Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Giant Buddha & the Holy Fool

--Susan, every other Sunday

Japanese stories often contain a “foolish wise man”—often a monk—who seems to be crazy but now and then reveals a nugget of wisdom. The archetype is important to Zen practitioners, because within Zen practice, the “holy fool” has supposedly discovered the keys to releasing himself (or herself, though the character is most commonly portrayed as male) from ego, desire, and attachment to the world – an important principle of Zen.

I included a “holy fool” in my mysteries, both to parallel Japanese stories and because I like reading stories with characters who are difficult to fathom. A holy fool is a living koan-- Is he truly foolish? Or is he wise, making the person who judges him as worthless the bigger fool?

My own fictitious fool is Suke, a somewhat silly, freeloading monk who hangs around a Kyoto brewery, offering blessings to anyone kind enough to buy him a drink (and a thousand blessings for a flask…). His balding head, toothless grin, and joyful spirit have made him one of my favorite characters to write.

During last summer's research trip to Japan, I had the chance to observe another form of holy foolery--people attempting to make the traditional passage "through the Buddha’s Nostril" at Todai-ji. 

The Great Buddha Hall, Todaiji

Todai-ji is a Buddhist temple in Nara, Japan, which houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana—in Japanese, “Daibutsu.” The statue is 49 feet tall and weighs over 500 tons.


 One of the massive supporting pillars inside the enormous shrine that houses the Buddha has a hole the size of the Buddha’s nostril carved in the bottom. The hole is roughly square and measures 18" in diameter. (Not a forgiving size if you're larger than a child.)

Not a nostril. The line was too long to photograph it without a human in it.

Legend and tradition say that anyone who can pass through the Buddha’s nostril will have a long and prosperous life and find enlightenment. People line up for the chance to attempt the feat. (I have no photos of the line because, in Japan, it's rude to take photos of strangers without asking permission.)

For obvious reasons, most of the people who manage the passage are under five feet tall, and very slender. The day we went to Todaiji, a businessman got stuck in the "nostril" and had to be extracted by his friends, with the help of the temple guards.

I took one look at the tiny hole and elected to bypass enlightenment in favor of dignity. I’m willing to play the fool at times, but I’d rather not be remembered as the somewhat-heavyset foreign lady who got herself wedged up a Buddha's nostril. 

However, my son—who had spent the previous three months on a study abroad program in Kyoto—opted to take the challenge.

It really is a TINY hole.

 He prevailed…and received a loud standing ovation from the dozens of onlookers crowded around to watch the 6’2” American try to wiggle through the Buddha’s nose.

My son...apparently, more flexible than I.

I thought he was foolish to try...but his success points out that sometimes, that holy fool knows what he's up to after all.


  1. I would have tried it, Fool That I Am! I must put that on my To Do list, crawl through the Buddha's nose.

    1. Excellent! (And I hope you don't end up needing help with extraction...though there are security guards on hand whose job is actually to help remove people from the nose, when the need the great amusement of all onlookers.)

  2. Speaking from decades of first-hand experience, I can report that being the fool makes for a wonderful life...

  3. Dearest, your son will be an enlightened man--not because he crawled throughout he Buddha's nose, but because he had had you for a mother!!

    1. Aww, thank you :) I hope so. I'm so proud of the man he's becoming.