Senso-ji (Pure Land) Buddhist Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan - September 2001
James P. Davis, Ph.D.
Buried in the heart of Tokyo in the Asakusa area is the Asakusa Kannon temple and Senso-ji Temple complex. To reach the temple, you run a gauntlet a small shops selling everything from tourist trinkets and postcards to Samurai swords and Kimonos. I have bought incense burners and traditional Japanese Noh theatre masks in some of these shops, and I always like to go back when time permits to check out the cool stuff stocked in this half-mile colonnade of shops.
You pass through a large gate, or Daimon, into the temple complex, which includes a set of buildings where attendants will sell you amulets to ward off evil and bad fate, where you can pick your fortune by drawing sticks (to find out whether you'll get that great job you want, or find Mr. or Ms. "Right"), or have a monk inscribe your Goshuincho book with brilliantly executed calligraphy. You can buy an Ema--a wooden plaque on which there is a painted image on the front, associated with the temple or the current year on the Japanese calendar, and space on the back for you to write your wish or prayer; after doing so, you can hang it on a special rack, located at strategic points on the temple grounds, where your prayer or wish is said to be carried to heaven on the winds. I've had my Goshuincho book inscribed with calligraphy at this temple (a beautiful piece), and I have collected (probably) half a dozen Ema from this temple over the years. But I don't hang them out and leave them; they cost about US$10 each, so I have a great collection of them from temples and shrines all over Japan.
In front of the great hall, there is a large incense burner--as is the case at other temples whose photos I have posted on this web site. It is customary to purchase incense, and wave the smoke over yourself, so as to complete a ritual purification. I have been told that many believe in the health benefits of the smoke from this incense. I burn a lot of it at home (since I've bought some at this temple and have brought it back with me...as I like the smell...yeah, in fact I *do* like my house smelling like a musty old Japanese temple, thank you very much... :-) But seriously, some of the Japanese temple incense brands evoke some of the most wonderful sensations when you burn it. I mostly use incense that I purchase at these temples, although I also use Japanese brands I can get here in the U.S. Some of my Japanese friends comment that most Japanese don't burn incense, since it is often reserved for funerals. Well, most Westerners who burn incense do so because it evokes (or helps ease one into) states of mind that are peaceful. Many burn incense as part of ritual (as do many of the Chinese "Diaspora" in North America, Hong Kong, Europe and Malaysia) or burn it as part of meditation practice. That's my preference in using it, in addition to the fact that I like the smell.
In the photo above, affixed to the facade of the Daimon gate is one of the sandals of the Buddha. Well, I don't know about you, but I don't want to be around when he comes looking for it. Judging by that shoe size, this guy must be pretty big. definitely bigger than a Sumo wrestler. Hey, do you remember that Japanese movie, released in the 1970's called "War of the Gargantuas"? That was its title in English; I don't remember its title in Japanese....It was released by Toho Studios (originators of that friendly giant dinosaur....NO, not Barney!.... Godzilla!...who was always ripping Tokyo apart). Well, the shoe size looks about right for the Gargantuan brothers, a green one and a brown one--the green one having a taste for humans as a snack.... Also, if I ever meet the 50 foot tall Buddha to whom this sandal belongs, I can tell him where he left his other one. It's located in the building adjacent to the Daibutsu statue in Kamakura. Or maybe he just likes to leave his shoes all over the place....
From the vantage point of the main hall, you can see the scale of the gate leading to the inner part of the temple grounds. There is a large Pagoda next to the main temple complex. Compare this Pagoda with the one I photographed in Malaysia at Kek Lok Si temple (follow this link to Kek Lok Si in Penang). Again, five tiers for each of the five elements comprising the Buddhist worldview.
On this particular Sunday afternoon in September of 2001, I had spent the day locating things to give as Christmas gifts, as well as locating some Buddhist paraphernalia for some friends of mine. I went up into the main hall of the temple, and went into the inner sanctuary to meditate. I discovered by accident that this was permissible, as long as you removed your shoes (out of respect) and that you weren't doing the "gawking tourist" thing with a camera (which I had done more than a decade prior, so I had long ago gotten that out of my system).
On this particular afternoon, I was meditating, doing nothing really, and I began to notice that the clamor of people on the other side of the wall separating the main hall from the inner altar had ceased, and that it had gotten quiet. I had been sitting in an isolated spot, not visible to anyone. My initial thought was "wow, I've meditated myself out of the noisy din of humanity and into a place where I can't hear anything"....What I didn't know was that the temple had closed to the public, and the hall had been locked. I was basically in there alone (as far as I knew), and I had no way to get out.
I stumbled around, trying all the great doors, to see if any had been left open for me to exit. None were giving way. Fortunately, some astute attendant of the temple had noticed my strange looking shoes for larger-than-Japanese sized feet. He had been politely waiting for me to finish my meditation session, so that he could finish up (and maybe get home and have some dinner). I profusely apologized (gomen nasai, or "I'm so sorry, I'll never do it again, I promise"), thanked him for his tolerance of this absent-minded gaijin, and went on my way.
As I exited the main hall from a side door, walking around to the front of the hall, I could see many passersby stopping by the outer offertory, tossing in a few loose coins and clapping their hands together twice, likely making a wish or prayer for good fortune, good health for a child, good grades, a good job, or simply a little good sex. Such is life. It's really most sublime when it is most ordinary.
And there are those moments. Sometimes you can capture their essence on film. As I looked to the west of the temple complex, there stood the Pagoda, framed in the last glow of the fading sun, standing sentinel over the temple for yet another Tokyo night. Maybe you just had to be there....