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. Many practitioners of Zen Buddhism believe that the “holy fool” has discovered the keys to releasing ego, desire, and attachment to the world – important stages on the road to enlightenment.
My Hiro Hattori mystery series includes a “holy fool” — the silly, freeloading monk named Suke who hangs around Ginjiro’s sake brewery, offering blessings, begging for drinks, and, on occasion, even dispensing wisdom.
During last summer’s research trip to Japan, I witnessed another form of holy foolery: visitors passing through the Buddha’s nostril at Tōdaiji, a Buddhist temple in Nara that houses one of the world’s largest bronze statues of the Buddha Vairocana (in Japanese, “Daibutsu”).
A pillar inside the Great Buddha Hall has a hole the size of the Buddha statue’s nostril (18” in diameter) carved in the bottom. According to legend, anyone who can pass through the Buddha’s nostril will have a long and prosperous life, and is guaranteed to find enlightenment.
People line up for the chance to attempt the feat.
For obvious reasons, most of the people who manage to wiggle through the nostril hole are less than five feet tall and slender. The day I visited Tōdaiji, a businessman got stuck in the hole and had to be extracted by his friends (with the help of the temple guards).
Personally, I elected to bypass enlightenment in favor of dignity. (I’m all too willing to play the fool, but I’d rather not get stuck in anyone’s nostril–even the Buddha’s). However, my son, who had spent the previous three months studying at a college in Kyoto, chose to accept the challenge.
And received a standing ovation from the dozens of onlookers crowded around to watch a 6’2” American man attempt to wiggle through the Buddha’s nose.
I saw a lot of strange, and sometimes unbelievable, things and places in Japan. But watching my adult son squeeze through an 18″ hole in a massive pillar, while a crowd of Japanese visitors cheered him on, was among the strangest–and most fun–of all.