Sunday, September 3, 2017

Sento-Kuyo (千灯供養)

In western Kyoto, well off the tourist trail, is a temple called Adashino Nembutsuji.  It is a good 30+ minute walk from Togetsukyo Bridge and the heart of Arashiyama.

This temple had its beginnings as a sort of potter's field in the Heian Period (794-1185), a place where the indigent basically abandoned the bodies of their dead.  The founder of Nembutsuji, a kindly monk named Kobo Daishi took pity on these lost souls and placed roughly hewn stone jizo (Buddhas) to honor them.  Over the centuries thousands of these statuettes were scattered around Adashino.  Some time around 1906, after hundreds of years of neglect, they were all gathered together in one place at Nembutsuji.  Today some 8,000 are packed tightly together in what is called 
Sai no Kawara or "the field of departed souls". 

Sento-Kuyo (千灯供養) is a ceremony to venerate the jizo of Nembutsuji held every year on August 23rd and 24th at dusk.  While the temple monks chant sutra, more than a thousand candles are lit by visitors as an offering to the ancestral spirits.  

This ritual is beautiful and hypnotic.  The candles multiply and the flames flicker against the growing blackness of night.  A rhythmic contrast of light and dark.  Soon the entire field appears to be wavering in fire.  The jizo shadows dance.

I circle around and around with my slender candle in search of a jizo that needs illuminating.  I study them, slipping between the narrow rows.  Some of these stone statuettes are said to be more than a thousand years old.  Whatever Buddha-like features that may have been chiseled into them have long since disappeared, worn smooth by time and the elements.  They are as anonymous as any mountain rock.  These are the ones I like.

At last I find the right one.  I light my candle and say a prayer.  Then I leave the hilltop temple glowing in the warm summer night.

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