Byodin Temple, Kyoto, Japan
Like a giant bird with nimble wings outstretched to catch the wind, the vermilion temple seemed to hover just above the surface of the water. I had never seen anything like it. The gilded statue of the celestial Buddha was partially hidden behind wooden grillwork, but I could still make out Amida Buddha’s half-opened eyes, beckoning us.
It was a steaming hot day in Kyoto, in 1992. My boyfriend Tetsuya and I had arrived at Byodoin Temple late in the afternoon–in maximum heat and maximum humidity.
On the train, he had explained how the temple had started off nine-hundred years ago, as a villa for Fujiwara Michinaga, one of the most powerful men in Japan at the time. By the late tenth century, it had become a custom for Japanese emperors to marry a Fujiwara daughter. And through these advantageous marriages, not to mention a strong dose of political intriguing, the Fujiwara family’s power became second only to that of the imperial family.
“One could say that Michinaga was rich in daughters.” Tetsuya said. And then after a pause, “But he was also wealthy in sons.”
I learned that it was Michinaga’s son Yorimichi who turned his father’s villa into a Buddhist temple, in 1052.
It was a long train ride, and we had also spoken about my father. Tetsuya and I talked about my dad a lot in the early days of our relationship. He had died a year earlier, after a 10-year battle with a rare form of cancer. I think cancer therapies have come far since then–but back then, he had suffered terribly. And being so young, I was left deeply wounded.
Japanese people are very adept at remembering the dead, and Tetsuya was so open to hearing anything I had to say. He encouraged me to talk about my dad and we even set up a portable Buddhist shrine in our apartment so I could pray and offer rice and sake in his memory.
My dad had been in terrible pain and had undergone so many invasive treatments during his battle. Toward the end, he asked me over and over, “Why can’t they leave me alone?”
But we loved him so much and of course wanted to try everything to prolong his life. I suppose we were selfish, but a few more weeks with him would be precious. Near the end, I slept at the hospital at night, while my mom took the day shift. Wanting to offer something to distract him from his pain, I brought the most beautiful music I knew, Handel’s Messiah. It was well after Easter and one of the nurses teased me for being out of synch with the season. While Kyoto was a rich green in summer, the Los Angeles mountains had turned brown in the dry heat. Fire weather.
No one tells you what to do when your father dies, do they?
We had signed up for a tour of the temple’s legendary Phoenix Hall—known to everyone in Japan because it is inscribed on the back of the ten-yen coin. My boyfriend’s family—like the Michinaga clan—were believers in Pure Land Buddhism.
Westerners often think that Zen is the most common form of Buddhism in Japan. It’s not so. In twenty-five years, I never knew a Zen practitioner. Most Japanese Buddhists I met were Pure Land Buddhists, which is the largest sect in the country. Pure Land Buddhism, which has as its distinguishing feature the devotion to the savior Buddha Amida, gained popularity in the 11th century. This was a time of ongoing natural disasters, endless battles, and recurring plagues. And so this form of Buddhism had tremendous appeal to the people of medieval Japan—for it promised that even during periods of decline, it was still possible to attain liberation.
Namu Amida Butsu…南無阿彌陀佛
“I call upon measureless Buddha.”
Like the Jesus Prayer in the Christian Orthodox tradition, Pure Land Buddhists believe that through the repeated chanting of the nembutsu, one can achieve salvation.
Amida Nijūgo Bosatsu Raigōzu, Descent of Amida and Twenty-Five Attendants, National Treasure, Chion-in Temple
It was time for our tour of Phoenix Hall to begin. Our first stop was to see the Amida statue up close. Created in the mid-eleventh century by one of Japan’s greatest sculptors, Jocho (d 1057), it was easy to imagine how Yorimichi must have felt, on his knees in prayer in front of the image, hands held together and looking up into the statue’s beautiful face. With half-closed eyes (not seeing) and half-closed mouth (not speaking), Amida’s celestial face conveys peaceful enlightenment.
What captured my attention that day were the fifty-two celestial attendants, each carved in wood by Jochu. These wooden statues decorated the upper walls around the statue, while the lower walls had once been lavishly painted. Because the wooden statues had lost their paint over the centuries, at first I hadn’t even noticed them. The guide explained that around the time that Yorimichi was creating the Phoenix Hall, Japanese aristocrats imagined heaven as a beautiful blue-green landscape. Covered in hills and mist-covered valleys, paintings often situated a lonely hut amidst the lush scenery. In such a setting, it was believed that Amida would descend on purple clouds from paradise to meet the faithful as they lie dying. As long as the believer chanted Amida’s name faithfully, the Buddha of Light would come and escort them back to the land of bliss. Called raigo-zu, these paintings of “Amida’s Welcoming Descent” had once covered the walls of the temple.
The guide painted the scene so vividly that I could imagine a cluster of people huddled around a dying relative—windows open to the landscape outside, awaiting the coming of the Buddha.
Before we left the Hall, almost as an afterthought, the guide mentioned that during the mid-tenth to eleventh centuries, it was popular among aristocrats to hold up small raigo-zu paintings in front of the eyes of dying relatives as they listened to music; to comfort them and give them strength for the journey to the other shore.
I remembered the solace I had felt listening to Handel in the hospital room before my dad died and suddenly wondered how my dad had felt about the music. How wonderful to have pictures of salvation to look at as we are dying—even at the moment of death?
Like portals to heaven.
Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delights (detail)
Approximately five hundred years after Fujiwara Yorimichi was commissioning the raigo-zu paintings for his glorious Phoenix Hall at Byodoin, on the other side of the world, King Philip II of Spain — also known as the King of Portugal, King of Naples and Sicily, and jure uxoris King of England and Ireland; not to mention Duke of Milan, and from 1555, lord of the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands– was busily constructing his own version of a grand monument of faith, at el Escorial.
What words are there to describe his palace-monastery?
Constructed on top of a hill in a remote and rugged location just north of Madrid, the gigantic building was built in an unadorned classical style. For himself, he designed a cell-like room, just above the high altar of the basilica. More like a monk’s cell than the bedroom of a king, it was taken up almost entirely by a four- poster bed. To the left of the bed was a small opening. With a direct view down on the High Altar, this allowed him to watch Mass being celebrated in his final weeks of his life without getting out of bed.
And he was dying.
The trip from Madrid had been excruciating. In late June, the heat in Madrid was unbearable. Carried in a palanquin, every step had been torture due to his severe gout. He had open putrefying sores that must have been excruciating. Not to mention the smell must have been ghastly. It is no wonder his mind took such a morbid turn.
After being settled in his bed with its bird-eye view of the altar, Philip II also requested a particular painting be brought to the Escorial from his palace in Madrid in the months before his death.
Like the aristocrats of 10th and 11th century Japan, he wanted a painting to look at as he lie dying.
A strange choice, but the painting he wanted with him was Hieronymus Bosch’s masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights.
The painting had already stirred up controversy at court for its possibly heretical content. Where in the Bible can you find people frolicking naked with peacocks and exotic fruits, birds and fish in orgiastic abandon? For five hundred years, scholars have debated the meaning of the triptych—and yet the biggest mystery of all is that Philip II—this man who saw himself as the defender of Catholic Europe against the Ottoman Empire and the Protestant Reformation– chose this painting as his own personal meditatio mortis. Indeed, he had it hung directly in front of his bed. And after looking at his vast collection of relics–smelling and kissing each one last time– he would gaze upon The Garden in his last hours of life.
As a friend says, “As much as I appreciate Bosch’s paintings, I don’t think I’d want it to be the last piece of art I see. Still, it would be instructive…”
Amitabha Buddha and a reluctant monk (12th century picture)
Almost thirty years have passed since that June day my father died. His suffering has haunted me — even now I find it difficult to visit doctors and get check-ups because of my terror over “bad news.” There has been no closure. I avoided thinking about it for years, but now I have reached my father’s age when he died.
Back then, everything seemed to be stacked against him since keeping the patient alive at all costs was the way it was done. Could his last days have been less invasive? Even—I hate to use this expression– more meaningful to him?
Over the intervening decades, what kind of perspective has been gained? We have certainly grown more aware of the importance of a humane death. More loved ones die in beautiful hospices or in their own homes and fewer in hospital beds. Author and surgeon Atul Gawande, in his book, Being Mortal, points out that the lion’s share of healthcare costs occur in the last few years of a person’s life. What kind of life should it be? It is something we all must face, and the topic bears discussing. The Stoics, after all, claimed to spend their entire lives preparing for a good death.
In Japan, the most famous death plan was the one made by Buddhist priest and poet Saigyo, when he said,
I wish to die under the cherry blossoms in spring–just around the full moon, in April.
This was when the Buddha is said to have achieved Nirvana. There is a legend that Saigyo’s dead body was indeed discovered under the famed cherry blossom trees in Yoshino, around the middle of April. While it would be hard to think of a better death than Saigyo’s, still maybe it is time to start trying.
Leanne Ogasawara lived in Japan, where she worked as a translator from the Japanese for over twenty years. Her translation work has included academic translation, poetry, philosophy, and documentary film. Her creative writing has appeared in Kyoto Journal, RiverTeeth/Beautiful Things, Hedgehog Review, Dublin Review of Books, the Pasadena Star newspaper, Sky Island Journal, etc. She also has a monthly column at the science and arts blog 3 Quarks Daily. Leanne has an essay about Durer’s Rhinoceros print forthcoming in Pleiades Magazine.