Buddhist priest Cate Kodo Juno encounters the healing power of the great Goddess of Compassion Kuan Yin, and discovers the special gift she has in store for 2009.
Stepping out of the sunlight, my eyes take some time to adjust to the dimly lit interior of the ancient temple of Ishiyama. As I light incense and candles and place them before the black lacquered altar, set with gleaming brass ritual implements and fresh offerings of fruit, I breathe in the gentle scent of the incense that has been lit by the pilgrims before me. I can hear a monk chanting the Kuan Yin sutra and I feel my heart beating in rhythm.
Then a priest comes over to me and says quietly, "Today you may step into the inner sanctum and meet Kuan Yin." He then ushers me deeper into the temple, deeper into the darkness, towards the specially built inner shrine that encloses the hidden secret image of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion and Healing, who embodies the healing power of this sacred site. Like the other temples of this ancient pilgrimage, Kuan Yin's image is considered too powerful to be revealed and has remained enclosed, building up her power until an auspicious day when she can be revealed. Here at Ishiyama, today is that day - the first time in 33 years.
As I approach the inner sanctum, I suddenly begin to feel chilled, as a ripple of intense energy flows through me. I start to shiver, even though it is a warm day. Watching where I step in the increasing darkness, I suddenly look up and see her there right in front of me, her gentle candlelit face looking down upon me with infinite compassion. I feel enveloped in a wave of deep, deep emotion that has no name, and I instantly fall to my knees with my hands clasped and my head bowed in humble awe.
Inside my pilgrim bag are hundreds of prayers that I have been entrusted with by people from all over the world, who have given me their prayers and petitions to offer to Kuan Yin on their behalf during my pilgrimage: prayers for physical and spiritual healing; prayers seeking love, reconciliation, protection, and success; prayers of gratitude and devotion.
Suddenly, I begin to experience each and every one of these prayers as truly living entities, as the lifeforce of their writers, as voices crying out to Kuan Yin for help. I begin to feel their underlying pain like a darkness pouring into me and through me to Kuan Yin. So much pain that I feel I might disappear into a black hole of suffering, as all the world seems to be crying out for help. I begin to chant Kuan Yin's mantras - the short ones first and then the long dharanis that I have memorised as part of my esoteric training. Over and over I keep chanting, tears streaming down my face, looking into Kuan Yin's radiant face, pleading for release from this suffering.
Then it happens. A brilliant light begins to radiate from her; no, it's not "light", it's something much greater than simple radiance: it is an energy of such intense brilliance it can no longer be called "light". It flows down upon me and wraps around me like a thousand whispers of love, like a mother's embrace of unconditional love for her child. I am enveloped by her divine compassion, and through me all the prayers I carry are bathed in her healing love. I know that the prayers have been heard, and I bow once more in humble gratitude, feeling now a warm glow of profound peace.
How much time had passed, I wondered as I reluctantly rose to leave when a group of pilgrims shuffled in behind me. A minute? An hour? A lifetime? As I stepped out of the temple into the bright sunlight I knew that I had been reborn and with me all those whose prayers I carried. At that moment, I vowed to become a Buddhist priest and devote myself to Kuan Yin in my special role as the "Prayer Vessel", as I was later dubbed by the abbot who ordained me.
Officially known as the Saigoku Kannon Junrei (Kuan Yin Pilgrimage of the West Country), this pilgrimage dedicated to Kuan Yin or "Kannon" as she is known in Japan, is over a thousand years old and is Japan's most ancient pilgrimage route. It covers a distance of over a thousand kilometres, passing through 33 mountains sacred to Kuan Yin along the route.
Mountains have been venerated in Japan since ancient times and are believed to be manifestations of Kuan Yin and her Pure Land heaven, so that by traversing the mountain the pilgrim enters into the sacred world of Kuan Yin. These sites are considered to be vortexes of potent spiritual energy, and often GPS and mobile phones fail to work in the vicinity of these sacred places, indicating the presence of a special energy field.
The pilgrimage was first formed when mountain shamans, known as "hijiri", would wander through these mountains performing esoteric, ascetic rituals that gave them supernatural powers, which they would then use for miraculous healing when they returned to their villages. Each temple has a founding story that relates how Kuan Yin first appeared and performed miracles at that place. Since that time, between 1200 and 1400 years ago, the temples have kept meticulous records of the miracles that continue to happen at those places or to people who have visited those sacred sites.
The principle image of veneration enshrined at the temple is generally an esoteric form of Kuan Yin carved from a sacred spirit tree in ancient times by a saint or by a miraculously appearing sculptor who is said to have been a manifestation of Kuan Yin herself. Ancient spirit trees are venerated throughout Japan as powerful nature deities who will offer themselves to be carved by someone who is holy and pure enough to retain the tree deity's divine power within the carved image.
As mentioned above, these images of Kuan Yin are usually kept enclosed in a special inner sanctum that is designed to contain the spiritual energy of the sacred site. Every day for over a thousand years, the priests of the temple perform esoteric rituals that help this power to sustain and grow. At a time considered to be auspicious, the inner sanctum is opened and Kuan Yin is displayed for the pilgrims whose blessed fate it is to make a special karmic connection to her at those rare times.
In 2009, however, there will be a truly unique spiritual event: all of the pilgrimage temples have decided to release this storehouse of healing power by displaying all secret images of Kuan Yin throughout the coming year. This will be the first such occurrence in their 1400 year history.
The impetus for this great event is the one thousand year anniversary of the death of Emperor Kazan who gave up the throne to become a wandering monk and dedicate his life to the pilgrimage. The abbots of the pilgrimage temples have decided this is a cosmically crucial time to send out Kuan Yin's healing power into our afflicted world so that we might find healing in these troubled times.
If you are reading this, then it is your karmic fate to have made this connection with Kuan Yin at this auspicious time. As I described above, the spiritual energy released when the secret Kuan Yin is revealed is very powerful indeed, adding another dimension to the palpable energy that can always be felt at the sacred site.
For 15 years now, I have had the honour of being entrusted with the prayers, wishes, and petitions of people from all over the world - not just Buddhists, but people of all spiritual traditions. Infinitely compassionate Kuan Yin, whose name means "One Who Hears the Cries of the World", does not pay attention to any particular religious or spiritual label, but grants the wishes of anyone who calls upon her.
Since offering these prayers on behalf of others, I have received so many letters telling me of the blessings they received, and the miracles they attribute to their prayers being answered by Kuan Yin: lost loved ones reunited; illnesses cured; babies conceived; soul mates found; goals achieved; wishes granted, and gentle, peaceful passings.
Kuan Yin continues to fulfil her vow to save all beings from suffering. So I urge you, on this once-in-many-lifetimes occasion, to send a prayer or wish with me on my next pilgrimage which starts on March 8, 2009. Don't hesitate to ask for benefits for yourself: offer your intention with an open heart and Kuan Yin will hear.
Om Mani Padme Hum
Cate Kodo Juno was ordained as a Buddhist priest in the Esoteric Mantra tradition in Japan in 2002. Her ministry is located at Wabi'an, a small temple dedicated to Kuan Yin, which was built by her husband (also a Buddhist priest) on their bushland retreat in southwest Australia. To send Cate your prayers and wishes to take on this special pilgrimage on March 8, please go to her website www.sacredjapan.com for further details, or write to her at 8 Bouvard Drive, Bouvard, Western Australia 6211.