Monday, April 28, 2008

There were something like ten cool neighborhoods in Tokyo that I absolutely had to visit, so I figured ten days would be enough. All my friends warned me about temple burnout, where after your third or twelfth or fiftieth you just can't drag yourself into one more, but I never got enough. Each one was more stunning than the last, suffusing me with Buddhist bliss.

This being the off season, I was more or less alone at a lot of these temples, particularly during the week. To save on electricity they have a button you press that turns on the lights for a minute or two. You admire the shoji screens, gaze at the artworks, marvel at the peaceful, loving, frequently enormous Buddha sitting on the altar. The lights click off and you stand there convinced that this is the most perfect place on earth.

In one quiet blue-collar neighborhood, I stumbled upon an enclave of three temples, and wandered over to the smallest one. I could barely make out silhouettes in the darkness, so I hit the button to turn on the light.

And saw this thing staring at me. Larger than life-size, maybe five feet away. I've never been scared more shitless, and I was married to an Italian.

The plaque just had a paragraph in English, basically saying this guy is the King of Hell. Which got me to wondering: of all the gods to choose from, why would somebody pray to him? There's a god of the harvest, a god of travel, a god of attractive, inexpensive shoes. Why would somebody drop their hard-earned yen into Freaky Dude's donation box? He's pretty much the opposite of Jesus, and if we had a telethon for him on American TV he'd pull in less than Jerry Lewis. You wouldn't catch Grandma pledging her Social Security dollars to fuel his fires for another day.

I asked a couple people about him afterwards, but everybody pleaded ignorance. I'm thinking maybe he's a cultural embarrassment they don't want to admit to, like Hallmark cards or Kathie Lee Gifford. But after a few days thought, I realized he made perfect sense. People are always telling us gays that we're hellbound, so why do we keep trying to forge a relationship with the good guys? The Bible says it's harder for gays to get into heaven than it is to disable a camel with a plastic fork and six Rolaids, so why on earth do we try? Why don't we write off God as a total loss and start kissing up to the other side? Even if our donations and prayers to this guy don't buy us entrance into the VIP area, rubbing elbows with Rock Hudson and Oscar Wilde and Michelangelo, at least they might get us out of an eternity spent in a bunkbed under Ernest Borgnine.

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