Don’t Panic II: The Female Buddha (#1 of a 3-issue mini-series)

Chaos in Print

Kumagaya sits on the Takasaki line. At the end of this line lies the city of Takasaki. I’ve always been curious about this city. What is the final destination? What things await a person at the end of the line? I’d quite frequently ask my coworkers and students, but they all told me the same thing. “Don’t bother, Mark, there’s nothing there.” One who had never even set foot in that direction described it simply as “a bigger Kumagaya.” So, it seemed like there was little point in going. Until, one fateful day, when I met a Takasakian. (Now, this isn’t a big romantic tale, sadly, although it does involve a boy and a girl.)

One aspect of my job that I get to do very little of is the interview. This is where I get to talk to a prospective student, gauge their English level, and “make the sale.” (i.e., get them to sign up for English classes.) Late one recent Saturday, my final class was cancelled, so I was cleaning classrooms and killing time until quitting time. Suddenly, the visiting district manager came screaming down the hallways looking for me. A prospective had just shown up, and could I do an interview? I threw aside my rag and bucket of soapy water and said, “Most certainly!” I dried my hands as I pumped the district manager for info on this prospective, and soon the DM escorted me into the interview room to meet this prospective.

Now, there are different kinds of interviews that I can do, depending on the prospective’s level of English. After speaking with this prospective, I figured her English was good enough to try the “suggestions” interview. In this one, you ask the prospective what kinds of things you can do in their hometown, and then teach phrases like “You should…” and “Check out….” So, I launched into the interview. Naturally, with such a scenario, the first thing you ask is, “Where are you from?” She told me she was from Takasaki, which stunned me. It’s a full half-an-hour away, and is full of many English schools of its own (including one that belongs to my company). She’d come a long way to meet little ol’ me. Continuing the interview, I (quite honestly) said, “Well, I’ve never been to Takasaki. What can I do there?” She said, “Well, there’s this English school, and that English school, and even another English school….” I stopped this list and said, “No no no. Something fun!” The prospective and the DM (who was sitting in on the interview) thought this was hilarious. Once the laughter died down, the prospective began speaking to the DM in Japanese. The DM just nodded and said, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea,” and then told me what the prospective just told her.

It was something in Japanese that I had never heard of before. I asked the prospective if she new the English name. The prospective and DM again conferred in Japanese. The DM looked at me and said, “I don’t know how to describe it. It’s a…female Buddha.” This struck me as odd. I took the required religion courses at Augustana, and in the overview of Buddhism in Religion 101, I got the distinct impression that there was only one Buddha. And he was a guy. I asked for more information, and the prospective told me of this huge statue of the female Buddha and how it was the symbol of Takasaki. We all conferred in English and Japanese for a while, trying to figure out the English name of this “female Buddha.” Finally, I just gave up and said to the prospective, “Well, you know, there are many things in Japan that have no name in English, so we just use the Japanese name, like sushi and sake. I’m sure that the Japanese name will be OK.” She told me the Japanese name, and we continued with the interview. The prospective signed up to the delight of the DM, and it was finally quitting time to the delight of me.

A few days went by, and the whole concept of the female Buddha was still tickling my brain. Sadly, I had long forgotten the Japanese name, and the only thing rolling around in my skull was “female Buddha.” It was becoming one of those things that you ponder as you lay awake in bed waiting to fall asleep. I knew it was time to learn more about the female Buddha. Like any good Starfleet officer, I knew that the best person to offer me a solution would be an expert in the field. I grabbed my cellphone and fired off an e-mail to L. Having made religious studies her major way back in university, I occasionally find that L is overflowing with knowledge of faiths. I asked her the humble question “Is there such a thing as a female Buddha?”

She got back to me within the hour and her answer was a simple, “No, but….” She then filled me on the aspect of Buddhism known as the Bodhisattvas. These are people who are enlightened beings in the Buddhist faith, and they can be both male and female. I let this fact set in and started thinking that maybe it was a Bodhisattva that the prospective was telling me about. I then fired off my next question to L: do they build shrines to and statues of the Bodhisattvas? L’s answer was, “Hell, ya!” She then went on to correct me that it’s temples, not shrines, that they build, and that Kannon is the most famous Bodhisattva. Kannon is female and akin to a goddess of mercy and compassion. L also advised me that the Asakusa temple (the largest temple in Japan. It’s in Tokyo and I keep saying I’m going to visit it some day) is a temple to Kannon. As I read this over and let it sink in, it seemed to me that “Kannon” was the Japanese name that the prospective mentioned.

At this point, I told L the whole story of the prospective and Takasaki and the female Buddha, mainly because I hate people who speak in cryptic questions and I try not to do it myself. With the whole story in hand, L sat down at her computer and did a quick search for Takasaki. Her final data burst told me that she found pictures online, visually verified that it was a statue of Kannon, and that it was friggin’ huge! On my next trip to the Internet café, I did some of my own research on Kannon in Takasaki. Yup, it was a massive statue, built 50 years ago by a guy who wanted to help spread the message of Kannon. Housed within the statue is a museum dedicated to Kannon and her teachings. The museum was open daily 9-5, 9-4:30 in the winter. And it towers over the treetops. It was Sunday afternoon when I got all of this information, and I started putting a plan in place to check it out on Monday. 8 days after I first found out about this Kannon, it seemed I finally had a reason to go to the end of the line. I was going to Takasaki.


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