The mountain itself is a mandala.
Practice self-reflection intently amid
the undefiled stones, trees, streams
and vegetation, losing yourself in the
great body of the Supreme Buddha.
—attributed to Sõ-o, 831 (the “kaihõgyo patriarch”)
Ajari — in full, Daigyoman Ajari, meaning ” Great Teacher” — is a title conferred on monks of the Tendai sect who have completed the great sennichi kaihõgyo training in the spirit of the deity Fudo Myõ-õ on the sacred trails of Mount Hiei, Kyoto. This meditative practice involves walking a total of over 38,000 kilometers in 1,000 days, within a seven-year period. Included in this strenuous training is a feat of endurance after the 700th day, called dõiri, “entry into the hall.” During nine days of prayer and meditation, no water, food, rest or sleep is permitted.
On surviving the entire thousand-day training, the “Dai-Ajari” is considered a “Living Buddha,” a spiritual master who teaches through his example for the sake of all others. Born into a temple family in Gumma Prefecture in 1959, Uehara Gyosho is the most recent monk to have completed this training. The last two who attempted it before him nearly died, but he passed through doiri without any problems, as if simply fulfilling his destiny.
Before dawn, Kaihõgyo monks in their distinctive white garb are gathering at Sekizanzen-in, at the foot of Mt Hiei. The Ajari and two young trainees are about to start out on a 54 kilometer course, known as kirimawari, that will take them on a circuit through the city of Kyoto, praying at sacred sites and calling upon patrons of the Tendai sect. The occasion is solemn, but the atmosphere is electric. Monks greet one another warmly, and at daybreak cars arrive bringing lay believers and film crews.
Ajari-san and I are the same age, but his lean face seems younger. Seated on a stone step he is tying his straw sandals. Casually he informs me that he cannot speak English, smiling as though he is about to make a quick trip to the corner store, instead of walking 54 kilometers through the city. He smiles so naturally that a pure light seems to radiate from him. I feel safe with him; like meeting an old friend, though there’s no time for talk now. High-spirited, he is off and walking at a brisk pace, followed by the other monks and the rest of his entourage.
Hours pass. At noon I meet again with Ajari-san in NEXUS, a nouveau chic Nipponese restaurant in Gion, Kyoto’s exclusive pleasure quarter. Many businesses in this area are generous in their support of the Tendai temples on Mt. Hiei. My husband and young child are with me, seated in an austere room at a low narrow table with nine floor pillows. At the head of the table is the Ajari. On his left, two young monks who look like cherubs, faces still round and youthful. On Ajari-san’s right is a beautiful maiko-san (an apprentice geisha), then my husband and I, with our son. At end of the table is a mama-san; beside her is another maiko. These young women are immaculate, as perfect as living flowers, blooming and fragrant.
I bow and ask a question I had prepared months before, whether the Ajari has any message for non-Japanese KJ readers who may have adopted Buddhism as a spiritual philosophy and way of life. He suggests that I am making unnecessary distinctions, and I feel the blow of an ancient master. Gone is the old friend — before me is the Great Teacher. In elegant Kyoto style, the mama-san steers the conversation to the two maiko; softly, elegantly, with deep humility she explains their hairstyles. The first maiko lifts her beautiful powdered forearm to delicately indicate a golden hair ornament with one small forefinger. All of us gaze at her, captured, almost drugged by the atmosphere.
The food arrives, artfully arranged on exquisite ceramics. The delicate Kyoto cuisine this restaurant is famous for. Dishes upon dishes.
Ajari-san, the ascetic, chooses not to eat; he simply sips cold tea. The young monks ignore their grumbling stomachs. The mama-san politely abstains from eating. And somehow placing food in one’s mouth seems too vulgar for a maiko. That only leaves our five-year-old boy. With both hands he begins to feast.
My tape recorder emits a familiar click, signaling the tape’s end, as my husband accompanies our son to the washroom, leaving me without my translator. And then Ajari-san begins to talk with me. I fumble with my limited Japanese. He tells me his sister is married to an Englishman and that since international marriage is not easy I should gambate, persevere.
I ask Ajari what is the hope for the world.
“The hope is in each of us,” he replies. “It’s no longer in the government, or world powers, but in each individual — we, you and I, are the hope.”
“Is life only training?” I ask. “As we reach for our higher self and retreat from ego, does it become easier?”
“It’s hard for everyone,” is his simple reply. “Even for me — I can only sit with maiko-san twice a year. ” I smile, thinking this is a joke, but all the other faces are straight, and the Ajari’s shows a trace of sadness. It is no joke, and I see another layer of Ajari — the man who has chosen celibacy.
I look into the faces of the people sitting around me. Ajari-san, who may be the future leader of the Tendai sect in Japan. The aging mama-san, from the era that ended with WWII — her character etched in fine lines upon her still beautiful face. The young monks in training, pure in their commitment. The two maiko, with white powdered faces, plump cheeks, and scarlet lips, eager to please and be present at this ceremonial party. My husband’s face; our little boy’s face, full of laughter, tears, and life. My own face, perhaps a reflection of all those present — and the hope in each of us.
The Ajari stands, and we follow him into an adjoining room. We silently kneel and bow until our foreheads meet the golden tatami. And he is gone. Now he is the Tendai sect Daigyoman Ajari, bestowing blessings on the secular masses, people immersed in the floating world of desire and suffering. Lined up on either side of the street are hundreds of people, kneeling and bowing in respect, waiting to be purified by a touch of the Ajari’s rosary on their head. Many of the great Buddhist masters of Japan — Ryõnin, Eisai, Mõnen, Hõnen, Shinran, Dõgen, Nichiren, Ippen — began their religious training on Mount Hiei, and the hope is for this Ajari also to carry the burning light of the great Tendai teachings.
Taking life is against Buddhist precepts, so in a ritual on a nearby bridge live fish are to be poured from wooden buckets back into the river. In the past, the stream swelled with fresh water, but now it trickles by. Oblivious to the water’s meager level, people begin pouring the carp to their death on the stony riverbed below. Only the Ajari notices, and directs participants to the center of the bridge, where there’s a pool deep enough to allow the fish to survive the fall and swim to freedom.
Twilight, then dusk. In lacquered darkness I make my way back to Sekizanzen-in, where Ajari-san will complete today’s circle. I am exhausted. I wonder how he is feeling.
I see a few solitary shadowy figures in the faint light from the temple shoji windows. The monks are outside. An elderly woman is making triangular balls of cold white rice with thin slices of radish, the shade of the waning moon. Steaming bowls of hot miso soup also await the monks.
Ajari-san returns. Beneath the stars, sitting on a raised wooden platform in a large wooden chair, legs folded in the meditative lotus position, spine aligned, head level, he eats his rice and soup. An elder monk speaks to the Ajari in quiet solemn tones. Ajari-san in deep respect answers immediately and concisely, reporting the day’s activities. I see the religion beneath the facade of culture, the true Ajari, his calling in this lifetime. I see the purity of the Ajari as he undertakes his vow to save all sentient beings. The Ajari of today, touching each layman’s head in an act of purification. The Ajari seated next to the maiko-san over our uneaten lunch and now an obedient and reverent Ajari. One Ajari.
I walk back down the mountain. A crow caws in the darkness.
I chant my mantra, given to me by Ajari-san.
“Hope is in each of us, hope is in each of us.”
See also Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei by John Stevens, Shambhala. Excerpted in KJ 25 (bookzine) “The Sacred Mountains of Asia,” 1993.