My favorite place in Nagoya is a large “monastic park” in the neighborhood of Yagoto, with several temples dedicated to different Bodhisattvas, hundreds of stone lanterns and a elegant pagoda of five levels that miraculously survived the Flying Fortresses B-29.
During one of my frequent visits, my eye caught sight of a red swastika amid the fallen leaves next to one of the temples. (It should be reminded that the swastika is an entirely auspicious symbol, present in many ancient traditions and cultures. Unfortunately, its abduction and subsequent torture, distortion and bleeding on its apex, is another tragedy to add to the list of infamous atrocities of the Nazi regime). When I tried to pick up the swastika, I realized that it was attached to a copper plate (approximately six square palms) covered by the leaves. I took the finding to the temple’s porch and began to remove the leaf-litter and mud. Gradually, before my eyes, a carved figure began to take shape: a monk. Not knowing what to do with such finding, I decided to hang it on the wall of the temple.
It was several weeks later, during one of my weekend trips, that I’d discover the identity of that monk. I arrived to the island of Shikoku, the fourth largest of the Japanese archipelago, crossing by train the infinite bridge that joins it with the main island, one of those engineering works that fill one with wonder at the building capacity of human beings. True to my custom – with more component of laziness than real method – I did not know where to go. My steps took me to a monastery immersed in the bustle of the eve of a great event. One volunteer told me that the preparations were in commemoration of a monk’s death, born at that monastery. I was speechless when I recognized the monk of the swastika at the center of the main altar. It was quite a coincidence that I visited the temple where he was born on the same date.
Bursting with curiosity to know more about this ubiquitous monk, I learned that his posthumous name, by which he is best known, is Kobo Daishi, which means “Great Teacher,” although his name while alive (he lived in the 8th century) was Kukai, which means “Sea and Sky.” His biography is extra-ordinary, and, set aside the inevitable hagiographic embellishments, it can be perceived in him the qualities of a poet, linguist, engineer, inventor, teacher, adventurer, reformer, prophet and mystic. A saint, my countrymen would call him, and as such is revered in Japan.
But what struck me the most is that he was the forerunner of a pilgrimage around the island of Shikoku linking 88 temples, mostly belonging to the esoteric school of Buddhism (Shingon) which he founded. That day I bought a pilgrim’s guide and a copy of the Heart Sutra, one of those little books with accordion-shaped leaves, that all pilgrims recite when they reach at each one of the temples.
In my heart, I wished with all my might that one day I had the good fortune to return to the island as a pilgrim. It would happen.