A carpet of clouds flows over the mountains, sending sheets of rain into the valley. I am staring at a painting that’s come to life, like a Sumi-e masterpiece. In this rendition, however, power lines extend across a far-off peak, and an unused baseball diamond is exposed through a break in the evergreens. Half-visible through the branches is the top edge of the Daimon, an ornate red gate built and then rebuilt on the spot where Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism, was said to have first entered the community of Koyasan, led by a black dog and a white dog that were lent to him by a manifestation of the hunter-god Kariba-myojin.
I yearned to capture the scene in a photograph or a rough pencil sketch, but I had hiked up the muddy path with only my passport and an umbrella. My wife had sent me out into the rain while she napped in our room at Hoon-in, one of the many monasteries that allow travelers to rent lodging and to observe their daily practice. During our first week here, she had watched me take almost a thousand photographs and journal obsessively while we wandered through many of the places I’d idealized after taking an abiding interest in Buddhism, from the popular Shingon sect rooted in Koyasan to the more direct practices of Zen Buddhism that I have been studying over the past few years. But that afternoon, weary of seeing a camera glued to my eye socket, she noted that I seemed to be more focused on shooting photos than experiencing each place and taking pictures when so moved.
She was right. I had been a glutton for images during our first days on Mt. Koya, as I took in the staggering beauty of it all: the ringing of prayer bells from more than 70 temples at dawn, noon, and dusk; the feel of centuries-old wood continually tested by brutal winter months when the mountain roads become impassable; the morning meditation with syllabic chanting of the Diamond Sutra leavened by the pungent waft of incense; and the small shops selling pink and blue tea cakes or mochi expelled from large machines designed to pound rice flour into hand-wrapped treats. This place could not be captured in my sketches and raw files — and yet there I was, blindly recording what I had not even taken the time to sit with, to observe and understand in mind and body.
This was an ongoing problem in my life, one I had hoped the trip would help me resolve...