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Lions Roar : July 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2008 29 ILLUSTRATIONBYMARIKOJESSE LAST FALL I RETURNED TO KYOTO, a city where I had once lived and researched the subject of Japan’s geisha tradition. I still have many friends there, including geiko (as the Kyoto geisha call themselves) current and retired. Whenever I visit Kyoto, there are two old friends in particular to whom I always pay my respects. One is my geisha sister, Ichiume, who was put in charge of my training; the other, my geisha mother, Kiyo Hasui, who invited me to join the community of Pontochô as a participant observer. Both of them are dead. Twenty-four-year-old Ichiume died in 1979 in a fire accidentally started in the traditional wood-and- paper teahouse where she lived. Kiyo Hasui passed away twelve years ago at age 73. In Japan, almost everyone is Buddhist when they pass away. In fact, to say someone “has become a buddha” (hotoke ni natta) simply means he or she has died. It has always seemed to me that in Japan, the dead are never very far away. Often, memorial tab- lets are set up in a votive altar called a butsudan kept in the home. Every day, fruit or flowers are offered and incense burned. Many of my Japanese friends sit in front of the butsudan when they are worried and tell their troubles to deceased family members. On special death anniversaries, people go to the cemeteries as well. If, like me, you are in town once every couple of years, you visit friends’ graves when you can. There is an etiquette for these visits to the cemetery. First, you announce yourself at the priest’s house. Someone answers—usu- ally his wife—and you tell her who you’ve come to visit. You may request her to write out your friend’s Buddhist after-death name on a thin strip of wood, along with a Siddham-script mantra, and your name. You will place this in a rack behind the stone— it’s like leaving your calling card. You will fill a short bucket with water, pick up one of the ladles hanging next to the faucet, and, carrying the flowers and incense you’ve brought, step your way through the narrow paths between the family plots. When you’ve reached your friend’s stone, you can remove faded flowers from the granite vases, tidy up, change the water, add your new bou- quets. You insert your wooden slat into the rack, looking at the names written on the old ones. Who else has visited? When did they come? You light several sticks of incense, then ladle the rest of the water over the headstone. “It soothes the hotoke” is how this custom was once explained to me. Unless, of course, it is the middle of winter. When Hasui- san and I visited Ichiume’s grave in December one year, she held my arm back. “Not too much,” she said. “The hotoke will catch a chill...” The way Buddhism is popularly practiced in Japan, the hotoke is clearly spoken of, thought of, and treated as a person’s soul. The mental connections of the living to the dead are so strong they create the hotoke’s reality. Incorporeal though it may be, it can be affected by the physical world—for example, a splash of cold water. One could say this belief contradicts the philosophy of classic Buddhism in which the existence of a permanent self, liv- ing or dead, is considered to be an illusion. Nevertheless, despite sectarian differences among the different branches of Mahayana Buddhism in Japan, most Japanese think of the hotoke as but a transformed version of a person’s essential self. SO, IN KYOTO FOR A FEW DAYS in early October, I bought some incense and picked up a bouquet of chrysanthemums, carnations, roses, and evergreen sakaki leaves at a florist near Shin’enji, a small, not-at-all famous Pure Land temple in north- central Kyoto. The priest’s wife recognizes me by now. “It’s so sad,” she says as we fill the bucket at the hose bib and walk back toward my geisha mother’s stone. There Is Much We Do Not Know about the Feelings of Butterflies The ancient Greek word psyche referred to both the butterfly and the soul. What, then, of the butterfly that LIZA DALBY encountered at the gravestone of her geisha mother? JULY 18-39.indd 29 JULY 18-39.indd 29 4/25/08 11:56:59 AM 4/25/08 11:56:59 AM