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Preserving Zen`s tranquility in the enchanting YOKOJI

It was sunny all day when we went to the Yokoji Temple. The road that we took was surrounded by green hills all the way to Sakaimachi, Hakui in the Ishikawa Prefecture, where the temple is located. Even though we prepared for a very hot day, when we arrived at the temple the atmosphere was surprisingly cool and breezy, and it was surrounded by big trees. The chief priest, Yashiki Go-Jushoku, welcomed us inside the most important temple of the Soto sect of Zen in the Hokuriku and Noto area.


Yashiki Go-Jushoku started his lecture of the Yokoji history with two main religions in Japan; Buddhism and Shinto. He thinks that main Japanese structural system is Shinto. The main characteristic of Shinto is that everything like trees, buildings, even stones have a spirit inside and all things that have a spirit within them have to be taken care of. The main belief in Buddhism is that everything keeps changing. He said that the unique way of Japan is that the Japanese people embrace everything. They believe in Buddhism, Shinto, even Christianity. The fact that they can celebrate Christmas, get married in the Shinto temple and when they die, they can choose to be buried in a Buddist way is very interesting.


He then told us that the Japanese Soto sect was founded by Dogen Zenji. He went to China, brought back the Soto sect and made a temple called Eiheiji. Yokoji was then founded by Keizan Joukin, the 4th generation descendant of Dogen Zenji in the end of the Kamakura period in 1312 but it was burned down by a civil strife in 1457-1477. After the emperor reconstructed it, the temple was burned down again by civil strife in 1579. It was finally reconstructed by Toshiie Maeda, the feudal lord of the Kaga area during the Edo period in the 17th century. The temple used to be a Dojo, or a practice place because it was a place for monks to practice so that they can join the war in 1943.


Then he gave us a little tour inside the the temple. The main building of Yokoji has three rooms separated by two sliding doors with calligraphy made by Yamaoka Tessyu, each with a different meaning. Yamaoka Tessyu is an expert of calligraphy, swordsmanship and Zen Buddhism who lived during the Edo era. Because the temple was very poor at that time, the chief priest asked for help from him to write more than 100 sheets of calligraphy letters for all the sponsors that contributed to the temple. Thanks to the popularity of Yamaoka Tessyu, the temple had enough money to undergo a renovation 130 years ago. The first room in the left is filled with many Rakan or Deshi statues, the disciples of Buddha. The second room in the middle has a rare Chonmage-style of a Buddha statue. It was made by Inpa, during the Kamakura period in 12-13 century, and the statue was considered to be a Cultural Heritage. The third room in the right is for Kannon Bodhisattva, the Goddess of Mercy.


In the middle of our tour, two pilgrims came inside Yokoji’s main building to pray for Kannon Bodhisattva. They wore white attire with some wording on the back. Yashiki Go-Jushoku said that the white attire represents their willingness to die anytime. They also brought a nenju or rosary and staff for their pilgrimage. Then he told us that the pilgrimages started in the Edo period during 17th century as a way to worship Kannon Bodhisattva. Zen thinks that the present is the most important time period, so we have to solve the problem of the present to reach happiness. Yashiki Go-Jushoku told us that that is why a lot of pilgrim worships Kannon Bodhisattva; so that they can get help from Kannon. Kannon Bodhisattva then will give you help in many different ways. For example, if you tell your problems to your friends after you pray to Kannon and your friends give you advice, then your friend is your Kannon. So, one could say that Kannon Bodhisattva is in everyone or that everyone is Kannon Bodhisattva.


Zen probably is the most famous Buddhism nowadays. It is said that Zen is “to think about myself, our self”. It sounds easy but is actually very hard and Yashiki Go-Jushoku told us that sitting is the best way to understand our self. Over 1300 years ago, Zen came to Japan from India, then to China and Korea. The pilgrimage in the Noto area started 270 years ago. There are 33 places to visit for a pilgrimage there and has been known as the easier pilgrimage because it didn’t have many borders like in the Hokuriku area. That’s why Kannon Bodhisattva’s pilgrimage was popular during Meiji period and now Yokoji has become the most popular pilgrimage to pray to the Goddess of Mercy in the Hokuriku area.


After the short tour, we’re finally get to experience Zazen, the Zen meditation. We learnt how to sit and place our hands in a specific manner, and then we had to empty our minds and just feel the sound of our heartbeat, the wind and the birds chirping. Yashiki Go-Jushoku then hit the gong to start the Zazen and he hit it again after 20 minutes to end it. The experience, in my opinion, was very calming and refreshing.


During the break time, we asked why Yashiki Go-Jushoku wears a green-colored kimono and robe. He said that only the higher rank priests can wear colored ones and usually the lower rank priests only wear black-colored kimono and robe. Yashiki Go-Jushoku also wears rakusu, a Buddhism symbol of seven different patchworks (made from seven different things) that represents the Buddhism activity.


There are no doubt that learning new things is always interesting, especially within Japanese religion. We got the chance to understand its important history and to experience it ourselves as well. In the end, our experience in Yokoji was intense yet peaceful at the same time.(A.P)