Monday, 30 May 2016

Japan, Land of the Rising Sun - 2

Nara, Oshina Hakkai,& Hakone

On 12th morning we vacated the hotel and moved with our hand luggage to Nara.  Our main luggage was transported separately to our next hotel of stay, Jirigonno Fuji No Yakata.  In Nara our first place of visit was Todaji Temple, located in the Nara Park. It has one of the largest bronze statues of Buddha which is 15 metres tall and is flanked by two Bodhisattvas. A popular attraction is a pillair which has a hole in its base.  It is believed that those who can squeeze through the hole from one side to the other will get enlightenment, if not in this birth at least in the next birth. Deer roam freely in Nara park and it is said there are around 1200 of them in the park.  Deer -crackers are sold in the park and visitors feed them these crackers. The deer freely surround the visitors seeking cookies.

From Nara Park we made our way to Kyoto where we had lunch and moved on to the station to board the bullet train, Kodama super express to Shin Fuji.  Though called a super express it halted in almost all stations on the way. We could feel the speed only when we stood in the passage between compartments.  Our night stay was at Jirgonna Fuji No Yakata, a traditional Japanese style hotel which was set on the foothills of Mount Fuji and surrounded by woodland. We wore Yakata, a sort of dressing gown, for dinner which was on buffet style. We had carried yoghurt with us and so taking more than a bowl of rice, we managed our dinner without difficulty.  It has an indoor hot spring bathhouse which you can make use of only in the buff.   So I alone made use of it after dinner before going to bed. Photos of Nara can be seen in Flickr album ‘Nara’ @

Next morning after breakfast we left for Oshino Hakkai, a small village which has eight ponds which are fed by melting snow filtering down the slopes of Mt. Fuji through the porous layers of lava. So waters in the lakes are clear spring waters and are known as Springs of Mt. Fuji. Next to one pond, we can drink the cool water straight from the source.  After drinking from the source we also filled our bottle with the cool spring water.  There are large fishes in this pond swimming merrily. Also we could see houses with beautiful private gardens.  There are many small shops and vendors around the pond selling local foodstuff.  In contrast to the first day, we had clear bright sky on all other days. This made possible a beautiful view of Mt. Fuji, bright and without clouds, which we were told is not a regular phenomenon.

From the village of Oshino Hakkai we went to the Peace Park, in Gotemba.  It commands a good view of Mt. Fuji and houses a stupa in white chalk.  This stupa was a donation from India by the then Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Along with the stupa, the ashes of Buddha was also donated by India, which is kept in the Stupa. In the Stupa there are four golden images of Buddha, one on each of its four sides.  In front of the stupa the guardian dogs representing various Asian Buddhist countries are there.  Foremost of them near the Stupa is the one representing India. Although referred to as dogs they more resemble lions.   On the opposite side is a row of Kirins.  Kirin is a mythological sacred animal with the face of a dragon, the tail of a bull and hooves of a horse. There is also a Japanese garden and a temple and images of Deity of Mercy.  The park has numerous cherry trees and in the cherry blossom season, the beautiful cherry blossoms in the backdrop of Mt. Fuji are a grand sight to watch, it was said.

Our next halt was at Hakone Shrine. Shinto places of worship are called shrines and are usually found in beautiful natural settings.  Shintoism is the oldest and original religion of Japan. The followers of Shintoism believe that spiritual powers exist in the natural world. They believe that "spirits" called kami live in natural places such as in plants, stones, mountains, rivers etc.  Shinto shrines are marked by a special archway called a Torii.  This archway is believed to separate the sacred world of the shrine from the world outside.  Purity is important to Shinto followers and therefore they rinse their mouths and wash their hands before entering the prayer hall. Here the shrine is up a small wooded hill with a flight of steps to the main shrine and a huge Torii Gate before the start of steps. In shrine there are no images and it is the prayer hall where they pray to Kami.  Before the shrine there is a fountain whose water is used for cleaning the hands and rinsing the mouth before entering the shrine for prayer.  Buddhism came to Japan from India much later and the place of worship of  Buddhist religion is called the Temple and it houses the image of Buddha and Bodhisatvas.  Shintoism and Buddhism are two leading religions of Japan, peacefully co-existing. 

From Hakone shrine we went to the shores of Lake Ashi for a cruise in the lake in a pirate ship. The lake was formed after the last eruption of Mount Hakone.  This was a scenic 30 minute cruise from one end of the lake to the other.  After disembarking at the other end, we left for Tokyo. Photos of Oshino Hakkai and Hakone can be seen in Flickr album ‘OshinoHakkai  & Hakone’ @

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Japan, Land of the Rising Sun - 1

Osaka and Kyoto

We went on a short tour to Japan taking the “Japan, Land of the Rising Sun” tour of Nexus Holidays. We left Sydney on the night of 8th May ’16 by China Southern Airlines flight CZ 302. We had a change-over at Guangzhou, China where we took another flight CZ389 to Osaka.  We landed in Kansai International airport of Osaka at 13:10 of 9Th May.  After clearing our luggage and coming out we were met by the tour guide, Jennifer and joined by few other members of the tour group who had also travelled by that flight. Together we left for the first hotel of stay, Stargate Hotel, Kansai Airport. The hotel was convenient and we had a good view of the Osaka bay from our room.  The hotel was located near the Rinku Premium outlets and Rinku pleasure town. Since there was no other activity scheduled for that day we took it easy resting after the long flight and then exploring the shops and restaurants in the Rinku town. We were happy to locate there a McDonalds where we took chips and cheeseburger as our night dinner.

The next day after breakfast, we left with our luggage and 27 other members of the tour party to Kyoto for sight-seeing, escorted by the tour guide.  Kyoto was the capital of Japan and also the emperor’s residence until 1868.  It has a number of temples and shrines and heritage sites. It is the city of traditional culture with a modern face. Here we first visited the historic temple of Klyomizu-dera, established in 778.  It is on the UNESCO world heritage list as a historic monument. There is a three-storied pagoda and a bell tower besides a big hall and other cultural properties.  This temple is also known as “Pure Water Temple”, as it is on the site of Otowa waterfall in the wooded hills and it is considered beneficial to drink the waters of this waterfall.  The water falls in three streams and cups with handles are stacked there to catch water and drink. There is also a shrine dedicated to love before which stand two stones wide part. Going from one to another blindfolded successfully is supposed to help one to get a suitable match. During our visit to the temple it was drizzling all along. Myself holding umbrella and Rajam wearing poncho braved the drizzle and negotiated the steep and busy approach to the temple, crowded with souvenir shops  and restaurants selling traditional food, and also the visited the various places of interest in the temple besides drinking the sacred pure water for longevity and good health. We could not enjoy much the scenic surroundings as it was drizzling on and off, mostly lightly and occasionally heavily.

Another important place we visited was Kinkakuji, also known as Golden pavilion. It is a Zen temple built overlooking a pond. There is an impressive garden surrounding the pond.  We can look at the temple from across the pond only as it is not open to visitors and  only the windows are kept open to have a peep-in from distance.  It is a three storeyed building with top two floors completely covered in gold leaf. As we go round the pond, we come across statues behind the temple at which people throw coins for good luck. Here also we went round with umbrella and in poncho, unfazed by the continuous on and off drizzle and so could not enjoy much the garden.

The modern Kyoto station stands in complete contrast to the traditional Kyoto city. It has an observation deck on the 11th floor of the station building which is reached through a number of elevators and finally by a flight of steps. There is a covered skyway, 45 meters above the central hall covering the length of the station. Through its glass walls one can have good views of the city as well as the station below. There are also two malls and one departmental store in the station, besides number of restaurants, few of them western-style. From here only we took the bullet train to Mt. Fuji later. Photos of Kyoto can be seen  @

Lunch was in a traditional Japanese style restaurant.  Though the tour guide took pains to get certain vegetarian dishes, Japanese style, we could not relish them and were content with a bowl of rice mixed with hot water like soup. But luckily as we returned to Osaka, before going to the new hotel in the heart of the town, ANA Crowne Plaza, we went round Shin-Sai Bashi, a market place in Osaka, where we were happy to locate a McDonalds and we had our dinner of chips and cheeseburger there.  Our new hotel was also very convenient and I could locate a convenient store “Family Mart” nearby where bananas, packed egg and cheese sandwiches, ready to eat cup noodles and yoghurts were available.  Morning breakfast was no problem anywhere as it was on buffet style and we could manage with cereals, bread, butter, jam and fruits. It is only Japanese style lunch and dinner that was the problem.  Though rice was available, yoghurt was not available and we  learnt to carry it in some places.  I was also looking for yoghurt in convenient  stores wherever we went.  So much so whenever we sat for dinner or lunch other group members started asking us whether we have bought yoghurt.

The next day was a free day in Osaka and we decided to go by ourselves to Osaka castle by local transport.  In the hotel they had a road map for the way from the hotel to castle giving directions in English with Japanese translation, which was very useful.  We took the train from the nearest Midosuji line, Yodayabashi station, changed over in Honmachi to chu-o line and reached Tanimachi 4 Chome, and walked to castle. As  almost all boards and instructions were in Japanese, the cross over from one line to another was also difficult  and there was quite a distance to walk in the subway to change lines. It was a very different experience from the subways we had used in U.K. and Australia.  The castle is an imposing structure and is an important landmark in the city. The castle tower is surrounded by secondary citadels, gates, turrets and moats and there is an informative museum in the castle. It has also a lift that facilitates reaching the top. The nearby castle park has lots of green and also sports facilities.  It seems the park will present a grand sight in the Cherry blossom season. As we were returning we could spot a Subway Restaurant, and having a Vege-delite sandwhich there for dinner was a sheer delight. Photos of Osaka can be seen  @


Friday, 6 May 2016

Nama Siddantha

Nama stands for Divine name, any one name of the Lord as Saguna Brahman. Saguna Brahman is the formless Supreme with Its power of Maya manifest.   The forms and names are many for Saguna Brahman as Lord Sri Krishna states in Gita (10-40) “There is no end to my divine manifestations, O destroyer of enemies”. Lord also states in another place (4-11) “In whatever form or manner they seek me, I favour them in that form or manner”.  Efficacy of Nama constitutes the core philosophy of Nama Siddantha.  It embraces the sadhanas connected with Nama, namely Nama Japa, Dhyana of Nama, Nama Sankeertan, and Divya Nama Bhajan. While in Divya Nama Bhajan devotional songs on various Namas are sung; in others, Nama of an Ishta Devata is taken for chanting, meditation or group singing in Satsang. Of these Nama Sankeertan is most favoured one as in Satsang, control of the wandering mind and concentration on Nama is more easily achieved. To illustrate that the name of the Lord is superior to the form it relates to, an incident relating to Lord Sri Rama and his ardent devotee Hanumanji is quoted.

The king of Kashi was going to Ayodhya to pay his respects to Lord Sri Rama.  Sage Narada met him on the way and requested a favour. The king agreed and Sage Narada told him not to bow down before sage Viswamitra when he meets him. The king agreed and did likewise. Sage Viswamitra took it as an insult and was upset. He took the matter to Sri Rama and demanded that the king be punished for the deliberate insult.   Sri Rama promised to lay the king’s head at his preceptor’s feet.  The king got frightened on hearing about this. So he approached Sage Narada to save himself from Sri Rama’s wrath.  Sage Narada advised him to seek the protection of Anjana Devi, mother of Hanumanji.   The King went to her and sought her protection first and when he got the assurance, he narrated that it is from Sri Rama’s anger he sought protection. She felt troubled but as she had given the word, she asked her son to help the king to survive Sri Rama’s wrath.  Hanumanji  was in a dilemma but decided to risk Sri Rama’s displeasure to help him. He stretched his tail and wound it round the king like a fortress and sat on top of it chanting the name of Sri Rama.  Sri Rama in the meanwhile went in search of the king and not finding him, shot an arrow charging it with Mantras to seek and bring the head of the king. But the arrow stopped in the mid-air and turned and fell at his feet. Puzzled Sri Rama decided to use the infallible Brahmastra. Then Sage Narada appeared and asked him to listen carefully to the faint sound coming from distance before acting.  Sri Rama listened and he heard the chant of his name by Hanumanji.  Sage Narada then narrated to Sri Rama all that happened and also explained  that his Nama is more powerful than His own Self. Meanwhile Sage Viswamitra also came there, contrite over the crisis he had precipitated.  Sage Narada asked the king to prostrate before Sage Viswamitra laying down his head at the Sage’s feet, as promised by Sri Rama. The king prostrated accordingly and Sage pardoned him. Sri Rama was also relieved to know that it was all a ploy by Sage Narada to demonstrate the power of His name. 

There is another story in Bhagavatha, the story of Ajamila, to emphasise the glory of Nama.  Ajamila is a Brahmin who forgot the Vedic ways and turned a sinner led astray by his senses. At his death-bed, in the last few moments of his life he called out  “Narayana” with passion and love, not thinking of the Lord, but thinking of his youngest son, Narayanan. Still he was saved because of the power of the Nama and taken to Vaikunta. This story is not to be taken literally but understood for its message.  The thrust of the story is the emphasis on the efficacy of Nama even when spoken of involuntarily, what to speak of use in japa, dhyana, Bhajan or Sankeerthan, with devotion and dedication. Of these the importance of  Nama Sankeerthan which is the easiest to practice cannot be overemphasised in the modern days of temptations and distractions galore and spiritual indifference. 

One of the pioneers of Nama Siddanta was the fifty-ninth Peetathipathi of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, Sri Bodendra Saraswathy Swamigal, known as Bhagavan Nama Bodendral.  In his work Namamrta-Rasayana, he outlines six reasons for the glory of Nama.
1) The repetition of Nama is open to all irrespective of caste, sex, and stage in life and involves no injury to any living being.
2) It does not require any ancillary aid.
3) It does not need the intercession of third person for giving result.
4) It can be performed at any time – no time restraints.
5) It can be performed in any place – no place restraints.
6) There are no ritualistic regulations governing it. 

Although there are no extraneous restrictions, the sadhaka should steer clear of Nama-Aparadha, offence against Nama which will be incurred by:
1) Speaking ill of others and insulting Bhagavathas and other good people.
2) Making distinction between Siva and Vishnu, in respect of their names or attributes.
3) Showing disrespect to Guru.
4) Deriding Vedas and/or other sastras.
5) Relying on efficacy of Nama as a shield and abandoning nithya, naimithika karmas.
6) Non - cultivation of virtues enumerated as Daivi Sampath in Gita like Ahimsa, Satyam etc. 
7) Sporting Ahamkara and Mamakara.
8) Losing faith in the efficacy of Nama
9) Initiating one lacking faith in Nama into the practice of Nama Japa.
10) Straying from the path of Dharma.

In Vishnupurana there is a verse that says;”What is gained through Dhyana in Kritha yuga, through yajnas in Tretha yuga and through ritual worship in Dvapara yuga is obtained by chanting the names of  Kesava (standing for God) in Kali yuga”.  Yugas here can be interpreted not as the ages in physical time but as the state of mind from the least evolved state of consciousness represented by Kali Yuga to the highest developed state represented by Kritha yuga, observes Dr. T.M.P. Mahadevan.  What is gained by Dhyana, Yajnas and ritual worship is Chitta-Suddhi and through that Jnana Yogyatha. The Chitta-suddhi and Jnana yogyatha are easily gained through Nama Sankeerthan is the point of emphasis here. This we can see from Gita {(9-14) and (10- 10 & 11)}.  Describing such devotees, Lord Krishna says in Gita (9-14) - “Constantly singing my glory and striving with firm resolve (for liberation)  and bowing down to me in devotion,  they worship me with single-minded devotion, ever united with me”.  After describing them again in next chapter, Sri Krishna follows it up with the assurance (10-10 &11)-“To them ever united with me and worshipping me with love, I confer that Yoga of wisdom through which they come to me. I abiding in their hearts dispel the darkness born of ignorance, by the shining light of Jnanam.”

Nama siddantha is common to followers of all systems of philosophy including Advaita. The two great teachers of Nama Siddantha, Sri Bodhendral and Sri Sridhar Ayyaval were adherents of Advaita philosophy and what more the former was an ardent Vishnu bhaktha while the other an ardent Siva-bhaktha. The essence of teaching of all sastras is that one should surrender oneself to God to earn God’s Grace and to realize God.  And engaging in Nama Sankeerthan with ananya bhakthi is an easy way of surrendering oneself to Lord.