Chapter 4 – Koya-san
“Altair, come on,” said Ma
- “Is everything packed?”
His mother always got nervous when Altair went away anywhere and this, being his first overseas trip, made her more nervous than normal.
Altair’s possessions were minimal. He had a credo which was to go from place to place with as little as possible. The last place he gave away everything he had except his guitar. So all he had to do was pick up his pack and he was ready.
The first thing he was going to do when he landed in Japan was visit the Zen temple in Shikoku he had written to asking if he could be accepted for zazen training.
It took a long time to find it. The temple was nestled in the heart of a rural area, hidden from prying eyes by an ancient forest. The Master lived in the temple itself and sent a junior monk ahead to meet Altair at the train station.
The young monk served green tea while they were waiting and then knelt in seiza style. Presently the Master arrived, a squat, powerfully built man who looked at them both intensely and then knelt in seiza style for a long time opposite Altair before speaking.
The junior monk translated as the Master spoke.
“Stay as long as you like. Follow the rules.”
He then stood, bowed and left.
Altair was taken aback.
He had been expecting a little more since he no idea exactly what “the rules” were.
The young monk, whose name was Atsushi, explained.
“Whenever you sit, sit intently. Keep your mind here now. That is Zen.”
Altair nodded. He had studied Zen at university.
“You start tomorrow. 6am start. 7:15 breakfast. Then continue. If your mind is distracted the Master will hit you with a stick.”
“Hit me? How hard?”
Atsushi laughed. “Hard enough to wake you up.”
“How long have you been here?”
“How many times did you get hit in the beginning?”
“How about now?”
“Less than many.”
“I see. Is there anything else I should know?”
“Stay fresh. Live freely. Like a cloud floating in the sky.”
“Every encounter is precious. Cherish them. There are no shortcuts.”
“I am on a path of stars and magic. Is there any more you can tell me about them?”
The young monk looked closely at Altair for a moment.
“Cherish them too.” He smiled, stood up, bowed like the Master and gestured for Altair to follow.
Altair sipped his tea a few minutes later alone in his room. There was little to distinguish it, tatami floor, rice paper walls with little decoration, a rolled up futon at one end and the small table he was sitting beside.
Altair had so many thoughts flooding his head. There were all kinds of things going on beneath his mind such as the vision that had led him here in the first place. It had manifested in his first year of Chinese Philosophy at University and it changed his path forever.
He was sitting in a lecture studying Zen with Dr. Ip and gazing out the blinds at the sun dappling on the venetians.
Suddenly he was transported, to an ancient time and past.
He was on the slopes of TianTai Shan mountain with Master Huang Po. They were on a journey to the summit of the mountain and had stopped beside a waterfall and stream, a sign post on their spiritual pilgrimage.
The Temple was gloriously surrounded by waterfalls, one of them the Flying Waterfall. The stone bridge that stretched across it, in some places only 10 inches across, was their meditation walk. The Temple sat sprawling over the rocks at the top of the waterfall.
The Master said to him, “All the Buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but the One Mind, beside which nothing exists. The Mind is without beginning and end, is unborn and indestructible. Sentient beings are attached to form and so seek externally for the Buddha. By their very seeking they lose it, for that is using the Buddha to seek for the Buddha. Stop all your conceptual thought, cease all worrying and the Buddha will appear before you.”
Then the vision vanished and Altair was staring at the blinds and sun peeking through. Dr. Ip was speaking to him, calling his name.
“Sorry Dr. Ip,” said Altair. “I was transported.” He began to describe exactly what he had seen.
“TienTai Shan, the mountain,” said Dr. Ip. “That is what you saw. Fangguang Temple and the Shiliang Flying Waterfall. Have you been there?”
Altair shook his head.
“Then you must go,” she said. “It’s quite likely you were a student of Huang Po’s. You have such a versatility with Zen. Have you ever thought about a scholarship in China to study Chinese philosophy? I can nominate you!”
And so she did. With Japan the first port of call on the path between magic and the stars to explore Zen, this particular temple was dedicated to the Goddess Kannon-Guan Yin, and was one of a pilgrimage of 88 temples in Shikoku. It was a special recommendation of the Professor’s.
After 3 days at the temple sitting staring into a wall for 8 hours a day and getting hit with a Keisaku or awakening stick every time his awareness faltered, Altair had a dream. In the dream he was led by a man chanting a mantra over and over into the forests and mountains of Shikoku. He asked to talk to the Master.
“I wondered why you were sent to us,” said the Master. “I know of your vision of TianTai.” Atsushi smiled at this. Altair had mentioned it to him after breakfast one morning as most of their day was spent in silence. “Now I know. I am merely to be a messenger for you. Take this contact. It is a Master in Koya-san, a Shingon Buddhist monastery and temple complex in Wakayama. I have contacted him already. The man in your dream was Kukai, founder of the Koya-san community. Your path continues there. You will leave tonight and arrive tomorrow morning at first light. I have arranged for rooms to be ready on your arrival. There is a retreat this weekend which you will attend.”
Altair thanked him profusely and bowed low. The Master returned the bow.
“Two things,” said the Master. “Firstly, Kukai will help you on your path towards magic. Things are not always what they seem. Secondly, Koya-san will help you understand the stars a little better. We are all made of the stuff of stars. When the mind is still and silent the stuff of the stars, light, can be directly realized. This is enlightenment, bright and spotless as the void, having no appearance or form whatsoever. Awaken to the One Mind and there is no enlightenment to be attained. It is within you already. The stuff of the stars, the cosmos, the One Mind, Buddha, has never ever been anywhere else.”
Arriving at the train station at Koya-san there was a different smell in the air, as if the spirits were wild and free here, and the mists filled with mysteries of the mountain. Altair stared around him for signs of life, the town and streets bare at this early hour. Directly ahead lay the mountain, with the little town below it. Wooden houses with ornate tiled roofs, a temple bell ringing out for prayers, and a solitary crow cawing in response. The smell of incense was mixed in with the early morning food smells from a concealed alley as well as cedar and pine and something else, cold and wild. The blanket of secrets that was the mystical Kōya-san. Altair followed the directions on the map he’d been given, while making his way up the mountain to the temple lodgings which catered for foreigners. Squirrels darted in and out of the trees, showing impish faces before dashing off to gather more acorns. There was little wind in the mists, which was fortunate as it was bitterly cold, and every step seemed to make Altair’s clothing thinner until his body started shivering.
On the path the wind was calm as Altair moved up towards the Danjo Garan temple complex which marked the heart of the Mt. Koya settlement. He knew that secret Shingon Buddhist training had been taking place here for hundreds of years. He began to feel unsteady from the lack of rest as he had been on the go since yesterday. He stopped at a bend in the pathway beside a bamboo grove and settled back on his haunches for a breather. All the sounds died away completely and there was an ominous silence and then suddenly there were voices rumbling, shouts, rocks were thrown and a hand was pulling at his own.
“Come on, Ah-chan!”
He hesitated, scrambling for his pack, which he now could not locate anywhere.
“It’s me, Ren!” The voice was more urgent now. “We’ve got to get out of here!”
A young Japanese woman, about the same age as him, was glaring at him with impatience.
Altair didn’t try to argue as a crude missile whizzed past his head and embedded itself in one of the walls at his back. He was squatting at some sort of intersection around which a crowd was gathering and throwing insults at each other as well as anything they could lay their hands on.
Altair ran as fast as his legs would carry him in the direction the girl was tugging. She didn’t so much as glance behind and ran with a sure, practiced gait he could easily match.
They wove through a number of alleys and backstreets until they came to a wide open place where a temple was under construction. There were six other lodgings surrounding it which by the looks of the numbers of people gathered outside must have catered for visiting pilgrims. In the middle of it all stood a monk in robes with a beaming smile, intense benevolent eyes and an aura of calm. As he watched the building’s progress he was chanting under his breath and referring to a map he held in his hands as he gesticulated this way and that like a conductor.
“Gyoki-san, sorry we are late. We ran into trouble,” said Ren.
“So I heard,” said Gyoki. “The government has not taken kindly to our extending a helping hand to the poor. They see us as a threat to stability. Taking from the rich to give to the poor. They are persecuting us whenever they can find us alone. That rock throwing welcoming committee was organized by none other than the Kansai Office of Priestly Affairs who see me as a renegade and a rebel. My only goal is to teach people about Buddhism while building temples like this that function as community centers. From here we can provide irrigation to the surrounding fields.”
“But won’t they attack us here?”
“Ah-chan, it is far too public and the poor farmers would rise up in revolt. They don’t want that. They hope to unsettle us and pick us off one by one, exposing our weaknesses, uncertainties and vulnerabilities and making us look foolish in the eyes of the local people. Luckily I have devoted followers like you and Ren to help me.”
“It is the Bodhisattva work,” said Ren with a contented sigh. “It is what drew me to you from the beginning.”
“Meeting all sentient beings in streets and intersections. Teaching and transforming all regardless of means or philosophy.”
“Magic and the stars,” said Altair.
Ren glared at him.
“We are endowed with wonder working power and miraculous transformations,” said Gyoki, “so in that sense you are right. It is like magic to the common people. You are both learned in song, dance, music and narratives, the best way to reach the heart of these farmers. You enchant them to hope for more and reach for the stars.”
Gyoki came across and took both Altair and Ren’s hands in his. Energy vibrated through Altair’s arms, into his heart and down his legs into the soles of his feet which tingled crazily as they connected with the earth.
“I have a surprise for you both. Kūkai-san will visit us here soon to pray for the farmers to be free from natural disasters and sickness. You will both meet him personally.”
He looked at Altair with a twinkle in his eye.
“To help the poor, the women and children of this world, you need to find magic in the simple things, songs and symbols, dance and stories, enchantments of the heart. Perhaps one day you two will meet again in this place in another life and learn how to bring this same magic in stories and song to the entire world.”
Altair was speechless. Ren closed her eyes and stayed very still as if in deep prayer and then bowed very low. Altair followed suit.
When he raised his head his heart was thumping hard and a presence of great power, both beyond human and very deeply human, seemed to surround him in the mists. He was back at Koya-san, his pack on his back, his body pointing in the direction of the temple complex again, shivering as if to shake the earth with a coldness that was almost overpowering.
It didn’t take Altair long to find his accommodation. The lodgings were in the east wing of the temple looking out over a valley and a forest. The woman who met him in the genkan or entryway was expecting him and was very polite. She showed him to his room which was extremely quiet and apart from those on retreat with him, who were mostly Japanese, Altair saw very few other foreigners. The retreat was conducted in total silence and at the end he was bursting to share with someone but his Japanese language ability was too limited. On the way back to his room he passed a woman in dark sunglasses with a shaved head. She claimed she was German but looked more Indian and introduced herself as Shanti. He wasn’t sure what to make of her as she looked at him intensely with bright sparkling eyes.
“I understand you are a reader,” she said, to his great surprise as there was no way she could have known anything about him.
“Yes,” said Altair hesitantly, “I love books…”
“No, no,” she said with a laugh, “I meant a purveyor of the stars. A reader. A journeyer.”
This surprised Altair even more.
“I understand you see the stars like magic.”
Altair had never thought of it that way, so he simply nodded.
Suddenly he plucked up courage.
“Would you like to see how I do it?”
“I would like that very much.”
They had reached his room and it seemed only natural to invite her in so he did. There were no chairs so she sat on the tatami mat. He shuffled inside his pack and pulled out an old manuscript which he placed in front of her. He made tea which he poured and then sat down with her like two conspirators over a treasure map.
She didn’t look at the manuscript but merely said, “Ephemeris, and an old one at that.”
“Yes,” said Altair, “Suzie, my friend, gave it to me before I left for Japan. I’ve been studying it.”
“Do you know how to interpret it?”
“Yes, well, er, no, I kind of just feel it, like energy patterns.”
“Do you know anything about Vedic or Hindu astrology?”
“Well, you will, and a lot, one day. You are a moon seer.”
“How can you tell?” Altair was perplexed by Shanti.
“We are made of the stuff of stars,” said Shanti. “We navigate by the stars and astrology was the original science devised by ancients in order to understand the structure and movement of the universe. Spiritual cultures like Egypt, Babylonia, India, China and Mexico were founded on the cornerstone of astrology. Even social systems derived from it as in the rule of sun and moon kings and queens. Our birth chart is a mirror of our soul and its particular incarnation. It gives us the keys to the inner unfoldment of spirit.”
Shanti picked up the manuscript.
“So how do you read the energy patterns without a book or teacher to help you?”
“When I make my mind still by breathing in the central spine like Yogananda taught me then patterns become clear in my mind like a matrix. They look like energy grids, sparkling paths of the soul which appear like pictures connecting one to another in my mind.”
“Could I ask you to read mine?”
“What would you like to know?” asked Altair.
“Ask what I am supposed to be doing in this life, now, right at this moment?”
Altair found the page in the manuscript corresponding to the date that Shanti gave him. He knew he would not be able to see her rising sign immediately so just focused on the planets in the signs and let his mind go still. He closed his eyes and relaxed. Instantly a wheel, turning slowly, came into his mind’s eye as if he was seeing into a miniature picture of the cosmos when Shanti was born through a circular window. The stars and the planets formed a complicated pattern that slowly took shape like a mandala with light, color and sound. Altair watched it closely until it settled and he could see the configurations.
Altair looked closely at Shanti. It was as if both of them were caught in a trance.
“You are a healer and an artist, a dancer. You wanted to have children but couldn’t. Your totem is an elephant and you practice yoga daily, especially pranayama. Someone close to you has just died which is why you are here. You are a leader and will receive an inheritance on return. You are writing a book which is what you are supposed to be doing right now.”
“How did you know?”
“The way I see it, the planets are relay stations for the reception and transmission of stellar energies. They bring to us the forces of the cosmos itself. So I see planets in particular positions when you were born as portals, and open myself up to the energy of those portals in their signs, where the signs are like rulers of cosmic forces that originate from the stars. These forces determine the nature of the time in which we live and because we are so focused on the personal events in our lives we miss the great powers altogether. Like hungry fish pursuing prey, we are not deeply aware of the ocean or its current and flow. All I shared with you is what I see when I open up the portals and read the symbols as they flow through by tuning into the current of the ocean.”
“Thank you,” said Shanti, “for where I am now that was unbelievably accurate.”
Instead of leaving Shanti stayed sitting and pondering. Then she said, “Can I ask you for one more thing?”
“Today I went for a Shingon initiation. I don’t know why, I can’t explain it, I just went and did it. Can you tell me what you see? You may be able to shed some light on my true name and the path I am meant to follow.”
“No problem,” said Altair with a touch too much bravado as he felt the flow of cosmic forces enter him. It was easier now, as he had found before when he did a series of readings for his friends all in a row. Strange things somehow just manifested.
“I can see you already,” grinned Altair as if he was watching a movie. “You are in a line with many others. Blindfolded. A monk is giving you a flower to hold. You are being led to a mandala. It is shaped like a…”
Altair hesitated before continuing. “A Diamond…”
“The Diamond Realm,” confirmed Shanti.
“The Diamond Realm,” repeated Altair as if he were singing a refrain in a song with her.
“The flower is landing on a figure, a Buddha, the one you have the deepest karmic connection with, a woman, with 1000 arms.”
“Senju-kannon,” said Shanti with a sigh.
Altair looked at her expectantly.
“Remarkable,” said Shanti. “I couldn’t hope for better confirmation. Do you know who you are?”
“Watashi wa jinsei ni tsuite benkyo shite imasu,” said Altair.
“A student studying on the path of life,” said Shanti, translating the Japanese. “And a Naga.”
“Naga?” It was the first time Altair had heard this name.
“I have met only one before. A woman. An energy worker like you. In Canada. She could read a person’s body and diagnose them for all manner of ailments. A Naga is a manifestation of some aspect of the cosmos. Enormous responsibility and significant powers or siddhis come along with being a Naga so you must be tremendously careful. It will appear you do magic to other human beings. Patanjali was thought to be a manifestation of the Naga of eternity. Naga is an ancient energy so guard it well. A Naga can cross the place between worlds with remarkable ease and hear immortal whisperings in the ether. You are incredibly innocent, almost naive, so be careful who you trust and help. You will make many mistakes I am sure but that is all part of the path and must be cherished.”
Shanti reached into her pocket and took out a tiny charm.
“This is for you. Keep it safe.”
“I will,” said Altair and looking closely he saw the woman he had seen in his vision, Guan Yin, embossed in gold in a tiny oval locket. “Thank you.”
He slid it into the manuscript.
Shanti got up and went to the door. She turned one last time and bowed low with a look of deep serenity written across her face.
“Where are you off to next?” said Shanti. “India?”
“China,” said Altair, “on a scholarship.”
“I think not,” said Shanti, with a most bemused expression on her face. Then she quickly gathered herself. “Sorry, I have no idea why I said that. I just have a hunch. I hope you find success with whatever you do.