Buddha’s Nostril

Has the memory of a special place you visited as a child stayed with you? Have you been able to return?

On my first trip back to Japan since childhood, I wanted to go see the giant statue of Buddha in Nara at Todai-ji Temple.  Before I moved back to the United States, my fourth grade class at Stella Maris International School had gone on a fieldtrip here and I had never forgotten it.  On my return visit 35 years later, I was still impressed by the size of the statue and Buddha’s expression of quiet wisdom.  William and Natalie were in awe, both saying they could see why I had never forgotten this long-ago fieldtrip.

Prior to our family trip, I began writing a memoir with a scene that takes place here. Now I was curious to see how my childhood memory of the Buddha statute matched up with the reality.  Amazingly, it did.

When William, Natalie and I entered the temple, we were greeted by the unexpected silence that I remembered from my first visit.  Standing still, I could see myself with my classmates and “Sister McGowan,” staring up at the immense bronze statue of Buddha that was at least fifty times our size.  My childhood memory was that the Buddha had appeared to be watching us.  I remembered the scent of incense had tickled my nose.  I could hear Sister McGowan explaining, “One of Buddha’s teachings is that all things change.”

In the entryway to the Temple, not far from Buddha’s watchful gaze, is a large wooden post with a hole carved into it.  This hole is the exact size of Buddha’s nostril.

I remember one of the girls noticing the large hole and in a voice filled with awe, reading aloud a sign affixed to the beam, “This hole is the size of the Buddha’s nostril.  If you can crawl through it, you will enjoy eternal happiness.” All of us had congregated around the beam.  The largest girl in the class skeptically studied the hole and then dropped down to her hands and knees and stuck her head and body into one side of the hole and reappeared out the other.  Laughing, all of the other girls lined up to do the same.  Holding her index finger up to her lips, Sister McGowan had tried to quiet us but to no avail. Finally, she couldn’t help but join in the laughter. Indeed, at that moment, eternal happiness seemed possible.

Here’s a photograph I took of Natalie crawling through Buddha’s nostril.


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