THE BELL IN THE LONELY TEMPLE, CLOUD HIDDEN

In the mountains Northeast of Kyoto there is a small mountain temple called Amida-ji (AmidaTemple). It is a temple to the very popular and benevolent Amida Buddha. To get to it you hike up a narrow trail through bamboo groves and forests of thick foliage till you reach some old stone stairs, crumbling, and largely moss covered. When I visited one afternoon there were no priests or anyone around, and being a small mountain temple, I am fairly certain that for the most part it is probably empty. Inside the temple was a long banner, maybe two on both sides of the altar of the buddha—I forget. But what I do remember is that a small breeze would blow the banner which would ring a small bell hanging off the bottom of the banner. I just sat and listened to the bell. It was incredibly peaceful.

For some reason I was fascinated with the thought that, after I leave, that bell will continue to ring—even with no one around to hear, it will ring. Through hot and cold weather, sometimes witnessed by a visitor but the rest of the time, with no one to hear, yet it will always ring, with a slight breeze, or a heavy wind at an approaching storm…

I have written several haiku on that experience. The first one, written in December 1999, I titled, Kyoto no Amidaji (Kyoto’s AmidaTemple)—-yes you can add titles to haiku too:

 

京都の阿弥陀寺

りん,りんと
鳴る鈴に
降り,降りと雪

 

Kyoto no Amidaji

rin rin to

naru suzu ni

furi furi to yuki

 

Ting… ting… sounds the bell

and the snow

falling… falling…

 

りん,りんと
鈴鳴る阿弥陀寺
雪降り

 

rin rin to

suzu naru amidaji

yuki furi

 

Ting… ting…

sounds the bell of Amidaji

the snow fall

 

雪降り也
阿弥陀寺にどこか
鈴鳴り

 

Yuki furi ya

Amidaji ni doko ka

suzu nari

 

The snow falls!

and somewhere in Amida-ji

a small bell sounds

 

Speaking of which, here is a Chinese poem—The Temple Bell—–by Yuan Mei (1716 – 1798). This is my translation:

 

AncientTemple, monks all gone

the Buddha’s image fallen

 

The single bell

hangs high in evening’s glow

 

Sad, so full of music…

Ah, just one little tap!

But no one dares.

 

There is something very peaceful about these temples and their bells–especially for me—those ones that are remote and empty, or abandoned and falling apart. Left to the elements these bells still stand, and at some point, probably through the forces of nature, ring again…

While on the subject of Chinese poems—I should mention my favorite. A few may  recognize it as a title for one of Alan Watt’s books—he likes the poem too. It is titled Searching for the Hermit, by Chia Tao (779-843):

 

Beneath the pines I asked the boy.

The master’s gone in search of herbs…

He’s up in the mountains

Cloud hidden,

whereabouts unknown.

 

The Chinese I translate into herbs, is literally medicine—he went to gather medicine.

There was another spiritual moment that stuck with me from Kyoto (well there are numerous ones really)—from what is probably one of the most spiritual places I know—Fushimi Inari Taisha—the Great Fushimi Inari Shrine. This shrine covers the whole side of a whole mountain all the way up and over the peak. It is a fox shrine to the goddess of abundance and fertility. The fox is actually her emissary and spirit animal if you will. There are large shrines, small shrines, and graveyards, and little shops that sell odd trinkets and even books on how to make good-luck charms and curses–and all of these are connected by paths that are lined by torii gates posted one against the other. Google Images has an abundance of photos of this very beautiful shrine.

As you walk up the trails you pass through forests where you hear animal sounds, and there are always crows around calling out. The whole place has a very special feel. I’ve been there mornings, afternoons, nights—it is really a special place. I have one favorite little corner of the shrine—it is towards the back and on a side trail that takes you down to a little gulley. A small waterfall falls into it, and the water runs off as a stream. In the side of the gulley a small altar has been carved out, and inside is a lone statue of a goddess—maybe Inari herself, or maybe just the Yamahime (Mountain Goddess) of the mountain, I don’t know. The first time I found that I was with a good friend from New York. It was a late afternoon in the fall. There was a burning candle placed in front of it, and another candle laying on the ground. We were so amazed by the sacred feeling of this little spot that we lit the other candle, placed it by the little statue, and silently watched as they both burned down and quietly went out. We had no idea how late it had gotten–night had already fallen, and it was quite dark. We both felt something special had happened, but couldn’t quite say what—we mostly walked back in silence—but feeling very good about our lives, and the world, and life…

In January 2000 I wrote a haiku about this experience, titled, Gushen—Gushen is Chinese and means Spirit of the Valley. It is a female spirit and is mentioned in Lao Tzu’s, Tao Te Ching (Chapter 6):

 

谷神  [グシエン]

秋夜
蝋燭消えて
川音消えず

 

Gushen

 

Akiyoru

rousoku kiete

kawa oto kiezu

 

Gushen (The Valley Spirit)

A Fall night

the candle dies out

but the sound of the river doesn’t

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