Saiunji Temple, Kawagoe, Saitama, Japan

Mass Transitions – Part 1

I want to talk about “mass transitions” by starting this 2-part blog with a “ghost story” — an experience I had in 2011 when Kekoa and I were living in Japan. The country was in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that shook it to its core, had taken the lives of more than 15,000 people, and had everyone on edge and afraid of the unknown. Six or more months later, life in our area of Japan had returned to business-as-usual — people coming together to maintain some type of normality, and I was no different.

I had found a new job at a mobile gaming company and had made my 1.5 hour one-way commute into a ritual of walking, chanting, sleeping (on the trains) and biking. I had a new routine. I was moving on and past all that had happened since, for all that I had experienced, it was nothing compared to the suffering that continues even today.

I’d come home late from work one day. It was almost midnight as I arrived at my station and I was struggling to take my bike out of the bicycle parking lot when I suddenly got chills, but not from the blowing wind. I looked up past the rows of bicycles and through the fence that surrounded the lot. About 10 feet outside of the fenced area, there was an elderly Japanese woman standing by herself in the shadows. And she was looking directly at me. She wore a pale green kimono and she had an umbrella in her hand, closed and pointed down at the ground. I blinked and felt the urge to hurry and get home. I continued looking at her and then, slowly, she took a step closer… one step at a time, dragging the umbrella point on the ground behind her, the entire time maintaining eye contact with me. Another chill ran through me. I realized that she was not of this world. And so I began rushing to unlock my bike, simultaneously chanting silently inside my heart and appealing to the Universe that if she was not of this world to send her on her way. As soon as I finished the chant, the sound of the umbrella point being dragged along the concrete stopped, and I looked up in amazement as the elderly woman seemed to speed walk away from where I was.

Of course, I was still freaked out. I finally unlocked my bicycle and sped as fast as I could up the street that led to my apartment — a street that seemed constantly traveled by spirits and the like. It had begun to rain. And waaaaaay at the end of the road I see a small figure, hunched over, dressed in a green kimono, dragging an umbrella.

There was no way a normal person could have made it that far in such a short amount of time. And as I continued to pedal like mad past the old woman’s figure, the rain turned into a torrential downpour. And the woman never opened the umbrella.

The next day, I couldn’t shake the figure of the kimono-clad grandmother dragging her umbrella as she walked in the rain. I called my mom in America and told her the story and she told me that this woman represented the people who had passed away in the tsunami earlier in the year. Represented the people’s inability to protect themselves from the deluge of water. Represented the culture in Japan of unspoken communication.

She said this woman was asking me to help them transition from this world to the next.

How the hell was I supposed to do that?

My mom said that I should get some incense, and go to some temple. Which incense? What temple? All of that would come to me.

Sure enough, the next day I was drawn to buy a bundle of 線香 (incense) from a nearby store and then catch a train to the next largest city, Kawagoe. I walked directly to Saiun-ji, a Buddhist temple that I had walked passed many times but never gone in to see.

The temple grounds were empty of people, but I was greeted by a number of temple cats who seemed to line my path toward a giant cauldron filled with ash and the remnants of incense offerings. I walked to the metal censer asking myself whether I would have to light each of the sticks of incense I’d brought with me individually. I thought to myself, “Man, I may be here a while” and “I don’t think my lighter is going to be able to handle this” and “Even if I could light the 100 sticks of incense that I brought all at once, there’s no way that I could get them all to stand in one go.”

On the table next to the ash-filled cauldron was a special lighter; it was large and had a plastic “cup” at one end, presumably to block the wind from blowing out the flame. I took out the incense I’d brought, closed my eyes and called out to the spirits who remained from the tsunami. I gave the same prayer that I give with every stick of incense that I light for someone who has passed, but this time said that these 100 sticks were for 100% of those who needed help transitioning. I picked up the special lighter and in an instant, all 100 sticks of incense were ablaze in my hand. I slowly and firmly pushed the fistful of burning sticks into the soft ash in the censer. And all of them stood there, resolutely burning in honor of those who were no longer with us.

And then the wind blew. And I got chills. And I cried. And I knew that I had completed my task.

And I never saw the woman in the green kimono again.

And this was the first time I had ever actively done something for so many beings at one time. I wasn’t sure if I could even do it. To be honest, I didn’t even know what I was doing. But I knew that whatever I had done, I was able to do it for everyone that responded to the call and that not everyone has the ability to help so many at once.

But what does this mean?

To be continued…





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