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Adashino Nembutsu-ji -

Adashino Nembutsuji  Photo, Kyoto, Japan

Late one afternoon I make my away to Adashino Nembutsu-ji, the famous temple and cemetery on the outskirts of Kyoto. Along the way I ponder just what draws me to these places beyond mere historical and architectural interest. Is it the sheer novelty of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, or is there some underlying principle that I find appealing?

The key, I think, is rooted in mono no aware, a sensibility that is uniquely Japanese. Without going into a prolonged discourse, the simplest definition would be a keen appreciation of the vulnerability of life and the transitory nature of all things, yet at the same time a pleasurable sadness that arises from cherishing brief moments of beauty. The cherry blossom is perhaps the most common symbol of mono no aware—budding, blooming, and falling softly to the ground in only a few days—evanescent beauty in a world in which all things continuously change and disappear.

The concept of the transience of the world is central to Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, with its appreciation of beauty as a fleeting state and its longing for the infinite and eternal. The very brevity and fragility of life makes it all the more touching. Those who possess a sense of mono no aware are sensitive not only to ephemeral beauty but to the suffering of all living things.

"If we lived forever,
if the dews of Adashino never vanished,
if the crematory smoke on Toribeyama never faded,
men would hardly feel the pity of things."

Yoshida Kenko (author and Buddhist monk, 1283-1350)

This is the essence of mono no aware.

The "Adashino" that Kenko referred to was the same Adashino Nembutsu-ji which was the object of my pilgrimage. Accounts of the creation of this temple and its cemetery vary, though most credit the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, Kūkai, also known as Kōbō Dashi (774-835), with establishing it to create a proper burial ground for the unclaimed deceased of Kyoto.

All the grave markers in the area were gathered, some 8,000 crude stone Buddhas and gorintos (stone pagodas), and assembled in a large courtyard outside the temple, arranged in rows around a central stupa.

The effect of the thousands of amassed weathered stones, arrayed as if listening to a sermon, is striking, even more so each August when a ceremony called Sentō Kuyō or "The Service of A Thousand Lights" is held. During this ceremony, thousands of people gather at nightfall and light votive candles before the stone Buddhas, lighting a path home for the anonymous dead spirits.

In the 12th century, Honen Shonin, the founder of Pure Land Buddhism, established a training center at the temple, "Nembutsu" referring to the Pure Land Buddhist devotional recitation. Much of the appeal of the Pure Land sect was its accessibility to commoners, as Buddhism was initially the religion of the ruling classes. At first it was not widely spread among common folk due to both its complexity and strictures on exactly who could worship and how. Pure Land Buddhism played a key role in the democratization of Buddhism, allowing those on the periphery of society to participate. Honen expressed the essence of Pure Land teaching, quite radical at the time, when he wrote:

"There shall be no distinction, no regard to male or female, good or bad, exalted or lowly; none shall fail to be in his Land of Purity after having called, with complete faith, on Amida [Buddha]."

My favorite haiku poet, Kobayashi Issa, was a Pure Land Buddhist, in contrast to his Zen Buddhist predecessor, Bashō, commonly considered the "founding father" of haiku. In the often-cited triumvirate of great haijin, Bashō is considered the pious one, Buson the artistic one, and Issa…

Ah, Issa. He is regarded as the least refined of the three, but the one with the greatest heart. Empathetic to even the smallest and most inconsequential of creatures, Issa’s haiku is rooted in "a cheerful and endearing interest in the smallest matters of daily life" in the words of Lewis Mackenzie.

Yet Issa’s life was repeatedly marred by tragedy, for his mother died when he was but three, and he suffered greatly at the hands of his stepmother. Perhaps his identification with the small and defenseless sprang from his own lack of motherly protection during his childhood.

Don't worry, spiders
I keep house

Later in life, Issa lost his wife and four of his five children, yet rather than expressing bitterness, his haiku is imbued with resignation and graceful acceptance of the vicissitudes of life, no doubt springing at least in part from his firm belief in the redeeming power of the Amida Buddha.

Simply trust! trust!
dewdrops spilling

One of the recurrent themes of Issa’s poetry is the "world of dew," which relates to the Buddhist idea of impermanence as well as the mono no aware aesthetic.

A world of dew,
and within every dewdrop
a world of struggle

When Issa was 57, his second child, a daughter named Sato or "Wisdom" was born. His first child, a boy, had died shortly after birth, so you can imagine Issa’s trepidation and joy as he watched his daughter grow. He rejoiced in each infant achievement, comparing her to "pure moonlight, beaming from head to toe."

But tragedy, as was so often was the case in Issa’s life, struck again, and his beloved Sato fell ill:

"Why is my child dying? She has just begun to taste life. She ought to be as fresh and green as the new needles on the everlasting pine. Why must she lie here on her deathbed with festering lesions, caught in the vile grip of the god of pox? I am her father and can hardly bear to watch her fade away-a little more each day-like a pure blossom in a rainstorm."

Devout Buddhist though he was, Issa found it hard to accept the his daughter’s death, railing, "I tried hard but I could not break the bonds of human love."

A year afterward, to commemorate the anniversary of her death, he wrote what is perhaps his most famous haiku:

This world of dew
Is only a world of dew
And yet… oh yet…


There’s hardly a soul about as I approach Adashino Nembutsu-ji along a path through a bamboo forest. The afternoon is overcast, with scarcely a breeze, and stillness reigns. In the cemetery, the thousands of worn stone grave markers stand like mute sentinels.

and yet...

What did Issa mean, "and yet"?

Some of the stone monuments, all badly eroded, wear red bibs. These, I later learn, represent Jizō, the benign Bodhisattva who guards the souls of children who have died before birth or prematurely, and who also intercedes on behalf of the souls of those suffering in hell. Bereaved parents place these bibs, along with toys or offerings of flowers, at Jizō shrines, while those whose children have recovered from an illness may do likewise.

I feel like an intruder in this landscape, incapable of understanding what is before me, but drawn to it all the same. A sense of frustration, of impatience at my own dull-wittedness, rises within me.

I have no words for this feeling, this inexpressible something.

and yet….

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