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Are we Kobo Daishi freaks?

by Amy Chavez

“You’re wearing a Kobo Daishi T-shirt,” the Buddhist priest observed.

My T-shirt was army green with an artistic rendition of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. The priest looked at the detail on the shirt closely. The outline of Kobo Daishi was cream-colored and he was sitting in the middle of a swirl of a gray, paint-splattered background. In the background were two images: a hand holding a string of juzu beads and a Shingon implement that even I couldn’t identify.

After examining the icons on the shirt, he came to this conclusion: “Japanese people would never wear this shirt.” He was not unkind when he said it but he emphasized, “True believers would not wear this.”

“Oh,” I said, slightly embarrassed. Chalk up another one for the strange gaijin!

The priest was right. I had never seen Japanese people wearing this type of T-shirt. I quickly dismissed the shirt, wondering if I might be able to pass it off on the next hapless gaijin who came by.

He explained that the shirt was too bold, too “in your face.” Basically, it would be like walking around the U.S. with a T-shirt bearing a large picture of the face of Jesus. Throw in a few accouterments such as a wine glass from the Last Supper and the sheep who was present at Jesus’ birth, and suddenly you are broadcasting Jesus in a very strange way. Not only might it startle people, but it would cause many to say “Jesus freak!” under their breaths.

In Japan, a country of hibutsu — some effigies of Buddha that are so sacred they cannot even be shown to the public (or anyone at all), this is not really the way to do things.

“Where did you get this shirt?” the priest asked me. I showed him the back of the shirt, which read, “The 1,200th Anniversary of Mount Misen’s Opening. Itsukushima, Japan 2006.”

“Ahhh, now I understand,” he said, “They made them for foreigners.”

Well, that it explains it; We’re all Kobo Daishi freaks!

Despite the overwhelming majority of Christians in my country, the United States, Christianity just isn’t as cool as Buddhism. Must be all those beads you get to wear. To the average American, everything about Buddhism exudes coolness: Meditation is cool, wandering around on pilgrimages is cool, “finding yourself” is even cooler, and enlightenment, should you reach it, is totally galactic. Even artistic renditions of the Buddha on T-shirts are cool.

The Hippies thought Buddhism was cool, anyone living on the fringe thinks Buddhism is cool and every college student who travels through Asia for a stint comes back emblazoned with elements of Buddhism: juzu beads, talismans, and Sanskrit tattoos. Even my own grandmother at 94 said, “If I could do it all over again, I think I’d be a Buddhist!”

It’s possible that deep down, Americans are Buddhist wannabes. Not that most people would ever convert. We’d rather pick up the religious karma and leave the rest to the ascetics.

Christianity offers many of the same cool things Buddhism does, but in a completely different way. Where Christianity is group-oriented (group worship, Sunday school, youth groups, Christian grammar schools, charities, etc.), Buddhism is more about self, improving and perfecting it. This inward search for self appeals to our American sense of self-reliance.

When we hear about the marathon monks of Mount Hiei, who over seven years run a rigorous pilgrimage under conditions so adverse the monks come close to confronting death, we are imbued with awe. But not so much because of their religious devotion as their physical devotion.

The Buddhist pilgrimage appeals to the motives of the independent traveler in us. Meditation appeals to our inward search for the meaning of life. Shingon Buddhism presents enlightenment as something tangible, or at least achievable and something that can be attained before death. All that, and you even get to sleep in on Sundays! It’s a wonder the Japanese, who seem so dependent upon community to succeed, have embraced Buddhism so wholly. And it’s a wonder that Americans, so independent and self-reliant, should embrace such a group-based religion like Christianity so fervently.

May 4 was the annual Kobo Daishi Spring Festival on our island. It’s one of just two times a year the Buddhist people of the island come together and pray as one entity. The islanders came, they chanted, they purified themselves and they left. It was all so simple.

Clearly, whether a Jesus freak or a Kobo Daishi freak, what we need is whatever it is that brings balance to our lives.