Every great trip is a spiritual journey. Those hooked on travel know this and seek it. We sightsee and photograph the strange and the beautiful. We’re voyeurs of the esoteric, constantly absorbing, sampling, deciphering. We open our minds and our palates, bumble through language barriers, put ourselves in experience’s way, hoping for something—a shift in perspective, insight, maybe a bit of clarity. We sit with friends, old and new, over sushi and monja (Hi, Kim!) and delight in one another’s stories. We pause, and we ask ourselves, what’s it all mean?
And so it was that two weeks ago, under a still-full moon, I was in a vast Buddhist mountain cemetery in Japan, following a young monk to the final resting place of Kōbō-Daishi, silently thanking whomever invented down and fleece.
The much revered monk, Kōbō-Daishi, founded the monastic complex and cemetery at the top of Kōya-san (Mt. Kōya) 1,200 years ago. Legend has it that late in life Kōbō-Daishi retreated from the world and entered into eternal meditation. A couple of hundred years later, when another monk happened by, he found Kōbō-Daishi still alive, still meditating. The monk trimmed Kōbō-Daishi’s hair and nails—which, understandably, had grown very long—and closed the doors behind him. Since that day, the story goes, those doors have never been opened. Today, twelve hundred years later, Kōbō-Daishi lives on.
Before entering the temple compound that has since risen around Kōbō-Daishi’s wooden sanctuary, our monk-guide Nobu asked us to choose from one of the many Jizō statues, and then bathe it with cupfuls of water. So I did, and with every splash of cold spring water, so too was my heart cleansed and rid of impurities, allowing the Buddha within to peek through.
At the entrance to Kōbō-Daishi’s shuttered house, golden lotuses stood sentry. The lotus plant grows in the murkiest conditions, in swamps and ponds. Yet a lone stem manages to shoot up and away from the muddy waters, bearing on its tip a pure and fragrant bloom, unsullied by its mucky origins.
Cold air, incense, the scent of pine and cedar.
I pressed my palms together and closed my eyes as our guide chanted what I would later learn was the Heart Sutra: Color is nothing. Nothing is color. “This body will age and turn to ashes. A seed becomes a flower. Color—things, possessions—become nothing. Nothing…can become a flower,” he explained. I didn’t have to look around our group to know that in those brief moments, even the most resolute agnostic’s head remained bowed.
I’m not religious, and I don’t pray. But the power of symbols, myths, and rituals are undeniable. Symbols (religious or otherwise) evoke a bittersweet gut reaction because in them we recognize our humanity: they are tangible projections of our collective selves, of our strengths and frailties. They mirror our deepest needs and fortify us in the face of suffering and death. Some, like the lotus, endure for well over a millennium because they teach us how to be by reminding us of how we are.