Canal through the back streets of Gion, Kyoto
Bamboo blinds, with their close-knit horizontal slats that make them more like a flexible wall, hang over the windows concealing everything inside the houses, despite their open windows. The air is still, hot and suffocating; it is mid-July and this is summer in Kyoto. The only shade in the narrow lane in the heart of Gion, an area made famous by its geisha and maiko, is close in to the walls of the houses that edge the street. Few people are around. Now and then a maiko, bandaged in a simple kimono and carrying a paper and bamboo umbrella to shield her against the melting sunlight ventures into the street, as maiko have for centuries in these alleyways. Regardless of the summer heat, she must attend the classes that will eventually make her among the most skilled in the land in the ancient rituals of tea ceremonies, floating dances, singing and traditional instruments that are the stock in trade of these women.
As I shelter in the shade close by a wall, the haunting, melodic sounds of a shamisen drift down to the lane from an open upper floor window. I have heard these simple 3 stringed instruments played like a banjo by young men who would otherwise be in a rock band, with the lightning speed of a lead guitar soloist, fingers screaming up and down the fretboard. But this is different, this one is being played as its makers intended. The strings are being slapped slowly or in rhythmic sequences and each note clangs out into the street from a time that has long passed from most of Japan, and drifts off into the shimmering haze.
Kyoto is a very modern place. Walking up into the city from its glass vaulted station one day I was reminded of the wide backstreets of inner city Melbourne in Australia. But by the early evening, Gion, with its kimono clad, milk-white ghosts, teetering on wooden clogs, and wrapped tightly in a dress that can cost as much as a motor car, is home to an ancient tradition that remains mysterious, enticing and largely misunderstood.
Geiko, the Kyoto dialect word for geisha, participating in the Gion Matsura held in July for the past 1200 years.
Debate at Sera Monastery
In the early 1900’s the Japanese monk Ekai Kawaguchi disguised himself and entered the forbidden land of Tibet. After arriving in Lhasa on his eventful journey Kawaguchi visited the debating courtyard of Sera Monastery, one of Tibet’s most important monasteries even to this day. The ritual he describes, which he witnessed shortly after the turn of the 20th century, has not changed much, apart from the number of visitors who now come to see it. Sera Monastery is about 5 kilometres from central Lhasa and retains the shady courtyard Kawaguchi describes in his “Three Years in Tibet”, which describes the journey he undertook between 1897 and 1903.
During the debate the inquisitor stands above his student and assails him with a stream of questions. Although the tone may start reasonably subdued, it quickly escalates in energy and frenzy with the questioner aggressively and threateningly clapping his hands above the head of the student while simultaneously stamping his foot on the ground. Kawaguchi explains that the teachers tell the monks: “… the foot must come down so strongly that the door of hell may be broken open, and the hands must make so great a noise that the voice of knowledge may frighten the devils all over the world …”. The debates remain good-humored, despite the apparent aggressiveness in the exchange with the verbal battle lasting around 3 hours on most afternoons.
Opening the doors of hell
Although the future of Tibet remains an open question, Tibetans hold tenaciously to traditions that have endured for centuries. One old monk in Lhasa told me many years ago: “We are the last, when we die Tibetan Buddhism, true Tibetan Buddhism, will die with us”. What I find amazing, is that 20 years after he told me this, despite the enormous and perhaps troubling changes that Tibet has undergone, many traditions remain, seemingly intact, at least for the moment.
Buddhist debates can be seen in many monasteries across the territory once held by Tibet, even in areas that have been part of Chinese territory since 1913, such as the great Labrang Monastery in Xiahe, in China’s Gansu Province. Wherever it is seen, the debate is a tradition that reaches back centuries to a time when the world, and Tibet, were very different places.
The Voice of Knowledge