The pink one was a gift from J when we went to Jingoji Temple last weekend, the red ones are from friends; all charms to bless my pregnancy and wish me a healthy baby and safe delivery.
They've been hanging on a peg above my futon, bright little satchels of prayers I don't understand but nevertheless feel compelled to honor.
When I first came to Kyoto in 2005, Japanese Buddhism struck me as terribly superstitious: Students line up at Kitano Tenmangu, a Shrine dedicated to a deified (and once-exiled) scholar, to pray before their entrance exams; at Yasui Konpira-gu Shrine in Gion, lovers climb through a tunnel in a strange stone sculpture, plastered by years of omikuji, in order to initiate or terminate a relationship (depending on which way you go through); once a year at Sanjusangendo Temple you can get hit -- okay, touched -- on the head by a sacred willow branch to prevent and cure headaches. Then there are all the charms, the fortunes, the rubbing of bronze statues that will alleviate physical pains... Do people really believe all this stuff? I wondered.
But then, Christians do some pretty wacky stuff in the name of healing, too.
Is superstition just faith in charlatan's clothing? Believing in anything you can't see or prove is bound to strike someone as superstitious, right?
Still, I have faith. I have my patchwork religion, culled from childhood Bible stories, Annie Dillard, and long walks in the woods. I'm keen on coincidence, sure that god makes god-self known through fortuitous glimpses.
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, J and I went to visit with a woman he'd interviewed for his research on spirituality and aging last year. She's a smart, lovely woman of 84, with lots of stories and a thick Kyoto dialect. I can barely understand her, but I wanted to go along anyway, be a good wife. She hosted us in the middle room of her home, a beautiful old machiya in Nishijin, the textile center of the city, where she still helps run a silk tie-making factory. After a while, as we started making motions to leave, she suddenly suggested we walk over to a nearby altar to Jizo, the Buddha who looks after children and travelers, to do a blessing for the baby. We obliged, and walked with her a short distance from her house, to an odd little clothing shop with the entrance to a house at the back. We followed her inside, and she greeted the elderly couple who lived there.
I have often walked into situations in Japan where I knew nothing of what was going to happen, and have learned to just open up to it. This is what happened:
Our friend took us to the open garden in the middle of the house, where there was a small altar around two ancient-looking stone Jizo -- actually, they looked like worn and faded rocks, not sculpted figures, distinguished only by the red bib that Jizo sometimes wears. They looked as though they'd been there far longer than the house itself, which sort of awkwardly accomodated them in a corner of the courtyard.
The elderly man followed us, and gave us candles and incense to light. Not quite knowing what to do, I followed J's lead and knelt at the altar, saying a silent thank-you. The man then had us sit behind him as he stood at the altar. We bowed heads and pressed palms together as he lit incense and began to chant the heart sutra: maka han ya ha ra mi ta...
I started to cry. Huge, urgent tears spilled out on to my hands before I knew what they were for, my body was shaking, my breath coming in short gasps. I couldn't stop it -- it was too big, too fast. When he was done, we got up and I tried to compose myself but couldn't. I was so moved, so amazed by the strength of the feeling. I fumbled with some syllables to articulate how grateful I was, but it came out all blurry through the tears. We went back to the front of the house, and I tried to say thank you some more.
The man decided to give us the prayer book he'd used for the chanting, and at first J tried to refuse, but the man explained that Jizo-sama wanted us to have it as a gift. He told me to rub my belly with it, and to put it under my pillow when I go into labor. It wasn't superstition, it was god, it was grace, it was the generosity of human spirit manifest inside a prayer book.
I cried on my bicycle all the way home. I felt as though I'd been lifted and struck like a bell, and was reverberating with the intensity of it. I hadn't understood anything that had been said, and I don't really understand that much about Buddhism; but despite that, and despite the fact that it all happened in less than five minutes, the power of the ceremony cleaved directly to the heart of me.
Since then, I am more grateful for the sentiment in the omamori; I stop and pray whenever I see an altar or a Temple for Jizo. I don't think I fully understood before what motivated people to have faith -- to pray before something and really believe. How often are we called like this?
I'm still trying to figure out how to say thank you.