this were the clincher, "It's only ¥500,000 for one box." What a bargain.

Hearing the priests chanting in the room above, we went upstairs and joined the ceremony, sitting seiza style on the floor in back of the robed priests sitting on chairs encircling the Buddha in the middle of the room. The chants sounded different from normal — more like humming. The humming would go in waves and get louder and louder. Every few minutes, when it reached a crest, the priests would toss small lotus petal-shaped cards to the people sitting at their backs. These cards, now duly blessed, were said to bring luck. So each time the cards were tossed back, the old ladies sitting seiza would lunge forward and grab them, and as the cards landed and scattered on the floor, a scramble would ensue. The old ladies were so aggressive, I couldn't get a hold of one no matter how many times they were tossed.

Finally, the last time the priests threw them back, one got caught on the ledge of one of the priest's chairs. The priest picked it up and handed it to me.

When I got home that afternoon, I was admiring my lotus petal-shaped card. Not only is it nice to have something lucky, it's even nicer to know priests.



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