One of the most unique experiences you can have in Japan is to journey to Mount Koya to take part in an esoteric Buddhist ceremony granting entrance into a sacred mandala—a visual representation of enlightened mind. The event is open to the public and held twice a year at the picturesque Garan temple complex—the home of the Shingon school—which was founded in 826 by the great saint Kobo Daishi.
Kobo Daishi traveled from Japan to the Tang Dynasty capital city of Xi’an in search of the esoteric Buddhist teachings which would become the foundation of the Shingon (“true word”) school of Japanese Buddhism. “Shingon” is equivalent to the Sanskrit term “mantra,” and in fact the Shingon school is one of the very few surviving lineages of Mantrayana or Vajrayana Buddhism in East Asia.
The imagery and symbolism used in Shingon is very similar to what you may find in Tibetan Buddhism. However, Shingon represents a relatively early development in Buddhist tantra. It was transmitted from India to China several centuries before the main transmission of Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet. The main noticeable difference to the casual observer is that Shingon artwork lacks the imagery of meditational deities in union found in Tibetan thangka paintings.
The main similarity that one sees is the use of colorful, intricate mandala paintings used as a meditational aid to guide the initiate through the realm of the enlightened mind. Shingon makes use of two main mandalas—the Garbhadhatu (“womb realm”) and Vajradhatu (“diamond realm”). Both of these mandalas revolve around the figure of the universal Buddha, Mahavairocana (Dainichi Nyorai 大日如來).
The main idea behind esoteric Buddhism is that all beings have Buddha-nature, or the inherent seed of enlightenment, within themselves right from the beginning. Enlightenment can then be achieved in this very life by realizing this truth. The mandalas help to show us that our very nature is no different than that of the primordial Buddha Mahavairocana.
In general, Shingon is not as accessible to Westerners as Tibetan Buddhism is. To fully train in the Shingon school, one would have to at the minimum become fluent in Japanese and spend years closely training under the guidance of a Shingon priest who holds the teaching lineage that has been passed down unbroken from Kobo Daishi.
At a more basic and symbolic level, however, any member of the general public can come to take part in the entry-level initiation ceremony (Kanjō 灌頂) for one of the two mandalas which are held twice a year. The initiation into the Womb Realm is held annually on May 3-5, and the Diamond Realm initiation takes place October 1-3. The cost to join the ceremony is currently ￥3,000 and you may join on any one of the three days.
If at all possible, it is recommended that you arrive in Koyasan for the first day of the ceremony to witness the colorful procession of the Shingon head priests in the morning.
After registering at the temple, you are given a time for when to enter the main hall, as the actual ceremony is held many times throughout the day to accommodate the number of participants. Before entering, you’ll be offered some sandalwood powder to cleans your hands.
If not fluent in Japanese, you may not understand much of what is happening during the short ceremony. But at some point you are given the verbal transmission of a mantra to repeat.
Then all the initiates are lined up and blindfolded. While blindfolded, you are given a flower to hold in your fingers and led to the mandala. There you are instructed to let the flower fall, and the Buddha figure that it lands on is one you have made a karmic connection with.
The best way to experience Koyasan is to stay in temple lodging. There are many small temples on top of the mountain that have rooms for guests to stay in. For the most part, these are traditional Japanese rooms with tatami matting. Many of the temples have activities that guests are invited to participate in such as morning chanting, meditation, and sutra copying. Dinner of vegetarian temple fare is usually included. Try the Japan Ryokan and Hotel Association website to make a booking at one of these temples.
While staying at Koyasan, be sure to take a walk through Okunoin, the largest cemetery in Japan. It is a very hauntingly peaceful place with thousands of pagoda style gravestones nestled beneath the shade of immense evergreen trees.
More information on the mandala initiation and visiting Mount Koya in general can be found at the official website of Koyasan.