Heading east in search of enlightenment

Kurt Kübli has lived in Koyasan for eight years

Koyasan, perched 1,000 metres above sea level in the mountains of western Japan, has been a place of pilgrimage since the eighth century.

This content was published on March 28, 2005 - 08:56

Today the temple town is the home of Kurt Kübli, a Swiss monk who left his homeland three decades ago in search of spiritual enlightenment.

Koyasan was founded 1,200 years ago and is the headquarters of the Shingon Buddhist order.

Hundreds of monks live and work in the town, the streets of which are lined with ancient wooden temples.

It doesn’t take long to track down Koyasan’s only Swiss resident and by far and away the most famous monk in town.

"You want to meet Kurt?" asks the man at Koyasan’s tourist office. "That won’t be difficult. He’s more famous here than Arnold Schwarzenegger."

Kurt was born in Zurich, first visited Japan in 1980 and settled in Koyasan with his Japanese wife eight years ago.

Today he goes by the name of Kurto Gensou and is one of the monks at Muryoko-in, a temple close to the centre of town.

Meeting a monk

There is no sign of Muryoko-in’s resident foreigner when I am ushered along the temple’s creaking wooden corridor and told to wait in a large room overlooking an immaculately kept rock garden.

According to the monk who serves me dinner - a wholesome vegetarian meal prepared in the temple kitchen – Kurt is busy showing visitors around the town and will not be back until after dark.

I am about to settle down on the tatami floor for the night when there is a loud knock. The paper-screen door slides silently open and in walks the man whom I have travelled 6,000 miles to meet. He greets me in English, Swiss-German and Japanese.

"Come on, I’ll show you the local bar," he says. "And if you’re interested, I’ll tell you my life story".

Of all the images of Kurt I could have imagined, none was as a local sitting at the corner table of the only pub in town.

But over a series of beers and cups of warm saké he explains that monks on Koyasan are not obliged or even expected to lead solitary existences.

"We don’t stay shut up all day in the temples. And when we drink alcohol, it is not to get drunk but to relax and talk to people," says Kurt, who once worked as a wine merchant in Switzerland.

"This pub is the best place to find out what’s going on and a little bit of saké helps make the conversation flow."

Previous life

During the course of the evening, Kurt offers hints about his life before Koyasan, which included stints as a banker, businessman, contemporary artist, photographer and student of yoga and flamenco.

He says he never felt at home in Switzerland and is convinced he made the right decision to settle in Japan.

"I don’t hold any particular affection for my home country. I don't even really like cheese, which is something you grow up with there.

"Of course I still have my Swiss passport, which is a very beautiful document. But in my heart, I am a citizen of the world."

There is little time to learn more about Kurt’s formative years in Switzerland, as he has to return to his small room in the temple and prepare for an early start.

"I get up every day at 4am and the first thing I do is make a cup of green tea. In the silence of the morning, even the smallest sound of pouring tea into a cup becomes music," he says.

He then recites "many hundreds or thousands" of different mantras before leading or joining in chanting and singing at the temple’s early-morning ceremony.

Celebrity status

Kurt spends his days showing foreign visitors around Koyasan and researching a book on the main temple complex which he plans to publish in three languages later this year.

But he rejects the suggestion that he has become an international ambassador for the temple town.

"I wouldn’t want to give myself such a title, especially because we Swiss tend to be very modest. Maybe the easiest way of referring to me is as the 'crazy monk’."

Kurt’s celebrity status is not confined to the streets of Koyasan. Japanese and foreign film and television crews have produced documentaries on him and he says he is unable to walk around many cities in Japan without being recognised.

While Kurt is out showing a group of American tourists around the temple precincts, I ask some of his colleagues at Muryoko-in what the locals make of him.

"He doesn’t fit into any particular category," says one. "And you can’t pigeonhole him in any way. He’s just a unique character."

As if to prove the point, Kurt later responds to my attempts to interview him about the path to enlightenment by signing me up for a two-hour Thai massage at a nearby temple.

"The massage may be painful, but it is very good for re-energising the body and mind," he assures me.

Rude awakening

Next morning, the temple gong rings in my ears shortly before 6am. Kurt slides open the door in a mild panic to inform me that my train leaves in less than 20 minutes.

He summons several monks to help gather up my belongings and bundle them and me into the waiting temple car.

The engine is running, but the temperature has fallen overnight, thick snow covers the ground and the windscreen is hidden under a layer of unbreakable ice.

As I turn to ask Kurt if we are going to miss the train, he darts out of the temple kitchen clutching an enormous copper kettle.

The scalding contents are emptied over the glass, the ice melts in an instant and Kurt – clad in wooden clogs and ceremonial robes – jumps in the driver’s seat and slams the door.

"It’ll be tight, but you’ll be on time," he says accurately.

He may have travelled to the other side of the world in search of a timeless paradise. But when it comes to precise timekeeping, Kurt remains as Swiss as they get.

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh in Koyasan, Japan

Key facts

Kurt Kübli has lived as a monk in the Japanese temple town of Koyasan for the past eight years.
He shares a small room at Muryoko-in temple with his Japanese wife and is currently writing a book on the Garan, Koyasan’s main temple complex.
Muryoko-in offers overnight accommodation (including two vegetarian meals prepared by the resident monks) for ¥9,500 (SFr107).

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