Just a brief bus ride and a ropeway ascent from Himeji station, the beautiful Mt. Shosha hosts a mixture of Buddhist and Shinto buildings. While it was established as a major center for Buddhism in 966, the name Engyo-ji refers to the entire mountain covered with sites, buildings, and statues of devotion.
Sent on assignment into the Hyogo wilderness, it is only now I start to realize how lucky I am for the perfect timing of this escape into nature. While thinking there is no better spot to help vanquish the stresses of the metropolis, I feel a surge of curiously about the 1,000-year-old site and my mind is busy with thoughts of the experience that lies ahead.
Staring up at the mountain as the gondola climbs, the conductor’s explanations fade into a blur of background noise. Instead, I’m focusing on the dense forest below, while every now and then checking the horizon for good photo angles. Ambient bird calls spark a quick flashback to the ground as I passed a large signboard listing varieties of local birds. Then, suddenly – success. Through a crack in the foliage I spy a furry tail, soon revealed as belonging to a wild deer. Not long after, we reach the top.
Stepping onto a wooden walkway leading to a restricted outdoor stage, I follow Shunyu Kaneko – the temple’s steward and chief of general affairs – through sliding doors that lead into a huge wooden building. The current version dates back 500 years, rebuilt after the original was destroyed by fire.
Slipping through another door, I find myself staring up at the face of a giant gold Buddha sitting deep in meditation. Light steals in through small squares in the wooden window lattice, as well as through the door left slightly ajar behind us.
“The Buddha sits in the center so people can circle it while meditating,” explains Kaneko. I’m escorted for a slow lap around the vast presence as it glows gold within the darkness, seeming to catch every beam of light entering the room.
Gesturing to a cushion on the wooden floor, Kaneko asks if I’d like to begin my Zen meditation experience. Interestingly enough, for the last two days, everyone I’d spoken to about Zen meditation had told me I could expect to have my shoulders slapped with something by the monk if my head fell from concentration.
However, my experience was nothing of the sort. It was all about posture and breathing. There was no outside stimulation other than the sound of wind in the leaves, voices of elderly tourists outside, and light playing on the grain of the ancient wooden planks beneath me.
After being taught how to sit – legs crossed, hands curled in my lap, posture leaning slightly forward while looking downward (in other words, mimicking the perfect pose of the giant statue before me), I was ready. The sound of two pieces of wood clapping signaled the beginning.
The first three to four deep breaths are broken up with long pauses between inhales and exhales, but soon we settle into a regular rhythm. Although a little stressed about remembering how I’m meant to breathe and sit, I eventually relax into a regular pattern of nasal inhalation and exhalation.
Slowly my perception switches from the wooden grain stretching out from underneath me, and shifts to following the rays of light falling across the room from the doorway.
Focusing on maintaining correct posture and breathing, my eyes slowly start welling up with water. For a few more minutes, I stay this way, until the water trickles down my face – even as I remain calm. I continue on, not really understanding what’s happening. Where is this coming from? Of course, tears are more often associated with sadness than joy, so I start going over my rather large stockpile of emotional events from the last 7 years, but decide maybe it’s something to ponder rather than try to answer.
Kaneko slaps the wood together once more and rings his chime, freeing me to wipe the salty water from my eyes and face. There is no talking, only silence.
Unsure whether Kaneko had seen my tears, I ask if people normally talk about the experience afterwards. It seems not. After leaving the dark room and crossing the huge stage, we walk up the mountain. Kaneko is happy to listen as I share my experience and ponder aloud about what might lay behind my tears back in the dusky room of the golden Buddha.
Continuing up the mountain, I’m told most people don’t venture to the top. Crowned by trees, and rich with a variety of bird calls, I can’t think of anything better than going higher to distance myself from the other curious visitors. My desire to dive deeper into the autumn colors is strong. Leaving the paths behind, treading over soil and leaves, our conversation turns to the types of people who often appear in quiet spots on the mountain. I find myself slipping further into introspection.
As we descend the slope down the rough mountain path, I think back to our earlier conversation about the owls, deer, wild boar, flying squirrels, and the recently introduced raccoons destroying so much nature here, only to notice that I have stopped looking for signs of animal life. I am deep in thought, reflecting on my time of silence. Suddenly I feel a longing to return and stay for a night in the temple – but I haven’t even left yet.
Photographs & Text by Julian Littler