Return from Fright Mountain

In this post, I would like to reflect on my recent visit to a mountain called "Fright Mountain" (Osorezan)––a temple located on the northernmost tip of Honshū, the main island of Japan. It is one of the places not known to the casual tourist in Japan and reveals a side of Buddhism little known in the U.S.A. Here, we think of meditation, calmness and perhaps the Dalai Lama when we hear of Buddhism. In Japan, Buddhist institutions provide, as should be expected from any religious institution, a plethora of religious needs. The temple on Mt. Osore, Osorezan Bodaiji, specializes in the needs that arise when members of one’s family have passed away.

Fright Mountain 2 

Osorezan is about 2.5 hours north of Aomori, the northernmost station of the bullet train. The car ride from the station to the temple took us through green forests, along the coast, and into the mountains. Even the expressway there is only a two-lane road. Osorezan is located on a lake surrounded by mountains. As we descended into the depression where Osorezan is located, we noticed that we had lost all cell phone and Internet connections. When we got out of the car, a strong odor of sulfur that emerged from the ground engulfed us and we saw a landscape that mixed white-grey stone and red sulfur stains with minimum vegetation. From this otherworldly landscape, the temple Osorezan Bodaiji and the stores that were adjacent to it emerged as the only reminder of the human realm. The temple gate itself seemed to indicate a passage to the other world.

Osorezan Bodaiji is a temple of the Sōtō school of Zen Buddhism, the same school that Ryūmonji in Decorah belongs to. The difference between them, however, could not be more striking. Ryūmonji is a training temple that focuses primarily on the practice of seated meditation (zazen). Osorezan Bodaiji, on the contrary, neither trains monastics nor serves a local community by providing funeral and mourning rituals or a wide range of spiritual practices, as most Buddhist temples do in Japan. Rather, it offers services that directly or indirectly probe the questions of what happens after death and that help the surviving family members quite concretely to cope with their loss.

In a traditional Buddhist funeral in Japan, the departed is ordained, receives a monastic name, and enters the monastic community. However, that is in the ideal case. What if the transition to the other world is somewhat rocky? Life on earth is messy, so how can we be sure that the afterlife is not? What if a person dies under adverse circumstances alone, by violent means or simply after a long and unhappy life?

The rituals the temple provides are designed to address these questions and the concerns the family may have. Besides the usual memorial services, the temple offers mizuko kuyō, a ritual in which mostly women apologize to the spirit of an aborted fetus or stillborn child and pray for his/her safe passage into the other world, and for postmortem marriages. The ritual aims at rectifying something that had gone wrong in life in order to secure a peaceful afterlife. There is also a booth wherein a shaman-not a member of any Buddhist institution but more of freelance service provider-offers to mediate between the living and death. Unfortunately, as I found out upon inquiry, the shaman communicates only in the local dialect and not in the language of the departed.

And finally, there is a huge area outside the temple grounds where visitors go to meet their departed family members, put stones on piles for the spirits of the dead, and leave toy windmills, snacks, and personal items. Recently, a memorial for the victims of the March 11, 2011, earthquake has been added to this area. This place, where the living mingle with the dead, is adjacent to a lake. It is said that the lake symbolizes the border to the other shore, where a peaceful afterlife is possible. The sulfur smell, the white-greyish landscape, and the collections of flowers, presents and prayers left for the departed and their protector deities made an indelible impression on me. Despite the presence of tourist tours, this was definitely a special, dare I say, sacred place.

As we were driving to our hotel, many thoughts crowded my mind. The academic in me thought how this temple constitutes a perfect example of the Buddhist-Shintō synthesis that defies our conceptions of tradition and religion. It also exemplifies the diversity of Buddhism as its practices have almost nothing in common with the teachings of Buddha and the great thinkers of the Japanese Buddhist tradition. As a philosopher, I examined the worldview underlying all those practices. Most of them seem to imply that the spirits of the departed stick around on this earth, albeit in a very barren place, until they have cast off all attachments to and entanglements with our world. It seems to be the belief that only when suffering, unhappiness and clinging to the pleasures our life can bring are overcome, is freedom possible. Only then, the spirits are free to cross over to the other shore.

Fright Mountain 1 

But most of all, I realize that, in our daily life, we avoid thinking about death and relegate it to the graveyard and, if you are a Roman Catholic, November 2. Those rituals practiced on Mt. Osore may not be the ones we would want to practice, and may even be at odds with our belief systems, but they do remind us that death is a part of life. That even after death, the departed continue to affect us. As much as we would like it to be, death cannot be exorcised from our daily activities. It can be denied and ignored, but it cannot be avoided. Martin Heidegger, German philosopher, observed that all our obsessions with "having fun" and small talk at parties–today he would add the use of cell phone and our constant need to be surrounded by noise–are a pathological attempt to ignore the reality of death. And yet, the way we deal with death and the way we remember the dead informs and shapes our lives. Heidegger suggested that an awareness of death is the necessary condition for an authentic life. And Dōgen, the founder of the Sōtō Buddhism, to which Osorezan Bodaiji belongs, suggested that a self-aware life requires three ingredients: "do not commit evil, be not attached to life and death, be compassionate to all sentient beings–nothing else is necessary" (Dōgen, Shōbōgenzō Shōji). In other words, if we see life and death as natural, we can cultivate compassion and we can become self-aware. The practices of Mt. Osore reminded me of that.

Headshot - Gereon KopfGereon Kopf is professor of religion at Luther College. Kopf is the founder and also serves as the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Buddhist Philosophy and a visiting researcher at the International Research Center for Philosophy at Tōyō University. He is on sabbatical for the 2013-14 academic year, and currently serving as a visiting lecturer at Saitama University in Saitama-City.