Preparing the Ways   Leave a comment

The Hopi of the American Southwest call one of their ceremonial pipes natwanpi — literally, “instrument of preparation”. As words do, this one stuck with me ever since I read it, decades ago now. No wonder: we need markers for passage into sacred time, because otherwise it can burn and blow right past us. Or, to shift metaphors, if we don’t catch the sacred wave, we can’t surf in sacred time. We miss that tidal flow, then wonder why life can seem flat or dis-spirited.

With a beloved festival like Imbolc calling us, what better time to consider how we can attune to sacred times and sacred tides?

Shinto, that perennially popular topic here at A Druid Way, offers a mid-January festival called Bonden-sai which feels harmonious with Druid practice. Of course it has cultural flavors and overlays unique to Japan and Shinto, but its focus asks for and offers a kind of natwanpi. (Besides, a cold, gray, snowy northern January can use some color and liveliness.)

bonden-one

Bonden-sai, Akita Prefecture

The bonden for which the festival is named is called a “sacred wand”, though as you can see from the bonden in the picture above, “pillar” or “column” better suggests its appearance. (Let the chickens on some of the bonden above enlarge your sense of “sacred”!) A typical bonden, the Japanese National Tourist Organization (JNTO)  helpfully informs us,  measures

almost four meters in length … [and] serves as a marker for the gods descending to this world. In ancient times, bonden used to be made of paper or rice straw, but in recent years, they are often made by decorating a bamboo basket with colorful fabric. The bonden wands are carried by groups of children, townspeople, or even company employees. Each group entrusts the bonden with their prayers for an abundant harvest, good health for their families and success in business.

akita-mapBonden-sai is intimately associated with Akita Prefecture in Northwest Japan. Akita is also famed for its onsen (hot springs) and mountains, and Mount Taiheizan, the symbol of Akita City, is  a major site for the festival. Bonden-sai there means a vigorous race up the mountain with your bonden to procure the blessings of the gods.

Shinto and Japanese culture, so long linked, have celebrated the sacred in so many things that the secular West allows to pass unremarked. Whether it’s drinking tea or sake, or bathing, or marking the calendar with a plethora of festivals, Japan models practices the West and particularly western Paganism learn from, build on and delight in.

Because when the gods are dead, the human heart also dies a little every day. You certainly don’t have to “believe” in them as any kind of prerequisite, any more than you have to believe in anything in particular to celebrate Halloween or Christmas or MLK Day. The gods themselves can serve as a kind of natwanpi, a means of preparation. Belief, like so much else, is a tool, a strategy, a technique for connecting to things other than ourselves. Use it skilfully, delicately, consciously, I’m learning, and it repays the respectful treatment.

nyuto-onsen

Nyuto Onsen (hot springs), Akita Prefecture

Ultimately it’s the impulse to celebrate that’s the flame to cherish. And if it chances on occasion to be gods that help it happen, as one of the forms the sacred can take, why exclude them out of hand, just because they’re gods?

As for me, I try to take advantage of any natwanpi that comes my way. And if I succeed and connect only 30% of the time, well, isn’t that a very respectable baseball batting average?!

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Images: Bonden in Akita; Nyuto Onsen.

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