Okunoin: The Path to Inner Sanctuary

Posted by Hayley Cleeter 25th November 2022
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Okunoin: The Path to Inner Sanctuary

Koyasan's Okunoin, the largest cemetery in Japan, is also one of its most sacred places. After a few cancelled departure dates due to the pandemic, our Marketing Executive Hayley finally made it out to Japan to discover just how heavenly Okunoin is.

When Kōbō Daishi sought headquarters for establishing Shingon Buddhism in Japan, it was of little surprise that he settled on Koyasan. Legend says that Kūkai, as he was known at the time, threw a charm from China where he studied these esoteric practises, and wherever it landed, is where he would establish his school. What luck then, that it got wedged in a tree in a small town nestled in the plateau basin of Mount Koya, surrounded by eight low mountain peaks, reminiscent of a lotus flower.

Koya is reached by cable car from a station called Gokurakubashi, which translates as ‘paradise bridge’. The sky is a brilliant, uninterrupted blue, the sun shines agonisingly bright and the flaming red of the autumn leaves burns an unearthly colour like we’ve ascended to another realm.

This heavenly place is home to Okunoin, the largest cemetery in Japan. The luminescent open road lined with picturesque temples and dusted with red and gold maple leaves delivers us to Ichinohashi, the first bridge marking the entrance to this resting place.

Beyond the bright day, towering cedar trees protectively guard magic within Okunoin’s shadows, teasing glimpses of stoic, weathered headstones. The stone path ahead beckons.

In Japan, it’s believed that crossing a bridge is like crossing over into another world. The beams of sunlight here are far more selective over what it chooses to fall upon, as if preordained. The immensity of the ancient cedars, the oldest being 900 years old, emits a grandfatherly aura. Everything is gilded in creeping moss. There are 200,000 gravestones above ground and 300,000 below, and life, even in its quiet reverence, is everywhere.

Venturing off the main trail, following narrow, uneven paths that branch up out into the sea of tombs, there are tori gates, solitary sitting Buddhas and large standing ones, hands poised in mudras, serenely observing passersby. Even deep into the forested necropolis, there’s no murmur of wildlife or rustling of the wind through the treetops. It’s eerily, peacefully silent. The only movement seems to come from the dust playing inside the beams of light that have pierced the canopy as sharp as a samurai sword.

With time to wander, there is no philosophical debate, we take every path and each one rewards us. Through the darkness into the light, we find a clearing, where a sea of pampas grass ethereally sways. Grasshoppers make space for our steps and nothing feels real - it’s too bright, it’s too beautiful. 

Esoteric Buddhism, we come to understand, is finding meaning and teachings in all the living things around us. The true essence of Buddhism is unable to be communicated in the human language, but perhaps nature can provide the answers. Here in this sacred place, you can see how that would be possible. But in the absence of light, could the same be said when we return for a nighttime cemetery walk guided by Nobu, a monk who lives in the town?

Nobu leads us through the dark, the path that stretches two kilometres before us only dimly lit by the stone lanterns on either side. He points out a full circle, the sun, on one side of the lamp and a crescent moon on the other. Both go unnoticed without the darkness and the light.

‘What shape is the mind?’ Nobu asked us. I predict round because it has no edges, no end. Nobu elaborates, ‘Yes! But the mind is like the moon, it changes shape, shining bright and full when we experience happiness and shrouded in darkness in sadness or anger. The moon sits up there, appearing alone, but it actually reflects its light across bodies of water all over the planet. So if we shine brightly, and positively, we are never alone and our influence can travel far and wide.’

The trees and the gravestones we were so enchanted by in the day have been consumed by the thick black of night. We stop at the shiny granite gravestone bearing the word Panasonic and thanks to Nobu, we find answers to questions we collected in the day. Not positioned as some Banky-esque social commentary on the death of technology, Panasonic’s founder was born in the prefecture and aligned with the teachings of Kobo Daishi. In fact, Okunoin is even home to a memorial donated by a pest control company for all the insects they’ve had to exterminate. 

It appears everyone is honoured here - victims from opposing forces in battle, feudal lords, samurai clans, victims of natural disasters, and babies that never made it out of the womb. Anyone can be laid to rest close to Kōbō Daishi if they see something in his teachings that resonates with them.

O ku no in means ‘inner sanctuary’ and that’s where - externally on this occasion - we were heading. Nobu warns us to watch our step in places that, legend says, if we trip, we will be fated to die within three years. I’m grateful that some teachings can in fact be articulated in the human language.

We pass the shrine of the sweating deity, Asekaki Jizo, who perspires from the pain of bearing our suffering. The well of reflections, Sugatami-no-Ido, behind his shrine also holds the superstition that those who don’t see their reflection staring back at them will also meet their end within three years. As it’s so dark out, no one is taking their chances and we continue walking…carefully. At least for Asekaki Jizo. 

At the Gokusho Offering Hall, we pass a line of different Jizo adorned with red bibs and hats, a Boddhisatva that protects children and travellers, the fiery red said to dispel evil. An incessant screaming sound emits through the dense forest, but we’re assured it’s just a deer looking for a mate. Before crossing the last bridge, Gobyobashi, we bow to pay our respects to Kōbō Daishi, put our cameras away and forge on into yet another realm.

The main place of worship, Torodo Hall, sits in front of the mausoleum and holds 10,000 donated lanterns kept eternally lit. We circle the closed building to reach our final destination. Though the Gobyō is referred to as Kōbō Daishi’s mausoleum, he is believed to be in a state of eternal meditation, withdrawing from his life of teaching at around the age of 60.

Nobu tells us a high-ranking monk from Kyoto entered his chambers once, almost 90 years after, and found Kōbō Daishi in his meditative state, shrouded by his growing hair and beard. After giving him a haircut and a shave, he left, sealing the door behind him.

Kōbō Daishi has since been left to his meditation with only the highest ranking monk delivering him two meals a day, as has been done for 1,200 years, a practice known as Shōjinku. Standing before this sacred place, flanked by gold lotus flowers and the smell of incense mingling with the crisp night air, we pray to him while Nobu chants.

I take the opportunity - as I have every time we’ve visited a temple, left a burning incense stick or lit a candle - to give thanks for this trip, for every delay due to the pandemic and every day it felt like all work and no play. But, no mud, no lotus, right?

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