August 27, 2010

Right attitude

Ohkyo-ji, shingon, shinno yamasoba, daijyo-ji

Shinno Yamasoba, 58, is the vice head priest at Daijyo-ji, an an 8th-century Shingon temple three hours outside Kyoto by train. In the Japan Times, he shares some monkish wisdom with Japanese TV reporter Judit Kawaguchiwho:

"We'll know if the road was correct when we arrive," Yamasoba says, "That's how we Buddhists think. But since a monk's road is never straight, the trip is always fun. It really doesn't matter where I'm going."

Ohkyo-ji, shingon, shinno yamasoba, daijyo-jiIt's a good thing Yamasoba is the type who takes what comes in stride. Daijyo-ji's main temple, which was built in the 18th century, is home to a number of masterpieces by the painter Maruyama Ohkyo (1733-1795), but it has had an unwelcome makeover of sorts. In order to preserve Ohkyo's paintings, which Japan's government considers cultural treasures, the temple moved the paintings next door, to a concrete storage house. To take their place, digital technicians made replicas of the 45 works the temple owns. Yamasoba's not too happy about it but takes a philosophical attitude:

Technology should not be blamed for human error. Japanese digital technology is so advanced that it's possible to make perfect replicas of things. Our replicas, however, turned into cheap-looking copies because we made the mistake of hiring an art director to guide the technology team. This director manipulated the images to recreate what he thought the paintings might have looked like 200 years ago. He used more gold leaf and brightened the colors. His added touches destroyed Ohkyo's original strokes. Luckily, at certain times each year visitors can see the originals on show.

The best and worst part of Japanese culture is the concept of shikataganai. This means that we accept reality as is and we don't blame anyone. If we feel frustrated, we blame ourselves, because ultimately everything that happens to us is our own doing, our own fault. For example, even though the replicas are not what the originals look like and not what we wanted, we still paid the full price — 0 [sic] million — and accepted the outcome. It's all over and done with, so there's no point in crying over spilled milk. That's shikataganai.

The temple itself is remarkable for its sliding screens painted on both sides with birds, trees, monkeys, and flowers. The many sliding doors can be open and closed to create countless perspectives and interconnecting spaces. The Ohkyo-ji paintings, which laid the foundation of the Edo period Muruyama School, are perhaps more famous than the temple that houses them. Indeed,  Daijyo-ji is better known as "Ohkyo-ji."

Yamasoba is apparently a modest man, and acknowledges that his acceptance in the case of the botched replicas (by his account, anyway) may not yet be complete.

"I'm not a real monk yet," he confides, "because it's hard for me to accept everything and forgive everyone. I'm still a deshi, a young man in training. My wife's the best monk. She's the most enlightened being I know."

You can take a tour of Daijyo-ji online here. Click on the screens to have a closer look. To read the full Japan Times article, click here.

Photo (top) © Judit Kawaguchiwho; Photos of Maruyama Ohkyo's work © Kameisan Daijyo-ji. All rights reserved.

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