Agnostic religion

Shinto is often described as a religion of ritual and its priests as ritualists

 

The New York Times carried an article on Christmas Eve about the increasing number of people who seek ritual without religion and spirituality without dogma. Given the nature of Shinto, the trend is particularly interesting for ritual stands at its heart and there is no dogma – or indeed any requirement at all.

Who knows how many of the many, many millions in Japan who flock to shrines for the New Year have any belief in kami?  Estimates range around 5% at most.  It’s safe to say the overwhelming majority would see the personification of spirits as simply that – personification.  It’s why by and large Japanese are uninterested in which kami are being worshipped at particular shrines.  They’re simply expressions of a universal lifeforce.

On the other hand, most would probably see the rituals of Shinto as an important expression of Japaneseness, an assertion of communal solidarity as it were.  This would seem to be a deep-rooted human need, as evidenced in the article below with its account of ritual gatherings for atheists.  It explains why even non-believers in the West celebrate Christmas in some form too.

Whatever your belief, whatever the path you follow, Green Shinto hopes that the new year brings blessings upon you and yours.

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Religion without God
by T. M. Luhrmann
, professor of anthropology at Stanford University.

Shrines offer the opportunity to take time out and reflect on what is important in life

Unitarianism emerged in early modern Europe from those who rejected a Trinitarian theology in preference for the doctrine that God was one. By the 19th century, however, the Unitarian church had become a place for intellectuals who were skeptical of belief claims but who wanted to hang on to faith in some manner. Charles Darwin, for example, turned to Unitarians as he struggled with his growing doubt. The modern Unitarian Universalist Association’s statement of principles does not mention God at all.

As it happens, this kind of God-neutral faith is growing rapidly, in many cases with even less role for God than among Unitarians. Atheist services have sprung up around the country, even in the Bible Belt.  Many of them are connected to Sunday Assembly, which was founded in Britain by two comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. They are avowed atheists. Yet they have created a movement that draws thousands of people to events with music, sermons, readings, reflections and (to judge by photos) even the waving of upraised hands. There are nearly 200 Sunday Assembly gatherings worldwide. A gathering in Los Angeles last year attracted hundreds of participants.

How do we understand this impulse to hold a “church” service despite a hesitant or even nonexistent faith? Part of the answer is surely the quest for community. That’s what Mr. Jones told The Associated Press: “Singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people — and doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. Which part of that is not to like?”

Gratitude for the wonders of existence brings its own reward

Another part of the answer is that rituals change the way we pay attention as much as — perhaps more than — they express belief. In “The Archetypal Actions of Ritual,” two anthropologists, Caroline Humphrey and James Laidlaw, go so far as to argue that ritual isn’t about expressing religious commitment at all, but about doing something in a way that marks the moment as different from the everyday and forces you to see it as important. Their point is that performing a ritual focuses your attention on some moment and deems it worthy of respect.

In Britain, where the rate of atheism is much higher than in the United States, organizations have now sprung up to mark life passages for those who consider themselves to be nonbelievers. The anthropologist Matthew Engelke spent much of 2011 with the British Humanist Association, the country’s pre-eminent nonreligious organization, with a membership of over 12,000. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, a prominent atheist, is a member.

The association sponsors a good deal of anti-religious political activity. They want to stop faith-based schools from receiving state funding and to remove the rights of Church of England bishops to sit in the House of Lords. They also perform funerals, weddings and namings. In 2011, members conducted 9,000 of these rituals. Ceremony does something for people independent of their theological views.

Moreover, these rituals work, if by “work” we mean that they change people’s sense of their lives. It turns out that saying that you are grateful makes you feel grateful. Saying that you are thankful makes you feel thankful. To a world so familiar with the general unreliability of language, that may seem strange. But it is true.

 
Religion is fundamentally a practice that helps people to look at the world as it is and yet to experience it — to some extent, in some way — as it should be. Much of what people actually do in church — finding fellowship, celebrating birth and marriage, remembering those we have lost, affirming the values we cherish — can be accomplished with a sense of God as metaphor, as story, or even without any mention of God at all.

Yet religion without God may be more poignant. Atheists trust in human relations, not supernatural ones, and humans are not so good at delivering the world as it should be. Perhaps that is why we are moved by Christmas carols, which conjure up the world as it can be and not the world we know.

May the spirit of Christmas be with you, however you understand what that means.

Omikuji fortune slips? In fact a wishing wall at Ephesus in Turkey, where people's hopes are written down and tied up in the manner of Shinto ema. Regardless of belief, giving expression to innermost hopes is good for the soul.

 

Posted in General, Spirituality | 2 Comments

Solstice greetings

The rock-cave at Takachiho in Kyushu, one of several that honours the Rock Cave myth in which the sun goddess withdraws and casts the world into darkness. A joyous festival organised by the other deities then entices her back out again.

 

Green Shinto would like to wish its readers all the best for the winter solstice as those of us in the northern hemisphere pass through the darkest days of the annual cycle with revelry and Yuletide fires to ward off the cold. The word “solstice” derives from the Latin words “sol” (sun) and “sistere” (to stand still).  From here on we’ll be looking forward to movement again as nature goes about the process of renewal and regeneration, even in the midst of death. Life-death-rebirth is what nature religions are all about.

Wikipedia has a nice section on the historical significance of the solstice, which follows below.  It’s of particular interest to Shinto since it ‘sheds light’ on the primal Rock Cave myth with its story about the withdrawal of the sun goddess.  The myth tells us that human activity provides the remedy for such dark times, so let the feasting and the festivities begin!

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The sun goddess Amaterasu as portrayed by Bando Tamasaburo

The solstice itself may have been a special moment of the annual cycle of the year even during neolithic times. Astronomical events, which during ancient times controlled the mating of animals, sowing of crops and metering of winter reserves between harvests, show how various cultural mythologies and traditions have arisen. This is attested by physical remains in the layouts of late Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland.

The primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). Significant in respect of Stonehenge is the fact that the Great Trilithon was erected outwards from the centre of the monument, i.e., its smooth flat face was turned towards the midwinter Sun.

The winter solstice may have been immensely important because communities were not certain of living through the winter, and had to be prepared during the previous nine months. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April (northern hemisphere) or July to October (southern hemisphere), also known as “the famine months”.

In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time. The concentration of the observances were not always on the day commencing at midnight or at dawn, but the beginning of the pre-Romanized day, which falls on the previous eve.

Because the event is seen as the reversal of the Sun‘s ebbing presence in the sky, concepts of the birth or rebirth of sun gods have been common and, in cultures using winter solstice based cyclic calendars, the year as reborn has been celebrated with regard to life-death-rebirth deities or new beginnings. Also reversal is yet another usual theme as in Saturnalia‘s slave and master reversals.

Saturnalia – In Ancient Rome, the Winter Solstice festival referred to as Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for seven days. It was held to honor Saturnus, the Roman god of agriculture and harvest, and was characterized by the suspension of discipline and reversal of the usual order. Grudges and quarrels were forgiven, while businesses, courts and schools were closed. Wars were interrupted or postponed, and people engaged in carnival-like festivities. The popularity of Saturnalia continued into the third and fourth centuries AD, and as the Roman Empire came under Christian rule, some of the festival’s customs have influenced the seasonal celebrations surrounding Christmas and the New Year.

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Some pagan celebrations (taken from The Winter Solstice: Facts and Folklore by Farmers’ Almanac Staff)

Removal of the rock sealing the entrance to Amaterasu's cave

The Winter Solstice has played an important role in cultures worldwide from ancient times until today. In fact, many of the customs, lore, symbols, and rituals associated with Christmas are actually associated with Winter Solstice celebrations of ancient Pagan cultures.

Alban Arthuan, Welsh for “Light of Winter,” is a universal festival, which has been (and still is) celebrated by many people and is probably the oldest seasonal festival of humankind. In Druidic traditions, the Winter Solstice is thought of as a time of death and rebirth when Nature’s powers and our own souls are renewed. It marks the moment in time when the Old Sun dies (at dusk on the 21st of December) and when the Sun of the New Year is born (at dawn on the 22nd of December), framing the longest night of the year.

The birth of the New Sun is thought to revive the Earth’s aura in mystical ways, giving a new lease on life to spirits and souls of the dead. The prehistoric monument, Newgrange, built in Ireland around 3200 BC  (making it older than Stonehenge), is associated with the Alban Arthuan festival. The site consists of a large circular mound with a stone passageway and interior chambers. When the sun rises, the chamber is flooded with sunlight on the Winter Solstice.

The Feast of Juul was a festival observed in Scandinavia when fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning Sun. A Yule or “Juul” log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honor of the Scandinavian god, Thor.  It was Thor’s job to bring the warmth of the Sun back to the people. The log, which was never allowed to burn entirely, was kept as both a token of good luck against misfortune, and used as kindling for the following year’s log.  In England, Germany, France and other European countries, the Yule log was burned until nothing but ash remained. The ashes were then collected and spread into the fields as fertilizer every night until Twelfth Night, or worn around the neck as a charm. The ashes were sometimes used in medicine.

French peasants would place the cooled ashes from the log under their beds, believing they would protect the house against thunder and lightning. The present-day custom of lighting a Yule log at Christmas is believed to have originated with these fires associated with the Feast of Juul.

In addition to the traditions from western cultures, the Dongzhi Winter Solstice Festival is celebrated as a time for the entire family to get together to celebrate the past good year. As ancient Chinese thought, the yang, or muscular, positive things will become stronger and stronger after this day, so it should be celebrated.  [Wikipedia adds; "The origins of this festival can be traced back to the yin and yang philosophy of balance and harmony in the cosmos. After this celebration, there will be days with longer daylight hours and therefore an increase in positive energy flowing in. The philosophical significance of this is symbolized by the I Ching hexagram (復, "Returning")."]

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For a piece about the Hidden Sun, see here. For previous entries on the winter solstice, see here or here.

Even in the darkest of times the promise of light shines forth


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P.S. Since this piece was posted, our Taoist friend Michael R. Saso has written an informative piece on his Facebook page giving more details about the Chinese celebration of the winter solstice….

In China, Japan and other East Asian cultures, Winter Solstice is celebrated by an evergreen cutting, similar to the Christmas tree, made by clipping off the branch of a tree, and hanging it over the household spirit shrine. Like the Christmas tree, it is decorated with fruits and candies. South China, Gwangdong, Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, also decorate homes and offices with shrub like tangerine trees. The orange fruit brightens homes and business through the solar and lunar New Year festivals. The winter months, celebrating nature’s annual rest and rebirth, are also blessed by the flowering of the winter plum blossom, placed beside the colorful tangerines of winter.

Modern Chinese families celebrate the Winter Solstice with a family banquet. The most important item is a sweet soup, made of glutinous rice balls filled with nuts and sesame seed, called Tangyuan 糖圆. The Tangyuan is a symbol of yang’s rebirth in the depths of the ocean. In some families, both white and pink rice balls are put in the soup, signifying that after the solstice, the cold, short days of winter will soon begin to lengthen, with the returning sun’s warmth and brightness,

The Winter Solstice was one of the biggest events of Imperial China. On this day the Emperor of China was required, from ancient times, to offer sacrifice to heaven, by ceremonially plough the ground, to insure good crops and blessing for the coming year. The place for performing this ritual, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, was the temple of Heaven, in Beijing. The Emperor would spend a period of prayer and retreat in the Temple grounds. Then he would go early in the morning to an elevated, circular altar, and stand in the middle of an outdoor stone platform. Here he would address heaven, while standing on a convex, circular stone, which stands right in the middle of the outdoor altar, directly under the heavens. Until 1949, it was strictly prohibited for anyone, other than Court mandarins, and members of the Board of Rites, to enter the Temple of Heaven. Only the emperor himself could stand on this stone and offer prayer.

Nowadays, we can all experience what the emperor felt, when he made this Winter Solstice prayer to heaven. But to do so, we must wait patiently in a line of daily visitors who stand on the stone, making the “V” sign with their fingers, while being photographed by family, friends, or suitors. Please try to do this, when you are in Beijing. Go early in the morning, or just before closing, to this stone. Stand on it, look up to the heavens, and speak. You will experience a most amazing phenomenon, as your voice is carried straight upward, with an echo, into the heavens. Whether by plan, or by chance, prayers made out loud on this stone, are by the laws of physics, carried heavenward. You will feel it so, if even for a moment, before the next set of waiting tourists climb onto the stone for a picture.

Posted in Animism, Mythology, Paganism | Leave a comment

Izumo delights

The attractive Izumo coastline at Hinomisaki

 

The Shimane area, boasting the impressive Izumo Taisha, is undoubtedly one of the most attractive and mythological parts of Japan.  Much of its appeal is its remoteness, and access is not easy from the main parts of Japan.  An article this week in the Japan Times highlights one cheap possibility for those in Tokyo – a 12-hour overnight train.

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Model of how Izumo Taisha may have looked in ancient times when it would have been Japan's biggest shrine

Night train to Shimane’s land of the gods
BY DAVEY YOUNG SPECIAL TO THE JAPAN TIMES  DEC 13, 2014

The 10th month of the lunar calendar is known throughout most of Japan as Kannazuki, or the “month of no gods.” During this time, Okuninushi, the kami (Shinto god) enshrined at the renowned Izumo Taisha shrine, summons myriad deities to decide the fate of all people for the year ahead. For this reason, the 10th lunar month in Shimane Prefecture alone is known as Kamiarizuki — the “month of the gods.”

My visit to Izumo Taisha shrine fell in the weeks before Kamiarizuki, a good time to curry favor ahead of the gathering of the gods. Many people, and perhaps even a kami or two, reach the shrine via the Sunrise Izumo, a 12-hour overnight train from Tokyo with relatively few stops along the way.

Despite the arduous journey, the gravity of Izumo Taisha in the national psyche compels people to pack these trains, not just for the month of the gods, but throughout the year.

I arrived at midday during a serendipitous break in the stormy weather that the Sea of Japan is famous for, but a roil of Stygian clouds ringing the horizon in every direction reminded me of the gods’ caprice. It was a Sunday, and a varied assortment of pilgrims and tourists scurried back and forth, chatting and snapping pictures.

Izumo Taisha has been popping up more and more on Japanese tourists’ collective radar ever since Princess Noriko married the son of the shrine’s head priest in October, joining together two of the oldest family lineages in the country. In fact, the line of the Izumo priests stretches a mind-boggling 85 generations. Indeed, everything about Izumo Taisha is a matter of scale.

Visitors first pass through a succession of hulking, dark shrine gates before the final approach down a gentle grade and through a corridor of pine trees. The wide path spans several hundred meters and ends with the abrupt appearance of the haiden (worship hall). The hall’s wide, sloping roof and asymmetrical facade are efficiently humbling.

The kaguraden with its massive shimenawa rice rope. "Everything about Izumo Taisha is a matter of scale"

 

With the clouds closing in, I hurried behind the haiden to get a better view of the massive honden (main hall). This is where Okuninushi is enshrined, and where, according to the Kojiki and Nihon-shoki, Susano’o settled the land after his banishment from the heavens. The current honden, built in 1744, exudes the appropriate degree of authority. It’s difficult to imagine that an earlier, 13th-century iteration rose to a staggering 48 meters.

Part of Inasa Beach on which the kami of all Japan are received each October

Equally inconceivable is the 13-meter, 5-ton shimenawa, a twisted straw rope indicating sacredness, adorning the kaguraden (kagura hall). I arrived to find a line of people longer than the rope itself jutting out from the shrine, and had only a few minutes to contemplate its mass before the black forms above coalesced and let loose with sheets of cold rain. I escaped the worst of it by finding shelter in the neighboring Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo.

When the storm broke, I walked a short kilometer to the beach at Inasa-no-Hama, where every year the gods would be greeted for the first day of Kamiarizuki. The sun had just set behind a veil of violet-hued clouds, and the wide beach was empty save for a few ironclad surfers donning wetsuits retreating from the darkening waves. Their footprints resembled ant trails on the otherwise smooth sand, and I was left wondering by what mysterious means the gods transport themselves to this far-flung corner of Japan to answer Okuninushi’s call, and by what divinations they determine our fate.

One of the old bathhouses in Yunotsu

Later that night, I shocked the cold out of my bones at Motoyu, one of two public bathhouses in Yunotsu, the small coastal town that once served as a shipping port for nearby Iwami Ginzan and now enjoys UNESCO World Heritage status along with the mines. Neither bathhouse adulterates the source water, so the milky, 45-degree-Celsius bath is an exercise in endurance.

The next morning I hit the other bathhouse in town, the Yakishiyu, whose spring was created by an earthquake nearly 2½ centuries ago, for good measure. Freshly stewed and stinking of sulfur, I made my way to the mines.

During its heyday in the early Edo Period, Iwami Ginzan supplied one-third of the world’s silver. Its centuries of use fueled Japan’s warring states period and the Tokugawa Shogunate that ended it. After the Meiji Restoration, the mines were privatized and new smelters were built downriver, but the mines began to run dry within a few decades. For most of the 20th century, the once prosperous region backslid into dereliction, and many of the original buildings were lost to fire.

The entire mining area covers 5 sq. km, most of which can be explored freely, but the old mining town of Omori is the real treasure. Hundreds of Tokugawa and Meiji era buildings huddle along a trickling river deep in the valley, and the main drag of Omori Street is a veritable time slip.

Model of an Edo-era miner in the Iwami Silver Mine

The pristinely renovated Kawashima Family Residence was originally built in 1825 and is now a museum showcasing the bygone household of the samurai family who administered Omori during the Edo Period.

According to the woman who sold me my ticket, more than half of the buildings in town had been abandoned before the area received World Heritage status in 2007. Since then, people have been coming back.

The sinking sun had already cast the valley into shadow as I left the charms of Omori behind. It would be completely dark by the time I boarded the Sunrise Izumo, but at least I’d be headed east to meet the new day.

The former mining town of Omori, now catering to tourists as part of the Iwami Silver Mine World Heritage Site

 

My Nobi Nobi seat was a bit of a misnomer. Borrowed from a term meaning stretch, each berth is about the size of one tatami mat. Sitting upright my head just grazed the ceiling. The floor is hard and thinly carpeted, but mercifully seemed to be heated. A thin white sheet had been folded neatly and placed at the entrance, but no other bedding was provided. Passengers can close a scratchy curtain to the narrow corridor, but the berths themselves are open to one another. As the train lurched into motion, I looked down the row at the dozen or so other travelers silently setting up their nests for the night. This Spartan compartment was to be our shared home for the next 12 hours.

It was a small mercy I had the foresight to buy an ekiben (boxed lunch) before boarding, made with fresh crab from the Sea of Japan — the Sunrise Izumo has no snack cart or meal service. I cracked the disposable chopsticks and tucked in as the dark mirror of Lake Shinji glided by outside.

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Getting there: The Sunrise Izumo leaves Tokyo Station at 10 p.m. and arrives in Izumo-shi Station at 9:58 a.m. the next day. One-way fares cost from ¥15,320 plus tax. For more information, see www.jr-odekake.net/train/sunriseseto_izumo/index.html. (Japanese site)

The disused Ebisu Jinja at Okidamari port, once used for shipping silver to Kyushu

Kigami Jinja at Omori, once patronised by wealthy merchants

Kigami Jinja omikuji fortune slips, tied and displayed in attractive fashion befitting a World Heritage Site

Posted in Izumo | 2 Comments

Baku, the dream eater

Baku detail on the honden at Yasaka Jinja in Kyoto

 

The first time I saw one, I thought it was an elephant!  Now when I see it, I feel happy to know it will eat my nightmares….

Welcome to the imaginative world of the ‘baku’, courtesy of the Ancient Origins website, a fascinating trove of miscellenia which delves into the mysterious past.

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Baku: The Legend of the Dream Eater
By M R Reese  1 DECEMBER, 2014

The baku, otherwise known as the ‘dream eater’, is a mythological being or spirit in Chinese and Japanese folklore which is said to devour nightmares. The baku cannot be summoned without caution, however, as ancient legends say that if the baku is not satisfied after consuming the nightmare, he may also devour one’s hopes and dreams.

Tales of the baku devouring nightmares originated in Chinese folklore, and later appeared in Japanese folklore between the 14th and 15th centuries, in what was known as the Muromachi period. While the baku is a spiritual being, it has a well-defined appearance. It takes on the form of a chimera – a mythological beast comprised of a variety of parts from other animals. The baku is typically depicted with a bear’s body, an elephant’s nose, a tiger’s feet, an oxen tail, and rhinoceros eyes.

Baku detail at the entrance gate to Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto

According to legend, the baku was created by the spare pieces that were left over when the gods finished creating all other animals. Descriptions and beliefs in the baku have changed throughout the years. In ancient Chinese legends, the baku was an animal that was hunted for its pelt. Whomever killed a baku would use a blanket made from the pelt as a talisman, or an object with magical powers, which would protect them from evil spirits. This practice evolved into one where a pelt was not necessary, and the display of a baku image over the bed would repel evil spirits.

It wasn’t until the baku legends made their way to Japan that the figure was viewed as a dream-eater. With this transition, the stories of baku became consistent, and he has continued to be viewed as a dream-eater to this day. Legend has it, that a person who wakes up from a bad dream can call out to baku. A child having a nightmare in Japan will wake up and repeat three times “Baku-san, come eat my dream. Baku-san, come eat my dream. Baku-san, come eat my dream.”

Legends say that the baku will come into the child’s room and devour the bad dream, allowing the child to go back to sleep peacefully. However, calling to the baku must be done sparingly, because if he remains hungry after eating one’s nightmare, he may also devour their hopes and desires as well, leaving them to live an empty life. The baku can also be summoned for protection from bad dreams prior to falling asleep at night. To this day, it remains common for Japanese children to keep a baku talisman at their bedside.

Today you can find several modern representations of the baku. Occasionally, a baku is shown in a form that represents a tapir, as opposed to the traditional chimera form. In 1984, Oshii Mamoru’s animated film, ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, depicted a baku as a tapir. Later, a baku took on a tapir-like form in Pokemon in the Drowzee/ Hypno and Munna/ Musharna characters, and the popular Digimon (virtual pet monster) also has a character called Bakumon or Tapirmon, that bears similarity to the baku.

The idea of being able to summon a baku to prevent or end a nightmare is one that can be understood across various cultures and different time periods, and the use of talismans or symbols of protection for sleep are a common thread seen throughout history. The baku has remained a steady figure in nightmare prevention throughout the years, in both chimera and tapir form, and it is likely to remain a figure for many years to come.

Baku at Hinomisaki Shrine in Shimane Prefecture

 

There are baku, elephants and just about any other creature you could imagine in the wonderful wonderland of Tosho-gu at Nikko

Posted in Mythology, Shrine items | Leave a comment

Politics (Shinto values)

Prime minister Abe, campaigning in white gloves to show 'purity' (courtesy Reuters)

News comes today of the resounding re-election of prime minister Abe Shinzo, a self-declared nationalist. He and his supporters, who include both conservatives and those on the far right, promote what are called ‘Shinto values’ in a nostalgic wish to return to the state religion of prewar times.

These right-wing politicians belong to the Shinto Association for Spiritual Leadership, which has an office in the Jinja Honcho building (Association of Shrines).  An article in Saturday’s Japan Times illustrates how closely connected it is with the agenda of the resurgent rightwing, and how worrying this is for those who favour tolerance, reconciliation and international harmony.

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Abe’s base aims to restore past religious, patriotic values
by Linda Sieg   Reuters

As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promises voters a bright future for Japan’s economy, key parts of his conservative base want him to steer the nation back toward a traditional ethos mixing Shinto myth, patriotism and pride in the ancient Imperial line.

Proponents say such changes are needed to revive important aspects of Japanese culture eradicated by the U.S. Occupation after World War II and to counter modern materialism.

Critics say they mirror the Shinto ideology that mobilized the masses to fight the war in the name of a divine emperor. The legacy of that war still haunts ties with China and South Korea nearly 70 years after its end.

One of the ceremonies in last year's Shikinen Sengu renewal at Ise Jingu. Prime minister's Abe's attendance carried huge political significance.

A predicted landslide win by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in Sunday’s general election, which is being called a referendum on his economic growth policies, and prospects Abe may become a rare long-term Japanese leader have given his ardent supporters their best chance in decades of achieving their goals.

“We really have trust in him,” said Yutaka Yuzawa, director of the Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership, or SAS, the political arm of the Association of Shinto Shrines. The group, which counts Abe as a member, is one of a network of overlapping organizations sharing a similar agenda.  “The prime minister’s views are extremely close to our way of thinking,” Yuzawa said in an interview.

Among the key elements of the SAS agenda are calls to rewrite Japan’s U.S.-drafted, postwar Constitution, not only to alter its pacifist Article 9 but to blur the separation of religion and state. Education reform, to better nurture love of country among youth, is another top priority.

“After the war, there was an atmosphere that considered all aspects of the prewar era bad,” Yuzawa said. “Policies were adopted weakening the relationship between the Imperial household and the people . . . and the most fundamental elements of Japanese history were not taught in the schools.”

Similar concerns drive other organizations such as Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), a broader lobby group for which Abe serves as a “supreme adviser.” Experts see parallels between these groups and the U.S. Tea Party movement, with its calls to restore lost American values.

“Nippon Kaigi and the Shinto Association basically believe the Occupation period brought about . . . the forced removal of Shinto traditions from public space and public institutions,” said University of Auckland professor Mark Mullins. “For them, this was authentic Japanese identity . . . and to be an independent and authentic Japan again those things need to be  restored.”

Yasukuni Jinja. PM Abe has made prime ministerial visits to the shrine a test of nationalist virility

Abe has long been close to such groups, but they have increased their reach since his first 2006-2007 term as leader.  Membership data show 301 members of the Diet, mostly from the LDP, are affiliated with SAS, including 222 in the 480-seat Lower House before the dissolution. A Nippon Kaigi caucus had 295 members, including some opposition MPs. Members of the groups are central to Abe’s administration.

Nippon Kaigi supporters accounted for 84 percent of Abe’s Cabinet after it was shuffled in September and almost all of the ministers were affiliated with the SAS. Eighty-four percent also belonged to a separate caucus promoting visits to Yasukuni Shrine, seen by critics as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.

Abe’s December 2013 visit to Yasukuni sparked outrage in Beijing and Seoul. Far less attention was paid to what some see as his equally symbolic participation in October that year in a ceremony at Ise Shrine, the holiest of Japan’s Shinto institutions.

The ritual is held every 20 years, when Ise Shrine is rebuilt and sacred objects representing the Emperor’s mythical Sun Goddess ancestress are transferred to the new shrine.  Abe became only the second prime minister to take part in the centuries-old ritual, and the first since World War II.  “Without anyone blinking an eye . . . it became a state rite,” said John Breen, a professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto, commenting on Abe’s participation.

The far right are firmly behind Abe's desire to promote love of country and prewar 'Shinto values'

The lobby groups are also active at the grass roots.  On Oct. 1, they launched the “People’s Council to Write a Beautiful Constitution” to boost support for revising the charter in 2016.

Amending the Constitution faces big hurdles even if the LDP succeeds in winning two-thirds of both chambers, since a majority of voters must then approve the changes in a referendum.  But other parts of the conservative agenda are moving ahead, such as making “moral education” part of the official school curriculum with government-approved textbooks, a change slated to take effect in 2018.

That follows a revision to a law on education during Abe’s first term to make nurturing “love of country” a goal.“  Things related to patriotic education are getting pushed through and institutionalized so they are shaping the next generation, whether parents know or think about it or not,” the University of Auckland’s Mullins said.

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Hatsumode in Europe

Green Shinto friend Paul de Leeuw will again be offering the only open Hatsumode service in Europe this year, which will take place at the Hotel Okura in Amsterdam. Anyone who would like to attend can find the details for application below.  (The Dutch Shinzen Foundation website can be found here.)

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HATSUMODE 2015
Invitation for the New Year Ceremony

Hatsumode as carried out in Amsterdam

You are cordially invited to attend the celebration of Hatsumode (the Seasonal First Visit to the Shrine) on New Year’s Day 2015, January 1st

Venue: Hotel Okura Amsterdam
Otter and Esperance Room
Ferdinand Bolstraat 333
Amsterdam

04:00- 05:00 PM

Free entrance.  Donation appreciated

Program:
15:30 Registration of guests
16:00 Shinto ceremony: Hatsumode
17:00 Naorai (congratulatory toast with sake)
18:00 End

Please apply before December 28th to confirm your attendance.  After December 28th you will receive a confirmation.

Hatsumode is the seasonal first visit to the shrine in order to receive the pure blessings of nature.
During New Year’s Day the guests of Hotel Okura have access to the Holland Shinto Shrine, which is temporarily built in the Otter and Esperance Room.  Every hour shintomaster Paul de Leeuw will perform a purification ceremony exclusively for the families who are staying at the hotel.  For information about staying in Hotel Okura, please check the Okura Oshogatsu Package 2015 or click here.

Due to the gracious courtesy of Hotel Okura we have the pleasure to invite you to attend the Grand New Year Ceremony at 04:00 PM.  We will celebrate the Grand Ceremony for the New Year for the 10th time. The ceremony will be performed by drs Paul de Leeuw, Shintomaster, assisted by Yurie Umamoto, Miko, while Naomi Sato will perform Gagaku music.

Besides attending the ceremony at 04:00 PM, you may also visit the shrine between 11:30 AM and 03:00 PM without attending a purification ceremony. At the reception desk you will find Omamori for personal protection or traffic safety and Omikuji (fortune telling). It will be worthwhile to visit the temporary shrine on New Year’s Day.

It is highly recommended to fill in the application form on our website.  Please, make your reservation before December 28th.  After that date you will receive a confirmation with all details.

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The Hatsumode application form can be found here.

Paul de Leeuw and the Yamakage Shinto Shrine in Amsterdam

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Purity (shamanic cleansing)

I was once shown round a shrine by a Shinto priest, who claimed the concern with cleanliness and purity was because the high humidity in Japan fostered disease and germs.  It struck me as a typical Japanese way of seeing things, as if the practice was somehow special to the country.   An alternative viewpoint would be to see the concern with cleanliness as integral to the wider shamanic concern with spiritual purity.

In this way Shinto is very much part of East Asian spirituality as a whole.  But whereas shamanism remains a living tradition in Korea and Siberia, Shinto is a fossilised form of shamanism that retains the form though the original intention has been lost.  Hence the simple waving of a purification stick (haraigushi) to signify cleansing, which in ancient times may have been carried out by a miko shamaness in tandem with otherworldly spirits.

The piece below about Spiritual Hygiene in Shamanic Healing illustrates what is meant in shamanic terms by impurity.  The article demonstrates that the goal of shamanism is restoring a pristine state, which is the essence of Shinto too.  Living in a material world means the inevitable accumulation of pollution, and wiping clean our spiritual self is akin to cleaning away the dust that accumulates.  When the soul is cleansed, the spirit is pure.

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The following piece is an abridged version of an article by Caitlin Matthews in the magazine Sacred Hoop, issue 86.

WHAT ARE INTRUSIONS?
Shamanically speaking, everything has power and spirit. Power and spirit are not ‘evil’ in themselves, they are neutral, but when they are in the wrong place, we experience this as an ‘evil.’ Take beetles, for example. While beetles are fine in the garden where they eat away diseased foliage, beetles in your bed or on your plate are another matter; I’m sure we would all agree.

Symbolic extraction of spiritual impurity through waving the stick over the body and disposing of 'the pollution' in a nearby stream

Throughout the world, there are clear boundaries about keeping things separate from each other: most cultures, for example, keep a strict barrier between the living and the dead, with people of a certain caste or skill-set there to attend to the deceased’s body. Similarly, when it comes to matters of psychic health and spiritual hygiene, shamans and medicine people have their own craft in separating what has become mixed and bringing clarity and integrity once again.

For most healers, spiritual cleanliness and clearing are akin to housework: we all need to do a little cleaning everyday so that our home environment stays healthy.  When spirit intrusions, residues, and miasmas are present in our souls, we can feel unclean, polluted or invaded.

So what is an intrusion? An intrusion can be anything in spirit form that enters, invades or clusters within its host. What do intrusions look like? How do we recognise them? The inheritance of dualistic faiths in our society can still fuel our paranoia, shaping intrusion in human imagination into many monstrous forms. Both the demons and homunculi of medieval times, as well as the resurrected Gothic horrors of the Romantic era, inform our cultural imagination, veering uneasily between the thought of suppressed psychological entities, or forms of uncleanly fears and fancies.

Intrusions can have the appearance of a host or swarm of colonisers, like the gatherings of dirt or residue that you find in a long-forgotten outbuilding where cobwebs and other detritus pile up.  An intrusion can also have humanoid forms: ancestral presences who are lost or astray, or who still hold undue influence over the host, or residues of abusive people still alive, whose lives have tangled with our own. Intrusions are rarely depicted, for good reason.

The sense of a ‘foreign body’ is often very clear to the host, who will report feeling a strange displacement that they can’t account for. They may also feel ‘overseen,’ stalked, or ‘uncomfortable’ in an undefined way, overshadowed or in the presence of something alien. Some people have even described this discomfort with a metaphor of indigestion, ‘it’s like I’ve eaten something bad, it just sits there, it doesn’t move, but it feels toxic.’

The nature of dirt of any kind is that it builds up and accumulates. The same kind of thing happens when we do not observe psychic hygiene in our own beings. When there is a gap or space in our power or soul, intrusion can build up there and become a more serious matter.

THE FORMATION OF ENTITIES
Because we live in a sanitised world of tidied-up order, our society has purged the imagination of the kinds of beings that our ancestors feared, beings that they called by a variety of names: demons, imps, incubi etc. Such names are not so helpful to us now because they make us demonise intrusions.

Opportunism is the name of the intrusions’ game. If we leave an opening, something may come in… we can easily see how the spirits of addictions come to fill up empty spaces in our lives… binge drinking, substance abuse or other kinds of behaviour can invite a spirit of intrusion to take up residence within us.

If you are practising your shamanic craft, then you can journey regularly to maintain the pathways of life clearly and keep your practice bright. Good missions to journey on include:  ‘What needs to be cleared away so that life can flow once again?’  ‘Reconnect me more strongly with the sources of power and inspiration.’  In this way, in the words of Gandhi:

Your beliefs become your thoughts
Your thoughts become your words
Your words become your actions
Your actions become your habits
Your habits become your values
Your values become your destiny.

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Caitlín Matthews is the author of ‘Singing the Soul Back Home,’ ‘The Psychic Protection Handbook’ and ‘Celtic Visions,’ and is currently at work on her study of the ancestors, ‘The Book of Ancestral Welcome.’ She has had a shamanic practice in Oxford for 25 years.  Click here for her website.

For more on the postshamanic nature of Shinto, see an earlier Green Shinto posting here.

Symbols of purity - young girl holding the purification stick (haraigushi)

Two tools of purification can be seen here, the sakaki branch being waved and in the background the purification stick

Posted in Origins, Purity and pollution, Shamanic connections | Leave a comment

Miyazaki’s Shinto themes

Fig 1c - symbolic marker of an entrance into another realm

 

The Japanese director of animated films Hayao Miyazaki received an Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Nov. 8 at a private dinner event. “My wife tells me I’m a very lucky man,” said Miyazaki, 73. “I was fortunate to be part of the final era where movies were made through the use of paper, pencil and film.”  It’s only the second time that a Japanese national has received such an award, the first being Akira Kurosawa in 1990.  By way of congratulations, Green Shinto is here reposting a paper by Par van Zoelen about the spiritual nature of Miyazaki’s movies.  For the original, please click here.  All illustrations courtesy of the author.

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Hayao Miyazaki: Recovery of Japanese Cultural Values

Par van Zoelen, Aurora – 13 December 2012

Hayao Miyazaki is arguably the best contemporary Japanese animator. Over the last 30 years he has developed a particular style, both aesthetically and through his work habits, that separates him from other animators. Miyazaki works without scripts, so his stories develop in the production stage of each movie. His films have recurrent themes such as ecology, opposition to war and state, and a recovery of old Japanese values in today’s context. These values are deeply rooted in Shinto and Buddhism. Miyazaki materializes ideas from these two life philosophies and adds his own personal experiences either in characters or in scenarios.

This essay revolves around four images: a 14th century Buddhist mandala, and three stills from the movies Princess Mononoke (1997), My neighbor Totoro (1988) and Spirited Away (2001). The characters in Miyazaki’s movies interact with kami (gods or spirits) because they are placed in sacred sites or areas that facilitate this contact. In Princess Mononoke it is the mountain, in My Neighbor Totoro, a tree and in Spirited Away, a kami bathhouse. Miyazaki employs fundamental Shinto symbols in his movies in order to retrieve Japan’s cultural heritage in today’s context.

The spiritually charged world of Princess Mononoke

Shinto predates historical records. It is Japan’s native belief system, which consists of honoring nature and kami, purification rituals and continuity between the deific and profane space within the world. Traditionally, Shinto was an oral transmitted religion whose fundamental teaching was to respect all living things. It is devoid of scriptures and its rituals have changed over time.

In history, Shinto has been supported and suppressed by the standing government but without success to either eradicate it or elevate it as the only religion in Japan. It has however, survived into the 21st century. Buddhism was introduced around the sixth century and has too become a predominant ideology in Japan’s belief system. Moreover the two religions have adopted ideas from each other:

“Buddhist figures adopted complementary Shinto identities and Shinto kami were thought to strive toward Buddhist enlightenment. […] It was not until the arrival and influence of Buddhism, with its long tradition[al] of producing anthropomorphic representations of Buddhist deities, that statues and paintings of Shinto divinities started to be produced, around the eighth century.”[1]

By complementing each other, these religions have been able to appeal to a larger population. Moreover, Shinto gained the ability to communicate its ideas through new forms of representation and specific symbols.

The definition of sacred space in Japanese religions is very important. One can interact with kami and other spirits in areas or with objects that serve as mediums for this communication. A ‘sacred site’ is “a well-structured, clearly delimited space seen as the actual residence of a divinity. The sacred site is the oldest form of sacred space in Japan, which we find emerging out of the early myths and Shinto rituals.”[2]

Fig. 1 - Kasuga Deer Mandala

From the interaction between Shinto and Buddhism appeared the idea of a ‘sacred area’, which consists of the territory travelled by pilgrims into the mountain. A sacred site is a specific site or object where a kami was thought to have materialized whereas the sacred area is a larger space, for example a mountain, which has to do with the divine. The mandala, a traditional representation of the residence of the Buddha, is a projection of the sacred area. It depicts symbols of the journey and the aim of the pilgrim.

Although the mandala comes from a Buddhist tradition, the imagery of Fig 1 is heavily influenced by symbols of Shinto. For instance, nature is the overpowering symbol. In relation to the five Buddha depicted, the deer, the mountain and the tree appear much larger. The Kasuga Deer Mandala is read vertically from the bottom to the top. One starts at the bottom center of the image passing through the torii, a Shinto symbol and architectural piece that delineates the space between the profane and the sacred. This symbol indicates that one changes from the realm of men to the realm of the gods. It then continues in vertical ascent to the deer, a sacred animal and the tree on its saddle, also a sacred symbol. The golden circle symbolized either the sun or the moon, depending on the interpretation, and the five Buddha within are representations of five shrines. Lastly, at the very top are the mountains, mysterious areas where humans could become in contact with the divine.

The vertical reading of the image is evocative of the Japanese family system ‘ie’, where unborn members of the family are represented at the bottom and ancestors at the top with the living in the middle in the realm of men. To enter either category, one must pass through a threshold much like when a pilgrim passes through a torii to enter the foreign land of the mountain. Miyazaki uses Shinto symbols as the torii in his movie Spirited Away (2001). At the beginning of the film the characters pass by an old torii (Fig 1c) that is indicative of an entrance into a sacred site. It is the delineation between the mundane and a space where the characters will interact with kami.

The early attitudes towards mountains as sacred spaces have to do with the geographical location of humans. People lived and worked in plains while mountains were “untouched and were areas of non activity. Corpses were abandoned or buried on mountains; hence the mountain was seen as a space whose nature was Other (not belonging to common categories of experience within the profane).”[3]

Figure 2 is a still from the movie Princess Mononoke, a historical epic set in the Muromachi period (1333-1568) the same period as the Kasuga Deer Mandala. This time period is the threshold between rural Japan and the beginnings of urbanization. It is the time when gods and human were at war for the possession of nature and humans entered and destroyed the realm of gods. The first function of Figure 2 is to depict the Japanese mountainous landscape and how forests overwhelm these areas. The trees in the foreground are later lost in perspective to the receding mountains but one can assume that they are as occupied by nature as the plants depicted in the forefront. It is important to note the lack of any source of artificial light. Only the moon illuminates the picture. Both of these elements support the impression of a natural world yet untouched by urbanization.

Fig. 2 - the giant from Princess Mononoke

In this night still, Miyazaki visualizes a daidarabotchi -a legend of a giant, who creates lakes with his footsteps-. Miyazaki attributes life and death to this forest god, who during the day is transforms into a shishigami (fig 2b). In daylight it embodies the shape of a deer with a traditional Japanese mask for a face that moves within a closed-off space within the mountain. At night, it changes into to the giant Night Walker, as tall as the mountains. He is of another nature as is the space around him; he is a spirit, a god, and a mountain.

The depiction of the daidarabotchi illustrates the earlier ideas of Shinto that mountain were sacred spaces, which gods took as residences. Miyazaki expands this view and implies that the gods in the mountains can affect directly the life and death of the immediate surroundings. During the film, a gun (a man-made tool) severs the forest god’s head and all nature around him dies too. The principal characters have to then reunite the god with its head in order to appease the destruction. It’s clear that Miyazaki is providing a commentary on the importance to respect nature.

Fig 3 - My Neighbor Totoro

 

Miyazaki’s films display the rich cultural heritage of Japanese religions and belief systems. The film My Neighbor Totoro takes place in a rural setting, where superstitions regarding kami are still common in today’s Japan. The movie revolves around the adventures that two small girls share with the spirit of a tree. At the beginning of the movie the father talks to them about the great tree that overshadows their house. He tells the girls that “It’s been around since long ago, back in the time when trees and people used to be friends.”[4] This dialogue is reminiscent of the fundamental principle of Shinto belief: to respect all living things.

­In Figure 3, the characters are paying their respects to the spirit of the tree and asking him to look after them. As in the Kasuga Deer Mandala the representation of nature, in this case the tree, outsizes the representation of people. Another symbol from Shinto employed in this image is the rope with white paper zigzags around the tree. The rope or “Shimenawa […] is a Shinto device for marking off the sacred from the secular.”[5] Moreover, “in the mythological age, a sacred site surrounded by trees was set aside as a place to invoke the kami for worship. These sacred groves themselves were shrines. The primitive Japanese believed that they could invoke kami within the trees, so they fixed pieces of cloth and paper, called shide, on the trees to guide the kami.”[6]

Scene from Totoro

 

The interaction that the characters have with the forest kami Totoro revolves around this tree. In the movie, it serves as his dwelling to which the two girls are allowed to enter because of their pure nature. In Shinto an individual must have kokoro, a condition where the individual demonstrates a pure heart and mind, in order to interact with kami.[7]

Fig 4 - Spirited Away

In his film Spirited Away Miyazaki indicates that the younger generation (of Japanese children) are not aware of their cultural heritage. The character of Chihiro is inspired in the daughter of a friend. He was interested in this age group because “girls like her see films that contain characters their age, but they can’t identify with them, because they are imaginary characters that don’t resemble them at all.”[8]

Chihiro is an ordinary girl that becomes a capable person by surpassing the challenges she encounters in the world of the kami. Spirited Away is one of the heaviest religion-loaded movies from Miyazaki. He incorporated many of the precepts and symbols from Shinto and Buddhism.

Figure 4 depicts the end of Chihiro’s journey. She is holding hands with the river spirit that has helped her throughout the movie. She is looking forward into the green field and to the continuation of her own journey, her life, with the teachings and experiences that she had throughout the movie. The frog statue is reminiscent of statues in the entrances of shrines or statues placed by roads to assure the traveler that he is safe. In the background Miyazaki includes the mountains, to remind that the setting is Japan. Oddly enough there is only one house in the expanse shown, a house part of the world of the kami, everything else is devoid of architecture, alluding to nature.

Fig 4b - the bathhouse in Spirited Away

Spirited Away depicts another important idea from Shinto. Shinto states that all living things and natural phenomena, like a tree, a person or a river are inherently pure but can become contaminated. The movie’s setting is a bathhouse (Figure 4b) to purify gods and spirits so they can again do good to the world and humans. A challenge that Chihiro overpasses is cleaning a ‘stink god’ that turns out to be a polluted river. This segment of the movie comes from a personal experience of Miyazaki. A river near his house was excessively polluted and when they decided to clean it up a bicycle and other waste was removed.

Hayao Miyazaki illustrates the precepts of Shinto and Buddhism in his films in order to re-appropriate their values in today’s context. He makes direct links to Japan’s history in plotlines like Princess Mononoke’s and incorporates religious symbols and imagery in movies as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. To his Japanese audience, he is reminding them of their rich cultural heritage while to foreigners he is transmitting meaningful universal values. Shinto originated even before Japanese writing was created and yet it has survived to the 21st century where capitalism is an antagonist to its teachings. The ideas of respect towards all living things are especially significant in the context of a post-war Japan and to create a new national identity, which its people may be proud of. Hayao Miyazaki recalls Shinto’s long-lasting ideas so that they can be exercised in a contemporary setting.

[1] Elizabeth Hammer, “Shinto: A Japanese Religion.” Asia Society. http://asiasociety.org/countries/religions-philosophies/shinto. [Accessed 26 November 2012].
[2] Allan G. Grapard, “Flying Mountains and Walkers of Emptiness: Towards a Definition of Sacred Space in Japanese Religions.” History of Religions, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Feb., 1982): 196.
[3] Allan G. Grapard, “Flying Mountains and Walkers of Emptiness: Towards a Definition of Sacred Space in Japanese Religions.” History of Religions, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Feb., 1982): 200.
[4] Hayao Miyazaki, My Neighbor Totoro. Internet. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Japan:Studio Ghibli, 1988.
[5] Editorial Staff, “Shinto Symbols (Continued)” Contemporary Religions in Japan, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Jun., 1966): 100.
[6] Ibid, 94.
[7] Boyd, James W. and Tetsuya Nishimura. “Shinto Perspectives in Miyazaki’s Anime Film “Spirited Away”.” The Journal of Religion and Film, Vol. 8, No. 2 (October 2004): 3.
[8] Tom Mes. “Interviews: Hayao Miyazaki.” Midnight Eye: Visions of Japanese Cinema. http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/hayao-miyazaki/. Accessed 4 December 2012.

Posted in Anime and manga, Green issues, Japanese culture, Spirituality | 2 Comments

Cold water (Misogi)

Once a year at the summer solstice participants prepare to enter the sea for sunrise misogi at the Ise Meoto Rocks

 

The Shinto tradition of misogi (cold water immersion) is one shared with many cultures around the world.  Nowhere is this more evident than in India, where Hindus believe the river Ganges is sacred and that bathing in the river will wash away sins and facilitate liberation from the cycle  of suffering.

One form of asceticism in Japan is to stand under a waterfall, deadly cold in winter, while reciting prayer.  Another is to immerse oneself in the sea or a river.  Shinto has a set form for how to do this, which is part of the training for priests though only a small percentage practise it on a regular basis and even fewer ordinary followers.  For most a cold shower is sufficient.  At my gym I regularly find that after bathing, the person before me has finished off his ablutions with a burst of cold water.  Health studies have shown that this has very real benefits, as described in the article below.

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5 reasons why you should take cold showers
Katherine Martinko on treehugger.com

Places for cold water austerity are marked off as sacred

Have you ever taken a cold shower – a really cold shower? Then you’ll know that bracing sensation as the icy cold water comes pouring out of the showerhead onto your just-warm, now-frozen skin. You gasp, and perhaps scream, as you become number by the second. Although the shock dissipates, the pain never really goes away until you step out and grab the nearest towel. In the following moments, however, you suddenly realize it was totally worth it. By now you’re feeling the greatest adrenaline rush. Your skin is tingling, you’re wide awake, and you’re realizing, I just did it!

Cold showers have played an important role in many cultures for various reasons. From the Spartans, ancient Greeks, and Romans, to Native American tribes, Japanese Shinto practitioners, and the Scandinavians, cold water plunges have long been part of traditional rituals. They are used to build psychological strength, to cleanse the spirit, to improve health, and to make you feel awesome… once you’re out, of course.

Our comfort-obsessed modern culture has largely forgotten – or chooses to overlook – the benefits of cold water, but perhaps it needs to make a comeback, not least of all because it forces you to conserve water (you won’t want to linger so long) and reduce the heating bill. But there other reasons why taking a daily cold shower – or doing a ‘polar dip’ in a cold lake – is a very good idea.

1. It improves blood circulation.
A cold shower increases the rate of blood flow through the body, pumping more to your organs. This is beneficial to the cardiovascular system and can help with blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, and varicose veins. Increased blood flow to the brain helps it to function optimally and leaves you feeling more alert for a longer period of time.

2. Cold water is an anti-depressant.
The adrenaline rush and that wonderfully giddy sensation that you get post-plunge come from the tremendous amount of electrical impulses sent from the peripheral nerve endings to the brain, which has an anti-depressive effect.

Christian Grubl of the Austrian shugendo association practises misogi

A 2008 study called “Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression,” published in Medical Hypotheses, presents the interesting hypothesis that depression may be caused by “a lifestyle that lacks certain physiological stressors that have been experienced by primates through millions of years of evolution, such as brief changes in body temperature (e.g. cold swim), and lack of ‘thermal exercise’ may cause inadequate functioning of the brain.”

The evidence seems to support the hypothesis. Exposure to cold activates the sympathetic nervous system and increases the release of noradrenaline, a chemical that mitigates depression. Practical application showed cold hydrotherapy to relieve depressive symptoms effectively.

3. Cold water is good for your skin and hair.
There’s a reason why you often hear that you should rinse freshly washed hair with cold water in order to reduce frizz and improve shine. Hot water tends to dry out skin and hair, whereas cold water leaves it feeling firm, taut, and less wrinkly. For long-term toning, splash a mixture of cold water and fresh lemon juice onto your face for a refreshing rinse.

4. Cold water can improve athletic performance.
One recent study published in the American Journal of Physiology found that athletes who use cold water immersion after resistance training are able to complete more work during subsequent training sessions, “which could enhance long-term training adaptations.”

Another study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that cold water immersion improves recovery following exercise, and should be administered as soon as possible post-exercise.

5. Cold water builds mental strength.
You’ve got to admit, it takes a certain degree of courage and mental preparation to turn off the hot water. The more you subject your body to stressors, the more easily it can adapt to future stressors. In other words, you can toughen yourself up by getting used to daily cold showers or dips – and that’s a good thing.

Emerging from the sea, purified by the cold salt water

Renewed and invigorated, with significant health benefits such as boosting the immune system

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The Phoenix

Close-up of a phoenix atop a mikoshi

 

On top of the Japanese mikoshi (portable palanquin) there usually sits a hō-ō, or phoenix.  It’s a significant feature, since in the container below sits Shinto’s most sacred object, the spirit-body of the shrine kami.  Why should there be a bird perched on top?  The obvious answer is because it represents flight to another world, an intermediary between earth and heaven as it were.  But why a phoenix, of all birds?  Those of us in the West are used to thinking of the bird as a symbol of rising from the ashes, but what does it have to do with Shinto?  In the article below, taken from the ancient origins website, Liz Leafloor looks at the symbolism of the imaginary bird, which captivated the Indo-European world and spread to Japan through the influence of China.

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Ancient Symbolism of the Magical Phoenix
By Liz Leafloor 29 AUGUST, 2014

The symbolism of the Phoenix, like the mystical bird itself, dies and is reborn across cultures throughout time. Ancient legend paints a picture of a magical bird, radiant and shimmering, which lives for several hundred years before it dies by bursting into flames. It is then reborn from the ashes, to start a new, long life. So powerful is the symbolism that it is a motif and image that is still used commonly today in popular culture and folklore.

Phoenix carried on a pole at the Yasui Konpira-gu festival in Kyoto

The legendary phoenix is a large, grand bird, much like an eagle or peacock. It is brilliantly coloured in reds, purples, and yellows, as it is associated with the rising sun and fire. Sometimes a nimbus will surround it, illuminating it in the sky. Its eyes are blue and shine like sapphires. It builds its own funeral pyre or nest, and ignites it with a single clap of its wings. After death it rises gloriously from the ashes and flies away.

The phoenix symbolizes renewal and resurrection, and represents many themes, such as “the sun, time, the empire, metempsychosis, consecration, resurrection, life in the heavenly Paradise, Christ, Mary, virginity, the exceptional man”.

Tina Garnet writes in The Phoenix in Egyptian, Arab, & Greek Mythology of the long-lived bird, “When it feels its end approaching, it builds a nest with the finest aromatic woods, sets it on fire, and is consumed by the flames. From the pile of ashes, a new Phoenix arises, young and powerful. It then embalms the ashes of its predecessor in an egg of myrrh, and flies to the city of the Sun, Heliopolis, where it deposits the egg on the altar of the Sun God.”
There are lesser known versions of the myth in which the phoenix dies and simply decomposes before rebirth.

The Greeks named it the Phoenix but it is associated with the Egyptian Bennu, the Native American Thunderbird, the Russian Firebird, the Chinese Fèng Huáng, and the Japanese Hō-ō.

It is believed that the Greeks called the Canaanites the Phoenikes or Phoenicians, which may derive from the Greek word ‘Phoenix’, meaning crimson or purple. Indeed, the symbology of the Phoenix is also closely tied with the Phoenicians.

Perhaps the earliest instance of the legend, the Egyptians told of the Bennu, a heron bird that is part of their creation myth. The Bennu lived atop ben-ben stones or obelisks and was worshipped alongside Osiris and Ra. Bennu was seen as an avatar of Osiris, a living symbol of the deity. The solar bird appears on ancient amulets as a symbol of rebirth and immortality, and it was associated with the period of flooding of the Nile, bringing new wealth and fertility.

Greek historian Herodotus wrote that priests of ancient Heliopolis described the bird as living for 500 years before building and lighting its own funeral pyre. The offspring of the birds would then fly from the ashes, and carry priests to the temple altar in Heliopolis. In ancient Greece it was said the bird does not eat fruit, but frankincense and aromatic gums. It also collects cinnamon and myrrh for its nest in preparation for its fiery death.

An artistic phoenix attached to the top of a mikoshi

In Asia the phoenix reigns over all the birds, and is the symbol of the Chinese Empress and feminine grace, as well as the sun and the south. The sighting of the phoenix is a good sign that a wise leader has ascended to the throne and a new era has begun. It was representative of Chinese virtues: goodness, duty, propriety, kindness and reliability. Palaces and temples are guarded by ceramic protective beasts, all lead by the phoenix.

The mythical phoenix has been incorporated into many religions, signifying eternal life, destruction, creation and fresh beginnings.  Due to the themes of death and resurrection, it was adopted as a symbol in early Christianity as an analogy of Christ. The image became a popular symbol on early Christian tombstones. It is also symbolic of a cosmic fire some believe created the world and which will consume it.

In Jewish legend the phoenix is known as the Milcham – a faithful and immortal bird. Going back to Eden, when Eve possessed the apple of knowledge, she tempted the animals of the garden with the forbidden fruit. The Milcham bird refused the offer, and was granted for its faith a town where it would live in peace almost eternally, rebirthing every thousand years, immune to the Angel of Death.

The Phoenix is also an alchemical symbol.  It represents the changes during chemical reactions and progression through colors, properties of matter, and has to do with the steps of alchemy in the making of the Great Work, or the Philosopher’s Stone.

Modern additions to the myth in popular culture say the tears of the phoenix have great healing powers, and if the phoenix is near one cannot tell a lie. Continually morphing and remorphing, the phoenix represents the idea that the end is only the beginning. Much like this powerful myth, the symbol of the phoenix will be reborn over and over again in human legend and imagination.

Mikoshi with phoenix on top in the annual matsuri procession at Hakone Jinja

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