Pilgrimage to Mt. Minobu

Experience at the Hondo
by Ryuei Michael McCormick

In January of 1997 I realized my long time dream - to visit Mount Minobu and walk on the same ground and breathe the same air that Nichiren Shonin walked on and breathed more than seven hundred years ago. I had slightly less than a day to spend there, but it was an invaluable time nevertheless. I arrived on a sunny but cold Tuesday afternoon on January 21st and took a taxi from the small train station to the Kubo no Bo, the branch temple at the base of the mountain where I would be staying for the night. From there, a young novice named Maishin took me in his car to the main temple, Kuonji, and gave me a guided tour of the main buildings, including the Main Hall (Hondo). We also went to the museum beneath the Main Hall where many examples of Nichiren's calligraphy, his portrait and other treasures are kept. After that, we took the rope-way up to the summit of the mountain to the Filial Piety Shrine which commemorates Nichiren's many prayers there for the sake of his parents. Upon coming down from the peak of Mount Minobu, we returned to the car and drove over to the sight of Nichiren's hut, which is now an empty space framed by a stone railing. Just a few yards away was the mausoleum emblazoned with a golden Odaimoku where Nichiren's ashes were originally enshrined until they were moved to the Founder's Ossuary at the Kuonji. At that point, Maishin had to return to Kubo no Bo while I spent the time remaining before supper accomplishing one of the many things that I had wanted to do at Mount Minobu: climb the 287 steps of the Stairway to Enlightenment (Bodaitei) from the Temple Gate (Sanmon) to the main grounds while reciting Odaimoku on each step.

That night, I left the temple around 9 PM and wandered out into a beautiful moonlit snowfall. I wandered up the road to the main grounds, led by the distant sounds of the taiko and the chanting of the many priests residing on the mountain. This time, I could not go inside the temple, but it wasn't necessary, the snow, the forest, the soft moonlight and the crisp night air reminded me of my parent's home in Pennsylvania while at the same time giving me a living glimpse of the Pure Land of Tranquil Light. Eventually I took one of the paths near the Stairway to Enlightenment and followed it as it wound down the mountain. At the base of the mountain I wandered down a side path that seemed like a snowy cavern or tunnel and found myself emerging at the road near the sight of Nichiren's hut and mausoleum, so I decided to pay my respects at those sites once again. It's funny, but if I had been wandering around in any other forest alone at night and surrounded by graves and memorials, I would probably feel a little jumpy or nervous; but at Mount Minobu I felt very safe and peaceful.

Just before reaching the site of Nichiren's hut, I noticed that there was a memorial with a candle still lit in front of it and a whole packet of incense was still burning there. I believe that this memorial is called the Joshoden. As I passed by, I decided that I should light another packet of incense there for the sake of my intention to further my training in the Nichiren Shu. Lighting the incense, however, was not as easy as I thought. As soon as I took the packet away from the flames of the candle it would stop burning in the wintry night air. So again and again, I held it to the flames, until the outer ring of incense was burning. I continued holding the incense to the flame, and the fire would flare up around it and then die down again as soon as I moved it away, but each time another ring would catch fire closer to the center. I persisted, returning the incense to the flame again and again and blowing on it vigorously until even the center glowed a bright yellow on it's own. At that point I offered the incense and continued on my way to pay my respects to Nichiren.

The next morning, Maishin drove me back up to Kuonji so that I could participate in the morning services in the Main Hall. It was extremely cold that morning and I could see my breath as I made my way through the other halls and corridors to get to the Main Hall. Once there, however, I forgot about the cold and the cramps caused by sitting in the seiza posture. It was an overwhelming experience to hear so many voices chanting the sutra and Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, and to see the Ceremony in the Air represented by such a stunning array of golden larger than life images in such a huge hall. As I chanted the Odaimoku, it finally sunk in that the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha, Taho Buddha, all the buddhas of universe, the four great bodhisattvas and all the other beings represented there were chanting with me. In fact, I realized that my voice is their voice and their voice is my voice.

At Joenji in Tokyo, Rev. Shinkai Oikawa had reminded me that the Odaimoku is the eko (merit transference) of the Buddha. Namu Myoho Renge Kyo is Shakyamuni's gift of all his merits, practices and achievements to us. He had taken the ineffable insight into the true nature of reality and expressed it in a way that could be shared by all beings, and in that sharing we participate in that true nature. The depths of the 16th chapter brings to life what before had only been stated in theory: that the life of the Buddha is our life right at this moment. To realize, acknowledge, express, rejoice in and share that life is what happens when we chant Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. As I chanted Odaimoku there in the Hondo in the presence of the Gohonzon, I finally knew that Odaimoku was no mere method or technique like a koan or shikan meditation. I finally realized that Namu Myoho Renge Kyo is the direct awakening to the immediate presence of the Buddha in my life and as my life. Ever since I had been interested in Buddhism, I had believed that the only authentic way to be a Buddhist was to reproduce the state of mind that Shakyamuni had when he sat beneath the Bodhi Tree and declared, "Even though the flesh falls from my bones and the bones themselves crack, I will not get up from this seat until I have attained supreme and perfect enlightenment!" and thereby accomplish what he had accomplished in just the same manner, and all the Zen teachings that I had learned seemed to confirm this as the ideal way. Now however, there in the Main Hall of Kuonji, I finally came face to face with the Buddha who declared, "For many hundreds of thousands of billions of asamkhyas of kalpas, I studied and practiced the Dharma difficult to obtain, and [finally attained] Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi. Now I will transmit [the Dharma] to you."

As I chanted the Odaimoku there, I also realized that we are very much like that incense from the night before. The incense inherently possessed the ability to burn, but it could not do so without the candle’s flame and my own breath. Buddhahood may be an inherent property of our lives, but it will remain forever dormant unless we continually connect with the flame of Namu Myoho Renge Kyo and always breathe a fresh spirit into our practice. Our practice, then, is not a process of recreating enlightenment, it is the practice of constantly receiving the Eternal Buddha’s own enlightenment as the gem of Namu Myoho Renge Kyo so that Buddhahood can be firmly established as the bright burning core of our own lives. Though I had read about and studied this for years, only at Mount Minobu was this realization able to sink in.

Written by Ryuei Michael McCormick.



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