Nara, Buddhism, Suburbanity

Yesterday I went to Nara, site of numerous Buddhist and Shinto temples, but in particular to see one called Todai-Ji which I’d read about two weeks ago in a book on Mahayana Buddhism. Housed inside the largest wooden building in the world is a statue of Vairocana, the cosmic Buddha. I like the original theoretical Buddhism which Buddha taught, but by the time it got as far as Japan it became a bit wild. Vairocana is infinitely vast and free, showering all multiverses with his pure tranquil light, entering all atoms in all lands. There are brass lotus leaves there with pictures of him and his retinue of advanced Bodhisattvas, whom he eminates in order to teach his doctrine, and seven of the universes. If mankind could make this up in only fourteen hundred years (from Buddha’s time around 700 BCE, to when the monastry was built around 700 CE), it no longer surprises me how complex Hinduism and Judaism are.

Nowdays the monastry is a total tourist attraction. I didn’t feel like there were any monks or any genuine worshippers there as I did in many similar places in Myanmar. You can give a donation and then write your wish on a wooden board which gets pinned up. In return for your generosity, some plea is no doubt made to Vairocana to arrange for your wish to be granted. How a form of worship could be more totally against the whole point of Buddhist philosophy is hard for me to imagine. But it’s not really surprising, as without some means of earning money it would never spread. The truthful sects naturally died out.

In the late afternoon I wondered round Nara for a while, and found myself in suburban streets. These were very pleasant, with a few excellent wooden houses, and everything ordered with not a spec out of place. I was in return culture shock, which I’ve been told you get when you return to Europe after a long trip away in developing countries. Nara felt like it could easily be somewhere where I grew up, it all felt familiar, despite the people being ethnically Asian, with an alien language and shops that sold slightly different brands of consumer goods. The only real foreigness is the Japanese shape of the trees.

The main thing is that everything is quiet. There are no people hanging out in the streets or in front of their houses. In shops the whole family isn’t lurking nearby, instead just one sufficient shop keeper. Peoples time isn’t used (wasted?) in that way. Everyone is either at work, or out shopping, or quietly in their home. It was almost a shock whenever I saw somebody actually doing something, like cycling past me, or carrying out some repairs to their building. Memories of the nasty cloying feeling of suburban loneliness came back to me. I longed to be in a hurtling modern city, or to be at a bustling, poverty-stricken market. Or to escape it all and hide in one of the houses with an internet connection and the comfort of electronic strangers.

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