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