A Rare Ceremony
Dear Family and Friends,
Today was very unusual. My friend Izumi had asked me to an initiation ceremony for a new Buddhist priest. It was to take place far from Sendai, in the countryside. It was a very rare event, so we both felt very honored to be able to attend.
I had always understood that becoming a Buddhist priest in Japan was hereditary. The position went from father to son, often for several generations. Each family was in charge of a particular temple. They usually lived next door, which allowed the atmosphere of each place to be unique, some even feeling rather homey.
That, I learned, is often the case, but not always. It seems many men, unconnected to a temple, decide to join the priesthood. They do it as a kind of supplement to their fulltime work. These men probably will never have their own temple, but will assist in places as needed.
And that was the case with the man being initiated today. Even though his wife came from a long line of Buddhist priests, he, Suzuki Yoshiki San, had never been particularly involved with Buddhism. In fact, he had been raised a Christian.
His life had taken him from job to job, until in his late fifties, he became interested in numerology and how it connected to birthdays, places, and names. He currently carves personal name seals, hanko はんこ. He uses his knowledge of numbers and their influence to carve hanko in such a way that the shape and number of strokes will be harmonious for each individual.
HIs wife has similar interests. Realizing her spouse’s sensitivity to others and the world around him, she kept urging him to become a priest. Finally, in his sixties, he agreed.
I had understood that the kind of ceremony we were to attended today was because Suzuki San had completed his training and was ready to embark on service in the community. But again, I was mistaken.
It turned out this ceremony was held before Suzuki San had even started training. It was truly an initiation, not a graduation. So, at each stage as the ritual unfolded, a priest whispered to Suzuki what he should do. There were six priests in all. One chanted the prayers, one gave instructions to us witnessing the event, one rang a gong, one instructed Suzuki San step-by-step, and all of them prayed bowing their heads to the floor.
Preparing the ritual
There were parts of the ritual that I was able to understand clearly. For example, at one point, the priest conducting the prayers pretended to shave a bit of hair off Suzuki San’s head. “Are you ready to become a priest?” He asked three times. “Yes, I am.” “Yes, I am.” “Yes, I am.” And then the top part of his head was actually shaved.
Then a whisk was used to sprinkle water on Suzuki San as well as on the priest conducting the prayers. That, obviously, was for washing clean, for purifying the heart.
Despite saying “Yes” three times, Suzuki San seemed unsure and rather worried throughout. Izumi said she thought he was nervous with so many people there. His wife, on the other hand, was very much at home. She glided through the entire afternoon with great poise and happiness.
I trust with time Suzuki San will become confident in his new role. And then he will be able to serve the community by going from place to place as needed, just as the six priests did for him today.
Formal photo after the ceremony