Japan from the inside out

Crossing over the cloth bridge to paradise

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 24, 2009

HERE WAS THE PROBLEM: How were women to be allowed to reach the Sukhavati paradise, the pure land of bliss in the Jodo sect—enlightenment, in other words—when it was forbidden for them to enter Buddhism’s most sacred sites? Leave it to the Japanese to come up with a solution in a visually stunning ceremony whose elements seem as much artistic as religious, and which is still reenacted today.

The harsh restrictions for women in ancient Buddhism did not apply in this country when the religion crossed over from the Continent. Records indicate there was not an extreme imbalance in the number of male monks and female nuns, and the latter were allowed to have public duties. Some theorize that the example of Japanese female shamans was still fresh. Women in those days also held administrative positions at court.

But the view of women that prevailed in Buddhism in other lands eventually became the theological standard several centuries later, and females became subject to what was termed the Five Obstacles to rebirth. The Big Five are said to originate in the Vinaya, or monastic regulations, and include rebirth as the god Brahma, the god Sakra, Mara, a universal monarch, and as a Buddha. As did many ancients, the Buddhists considered women impure because they bled during menstruation and childbirth. (That’s also the reason they aren’t allowed inside sumo rings, but let’s not stray from the path.)

That meant women couldn’t make the pilgrimage to Toyama to climb Tateyama, one of the three sacred mountains of the Edo Period (1603-1868), for dhyaana (intense meditation; it is also the seventh of Pataanjali’s eight limbs of yoga). But because the Buddhist establishment encouraged the pilgrimages—which also generated income through donations—a way was found to allow women to participate.

The solution was a ceremony called the Nunobashi Kanjoe, literally the Cloth Bridge Sacrament, and it was held during the autumn equinox. The women dressed in white robes, symbolizing shrouds for the dead, and gathered in a hall where they were condemned by the Lord of Hell. (At this point, married men might be forgiven for thinking turnabout is fair play.) They were then blindfolded and led to a bridge, over which they crossed on three strips of white cloth (nuno). The side from which they started represented confusion, and the far side represented enlightenment.

The view of the Tateyama Hell Valley below the bridge and the nearby mountain Tsurugi-dake was supposed to represent…well, hell. In addition, there’s a pond in Hell Valley with a reddish color due to the iron sulfide content. That’s the science, anyway. According to the story told by the male Buddhists, women fell into the pond during childbirth or menstruation, so the color came from their blood. Crossing over the bridge blindfolded allowed them to pass over to paradise while bypassing hell. The expiation of their sins was a bonus.

To make sure they didn’t go astray on the path, or heaven forbid, fall into the bloody Hell Valley pond, they were escorted by priests from the nearby Ashikura temple. To create the proper mood, they listened to music with Buddhist scripture set to verse, called shomyo. They also heard gagaku, the traditional music of Japan’s Imperial house, and which is therefore more associated with Shinto than with Buddhism. With forebears so nonchalant about the extensive intermingling of Shinto and Buddhism, it’s no wonder the religious attitude of many Japanese is anything goes–as long as it doesn’t turn into devil-may-care.

Safely across the bridge and cleansed of their sins, the ladies were led to another hall where their blindfolds were removed in pitch darkness. The shades covering the large windows were lifted, enabling them to see the sacred mountain, which by all accounts is an impressive sight. The experience, they say, is ineffable.

For the return trip over the bridge, they removed their headwear and left their blindfolds behind.

Buddhism fell into disfavor in the early Meiji period, and the last Nunobashi Kanjoe of that era was conducted in 1872. Tateyama was no longer considered a sacred mountain, and women could finally come and go as they pleased.

But it seems that ceremonies can be reincarnated as well as people, because this one came back to life almost 130 years later for the National Cultural Festival in 1996. Three years ago it was held as a “healing ceremony” for the current Heisei period. And this year on 27 September, 71 blindfolded women crossed the Nunobashi once again.

The organizing committee invited women from different parts of the country to come to Tateyama for a modern pilgrimage, and musicians were brought from Tokyo for the shomyo gig. An estimated 3,000 people watched the ceremony, and another 120 people crossed the bridge behind the women, though without the costume or the blindfolds.

The nature of any illumination received by the monks allowed to enter the innermost sacred area of the mountain may be unfathomable to most of us today, but the description of the Nunobashi Kanjoe makes me wonder if the women staked out a plot of their own on the Higher Ground of the Pure Land despite the Five Obstacles—and they didn’t have to become ascetics to do it!

One Response to “Crossing over the cloth bridge to paradise”

  1. Poor women, always have to go through so much to prove themselves. Interesting article!

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