Surrounded by trees, birdsong and a riot of cherry blossoms as you head up the hill into the nature preserve surrounding Tokurinji Temple, you can easily forget that a moment ago you were in the middle of Nagoya, one of Japan’s largest cities. When you enter the temple grounds during the annual Hana Matsuri (festival of flowers), it’s hard to be certain which country of Asia you are in at all.
One day you may find hundreds of Nepali expatriates gathered from all corners of Japan to share Nepali music, food, dance and theater.
On another day you may find a multidenominational ceremony in progress, with Buddhist monks from Vietnam, Mongolia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Britain and Korea in prayer together, lighting hundreds of candles in the main temple hall under bright red, yellow, green and white flags hanging rank upon rank from the high ceiling.
On any day during the festival, you will be able to view exhibitions of elaborate line drawings from Indian tribal minorities, exquisite handmade books made from woodblock prints, black clay pottery in the form of blank-faced animist deities and exuberantly illustrated original paintings from children’s book artists.
Whatever you discover here, it’s certainly not your typical Japanese Zen temple.
“I want to provide an alternate image for Buddhism in Japan,” says Abbot Shucho Takaoka, a lively character with a big toothy grin. “Most Japanese people, when they think about Buddhism, feel that it is a dark and gloomy affair, mostly something having to do with funerals. In Nepal, Buddhist ritual has more of an air of celebration, suffused with the ringing of cymbals, the music of the harmonium, singing and chanting. I hope that through the Hana Matsuri, Japanese people can experience in their bodies, in some subtle, maybe nonverbal way, the real heart of Buddhism — a Buddhism filled with light and color and song.”
For Takaoka, it’s another part of a larger project of cultural survival. In the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s, he lived in Katmandu and researched Nepali Buddhism, which only exists in the Katmandu valley and is fast changing under the influence of modernization. He also welcomed travelers to his small guest house where people on their extended journeys through Asia would come and go, passing through for a few nights or staying on for several years, exchanging stories with each other of their pilgrimages to temples or their study of disappearing traditional craft-making techniques in the high Himalayas.
During that time, Takaoka and many of his friends carried out extensive documentation on Nepali Buddhist iconography with a local university professor, eventually producing a fine illustrated three-volume work on the Nepali iconography of the 108 manifestations of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Japanese Kannon), sales of which help support the Nepali craftspeople who carved the intricate woodblock prints. Like artisans the world over, their livelihood, and thus the continuation of their craft and way of life, is threatened by the spread of mechanization and mass production.
Many of the people who passed through that guest house are now artists who display their work at the bazaar held during the festival. For many of them, the survival into the future of the techniques of crafting things by hand is crucial. According to woodblock carver Osamu Nakamura, “Making things with one’s own hands cultivates a certain generosity and openness of the heart. It nourishes that state of mind in the craftsperson’s self, which is intimately connected with an entire way of life.”
Philosophical and cultural exchange with the larger Asian continent, as well as with the aesthetics and techniques of the Japanese tradition, are the ideals to which Takaoka and many of his compatriots have devoted their lives.
It is for this reason that Takaoka lays particular emphasis on openness, the enjoyment of human companionship and on love.
“I believe that all religions have at their core the same concepts, the same heart,” says Takaoka. “The fundamental teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha was that to do things only for oneself results in misery and suffering, but to think and do for others gives one a feeling of happiness and pleasure. To me, God is not some entity sitting up in heaven; God is the act of holding love in your heart for others.”
If you come to Nagoya for this gathering (all are welcome) you may find many of those who have been profiled in this column over the past six months: Ruriko Hino, the pilgrim to Tibet and student of Nyngma Buddhism; Akira Ito, the painter, cosmologist and children’s book illustrator; Gufu Watanabe, the botanist, philosopher, potter and Indian cooking enthusiast; Kogan Murata, the itinerant shakuhachi flute player; Osamu Nakamura, the woodblock print carver; and Miyuki Kobayashi, the temple carpenter and wilderness guide.
What all these people have in common is their love for nature, their connection to the inexhaustible wellsprings of the Indian, Tibetan and Nepali cultural traditions and the conscious priority they have made to find a fulfillment of a less material kind: to spend their lives laughing and cooking and eating and appreciating beauty. In the choices they have made with their lives, they show others that there really is a viable, deeply satisfying alternative to a consumption-oriented culture.
“In Japan today,” says Takaoka, “materialist thinking has a very strong power. People feel that they will find happiness and fulfillment by centering their lives around things rather than experience.
“I don’t have any intention to force other people to think any particular idea or concept here at Tokurinji, I just want to create a space where people can have an experience of another kind, where they can meet many different kinds of people, experience many different kinds of culture, and, perhaps, have a chance to re-examine their own lives.”