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Shinto Experiences

January 13, 2008

Today chaoselemental and I visited Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America – the only Shinto temple in North America – with erynn999, alfrecht and thunderwave69.

This was my second time out there; a caravan with 80% of the above suspects plus samildanach, thewronghands, wire_mother and a few other folks went out on a reconnoitering mission December 22. (So many good descriptions were posted about that trip that I didn’t really feel like I had anything to add at the time.)

On the first trip we just kind of showed up and looked around, and after expressing much interest and asking questions at the amulet concession window, we were lucky enough to get asked if we’d like to come in and have a ritual done for us. We hadn’t even been able to confirm that anyone was going to be there or that the shrine was open that day, so to be the only folks there and to get a generous portion of the priest’s attention was an unexpected pleasure.

Today we went out for a scheduled event, the annual Kosatsutakeageshiki ritual. The shrine sells many kinds of amulets for different purposes – health, good luck, protection of pets, success in studies, etc. Most of the amulets are only effective for the span of a year, at which point they should be replaced and the old ones destroyed. The focus of today’s ritual was the purification and ceremonial burning of a huge pile of these amulets from 2007, in recognition and appreciation for the help they’d been over the past year. There were a fair number of folks in attendance today (30-40?) who brought their amulets; lots of amulets also get sent in from people who can’t be present. It’s described as a great opportunity to wrap up the year just past and to move on to the new with refreshed energy.

The temple is an interesting place to visit. I find the Spirit of Place there to be very intense. It really feels detached and separate from its surroundings to me. It doesn’t feel quite like what I’d imagine as Japanese (not having been to Japan, that’s all conjecture), but it doesn’t feel like it’s North American, either; it’s like it inhabits its own unique space energetically suspended between the two. It definitely feels Other and I feel very aware of formally receiving hospitality from it.

The other unusual thing is the sense of palpable stillness/tranquility (neither of those is quite the right word, but the combination is a closer approximation). It’s not passively still, it’s somehow *actively* still; you don’t just walk around within it, it engulfs you. I could feel it like a muffling blanket. It’s comparable to when a city dweller goes camping out in the back country on an overcast night. It’s not just dark, it’s DARK – your inner definition of the concept gets stretched by the experience. Something else it reminds me of is a passage in The Phantom Tollbooth where a radio is described that broadcasts silence; if you turned up the amplitude, the quiet intensified and absorbed sound from the environment.

It feels to me that the temple manifests and projects the essence of Shinto very strongly and clearly – it has what I’d call in a person a sense of self-possession. It’s an excellent teacher; going there has made me feel like I grasp some basics of Shinto at a fundamental level that I could study books for years and never attain. It’s a very visceral experience.

In a way it’s extremely soothing to be there – to go from the everyday sense of being bombarded with input coming so fast and by so many channels that one could never grasp it all, then plunge into this stillness. Blessed relief! You have respite to take a breath and just be, not do.

On another level, it’s very foreign. I know this sort of experience is the ideal of many spiritual paths, especially Eastern ones; but it’s not mine. In some ways it’s the antithesis of mine (a sense of blazing joyful enlightenment, awareness of an overall pattern and one’s place in it, and of being in active motion to advance that pattern). I can appreciate it on its own merits, admire its purity and the way it plays counterpoint to my ideal – but we’ve pretty much developed the relationship as far as it will ever go.

Just being there has been the richest part of the experience for me. The ceremonies have been interesting from a liturgical point of view, but they were rather beside the point, and I admit to a certain restlessness and lack of focus during them. In both cases by the time we’ve finished I was happy to go. Not uncomfortable and rushing off, just. . . full of Shinto. I have a sufficiency and do not need or want to linger.

I’m very glad that the resource is nearby and that I’ve gone to explore it – it’s definitely fascinating. I really don’t know how much more I’d want to do, though.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2008 6:01 AM

    I’m so jealous! I’d love to go to that shrine. I’ve had a fascination with Shinto since my Japanese Culture class back in undergrad. Not in the sense that I wanted to go out & start practicing it, but in the sense that it’s got some similarities with my own beliefs as viewed by an interesting but very different culture- like finding a religious cousin, kinda. (if that makes any sense).
    It sounds like you had a wonderful experience. :-)

  2. January 14, 2008 6:20 AM

    Glad you had a good day, and yeah, I can understand where you’re coming from on the “full of Shinto” thing. I’ve been a Buddhist before (Nichiren Shoshu, definitely one of the oddball sects) so to me there’s a lot of familiarity to the whole thing without the push to go out and convert the masses. Much more comfortable than the Soka Gakkai people were.
    It was great to spend time with you and I’ll be looking forward to seeing you tomorrow night!

  3. January 14, 2008 3:25 PM

    Agreed on the spirit-of-place being very strong, and ‘different’. My experience of Japan is limited, so I can’t really comment on any similarities there. (It doesn’t feel like Narita, that’s for sure! But I wouldn’t expect it to.) Also agreed on the formal feeling of receiving hospitality.
    Have you ever been to a zendo? I got that “be, don’t do” from there, too, but in a way that’s more Raven-compatible. (I’m totally not Buddhist; I just have some Zen overlaps from meditation and martial arts.)

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