The continuing interest among visitors here at A Druid Way in the posts on Shinto says hunger for the Wild, for spiritual connection to wilderness and its rejuvenating spirit, and potentially for Shrine Druidry, remains unabated. No surprise — in our hunger we’ll turn almost anywhere. What forms our response to such hunger may take is up to us and our spiritual descendants. Spirit, the goddesses and gods, the kami, the Collective Unconscious, Those Who Watch, your preferred designation here _____, just might have something to say about it as well.
What we know right now is that we long for spirit, however we forget or deny it, papering it over with things, with addictions and with despair in this time of many large challenges — a hunger more alive and insistent than ever. And this is a good thing, a vital and necessary one. In an artificial world that seems increasingly to consist of hyped hollowness, we stalk and thirst for the real, for the healing energies the natural world provides all humans as a birthright, as participants in its “spiritual economy” of birth, growth, death and rebirth.
As physical beings we live in a world where breathing itself can be a spiritual practice, where our heartbeats sound out rhythms we are born into, yet often and strangely have tried to flee. Even this, my sadness and loss, can be prayer, if I listen and let them reach and teach me, if I walk with them toward something larger, yet native to blood and bone, leaf and seed, sun and moon and stars. Druidry, of course, is simply one way among many to begin.
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If you know Kipling‘s Just So stories, you’re familiar with “The Cat That Walked By Himself.” The cat in question consistently asserts, “All places are alike to me.” But for people that’s usually NOT true. Places differ in ease of access, interest, health, natural beauty, atmosphere — or, in convenient shorthand, spirit. Shrines acknowledge this, even or especially if the shrine is simply a place identified as Place, without any sacred buildings like Shinto has — a place celebrated, honored, visited as a destination of pilgrimage, as a refuge from the profane, as a portal of inspiration.
Here’s a local (to me) example of a place in Vermont I’ll be visiting soon and reporting on, one that sounds like an excellent direction for a Shrine Druidry of the kind people are already starting to imagine and create. It’s called Spirit in Nature, and it’s a multi-faith series of meditation trails with meditation prompts. Its mission statement gets to the heart of the matter:
Spirit in Nature is a place of interconnecting paths where people of diverse spiritual traditions may walk, worship, meet, meditate, and promote education and action toward better stewardship of this sacred Earth.
Spirit in Nature is a non-profit, 501 (c)3 tax-exempt organization, always seeking new members, local volunteers to build and maintain paths, financial contributions, and interest from groups who would like to start a path center in their own area.
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So much lies within the possible scope of Shrine Druidry it’s hard to know where to start. Many such sites (and more potential sites) already exist in various forms. Across Europe, and to a lesser degree in North America (public sites, that is: private Native American and Pagan sites exist in surprising numbers), are numerous sacred-historical sites (some of which I’ll examine in a coming post), often focusing around a well, cave, tree, waterfall, stone circle, garden, grove, etc. Already these are places of pilgrimage for many reasons: they serve as the loci of national and cultural heritage and historical research, as commemorative sites, spiritual landmarks, orientations in space and time, as treasures of ethnic identity — the list goes on. Quite simply, we need such places.
Lower Falls, Letchworth St. Pk, NY. Image by Wikipedia/Suandsoe.
The national park system of the U.S., touted as “America’s Best Idea” (also the title of filmmaker Ken Burns’ series), was established to preserve many such places, though without any explicit markers pointing to spiritual practice. But then of course we already instinctively go to parks for healing and restoration, only under the guise of “vacations” and “recreation.” And many state parks in the U.S. extend the national park goal of preserving public access to comparatively unspoiled natural refuges. Growing up, I lived a twenty-minute bike ride from Letchworth State Park in western NY: 14,000 acres of forest surrounding deep (in places, over 500 feet) gorges descending to the Genesee River. Its blessing follows me each time I remember it, or see an image of it, and in attitudes shaped there decades ago now. May we all know green cathedrals.
I’ll talk more about shrines on other scales, small and large, soon, and tackle more directly some of the similarities and differences between Shinto and Druidry. I’ll also look at some of the roles practitioners of earth-centered spiritualities can — and already do — play in connection to the creation and support of shrines.
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Images: spider web; Lower Falls at Letchworth State Park, New York.
[For some of my other posts on Shinto, visit here, here, and here. For a two-part and more personal reflection, try here. The second part of this post will look at some possibilities for the "Shrine Druidry" of the title.]
I’ve mentioned Shinto and Tsubaki Grand Shrine before in these pages — a lovely shrine in Granite Falls, WA, about an hour north-northeast of Seattle. Recently during our car tour that included the Pacific Northwest, my wife and I “made omairi” or paid a visit on a sunny July day. The idiom “pay” is illuminating: some kinds of visits can be the fulfillment of a religious vow, a pilgrimage we dedicate to a spirit or an ideal — acts, in other words, performed at least potentially in fuller consciousness than usual. True, “the bow can’t always be bent,” as the old occult proverb goes; we “have to live in the real world,” as my mother used to admonish me. But you quickly find that cultivating regular times of intention and focus brings spiritual advantages just as it does other kinds of advantage in other aspects of life.
Tsubaki finds a working balance in explaining just enough about itself and about Shinto to the visitor who may know little about either. Shrines express unique and individual presences, and Tsubaki is no different. We can argue till the cows come home and make their own butter whether such distinctiveness comes from human intention solely, or from a happy cooperation of human and divine. What remains is the shrine itself, beyond mere debate: a place to visit, breathe, absorb, reflect on, and if you feel called to do so, revere and commune.
Tsubaki aids visitors in doing this. Here is the shrine’s temizuya, literally, “hand-water-place,” a feature at most shrines, offering an opportunity for ritual purification. The shrine offers a bilingual placard explaining the temizu ritual. Participating (or not) is left beautifully up to us, especially on a day like this was, with no one around but one silent shrine tender, sweeping and cleaning. But the temizuya does stand ready as one invitation among many to make our own discoveries through performing a small ritual action.
Of course, a shrine need not always explain. Tsubaki, like so much of Shinto, also demonstrates the value of silence in fostering encounters with the natural world. They are not separate things; the human is part of the world of the kami, of spirit.
From another viewpoint, a shrine simply acknowledges what is already present, whether it chooses to point our attention to it, or bring us together by putting us in the same place. Here is the path from the central shrine down to the gravelly bed of the Pilchuck River. There you can see another small shrine (in the center of the picture, looking something like a tall sawhorse draped with white flags) standing near the water’s edge.
The plaque above adjoining the emaden explains another Shinto practice. Below is the emaden itself.
Less formal are the written prayers tied to natural features like trees and to man-made objects. And many Westerners have become familiar with Tibetan prayer flags. Odd that in the West a prayer is considered primarily a verbal action. The silent written prayer can stay in place; we can walk away, knowing our peitition or vow or praise or thanks remain, where we made them. We wish for a change, a response, to manifest at least in part in this natural world. Then let our petition, our expression, our acknowledgement of spirit linger in the world, till the world’s elemental and spiritual forces reclaim them.
In addition to other kami, Tsubaki also enshrines America Kokudo Kunitama-no-Kami, the kami protector of the North American continent.
In the next post, I’ll look at some possibilities for what Shrine Druidry could look like as an expression of Druidic experience.
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(Scam, scam, scammity scam. Oh, is this mic live?!)
“One Weird Trick Most Gods Don’t Want You to Know.” A bestselling strategy if there ever was one. Almost fail-proof. Get in on what THEY’VE been keeping from us, Honest Suffering Upright Citizens that we are. Who doesn’t want IN? (Another 100 cable channels! Salvation by proxy! Acne-free in seven days!) Click here. Operators are standing by. No credit? No problem! No money down! Just open a vein! (Can’t get no) satisfaction guaranteed!
(Can any truly worthwhile thing be bought?)
But YES! one god really does want you to know: introducing capital-L Loki, AKA the Trickster, the Wheeler Dealer, the Original Houdini of the Truth Trap, the Cosmic Con, Bad Penny, Black Sheep, the One in Every Family, Every Religion’s Got One Somewhere. Him! Well, who should know better than the Master, right? (Deep down, that part of us all that’s a little loki-in-training. Who whispers Alternatives, in spite of all the noises-against-the-voices we can dump into our ears. Crank up the volume. Maybe they’ll go away.) Figures that the only source for reliable info turns out to be a Trickster.
And he’ll tell you: Religion’s all a scam, an empty fantasy, a fool’s errand, a wild goose chase. This god-or-not and belief- and worship- and daily-practice thing is, like you always suspected, just an endless maze of mind-tricks brought on like a nightmare, courtesy of an overactive cerebrum, that gift of Evolution that just keeps on giving, that two-hemisphere marvel and misfit that — in spite of all its tricks and traps and delusions and the stories it tells about itself and how wonderful it is — will still leave us all just as dead in a hasty handful of decades as if we’d devoted our lives entirely to pleasure. Just like the good old boys and girls over at Epicurean Central always told us we should. Yes, go out and download the app for it.
Thanks, Loki. Now a word from our sponsors.
Godding isn’t what it used to be.
(Even with a nose-and-chin like Tom Hiddleston‘s.)
Even the gods you used to be able to count on turn out to be … puny.
One weird trick most gods don’t want you to know is that their truth or falseness has little to do with what they can teach you, how interaction with them can change your life, and so on.
Just because they don’t exist has very little to do with anything at all. Existence isn’t an absolute. It de-pends.
And like those pesky anatomical pend-ant or hanging things, the so-called “fact” of existence or non-existence can get us pretty confused about reality*, which is, after all, only another name for thing-ness. Anything that’s not a “thing” tends to get left off the List. Which is another weird trick most gods hope we’ll kinda ignore. For our own good, of course. Lists. Everyone’s got one, gods included. (Gods especially.)
What to wear, say, think, do, attend to and let slide. Everyone’s been be-godded, infected with at least one god, right down to our nail-beds and stomach linings: sex, wealth, image, status, art, pleasure, the “right views,” seniority, rationalism, salvation, comfort — even “just being left alone.” Gods everywhere. No place free of ‘em. Hanging from the rafters, crawling around and inflaming our skin like some sort of divine psoriasis. No god-be-gone, available now while supplies last. Annoying little (BIG!) suckers.
Even death won’t free us when-not-if — un-gods help us all! — we’re reborn into some vastly cooler, endlessly hip world where everyone is fashionably thin (or plump), calmly atheist and perfectly dressed, coiffed, housed, spoused, aroused and soused. Tastefully conformist down to the designer toe-rings. No gods here, nasty things — had mine removed eons ago, old chap. Do yourself a huge favor, darling.
And so, illusion-free at last, eternity or oblivion (choose your mirror image) is ours!
Paradoxes to amuse children.
(Loki’s laughing all the way to Valhalla.)
And the Goddess? The Goddess is laughing at him.
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Images: Loki and The Hulk from The Avengers.
*Reality, from Latin res, thing; realis; re-al or pertaining to things or their qualities, like the ability to slap you in the face, fall on your big toe, eat you for breakfast, if you don’t pay attention to them. Which gods like War still do, come to think of it. Details at 6:00 (or 18:00) tonight!
From a distance, Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming looms over the landscape, prominent against the horizon, but once you enter the park surrounding it, it seems to vanish, only to reappear in fits and starts at first, peeping over colorful hills and cliff faces.
Geologically, we’re told, the tower is properly an igneous intrusion or eroded laccolith, two fun pieces of scientific jargon, technically descriptive, but lacking something nonetheless. And “Devil’s Tower”? Why should the baddie of Judeo-Christianity get any credit at all for this splendid rock formation? Let him stick to devilled eggs and devil’s food cake.
Those of us over a certain age may recall the Tower’s appearance as dramatic staging in the final portion of the ’77 Spielberg sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a pop-culture association that now seriously dates us.
My wife and I arrived late in the day, which helped throw the tower’s dramatic vertical striations into high relief. A park information kiosk quietly points out that the English name “Devil’s Tower” is comparatively recent. Native names from several different tribes associate the formation with the bear — the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow and Lakota all call it some variation of “Bear’s Lodge” or “Bear’s House” and their traditional stories describe bears marking the great stone with their claws.* (You can read several versions under the section “Native American Folklore” here.)
Both name and thing started shifting for me as I read this: a good name illuminates the thing, and the thing itself lives more brightly and fully under a good name. I can still feel the association “stick” — now a piece at least of that older (and to me more apt) story has become part of this landscape. Devil’s Tower, yes. But the “real” name, well, that’s a different matter. Invoke the place in memory by the older name — in this case a good one — and its naming story comes with it. Misname something, or someone, and you may not be able to see that thing or person clearly or truthfully.
Bear’s Lodge, now I pass along a little of your story to others, so they too may enjoy the rightness of a good name.
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*The tower remains a sacred site for several tribes. “In 2005,” the Wikipedia article notes, “a proposal to recognize several Native American ties through the additional designation of the monolith as Bear Lodge National Historic Landmark” faced political opposition and the argument that a “name change will harm the tourist trade and bring economic hardship to area communities.”
Image: Bear over Devil’s Tower — park info kiosk.
You may know some of “them.” (What’s it say about us that we say “them”?) They’re often wonderful people, they raise families, they “contribute to society,” they’re fun to be around — and they may seem not to have a religious or spiritual bone in their bodies. And that’s not only something to “tolerate” or “accept.” It’s just as it should be. “I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead,” says H. D. Thoreau.
Two couples whose company my wife and I delight in and seek out certainly qualify as non-religious: you can see their unease or discomfort if the topic happens to come up in conversation. An innocent question, or a comment in passing. “What’s that pin you’re wearing?” or “What did you do last month when you were in Minneapolis?” And hearing our answer, a kind of stiffness, a change in expression, a wilting, or wariness. “Oh no,” you can practically hear them thinking. “We’re going there again.”
And my wife and I laugh about it afterward. You get it, right? So often we’ve been the defensive ones, either avoiding the topic altogether, or passing off our beliefs with a quick, casual acknowledgment and then turning the talk in another direction, or (sigh) girding ourselves to explain, justify, account yet again for our non-mainstream practices and events and perspectives. The lesson for us continues to be this: if the opportunity opens up, find a way to talk about day-to-day benefits rather than beliefs, seek the common ground we all know from living on this planet, demonstrate it as a part of our lives, which they do care about. Then move on. Build trust, keep the lines of communication open, share your vulnerability and — as needed — shut up. You know: basic relationship stuff.
On our recent car trip, which I’ve touched on in the last several posts, we managed to reconnect with colleagues from over 25 years ago, a couple I worked with during my year of teaching in Changsha in the People’s Republic of China in the late 80s. We’d fallen out of touch: the first of their three children arrived, three of the four of us were back in school, several of us were patching together jobs out of already unconventional work histories, and both of our families moved at least a couple of times to accomplish these things.
We joked about our reunion later, over a dinner of home-made jiaozi. Making and eating them had become a lovely family tradition for them after China. The four of us and their youngest daughter, now 19, stood around their dining room table, filling and wrapping and talking, brushing the jiaozi wrappers with the cornstarch-water mix to seal them, then watching as the plump crescent dumplings steamed. Earlier we’d met for lunch in a restaurant, in case any of us had become raving loonies in the interim, and a convenient escape was needed. Eight hours later, we all knew we had nothing to fear. And the best demonstration, in the moment, of spirituality in all of our lives? Friendship, hospitality, a shared meal, simple pleasure in each other’s company. A touch of nostalgia didn’t hurt either.
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Image of jiaozi steaming: me. Actual kitchen, steamers, stove, etc., courtesy of S. T.
Edited: 2 Aug. 2014