Zenkō-ji Temple in Nagano is one of the most important Buddhist sites in Japan because it holds the very first Buddhist statue brought to the country in 552 AD. However, no one has seen the statue since 654 AD, even the monks and nuns at the temple.
The reason for all the secrecy is that Buddhists believe the statue can deliver anyone and everyone to the Buddhist Pure Land. Because of this power, people from all walks of life have made the journey to worship at the temple. A copy of the statue is displayed for the public once every six years and is the only time that you’re able to get a glimpse of it.
As I approached the temple, shops lined the street selling temple offerings, tourist souvenirs and food. Small trinkets stood in neat rows atop felt-lined tabletops. The smell of Japanese sweets lingered in the air. I kept my head down and kept on keeping on toward the temple. No need to take a detour here despite my wish for some yummy treats.
Despite visiting Meiji Jingu and Kōtoku-in, Zenkō-ji felt like the first real religious site I had visited. I’m not really sure why I felt this way. Perhaps it was the quiet solitude even though there were many people visiting with me? I’ve read that more than six million people visit the temple each year in search for cures to their illnesses as well as the key to paradise. Maybe it was the burning smell coming from the incense that cleanses worshipers before they entered? Or could it be the rokujizō that line the path? These statues represent six bodhisattvas, who turned down enlightenment to offer salvation to others. Kinda cool huh?
For whatever reason, I felt a deep connection with this place. I’m not Buddhist (or even religious, to be honest), but there was something about the place that made me linger. I thoroughly enjoyed simply being (and, yes, I realize that sounds all zen-like and abstract but don’t really know how else to describe it). I spent a few hours touring the grounds at my pace, taking pictures here and there, but mostly just absorbing the feeling of it. I sought out nooks and crannies that were devoid of people and inhaled the serenity and peace of the temple and Nagano. Compared to Tokyo, Nagano was a ghost town and I welcomed back all my personal space boundaries that disappeared in such a bustling metropolis.
As I wandered around Zenkō-ji, I remembered a college class that I took called “Transpersonal Psychology.” In this course, we contemplated the human existence and meditated to find oneness within ourselves. I, like all the other students, did not know what I was getting into and had picked this class specifically because my best friend could also take it. However, judging by the amount of students who dropped the class after the first week, I can only assume that not many people were comfortable with it (or the teaching assistant in charge, but he’s another story completely). This class turned out to be one of the most entertaining and memorable college courses ever, even though most of the memories are not about the course material at all.
Anyway, Zenkō-ji was more effective in getting me to contemplate and meditate than an entire semester of Transpersonal Psychology. I was more successful being in the moment and think I completed a fair amount of walking and breathing meditations. The trick, which I was never really able to grasp in college, is to meditate unaware that you’re meditating until everything around you fades away. Perhaps Zenkō-ji really is the path to the Pure Land?