Saturday, 31 March 2012

A Night in a Buddhist Monastery

One of the most interesting aspects of spending time in the sacred mountains of Koya is staying in one of the many Buddhist monasteries in the area. In fact there are actually over 100 monastic lodges, with a great many offering accommodation for visitors to the region. For Jules and I the opportunity of spending a night in this type of environment was certainly going to be an added bonus that we were both looking forward to with great anticipation. Buddhism continues to fascinate the both of us and the opportunity to take a glimpse into the life of the monks would provide us with yet another memorable Japanese experience.

Upon arrival, we were immediately struck by the beauty of the traditional architecture. As with most of the monasteries in the area, it was a classic Japanese design with a welcoming gateway leading to an internal courtyard. Inside, several wooden peaked roofed structures were linked by a series of undercover walkways, while the overall design nicely combined the use of grids and subtle decorative elements that are so typically Japanese. As we entered the building, its scale became increasingly evident; a fact that was further confirmed when we were provided with a room on the third floor. As expected this was simply laid out with traditional tatami mats and futons, but we couldn’t manage to escape the modern world entirely, with a somewhat out of place flat screen TV sitting uncharacteristically in the corner.

As we had been warned, both the evening and breakfast meals are served very early in the monastery (5.30pm and 7.30am). Sitting cross-legged on tiny pillows in an even larger tatami room, Jules and I looked warily at an interesting range of vegetarian offerings that had been proudly served on small trays that held a range of delicate little bowls. To be honest there wasn’t too much there that immediately took our fancy, but in the spirit of the experience we grabbed our chopsticks and began to sample them, even if we weren’t quite sure what we were actually eating.

By far the highlight of our experience in the monastery was having the privilege of attending morning prayers. After being woken by the droning gong of the morning bell at the crack of dawn (6.15am), we braved the chilly air and headed downstairs toward the temple. Removing our slippers we stepped into an ornate room with a large ceremonial alter and in doing so caught sight of two monks kneeling on the floor deep in contemplation. In front of each of them was a thick book, from which they proceeded to read through a long series of syncronised chants. Interspersed with the occasional gong or crash of symbols, the droning chants continued to become quite hypnotic. Eventually, guests were invited to pay their own homage to divine Buddha by adding a small contribution of incense to a burning tray near the alter. The sweet scent now filled the air, further adding to the atmosphere, as the chants continued to resonate throughout the temple. While it was difficult for us to decipher any particular meaning from the ceremony, it was clear that each gesture, sound and smell was very significant to their faith. As we respectfully watched the rituals of the ceremony, we felt that on that cold clear morning, we had been honored to be included in such a time honored tradition.

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