Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Visit to Koya's Sacred Fire

-- Susan, every other Sunday.

In the film The Dark Knight, Batman's butler, Alfred (played by Michael Caine) says that some men's actions cannot be understood by reference to logical motivations.

"...some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money," Alfred says, "...Some men just want to watch the world burn."

These days, too much of the world seems poised to burn, and far too many people seem inclined to light the torch and fan the flames.

Today, however, we're going to light a different kind of fire.

The sacred fire of a Shingon Buddhist goma.

The goma, or fire ceremony, is practiced by the Shingon Buddhist priests as part of their regular morning observances. Some temples perform the goma daily; at other temples, observance is less frequent but no less a vital part of Shingon practice.

While visiting Mount Koya (the heart of Koyasan Shingon, one of approximately 18 Shingon denominations, or sects, worldwide) I had the chance to spend the night at two Shingon temples, Kumagaiji and Ekoin, and to observe the fire ceremony at each temple.

The front gate of Kumagaiji

Although I normally refrain from photographing sacred rituals and spaces, the priests at Kumagaiji (and Ekoin) invited us to photograph, record, and share our experiences.

The goma is unique to Esoteric Buddhism, and involves the lighting of a sacred fire which represents the wisdom of the Buddha and is intended to cleanse (by burning) the root of peoples' suffering, enabling them to thereafter release themselves and their concerns to the Buddha's teachings.

Before the ceremony, worshippers write their prayers and wishes on wooden sticks, which will later be used to feed the sacred flames.

The wooden sticks (center right) upon which we wrote our prayers.

Both Kumagaiji and Ekoin performed the goma immediately after the morning prayer service. The morning service was conducted in the temple's hondo, or worship hall. When the service concluded, we walked from the hondo to a nearby, smaller temple building used specifically for the goma.

The goma temple at Kumagaiji

Inside, we removed our shoes and climbed to a platform where visitors sit to watch and participate in the goma.

A raised area at the center of the platform provided a place for the priest conducting the ceremony to sit and also held the bowl and other ritual implements used for the sacred fire.

The priest tending the sacred fire during the goma.

Behind them, an altar held images of the Buddha, including Fudō Myōō, sometimes also known as the Buddha of Compassionate Fire. (Fudō, the Immoveable One, is an important deity in the Shingon pantheon - and you'll be hearing more about him from me in future posts.)

Fudō Myōō, the Immoveable One

During the ritual itself, a priest prepares and lights the sacred fire, which rises several feet above the bowl as it cleanses and consumes the sticks (and prayers), transforming them into smoke.

The goma in progress. On the right, a priest plays the taikō.

A second priest beats a taiko (drum) and both priests chant specific prayers throughout the fire ceremony, invoking the Buddha's compassion and praying on behalf of the participants, their ancestors, and others on whose behalf the ceremony is conducted.

As the flames begin to die, the priest fans the sacred fire with a book of sutras.

Fanning the flames with sutras.

According to Shingon Buddhist belief, the act of burning the sticks does not, of itself, guarantee that the prayers will be answered or that individuals will cease to suffer. Shingon teachings also require individuals to seek and accept the Buddha's help and protection.

Fudō and other wisdom kings at the entrance to Kumagaiji.

Although I am not a Buddhist, I found the ceremony compelling and moving, and emerged from it touched by both the prayers and the cleansing qualities of the sacred fire.

Some people may want to watch the world burn with negativity, but I dearly hope that we -- as individuals and as a nation -- survive the flames and create a world cleansed of suffering, in which people strive to understand, respect, and love one another as individuals, celebrating our differences instead of reviling those who do not share our experiences and our views.

In fact, that was my goma prayer.  


  1. So beautiful! The ceremony. The locations. The photos. And your beautiful soul, my friend. Your prayer is also mine. I have had fifteen ideas about what I will write about for tomorrow. You have inspired me with a whole new, and compelling topic.

    1. Thank you!! I thought of you when I wrote this, actually, as well as when I attended these ceremonies. I would have loved to have you there with me, and thought at the time how much you would have loved it :)

      Can't wait to see what you have in store tomorrow!

  2. You prayer is a beautiful prayer and a goal we should always strive for. Arrival date is, I'm afraid, a LONG way off, but we WILL survive, and things WILL get better. Cycles within cycles.

    1. I agree, Everett, on all counts. I fear I won't see it in my lifetime, but I do hope I leave the world even microscopically closer to this goal than it was when I entered it, and I'm certainly working hard to do my part.

  3. The beauty of your post is in the thought that this fire shall not destroy us all. That's the kind I wish would spread!