Sunday, September 18, 2016

At Standing Rock

We have been camping for two days at the Standing Rock encampments along the bottomlands along the Cannonball River south of Bismarck, North Dakota.

As I write this, sitting in the shade of one of our tents in a huge grassy meadow, I hear horses neighing, hoofbeats, children’s voices in the distance, laughter, the soft rumble of truck engines, and the muffled sound of drums and the PA system at the main gathering place, a quarter of a mile away.

I can see tents and tipis, willow shelters, blue tarps, and horse trailers, and along a hill nearby, the line of more than three hundred tribal flags, a “native United Nations”. Through cottonwood trees, there is a hint of blue: the Missouri River. Six kids bareback on painted horses are walking by, one lying backward on his horse. There are perhaps five or six thousand people here – the numbers fluctuate from day to day, but that’s been the average each weekend, and today is Saturday – but in the midst of the bustle, it seems peaceful.

Yesterday on the way here  we stopped first at the Bismarck Mandan UU congregation and met with the president, Steven Crane, the minister, Karen Van Fossan, and a few others. This small liberal congregation has found itself on the front line of an immense and unprecedented movement.

After visiting the congregation, we drove south in the rain through the soft green prairie hills of North Dakota. The road that leads directly to the encampments and Standing Rock was closed to all but local traffic by the National Guard, but it was easy enough to drive around the detour. There are several camps here: the first camp to form, called the Camp of the Sacred Stones, Rosebud Camp on one side of the Cannonball River, and the largest, Oceti Sakowin, where we are. on the other side of the Cannonball, a tributary to the Missouri.

The folks at the UU congregation had suggested that we go to the largest camp,, since it is the largest and most active. The first sight of the camp, where the road crests the hill, was breathtaking: tipis and tents spread across the low land, kids galloping their horses, and that magnificent corridor of flags.

As we drove down into the camp, the people at the entrance smudged our vehicle with sage. We found a spot out in the meadow, and within a few minutes two people galloped up on horseback: Deedee (one of the medics) and Frank, here to greet us and give us the lay of the land. In the next hour, we were greeted repeatedly and made to feel welcome.

Day and night there are speakers at the main area, near the kitchen, the donations tent, the cooler (a refrigerated trailer) the medic tent, and “command central” – the tent where all the logistics happen.

In the center of a big swept open area is a fire that seems to be always burning, over on one side another fire with huge pots of coffee always brewing, and under a tarp nearby, a large drum ringed by chairs.

Over the last two days we have heard many powerful words and prayers. This is a place of prayer above all else. Every time a new tribal delegation comes in, they introduce themselves and speak to the gathering, often beginning in their native language.

Today the Hopi arrived  after a 30 hour trip (and the Hopi carry such weight and spiritual power that it feels like those last words should all be in caps –TODAY THE HOPI ARRIVED). twenty five Hopi in full regalia, and they spoke of their own struggles to protect their water – the arsenic in the river that is making their kids sick, the wastewater used for making snow for skiing on their sacred peaks, the tram being planned into the Grand Canyon, their creation place, and why they felt compelled to travel here in support of the Standing Rock Sioux.

Here are a few of the words I have heard in the last day.

From a Lakota woman: “I come from Wounded Knee. Someone threatened to kill me for what it is that I say, and I said, ‘Go ahead, my people have already been killed at Wounded Knee. Put me in jail; I’m already gay. There’s nothing you can do to me. But I am peaceful – there is no justice in killing someone else.”

From an elderly Lakota man, “I’m nobody, just a man. But there were over 200 pipe carriers [carriers of the traditional sacred pipes, handed down for generations] here the day of the court decision. One mind, one heart, one prayer. This is a prayer that is going all over the world. What you are praying for is spreading energy all over, for all races, all people.”

From the brother of Arvol Looking Horse, the carrier of the White Buffalo Calf Woman pipe, “We as native people see Mother Earth, and she is suffering. If the prophecies go through, the earth is done.”

From the traditional Standing Rock man who began the first camp with a group of young people, speaking at the place where the pipeline crosses the road and where burial sites were disturbed: “For 97 days we prayed, just a little group of us, while the pipeline got closer, and then people started to come. The water was calling, our prayers were calling, and you heard. ”

And from a very elderly woman, in tears. "I cry for my people. I hope that my people can survive this. I pray that my people will survive."

There are native people from all over the US and Canada, many of them with few resources, traveling here however they can. We met a woman from Iowa who had sold nine puppies from her two dogs to have the money to get here. She showed us pictures of her puppies, and then, in the next photo, a picture of the “poisoned river, full of runoff” near her house. Once here, it is entirely a gift based world. No money changes hands.

But there is also a feeling of something international here: the man from Venezuela who wants someone to come down to his country and tell indigenous people there what is happening here; the ceremony for three native men who died helping the Kurds, young Palestinians pledging their support to Standing Rock.

There are non-Indian activists too, like us, but we are in the minority. Nonetheless, we are welcomed. At one ceremony, where the whole camp was thanking the Hopi, one of us felt that perhaps as non-Indians we shouldn’t participate. A native man nearby said, “No, it’s not like that here. We are in this together. All races are in this together.” One of us was told, "I do not hold you accountable for the actions of your ancestors."

One of the things I want to stress is the tremendous spiritual depth and commitment to nonviolence here. The elders are teaching peace all the time, and a huge sign that could be read from the air reads, “We are peaceful.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t warriors here – there are, men and women, riding their horses at a gallop when needed somewhere  - but they are peaceful protectors, under the watchful eye of powerful spiritual elders.

Well, it’s getting dark, and the drumming is starting up again. More later…

"Until we are all one peoples, we shall never win."

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Headed to Standing Rock

Earlier this summer I began hearing about something happening near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. A few people from Standing Rock on horseback were trying to stop the construction of an oil pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline, that would cross the Missouri River just upstream of their community. Many were arrested. The next I heard, they had been joined by people from the other six Lakota Sioux tribes, then by the Cheyenne, and then tribal people from across the country started getting in their cars and trucks and driving to the camp on the banks of the Missouri River, the longest river in North America.

Now, in September, there are flags of 300 indigenous nations flying at the Camp of the Sacred Stones, and there are several hundred to several thousand people (depending on the moment), of all races, at three different camps, all gathered in support of nonviolent resistance to the “black snake.”

From the Pacific Northwest the Lummi Totem Pole Journey and the Canoe families came to the camp. The people there say they are not “protestors,” they are water protectors, and they are doing this for all of us. Many faith and environmental communities have joined their voices in support, including Rev. Peter Morales, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, who called on Unitarian Universalists to support the Standing Rock Sioux.

As I watched videos and talked to people who had been to Standing Rock over the past weeks, I could feel my heart turning toward North Dakota, almost as if a part of me was already traveling there, longing to bear witness to something extraordinary, something never before seen at this scale on this continent or perhaps anywhere, the rising up of so many tribal nations to protect water and land - although all over the world indigenous people have been engaged in this struggle for many years. And the protectors have been clear that they need the support of everyone – that without many witnesses, they could be silenced, just as they have been intimidated and silenced before, for these last 150 years.

Ten days ago I gave a sermon about water, as part of the annual water ceremony that happens in many UU congregations, and I spoke about Standing Rock and showed a video of 13 year old Tokata Iron Eyes, talking about why she was there as a water protector. I said then that I felt I needed to be in North Dakota, and afterward people came up to me and said, “I want to be there too. Let me know if you go.”

But how could I go? I just began a new ministerial position at Quimper UU in Port Townsend, Washington, and it seemed crazy to just pick up and go to North Dakota. I have sermons to write, committee meetings to attend. But I kept thinking of the UUs in 1965 who heard the call from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Selma, and how many of them, certainly many of the ministers, had responsibilities that could have kept them home: sermons to give, committees to attend. And yet, and yet…they got in their cars, got on airplanes, got on trains to travel to Selma to support those who were struggling nonviolently for basic civil rights, against enormous odds and overwhelming police presence, threats, and brutality.

How is this different? In North Dakota there are people who have also been oppressed for generations, rising up courageously, facing their own fear for the sake of their culture and community and for the rest of us, and calling for people of conscience to join them. And native people from the Northwest and around the country have answered that call. How can I not?

Then one night last week I watched this beautiful music video, All Nations Rise, and I watched it again and again, and with each repetition I felt more that I needed to go. But how? When? I realized that I had a few days this week that I had planned to take as time away. I could take the train and rent a car in Minot, ND. I looked at schedules and wondered if I had the audacity to do this. I participated in a prayer vigil for Standing Rock and blessed others who were going. I knew I could go on my own, but that didn’t feel quite right. What to do?

On Monday the 12th, I started putting the word out that I was “seriously thinking” of going to Standing Rock, first to the people who had come up to me after my sermon, then to the UU ministers’ listserves and Facebook pages, then to the Native Peoples Connections Action Group, and lo and behold, there were people who wanted to come, with virtually no notice: first Carl Allen from Quimper UU, then Rev. Dennis Reynolds from Whidbey Island, then Share DeWees and Ethan Walat from Quimper UU, then, on the morning of our departure, yesterday the 14th of September, Paula Schmidt. With some trepidation, on Tuesday I talked with my senior minister, Rev. Bruce Bode, about my crazy, last minute idea, and he said, “Go. It is part of your call and it will benefit this congregation too.” I was touched by his support.

So there are six of us traveling together by train. As I write these words, the train is traveling across the prairie in Eastern Montana, and this small collection of committed souls, most of whom did not know each other before yesterday afternoon, are becoming a traveling community. It has the feeling of a pilgrimage, and it seems that each person in their own way feels that this journey is significant spiritually and personally as well as politically.

Carl Allen is in his early 70s, a UU for more than 30 years, and a retired engineer from the Washington ferry system. He is a father to four and a grandfather to eight. Two years ago he and a childhood friend spent seven weeks on the Missouri River, traveling more than 2,000 miles by pontoon boat from Fort Benton, Montana to St. Louis. They traveled past the place where the oil pipeline would cross, if the water protectors are not successful. They saw the flares from hundreds of gas wells, and the nightmare of oil and gas boom towns, side by side with “sacred places” along the river.

Carl was the first person to come up to me after my water sermon and say he was ready to go to Standing Rock. “Give me a half hour’s notice and I’ll be ready,” he said. For him, traveling to Standing Rock is about “this beautiful river,” giving back to those who are protecting it, and showing his grandchildren what it means to live by one’s conscience and to act for future generations.

Dennis Reynolds is the minister of the UU Congregation of Whidbey Island, and like me, a former intern minister at Quimper UU. Dennis saw my “call” to the Pacific Northwest ministers and emailed me right away. “I need to dream on it,” he wrote. “I’ll let you know in the morning.” Happily, his dreams led him to say yes. When asked why he chose to drop everything to go to Standing Rock, he said, “As ministers and UUs, we are called to walk our talk. I can’t stand in the pulpit and ask the congregation to live their principles and values if I’m not willing to do that myself.”

Share DeWees is a UU and Buddhist “in process.” She found UU later in life, in her 50’s, after being raised Episcopalian and spending much of her adulthood as an evangelical Christian She and her husband recently moved to Port Townsend. She, too, began thinking about going to Standing Rock after  following the stories out of North Dakota. When she heard I was going, it took her “about 30 seconds” to decide to join. She is journeying to North Dakota because, she says, “If we don’t start standing up, where does it end?” and also from a sense that “something deeply spiritual is happening there..something profound that could be a real game-changer.”

Ethan Walat heard of the trip less than 24 hours before we left, and immediately said he would like to go to Standing Rock with us. Ethan, in his twenties, is the son of Jean Walat and Gail Bernhard, both members of Quimper UU. He has been in Port Townsend since he was eleven, and was part of Quimper OWL and youth groups. Why is he going to Standing Rock? “Someone’s got to do this. I’m tired of talking about all these things but not doing anything, sitting on the sidelines. I want to be an ally. People like me, young white males who benefit from the power structure, need to stand with marginalized people.” Ethan feels that the real energy is not in the mainstream, but rather in the alternative forms of consciousness and culture that can be seen arising everywhere. “I see what’s happening at Standing Rock as the tip of the spear as far as the revolution goes.”

Paula Schmidt joined us on the day we left. Although she is not a member of Quimper UU or a church-goer, she has been waiting for an opportunity to go to Standing Rock for “weeks and weeks.” When she heard, on the morning of the day we were leaving, that there was a group going from Quimper UU, she called the QUUF office and got my number, even though she didn’t think we would let her join us. She was delighted to found out, hours before we were driving to the ferry, that she was indeed welcome.

Paula recently moved to the Northwest from Montrose, Pennsylvania, from the heart of the area that has been devastated by fracking. In Pennsylvania, she said, people tried to stop the fracking, but it was highly contentious – “most people were for it because they thought it would benefit them financially – and then so many ended up with pollution, damaged water sources, and destroyed farms.” But at Standing Rock, “the number of people involved is amazing. We couldn’t stop it in Pennsylvania, but I think it could be stopped this time.”

Soon we will be arriving in Minot, North Dakota, and after a night there we will be driving south to the Camp of the Sacred Stones. We are in contact with Karen VanFossan, the minister at the Bismarck Mandan UU congregation, since they have been bringing in supplies and will know more on the ground. A UU from the Edmonds, Washington, congregation, Carlo Voli, was arrested Tuesday after chaining himself to construction equipment to stop construction, and we hope to be of support to him in some way.

More to come. I'll leave you with this image of a North Dakota plains sunset.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Respect for Everything

Tsubaki means "camellia." 
"Temples and shrines are places of festival where rituals and prayers for individuals, families and ancestors are conducted to dispel misfortune and to open the path for divine blessings. They are places where you can trace your life to its origin."

Yamamoto Yukiyasu, 97th Chief Priest of Tsubaki Grand Shrine, Introduction to Shinto: The Way of the Kami 

Shinto is notoriously slippery to talk about or write about or even think about (suitable, I suppose, for a blog titled "Slipping Glimpser"!) But I am going to try, anyway, with a healthy does of knowing that I don't know what I'm talking about.

Last night I had a rather formal dinner with the Chief Priest, Yamamoto-san and his wife Yukiko-san, along with my guide Ochiai-san as translator (although the Chief Priest speaks some English) and we talked about - or tried to talk about - Shinto. Yamamoto-san said something really wonderful, something like, "In Shinto everything is sacred: the trees, the mountains, the rocks, our ancestors. We bow to everything."

Ochia-san said to me today, "Everything has spirit, even rocks." When I explained about Western dualism, as best I could in simple English, that actually in traditional Western thought almost nothing has spirit, everything is there to be used by humanity, things are inanimate, nature is a sort of machine, even the body is a sort of machine, and the divine is far away in another realm, he looked horrified and incredulous. He couldn't imagine it.

Maybe I should just stop writing there, and we can all contemplate that for a bit, and what it would mean for this world to respect everything, to see spirit and the divine immanent in everything. But of course, being me, I'm going to keep going.

Mitsu-tomoe on the doors to the "treasure house" at Tsubaki

The tripartite symbol in the photo above is everywhere here at Tsubaki Grand Shrine: on ceremonial doors, on the ends of roof posts, on curtains and amulets. It is a primary symbol of Shinto, and is called the mitsu-tomoe, or mitsudomoe. Like all great symbols, my sense is that it has many layers of meaning. Tomoe means "turning", so I like to imagine this symbol in motion, rather than static, a turning wheel, where each of the three parts is in relationship with the others. One source writes, "The circle represents perpetual motion, the constant cycles of life, death, and renewal that govern all aspects of the universe, including divine forces." (From Shinto: A Celebration of Life). The three shapes are often said to represent heaven, earth, and human, in continuous relationship with one another. The space between is what is mysterious and hidden.

Curtains with mitsu-tomoe symbol in front of the doors of the Haiden, the main public worship hall at Tsubaki
Shinto, unlike Buddhism or Christianity, is not a religion of the book, of text, of theology, of "teachings." It strains our Western, Judeo-Christian understanding of what religion is. In fact, before the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in the 6th century, there was no such thing as "Shinto" - there was just what people did in relation to the forces of nature and divinity, without needing a name that would differentiate what they did from some other "religion." Buddhism's arrival from China made it necessary to describe what was not-Buddhism, what had been here before. The word "Shinto" is actually based on Chinese characters (also an import) that meant "way of the kami".

I loved this description of how it might have been in that early time, in a book called A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine, by John Nelson:

The early people felt that themselves, the land they lived upon, the mountains, rivers, trees, valleys, mist, and animals that surrounded them were all born of the Kami and thus intimately related. There was simply no such thing as an inanimate universe.

Reading that quote takes me back to what Yamamoto-san said over dinner, what Ochiai-san said to me today, and the mitsu-tomoe, the "turning circle," where human and heavenly and earthly realms are all realms of Kami, all interconnected and interdependent and animate. And I think of how the original places of the Kami were not in buildings at all, but outdoor places of power in groves and on mountaintops.

I read somewhere else that it may be that the original ceremonies for Kami took place in the meeting of the cultivated and the wild, where the Kami of the mountains and streams, so necessary for the health of the rice fields and the villages, were summoned and thanked and prayed to.  I notice that many of the large Shinto shrines I've visited, including this one, are in forests right at that intersecting place, above the fields but nestled in the lower valleys and ridges of a sacred mountain.

From high on Mount Nyudo above Tsubaki Grand Shrine. The shrine is at the base of the mountain, hidden by the farthest ridge, between the fields and the mountain.
Because of this intersection, the forests surrounding (or representing) nearly all Shinto shrines are often the only greenery in urban settings, as if a little bit of the wild is essential for the functioning of the whole, just as wild mountains and their rivers are necessary for bringing water to the fields.

I was surprised to learn that even now "Shinto" is not a term widely used in Japan (though people here were even more surprised to learn that we in America haven't heard of Shinto!). Not many people would say, "My religion is Shinto." In fact, Ochiai-san, one of the priests here at Tsubaki Grand Shrine, told me that even though many Japanese people say that they are "not religious," still, over 90 million people (out of 127 million people who live in Japan) visit one of the 80,000 Shinto shrines in Japan every year (over a million each year to this shrine alone, and at New Year's about 90,000 people visit here). There are hundreds of people walking the grounds here every week. For a non-religious country, people sure seem to appreciate something (just FYI, a "shrine" is a place of Shinto practice, and a "temple" is a place of Buddhist practice).

But it seems to me that the mitsu-tomoe represents a lot of what "the way of the Kami" is about. The cycles of birth and death, the interdependence of human and nature, the recognition of ceaseless change within a deeper harmony. It is said there are 8 million Kami in Japan, which means that there is truly nothing without an element of the sacred here, inside a shrine forest or on the busiest city street. But perhaps going to a shrine and walking under its ancient trees helps people remember, even if they don't quite know what they are remembering. People bow without quite knowing why, and something in us respects what is being bowed to.

Braided rope and paper marking the entrance to a sacred place.
The Kami don't "live" in their shrines, as we might imagine, whether the shrine is a tiny miniature house, an enormous building, a tree, or a stone. The shrine is a place where human and Kami can meet, where a human being can bow, ask the Kami for help, and the Kami become present in our human calling to them. A particular Kami, like Sarutahiko-no-okami, the main Kami here, can be enshrined in hundreds of different places (although this place is his primary place of enshrinement).

And there are almost never statues of Kami at a shrine - they are hidden, secret, and mysterious, beyond personalizing. But as Ochiai-san told me the other day, with great intensity, "The Kami are REAL." I think he was telling me that to a Shinto priest the Kami are not metaphors, myths, human constructs, or some old tradition. They are true powers, and we can be in relationship with them.

The perpetually closed doors of a small Kami shrine
I think a person could spend years at a Shinto shrine and not be able to quite say what is happening there (in fact, maybe the longer you stay, the harder it would be say), but there is something beautiful and mysterious here, in the people and the place, some depth that draws people in under the trees.

This morning, early light, no one around, I watched an older, impeccably dressed man walk in from the road, walk slowly up the avenue of huge old trees, walk first to the main shrine of Sarutahiko-no-okami, then to the shrine of the dancing Kami Ame-no-Uzume-mikoto, the beautiful one, bow twice, clap twice, ring the wooden bell in front of her shrine, bow again, and then make his way back down through the trees.

"The Kami are real."

The waterfall of the beautiful dancing Kami, Ame-no-uzume-mikoto

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Busy, Busy

Yumiko Fujii doing calligraphy on Ofuda (household tablets) for shrine visitors
After thirty years of hanging around retreat centers, Zen centers, monasteries, churches, and other places of the religious life, and now here at Tsubaki Grand Shrine, I have noticed a great paradox. When a person comes as a guest to these places (as I was a guest at the Snowmass Monastery in December, and wrote about in Snow Idyll), they are refuges and places of renewal. I see people walking the well-swept grounds of Tsubaki, strolling from here to there under the great trees and bowing in front of the exquisite shrines, and I can almost feel the tension melting from their shoulders, the weight that they carry day after day being released in the beauty and quiet. Anyone who has spent time at a retreat center has felt the same thing. I remember watching fellow retreatants at Spirit Rock watching a bird, or even a gopher (generally not admired) their faces alight with appreciation. 

But if you live and/or work at such a place of retreat and renewal...well, that's a different story altogether!! Who keeps everything together? Who cleans your room before you arrive, cooks the food lovingly, does the ceremony, makes the ofuda, dusts the altar, handles the reservations? And are they in a state of relaxed bliss? (I can imagine my friends who have lived at San Francisco Zen Center smiling knowingly as they read this.) Being here has convinced me that this may be a universal phenomenon: to create a place of renewal and ease, you need a bunch of very busy people, working very hard. To have a place of traditional beauty, you need a bunch of people with laptops and copy machines, hidden somewhere out of sight.

The office of Tsubaki Grand Shrine, on a quiet day. No visitor would see this.
Tsubaki Grand Shrine employs about seventy people: twenty Shinto priests of various ranks (male and female: mostly male), miko (shrine maidens), security, people who take care of the guest house where I'm staying, a calligrapher, even a person who makes sure brides don't trip in their traditional shoes walking the uneven paths. And they are working at a dead run for most of the day. Even during the week there are almost continuous ceremonies going on in the haiden, the main hall. Just like Zen Center, the priests officiate in a rotation. Closed circuit television broadcasts the ceremonies into the office. Miko who aren't doing a ceremony stand behind booths of amulets for sale, protective charms for health and safety. 

A few of the many amulets for sale at Tsubaki

Ever since I arrived here, I have been so reminded of first being a guest and then living and working at Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center, which has about fifty people who are non-guests. As a guest, I strolled the exquisite gardens and walked to the beach, my spirit filled with happiness and a sense of peace. As a resident, later, I was one of the people making beds, dusting the guest house, and dealing with what felt like endless waves of guests: "It's Friday, and there are three groups coming in for the weekend...and we need a complete turnover in the guest house, and has anyone set up the meeting room..?" 

It's the same here. Today is Friday, and it's still pretty quiet, except for the college kyudo (archery) group that has been here week, shouting in the distance, and the visitors in twos and threes, but if this weekend is anything like the last one, there will be wedding parties showing up soon, and the office will be filled with frantic looking priests taking ceremonial robes on and off and answering the phones, only to open the sliding door and walk out into the public areas as calm as can be, waving another family in to the purification hall and treating them as if they, and only they, matter, as if the rest of the world, and all those phones, have disappeared utterly. 

This weekend is also the weekend of O-Higan, the Japanese equinox ceremony and festival for those who have died, and since there is a Buddhist temple on the grounds here, there will be a ceremony here, with many people coming. Along with the regular work, then, there is the special work of the special days that punctuate the calendar. 

Sacred sakaki branches in the hallway, with shide (folded paper) waiting to be taken out and used in ceremonies
Is one face of a religious institution more "true" than the other? Is the "busy, busy' and financial realities of running an organization more real than the experience of peace that a visitor has here? Or vice versa? I might have thought so, once. In the years I longed to live in the Zen monasteries I visited, I thought living there was like visiting, and it was only when I lived there that I understood the difference. This can come as quite the shock and disillusionment. 

But now I think that the life of service that is expressed by those who serve in places like this, most perfectly expressed by that morning sweeping here, before anything else-- that life of service, busy as it is, is the counterpoint to the experience of the so beautifully taken-care-of visitor, . They are two sides of the coin, each needing the other. Without guests, no service. In fact, without guests, no Shinto shrine, no Zen Center, no monastery.  And without service, no guests. 

In Chado, the Way of Tea (which I know very little about), and in Zen, there is the idea of guest and host. These ways of being are complementary and sacred. Sometimes we are the guest, sometimes the host. The host serves, the guest receives. But fundamentally they aren't two separate ways of being - they are interconnected and interdependent, "empty" of own-being -- there can't be one without the other. Before we eat a formal meal in Zen, we say: "May we realize the emptiness of the three wheels: giver, receiver, and gift."  

Of course, it's the same as a Unitarian Universalist minister. It's a very full life, but most people who come on Sunday can't imagine what a minister is doing all week. Contemplating the universe, studying quietly, walking around town? But no, most ministers I know are literally on the run from one meeting to another, visiting someone in the hospital, and putting out fires of various sorts, and ministers work an insane number of hours - sixty, seventy hours a week is not uncommon. A friend of mine gave a sermon to her church about "a day in the life of a minister," and people came up to her afterward,  shocked and amazed. They had had no idea.

This degree of work and busyness looked more than a little unhealthy to me, as I was considering going into the ministry, but so far I seem to have found a way to moderate it, at least in my own ministry. My favorite line about ministry is from my favorite book about ministry, Eugene Peterson's, The Contemplative Pastor (I'm paraphrasing here): "To put the modifier "busy" in front of the word "pastor" is like putting "embezzling" in front of "banker" or "adulterous" in front of "spouse!" Strong words, indeed. But I think part of what he is talking about is not how just how many hours a minister works, but how that minister works. As busy as the staff is here, I feel a deep well of calm and kindness in them as well, which I'm sure visitors here feel too. I think that is what Eugene Peterson may have meant. How do you connect with and replenish that well, so that no matter how many fires you are dealing with, each person you meet feels like they are truly at the center of your presence and attention, and not only "feels like" but actually is at the center of your attention?  

For me, part of the way to replenish the well is to take joy in the service, whatever that service is. The calligrapher here put it well this morning, "I am so grateful for the chance to be here, making these Ofuda for people, putting my prayers into each one as I brush the characters." I feel joy, sweeping the paths for the visitors. I feel joy back home writing a sermon, providing a few moments on Sunday morning for people to connect with a larger understanding, to learn and to sing and sometimes to cry. That is how my own experience of spirituality has changed, over the years. As much as I appreciate times of retreat and inwardness, I also  love being on this side now, the side with the broom, the side making the place where others can find a moment of peace in the midst of the difficulties of a human life.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Of Trees and Sweeping

Day 5 at Tsubaki Grand Shrine (to read about why I'm here, read Entering Another World, my last post). Over the last few days I have been gradually transformed from my usual black-clothed Western self into "staff" at Tsubaki - first a white cotton jacket with the kanji (Chinese characters) for Tsubaki Grand Shrine over my Western clothes, then, yesterday, multi-layered full Shinto robes, all in white, that took a sweet young woman priest, Sakaka-san, about twenty minutes to put on me (today I was on my own, and no one has laughed, so I must have been successful).

The triumphant moment after getting me dressed, Sakaka-san in blue
I have never in my life worn all white, even at my own wedding, so it's an interesting transformation and experience. It helps that I've worn Zen robes for years (all black, of course). The only really horrible part of the costume were the zori - the traditional Japanese sandals with a thong between the toes - for whatever reason, they are instruments of torture for me. I tried walking around in them yesterday, trying not to grimace in pain with each step, and today I just wore my own shoes - black, of course - over the tabi socks and tabi sock protectors! Gaijin (foreigner) prerogative. I win points for knowing how to use chopsticks and how to sit in seiza (kneeling on one's feet and legs) and actually get up after service rather than falling down because my feet are asleep, so I figure not wearing zori is just fine.

I also have white gloves for cleaning. As a Zen student, I am familiar with the importance of cleaning as a spiritual practice, and my theory, after five days here, is that the Zen obsession with cleaning was something that came from Shinto, an example of religious syncretism.

Ochiai-san told me, the first day, that cleaning is integral to Shinto. Every morning we clean, before the morning service. As a sort of honorary junior priest, I join the priests in sweeping outside. Imagine several acres of shrines and gardens, linked by gravel paths and stone steps, set inside an old growth forest of ancient cedar and cypress, with a multi-layered canopy, and imagine how much falls to the ground overnight - branches, leaves, pieces of bark. By the time the first visitors arrive, nearly every square inch of gravel and stone has been swept clean. I will never walk around a temple or shrine again, blithely strolling on perfectly raked gravel, without considering that someone swept that gravel, that morning.

But I love sweeping. If they let me, I think I'd do it all day. Last night was very windy, and so there was extra detritus everywhere. I was delighted, because I knew it couldn't all be swept up before service, and I begged to go back out and sweep more. There is a great simplicity and satisfaction in sweeping, after all the complexity of my usual life. The brooms are twig brooms that effortlessly remove the light leaves, leaving the tiny pea-gravel gravel behind. I think of all the people who will visit today, and who will walk up the swept stone steps to bow at the shrines, or the subtle happiness they might feel in being in a place that feels so taken-care-of.

Walkway leading to the shrine for Ame no Uzume no mikoto, where many weddings take place

The high point of my sweeping this morning was beneath a camellia tree that overhung a small outdoor shrine. The camellias are still in bloom, and they are truly trees here - twenty, thirty feet high, or higher, forming a secondary canopy beneath the taller trees. The red flowers littered the ground, and I swept them up into a great beautiful flowery mound. Tsubaki means "camellia" - well named!

I've been doing a lot of reading about Shinto, and an important concept is purification - bringing back to harmony what has gotten dis-harmonious. Cleaning is a form of purification of the environment, bringing harmony and beauty to what is around us, just as I felt that my sweeping was a gift to everyone who will walk the paths of Tsubaki today. Anyone who has tried the "tidying" in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo has probably felt this, at least for the moment that your closet was organized before entropy took over again!

I have been really struck by the way both Tsubaki and Ise (and the great Inari Shrine I visited in Kyoto on my last visit) are inside forests of ancient trees. Ochiai-san told me that the original shrines were not inside buildings at all: they were groves or stones or mountains.

The holiest place here is a patch of ground beneath the trees with three small stones, a place you could easily walk by as a tourist and think nothing of. This is the place where the grandson of Amaterasu, the "goddess" of the sun, came to earth, met by Sarutahiko-no-okami, the guardian kami who is enshrined here. In fact, behind that little patch of earth is a huge mound, in an otherwise flat area, and even though Shinto shrines generally don't have graves, this is the grave of Sarutahiko-no-okami.

Approaching the entrance to Tsubaki Grand Shrine, it is easy to be distracted by the shrine building where the "car blessings" take place. Only in the last day did I notice that there is an enormous tree in front of the building, with a shimenawa (braided rope) around it that signifies the presence of kami, and a tiny shrine at its base, and then I read that the tree is highly significant for Tsubaki. When I looked closely at it, I realized it is a huge old fir, perhaps Abies firma (momi fir), a kind of tree I haven't seen elsewhere here, where there is mostly Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) and cypress (Chamaecyparis).

The shinbuku tree at the entrance to Tsubaki
This tree is a shinboku, a sacred tree invested with kami. The little shrine at its base is there to honor the kami of the tree. And I had walked by it for four days! We are so trained to think that the sacred is inside a sacred building, not in a tree, no matter how massive. But when I really looked at the tree, awe is the word for what I felt, the definition of kami - "what evokes awe."

When I was in Japan before, we visited a small village with two of these shinboku trees- two Japanese cedar trees that were nearly 2,000 years old, each with their heavy shimenawa. flanking the path to a shrine building. If I could guess, I would guess now that what came first were the sacred trees, and only later a shrine was built that honored the kami of those trees.

Of course, almost all the trees I have mentioned are on the IUCN Red List, because Japan is a small country, and there are not many great forests left. In fact, the rebuilding of Ise and other ways that traditional culture uses the traditional woods of Japan, are an issue for the survival of the native trees. As I read in this Japan Times article about the preservation of hinoki cypress forests, the wood used at Ise: "We have to balance the protection of our environmental heritage with the protection of our cultural heritage."

Where is that balance? Perhaps one day there will be shimenawa around entire forests, protecting them from our human appetites.And yet, yesterday I sat drinking green tea in the beautiful traditional tea-house on the grounds of Tsubaki, built of all traditional materials, gazing at the tokonoma, the alcove with a seasonal scroll and flower arrangement, my spirit felt held within the simple materials of the house -- wood and clay and paper. Later I watched the white-clad artisans who are renovating a part of the tea-house, keeping alive the endangered art form of Japanese carpentry. There is something sacred in this too, and careful. I can't pit tradition against the environment - I want tea-houses to continue, and the knowledge of how to build them. I want the 2,000 year history of Ise Shrine to continue, with all it sustains.

Perhaps if we treated trees and wood with the same care that the priests sweep the gravel paths of Tsubaki each morning - well, we would live in a very different world.

Tokonoma at the Tsubaki tea house

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Entering Another World

Japan! Three days ago I crossed the international dateline for the third time in my life, flying back to Japan three years after my first trip here. Last time I was part of a group of Canadian Zen students, the token American; this time I am traveling alone as this year's recipient of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine Scholarship, an award from the Unitarian Universalist Association and Tsubaki Grand Shrine, given to one UU seminarian each year: a chance to be a guest of one of the oldest and most important Shinto shrines in Japan. Shinto is the indigenous religion and way of life of Japan, predating Buddhism in Japan by many centuries.

early morning at Tsubaki
Two days ago I was met at the airport by Ochiai-san, an English-speaking Shinto priest at Tsubaki (which means "camellia" - and a few of the camellias are still blooming here) Grand Shrine (or jinja in Japanese). I will be here at Tsubaki, staying at the guesthouse of the shrine, until the 23rd of March. From the 23rd to the 30th I will be visiting Kyoto and Kamakura, also on my own. 

Tsubaki Grand Shrine is an extraordinary place, and their generosity to me is also extraordinary, truly welcoming me into all aspects of life inside the shrine. I am aware that very few people, Japanese or foreign, have such an opportunity, and I will try to share it with you, as best I can, as I write here over the next two weeks.

Stone lantern and ancient tree, Tsubaki 
Tsubaki celebrated its 2,000th anniversary a few years ago - yes, that is the correct number of zeroes! - and more than a million people visit this shrine, nestled at the foot of steep, forested mountains, each year. They come to honor the kami, to pray, to ask for blessings, to get married. Four couples were married just today, a sort of river of bridal parties, gorgeous kimonos and western suits intermingled. A small army of shrine employees take care of everyone: nearly thirty priests and miko (shrine maidens), and cooks and guesthouse workers, presided over by Guji-san, the 97th chief priest of the shrine, and his wife, also a priest and the daughter of the 96th chief priest. 

A wedding party, led by a miko, walking to the shrine from the guest house

The kami are central to Shinto, sometimes mistranslated as "gods" in English. I think I should just quote from the Historical Dictionary of Shinto, since understanding kami stretches the bounds of the English language. I am quite sure we do not have an equivalent understanding. Here is some of what the dictionary says: "...a unique force or power in nature, animals, or people that engendered attitudes of reverence, fear, or gratitude in those who perceived it...anything that filled a human being with wonder and awe." Japan is sometimes called "the land of the kami". 

Kami can be forces of nature (fire, water, wind), old trees, mountains, divine beings (Ameterasu omi-kami, the kami of the sun and the principal kami of Japan), and even great human beings, after their death. Until the end of World War II, the emperor of Japan was considered a kami. Kami are enshrined in particular places. Tsubaki, for instance, is important because it is the main place where Sarutahiko-no-okami, the guardian of the Japanese land and safe travel, and his wife Ame no Uzume no mikoto, the kami of dance, are both enshrined. It is also believed to the place where the grandchild of Ameterasu descended to the earth, welcomed by Sarutahiko-no-okami, and so it is deeply resonant for Japanese people as a place of origin.

Sarutahiko-no-okami and his wife Ame no Uzume

Kami often have an animal messenger, and for Sarutahiko-no-okami, the messenger is the frog, so there are whimsical frog statues all over Tsubaki.

Stone frogs 
Kami can help human beings, and so people come to places like Tsubaki for blessings and to ask for help from the kami. The kami can also bless weddings and children, so there are many weddings here. There is also a deeper sense that the human being can come into greater harmony with the kami and with life itself through purification practices. Here at Tsubaki, the practice of purification by water, misogi, is central, a ceremony where people stand beneath a sacred waterfall. People come from all over Japan to participate. People also come to have their new cars blessed and purified, which makes sense to me! I watched the ceremony yesterday - on the weekends about a hundred cars a day are brought to the shrine for blessing.

Tsubaki priest blessing a very small car

You might wonder why in the world there is a connection between Unitarian Universalists in the US and a very traditional Shinto shrine in Japan, and why Tsubaki would support and host a UU seminarian each year. 

I'm still learning about all the reasons, but there is a spirit of interfaith commitment here that goes back decades. Tsubaki is the only Shinto shrine in Japan with foreign branch shrines (one in Granite Falls, Washington, that I visited last summer) and Tsubaki priests have a long history with the International Association for Religious Freedom and with a beloved Japanese Unitarian minister who died at the age of 106 several decades ago, Shin Ichiro Imaoka - most UUs in the US are not aware that there is a long history of Unitarianism in Japan. 

Tsubaki also had a connection with Ueshiba Sensei, the founder of the peaceful martial art of aikido, which is now practiced around the world, and with the practices of a form of esoteric Buddhism/Shinto called Shugendo. In fact, the former head priest rebuilt a Buddhist temple on the Tsubaki shrine grounds in honor of the founder of Shugendo, En no Gyoja, very unusual for a Shinto shrine. Buddhism and Shinto have always been intertwined to some degree, since Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 5th century, but during the Meiji period and the advent of "State Shinto" in the late 19th and early 20th century, there was an effort by the government to clearly separate them. But I see, being here, how much overlap there really is, even in some of the forms of Zen that I know so well.  

Buddhist temple on the grounds of Tsubaki Grand Shrine

For my part, as a Zen Buddhist practitioner and biologist, when I was considering applying for the scholarship, the chance to learn about the other major spiritual tradition in Japan, one that influenced Zen in many ways, and that also has a deep relationship with the natural world - well, it was irresistible.

My very first day in the country started at 8 am with Ochia-san ushering me in to meet with Guji-san, the head priest of Tsubaki, attending the morning service with the shrine staff, then Ochiai-san taking me to Ise Shrine, about an hour away, the most important, holiest Shinto shrine in Japan, where Amaterasu omikami is enshrined, the kami of the sun, the principal kami of Japan, and the female ancestor of the Japanese imperial family, Ise is enormous, its lands encompassing an area about the size of Paris, much of it wilderness. Shrine forests are one of the few places in Japan where ecologists can see what the original forests may have been like.

Ise trees
Pine garden, Ise

The buildings of Ise, all 125 shrines, are rebuilt and recreated every twenty years, exactly as they were before, along with all the ritual treasures - swords and fans and drums - everything. This rebuilding has been going on for centuries, and it keeps alive many traditional arts and artisans. 

You might expect that the most important Shinto shrine in Japan, where the emperor comes to preside over ceremonies, would be grand and gilt-covered, but instead the buildings feel timeless and simple, with massive thatched roofs and smooth polished beams of light-colored wood, surrounded by courtyards of white and black gravel stones. I really felt the affinity with Pacific NW native architecture there, and I feel this a lot, in Shinto. I think it would be extraordinary to bring native elders here. If you would like to see some photos of the buildings at Ise, click here.

Sacred sakaki branch at Ise
But the best part of Ise for me was visiting the area of traditional shops on the way to the main shrine, crossing the Ise River on a beautiful bridge and then sitting on a veranda overlooking the river eating a kind of sweet made only in Ise, red bean paste - though it looked purple - on the outside and mochi (rice) on the inside, the tea water heated in enormous kettles over a wood fired oven. 

I haven't been in many places in Japan where all the buildings are traditional, tile roofs (many of them bright blue here - I have a bit of a tile roof fetish, so the roofs made me very happy) and the streets just wide enough to walk, filled with cheerful-seeming Japanese Ise visitors, like being somewhere on a festival day - no sign of foreign tourists, except me. It was magical.

I had a feeling that the little place where we stopped for sweets and tea (they served nothing else) had been serving customers for hundreds of years, pilgrims and visitors to the shrine. I often find that there is a moment when I "arrive" in a place, and I arrived in Japan on that veranda overlooking the river, eating Ise sweets and drinking Hojicha tea with a Shinto priest! 

So here I am, in a country that unexpectedly captured my heart last time I was here, with its grace. Nonetheless, it does feel like another world, and right now I am swimming in near-total cultural immersion. I haven't spoken to another native English speaker since I left San Francisco, and despite my best intentions to study Japanese this winter....well, I didn't. And oh, I am regretting it! 

I am surrounded by kind and friendly people, but I can't communicate with most of them, other than a few basic greetings and smiles and bows. I am in a fascinating religious environment but am often only guessing at what is going on. I know this is the experience of many Americans traveling abroad, monolingual as we tend to be, but it's hard on me. I want to connect, and to communicate, but I am so limited. 

Finding one's feet in another culture always feels like a spiritual exercise to me - a practice of surrender, letting go, being willing to be foolish and lost - hard practices for someone with pride and a sense of competence when in her own culture. So I am immersed not only in a deeply traditional part of Japan, but in my own struggle to be here. So much to learn! More later. 

Florence at Ise

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Snow Idyll

From Thomas Merton: There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
Years ago my friend Ruth Ozeki told me about a famous Japanese book from the 14th century, Essays in Idleness (or The Harvest of Leisure), written by a  Japanese Buddhist monk. I suppose she thought I would appreciate the book because of my own forays into the country of idleness, or, as I said for a few years, “gainful unemployment.” Now I am gainfully and happily employed in the work of ministry, which is a 24/7 sort of job (maybe I’m making up for my years of idleness!), but I find that times of idleness are even more important, not less, in this life I have now.

And so I found myself here in a stone hermitage at St.Benedict’s monastery, otherwise known as Snowmass Monastery, for five solo days in the heart of winter, starting Christmas Eve, because, luckily for me, my current Colorado congregation celebrates Winter Solstice rather than Christmas, and so my winter holiday obligations were officially over. This Trappist monastery on nearly 4,000 acres of land, up above Snowmass in the Colorado Rockies, home of Father Thomas Keating, maintains a few small hermitages, offered freely, in the Benedictine spirit of hospitality.

I’ve been in seminary and trying to learn the art of ministry for years now, so this kind of open time has just not been possible for a long time. As I drove the snowy roads on Christmas Eve from my house in the valley up into the wild open mountains, I wondered, “Will I remember how to just be? Will I be frantically trying to study something, just out of habit? Will I feel guilty that I am not answering emails?”

I did remember how to be idle! I suppose it’s not surprising, given how much of my life I’ve spent in silent retreat. I turned into the mile-long road to the monastery, sitting at 8,000 feet in a snowy bowl surrounded by high ridges, and felt the deep familiarity of entering sacred space; drove up the hill to the hermitages and felt something in my heart ease. 

I parked and walked up the snowy path to my little octagonal hut, rabbits (more on rabbits later) scattering this way and that under the trees, and I felt home in the silence. And so for five days I  drifted, dreamed, sat in zazen, slept, watched sky, watched snow fall, read poetry, wondered, wandered, opened, breathed.

I found a phrase from a dream about process theology, dreamt more than a year ago, in my journal – the journal I have barely written in this past year - “Everything brimming over with divinity.” That’s what it was like. On Christmas Day is began to snow, and it snowed and snowed, all day, all night, the light crystalline snow of western Colorado, like feathers and sugar combined, glittering in the light, everything covered up with snow, mountains hidden, and I remembered Norman Fischer’s story of being a young Zen student and wandering in the snow reciting the Heart Sutra, around and around in a sort of joyful delirium. A rabbit came and peered in at me, its paws on the glass door,  then hopped away into the storm.

In the afternoon of Christmas Day I put on my big warm winter boots and my warm down jacket and headed out in the snow, my car already buried. It seemed like I was the only one here. I found the path down to the main retreat house, through the Gambel oak, and kicked my way down through the deep powdery snow. Half way there I could just make out the outlines of a bench, completely covered. I unburied an edge of it and sat down, warm, the only sound the delicate sound of snowflakes landing on me – my hat, my eyelashes, my jacket, my boots. I was so still for so long that a rabbit (I told you would be hearing more about rabbits) came right up alongside me, looked at me, and hopped way.

The next day was clear, a blindingly blue sky and snow sort of day. I shoveled out my path and around the car (greeting the rabbits, of course), helped a monk dig out his plow, which had nearly been swallowed up by snow, and then sat and read and thought and drank tea.  

I thought my heart might burst with happiness and gratitude. And that night I walked the mile or so down the road through the open fields to the main monastery for vespers, the air so cold it was nearly frightening, despite my layers and the thermos of tea in my pack. 

In the dark the monks sang songs to the Holy Family and to Mary, and afterwards I walked back, only now the full moon had risen over the hills, and miles of snowy mountains were illuminated with its brilliance.

And so it went. Ordinary moments -- making meals and eating, brushing teeth, shoveling snow. Sleepy moments. Waking to moonlight. Moments of tears, of gratitude, of laughter. Taking off the armor, re-acquainting myself with my life and my practice, remembering why I am doing the work I am doing, and what matters. 

It is such a privilege, to be able to take time out from work and ordinary life for this plunge into beauty and solitude. If I had fewer resources, if I had a family to care for, if the great generosity of the donors to this place had not manifested in a way that makes being there many causes and conditions had to come together to make this possible. I never take for granted how much silence and depth have been part of my life, and what a blessing they have been. 

May all who need idleness find a way to it.