Archive for the ‘American Shinto’ Category

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.)

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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.

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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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Shinto and Shrine Druidry 3: Spirit in Nature   2 comments

[Shinto & Shrine Druidry 1 | 2 | 3] [Shinto — Way of the Gods ]
[Renewing the Shrine 1 | 2][My Shinto 1 | 2]

Below are images from our recent visit to Spirit in Nature in Ripton, VT, some eight miles southeast of Middlebury as the crow flies.  An overcast sky that day helped keep temperature in the very comfortable low 70s F (low 20s C). At the entrance, Spirit in Nature takes donations on the honor system. The website also welcomes regular supporters.

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As an interfaith venture, Spirit in Nature offers an example of what I’ve been calling Shrine Druidry, one that allows — encourages — everyone into their own experience. Everyone who chooses to enter the site starts out along a single shared path.

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The labyrinth helps engage the visitor in something common to many traditions worldwide: the meditative walk. The labyrinth imposes no verbal doctrine, only the gentle restraint of its own non-linear shape on our pace, direction and attention.

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Beyond the labyrinth, a fire circle offers ritual and meeting space. Here again, no doctrine gets imposed. Instead, opportunity for encounter and experience. Even a solitary and meditative visitor can perceive the spirit of past fires and gatherings, or light and tend one to fulfill a present purpose.

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Beyond the circle, the paths begin to diverge — color-coded on tree-trunks at eye-level — helpful in New England winters, when snow would soon blanket any ground-level trail markers. When we visited, in addition to the existing paths of 10 traditions, Native American and Druid paths branched off the main way, too new to be included on printed visitor trail maps, but welcome indicators that Spirit in Nature fills a growing need, and is growing with it.

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The Druid Prayer captures a frequent experience of the earth-centered way: with attention on stillness and peace, our human interior and exterior worlds meet in nature.

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The trails we walked were well-maintained — the apparently light hand that brings these trails out of the landscape belies the many hours of volunteer effort at clearing and maintenance, and constructing bridges and benches.

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A bench, like a fire pit and a labyrinth, encourages a pause, a shift in consciousness, a change, a dip into meditation — spiritual opportunities, all of them. But none of them laid on the visitor as any sort of obligation. And as we walk the trail, even if I don’t embrace the offered pause, the chance itself suggests thoughts and images as I pass that the silence enlarges. I sit on that bench even as I walk past; I cross the bridge inwardly, even if it spans a trail I don’t take.

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Sometimes a sign presents choices worthy of Yogi Berra’s “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

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Perhaps it’s fitting to close with the North, direction of earth, stone, embodiment, manifestation — all qualities matching the interfaith vision of this place.

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This is the 200th post at A Druid Way. Thanks, everyone, for reading!

Shinto and Shrine Druidry 2   1 comment

[Shinto & Shrine Druidry 1 | 2 | 3] [Shinto — Way of the Gods ]
[Renewing the Shrine 1 | 2][My Shinto 1 | 2]

Spider web

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.

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.

Shinto and Shrine Druidry 1   3 comments

[Shinto & Shrine Druidry 1 | 2 | 3] [Shinto — Way of the Gods ]
[Renewing the Shrine 1 | 2][My Shinto 1 | 2]

IMG_0780I’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.

IMG_0782Tsubaki 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.

IMG_0783Of 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.

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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.

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The plaque above adjoining the emaden explains another Shinto practice. Below is the emaden itself.

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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 petition 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.

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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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Updated 9 Oct 2015

Boku no Shinto: My Shinto, Part 2   Leave a comment

[Shinto & Shrine Druidry 1 | 2 | 3] [Shinto — Way of the Gods ]
[Renewing the Shrine 1 | 2] [My Shinto 1 | 2]

PYogananda

Paramahamsa Yogananda

“Its technique will be your guru.” With these words (ch. 11 of his famous Autobiography, online here), a young Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), founder of Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) and a principal exponent of Kriya Yoga in the West, counsels a peer he has just initiated into the tradition he follows himself. With these words he also points toward a kind of spiritual path that Westerners, rightly wary of super-sized personalities and god-realized con-men, can approach and walk.  A flexible and potent technique can be a trustworthy, profound and endlessly patient guide.

Technique as guru:  as a practitioner of OBOD Druidry and Eckankar, I know firsthand that a technique responds to practice and devotion as much as any teacher.  Religious and spiritual practice will always be as much art as science, because they welcome (and can profoundly benefit from) our subjectivity, even as they also point to their scientific aspect — definite and repeatable results we can achieve from dedication and regular practice.  My emotions, my commitment, my ambition and drive, my struggles and dreams can all contribute to my practice — leaven it and enrich it and make it “mine.”

my double -- b/c we were both angry at each other

“other” as double: both of us angry at each other

My anger at the driver who cut me off in traffic last week, on my way back from dropping my wife off to stay with her cousin, can help me uncover other unexplored pools of anger I can work to identify, learn from, and transform.  Anger by itself need not be bad, only unconscious anger, anger I act from unthinkingly, little different from a live wire I brush against in the dark, unintentionally — or attach to a light fixture and illuminate another step along the way.  Without the experience of anger, I might well miss the wire altogether, and forfeit a chance at illumination.

I can, if I listen, come to see that my whole life is laboratory — not only what I close the door on at 4:00 or 5:00 pm each weekday and return home from.  The individualistic-narcissistic-tending “MY spirituality” gets whittled down to more beneficial size through ongoing spiritual practice. And paradoxically reveals a personalized curriculum tailored to me, right now and here.  Anger?  Yup — that’s on my curriculum, though it may not be on yours.  And my life is ideally set up to help me work with precisely that curriculum point, just as yours is for your distinct points.  Yes — we share a “common core,” too.

compost is transition

compost: just another point along a transition

A practice like Druidry that places me in the natural world immediately begins to slim down ego in concrete ways and immediately accessible ways:  merely walk out the door, and at once it’s clear I’m not the center, nor even the “most important” thing in the universe.  I constantly meet the “spirit other”: animals, birds, trees, and beings without skin on — or bark, or fur, or scales.  I am a paragraph in a chapter, not the whole story. And that’s a good thing, because the world is guru, too. Hard limits of some kind are the only way a world can work (try seriously to imagine one without them), but if I engage them wisely, they build spiritual strength rather than frustration, nihilism and despair.  This physical body is eventual compost, like everything else: but not yet.  And this interval is all.  (Whether it is also “only” is an experiential question, one which only experience can accurately answer, not some dogma to be believed or rejected.)

“My Shinto,” my Way of the Spiritual Order of Things — let’s call it WOTSOOT — begins with the circumstances of my life today.  Here I am, a 55 year-old white male, a teacher, a cancer survivor, married, nearsighted, in fair health.   The initial details of your personal WOTSOOT naturally vary less or more from mine.  They’re also often quite superficial — party chitchat, gossip in my cul-de-sac. Because I am also a point and vector of conscious energy situated in widening networks of energy exchange.  I breathe, and chlorophyll all around me gets inputs it needs.  Bacteria on my skin and in my gut flourish, and help me flourish too, if I stay alert to their balance. I sweat and crap and piss, and nutrients move where other beings can begin to use them.  I consume some of these other beings — not too many, if the system is to remain in equilibrium — just as some them will consume me.  New networks arise, as older ones shift or die.  And part of my practice is: all praise* to the WOTSOOT!

Such processes of the physical realm are both fairly well understood and all too rarely incorporated into larger networks that spiritual teachings of all kinds tell us glow and ripple and transform and pervade the universe.  Scientific insight begins to catch up here and there with spiritual wisdom.  Not dogma, not theology, not creeds — that’s merely paparazzi spirituality — but insights into living networks — the shin-to, the “spirit-way.”  As I write and you eventually read this, we use an electronic network we’ve crafted that simulates in surprising ways organically occurring ones, and we can acknowledge the remarkable power and potential of such interactive patterns of energy and information flow as analogs to the ones we are born into.
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One valuable key to working with the WOTSOOT that I keep reminding myself of is “small steps. ” This works both as a starting point and a successful process, too. Any attempt at change, on any level, meets what we experience as resistance, because of inertia and equilibrium implicit in networks. (Otherwise, without inertia or resistance, they’d never have a chance to grow and develop at all, shifting and falling apart at the least push or pull from outside.  They wouldn’t become “things,” which are semi-lasting whorls and eddies in the flow of WOTSOOT.)

We all have heard that “If it works, don’t fix it,” which is fine, except that a corresponding inherent tendency toward change means that even as it’s working, it’s also changing, or accumulating energy toward change.  Often the changes are small, and if we model ourselves on this larger pattern, our small changes will accord with the flow around us.  (Small ongoing changes help us avoid really disabling larger ones, that can manage to accumulate a staggering wallop of energy if we don’t make those smaller changes.)

“Change your life,” counsels your friendly neighborhood deity of choice.  Okay: but do it in manageable chunks, unless a cataclysm conveniently presents itself to you, ready-made. I have a profoundly messy office right now: too much for a single day of cleaning, without a herculean effort.  Sometimes I can muster one.  But one box today, one shelf tomorrow? That I can manage most days.  Thus both my spiritual paths exhort me to daily practice. (With two paths, as long as I get in at one least set of practices, I’m usually ahead of the game.   I double my options — and find overlaps and interweave and insight from such doubled options — the paths are no longer nearly so separate, but feed each other and me.)

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our local VT electrical utility

In concrete terms of just one network, in one person’s life? — Let’s choose the physical for convenience, since we’ve established and can understand a set of fairly common labels like physical measures.  My wife and I have reduced our “garbage” to an average of 8 pounds a week — mostly non-biodegradable packaging and other non-compostables at this point — and I’m working to bring it down from there.  (Why? Throw it “away”?  Nothing goes “away” — it always ends up somewhere, and the nastier it is, the deeper it usually sinks its fangs in my butt when it returns.  Part of my practice, then, is shrinking my “away” — out of pure self-interest, mind you!)  Everything else we’re able to compost or recycle, thanks to recycling options in our region of southern Vermont. We continue to tweak our car and woodstove emissions by wise use, insulation, consolidation of trips, carpooling, etc.  Infrastructure shifts will eventually impact these, as mass transit improves and efficiencies increase, or whole modes (like petroleum-sourced energy) eventually fall out of use.  Only this February 2014, out of the past 24 months, did we use more electricity than our solar panels generated, so we’re in the black there.  But a chunk of that comes from liberal surplus buy-back subsidies from GMP, our local electrical utility company.

Cap'n Henry T.

Cap’n Henry T.

All told, apart from property taxes, our annual shelter costs run roughly $600 — for firewood.  I mention all this as evidence for one person’s start at working with one network among many — by no means an endpoint, nor a claim for any kind of praise or desire for virtue** or self-satisfaction.  It’s part of practice, a point along a continuum, remembering my practice is both a “what to live for,” and also a “how to live” at all.  And again I repeat: your practice, because you are you, necessarily differs.  As H. D. Thoreau observes, “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.”

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Images:  Paramahansa Yoganandathat “other” drivercompostCalvin and Hobbes resolution;  Green Mountain Power;  Thoreau.

*I don’t know about you, but I can feel gratitude without needing a target, a recipient or respondent:  a magnificent cloudy sky or bright flash of plumage or swirling blizzard evokes awe and gratitude I love to express.  Do I need to say I’m grateful to Anyone?  Can’t I simply be grateful for? Of course! Gratitude feels good.  Why deny myself such pleasure?  There’s a motivation if you need it: practice gratitude out of selfishness, because it makes you feel good, if for no other reason!  Or if I choose to thank a spirit or Spirit, that in no way detracts from my gratitude.  A target for it is another kind of pleasure I choose not to deny myself.

**Except for virtue in the older sense of “strength” or “power.”  This kind of “original virtue” is literally “manliness” — what a vir “man” ideally accomplishes that makes him worthy to be called vir — to de-gender it, “what humans do at their best.”  And what’s “best”?  That which accords with the Way, the Tao or pattern of the universe.

Updated: 7 July 2014

Boku no Shinto: My Shinto, Part 1   2 comments

[Shinto & Shrine Druidry 1 | 2 | 3] [Shinto — Way of the Gods ]
[Renewing the Shrine 1 | 2] [Boku no Shinto: My Shinto 1 | 2]

Following the magical principle of polarity to wing myself toward what I really want to write about, in the title for this post I’ve done something quite un-Nihonteki, un-Japanese — un-Shinto, in fact.  Japan’s native spirituality focuses on harmony between human and spiritual realms, a harmony which finds a powerful objective expression in the natural world.  “Seek Spirit?  Look around!”  Yet I used boku, I wrote “I” — as if “I” could possess Shinto, as if it were a thing among other things that a person could own or control or claim.  The i returns to its proper size in balanced relationship.  An outsized I is part of the challenge the West currently faces, as well as each of us individually.  Be yourself, we’re told.  What the hell does that mean, anyway? Still too much.  (Too much is not enough, says the lower-case zen master/fool in my ear.)

Sometimes I just need to back into it, the destination that feels nearby, though I can’t see it.  “Returning is the motion of the Tao” (chapter 40). Because if I try it head-on, all the old defenses go up like a bad reflex. An old i holds on even as a new one moves in.  They spar a little.  But what are wood and water doing while I stare at an i?

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“who are you, little i” asks e. e. cummings in a poem of that title, “(five or six years old)/peering from some high/ window; at the gold/of november sunset” — let’s make it May instead: we can, and e. e. won’t mind.  Will cheer us on, I suspect — “(and feeling: that if day/has to become night/this is a beautiful way)”

Participate in our own becoming.  A call, if we choose to hear and heed it.  Make it day when it’s night (for our next trick, do it without using electricity).  Or vice versa, turning off the glare of the spotlight on the self which isn’t the whole story.

After all, “five or six years old” is about right: didn’t that crazy Galilean say we need to become like little children again?  Is that “being yourself”?

Like is important: we can all imagine it, approach it, approximate it.  Journey towards it.  Try out “yes” till it drops the ” ” — that little chicken scratch that distracts us from so much.  Or become the chicken that makes the scratch.  That’s a power we’re granted, too. Shape-shift at will and need.  One thing becomes another, in the Mother, in the Mother.  Thanks, Mom.  Can faking it make it real?  Well, the pressure’s off if all I need to do is fake it.

(e. e., you saw it, said it elsewhere:  “i thank You God for most this amazing/day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything/which is natural which is infinite which is yes”).  And if “You God” doesn’t work for you, insert your own addressee of choice.

Need a spell to make it happen?  “Power of choice I grant thee, I grant thee, I grant thee.” O.K., proceed.

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Entrance, Tsubaki Grand Shrine, Washington state

Site stats show that my previous posts on Shinto are among the most popular here at A Druid Way.  The reason for that can’t be too far to find.  We crave like a food-hunger a spiritual reality that does not depend on belief (or at least not on belief alone), but is present to us whenever we’re present to it — and even when we’re not.  We may hunger for a Way or Ways, just like we yearn for dark chocolate or hot sauce or beef or fresh limes in guacamole (insert your favorite food hunger here), a harmony that we can begin to fall back into at any moment, wherever we are, just by shifting our attention, and restore a sense of balance and integrity. And not just a sense of them, but its reality — a poise for living that shows in our words and deeds.  We’ve all known this harmony, witnessed it in others, however briefly, which is why we can feel so disheartened when we lack it, when we’ve lost it, fallen out of it.  We know it’s possible because it’s there, in living memory, however far we stand from it right now, in this grubby, muddy present moment.

We’ve even got a Shinto shrine in the U.S., the Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Washington State, if we need the reminder.  Which is what a shrine, among other things, persistently tries to be.  It’s here, all around us, what we seek.  And a few among us imported Shinto as a recognition of that consciousness, as a support for us when we lose our way.  From it we can jump-start our own (there’s a possessive pronoun again) American Shinto, if we desire it, if we give it space to manifest.  The kami know and dwell in America, too.

Though it’s not a perfect instrument, a song, a painting, a poem can remind us, point us in directions that can restore and heal. “The Spirit,” says Mary Oliver in her simply-titled “Poem,”

                        likes to dress up like this:
                          ten fingers,
                            ten toes,

                      shoulders, and all the rest
                        at night
                          in the black branches,
                            in the morning

                      in the blue branches
                        of the world.
                          It could float, of course,
                            but would rather

                      plumb rough matter.
                        Airy and shapeless thing,
                          it needs
                            the metaphor of the body,

                      lime and appetite,
                        the oceanic fluids;
                          it needs the body's world,
                            instinct

                      and imagination
                        and the dark hug of time,
                          sweetness
                            and tangibility,

                      to be understood,
                        to be more than pure light
                          that burns
                            where no one is--

                      so it enters us--
                        in the morning
                          shines from brute comfort
                            like a stitch of lightning;

                      and at night
                        lights up the deep and wondrous
                          drownings of the body
                            like a star.

(And so I ask myself, what isn’t Spirit?!  Is that being yourself?)

Tsubaki Grand Shrine -- harmony

Tsubaki Grand Shrine — harmony

“The Japanese,” says a BBC Religions page,

see shrines as both restful places filled with a sense of the sacred, and as the source of their spiritual vitality – they regard them as their spiritual home, and often attend the same shrine regularly throughout their lives. Shrines need not be buildings – rocks, trees, and mountains can all act as shrines, if they are special to kami.

Physical world as spiritual home: what a change that would make in us if we carried that knowing with us all day long.

A large shrine can contain several smaller sub-shrines. Shinto shrines can cover several thousand acres, or a few square feet. They are often located in the landscape in such a way as to emphasise their connection to the natural world, and can include sacred groves of trees, and streams.

How many of us find the kami in a garden, a window pot we lovingly water, a bird feeder stocked through winter, or whatever season in your area that otherwise challenges the small feathered lives around us?

Tsubaki Grand Shrine ritual

Tsubaki Grand Shrine ritual

Various symbolic structures, such as torii gates and shimenawa ropes, are used to separate the shrine from the rest of the world.

Separation as a reminder — not that one exists like some line in the sand, but one we need, in order to notice what’s right in front of our noses.

And so I remember to bow at the willow at the bottom of the hill where our house sits.  I talk to the crocuses.  Sometimes I forget.  Then I remember again.  Muslim mystics chant the dhikr, literally the “Remembrance” of that one Name ringing just behind our day-to-day awareness.  Or many names, each waiting to be cherished, each a kami, each a potential doorway to what we seek.  In a world of seven billion persons, a grand synthesis, a God for everyone, may not be feasible at this point in our consciousness.  But we can reverence that lopsided pine down at the corner, honor the robins and starlings on our lawn, respect our own bodies on this earth, and begin, again, to find our ways.  Isn’t that much of the promise of spring (and of so many of our human stories) — starting over?  The growing shout of green, the rising sap, birdsong and peepers calling into the night, what we call spring fever in our veins and nerves and sinews, obeying an old law we’ve almost forgotten.

In answer to a query about the viability of some form of American Shinto, about “What is Shinto to the West,” a Westerner observes,

Well, Shinto in the West is automatically different from Shinto in Japan. For some reason, Japanese immigrants and their descendents don’t seem to keep practicing Shinto very much, perhaps because of the difficulty in practicing a shrine-centered, community-oriented faith in a place with nearly no shrines (I can count the ones I know of on one hand!) and a very small and scattered community.

So, most of the North American practitioners I know of are of European ancestry, trying to practice Shinto alone and without shrines, and learning what they know from books. Many have some sort of cultural connection to Japan – either they’ve studied it academically like you, or else they have married a Japanese person, or they lived part of their life there, or have learned a bit about Japanese spirituality through the martial arts community. We have to adapt the religion to our new environment, e.g. finding replacements for unavailable supplies, translating prayers from Old Japanese into English, and trying to answer hard questions like, should we honour the spirits of Japan or try to identify the spirits of our own environment?

Druids have built their own shrines, and begun to listen to the spirits here on the North American continent, which differ from European or Asian ones.  Just the act of listening opens many doors.  What we often lack is the support of a community in our practice.  Many have the strength of self-discipline to sustain a solitary practice, but others need the interaction, inspiration and community spirit that can help through the arid periods where nothing seems to be happening and we’re stopped dead in the water.

For that reason alone many Americans stick with Christianity or Judaism, because it offers that support, even if they also seek out other founts of spiritual nourishment in places their Abrahamic fellow-religionists might balk at.  It’s the reason behind “spiritual but not religious,” which ultimately is often hard to pull off in practical terms, because spirit seeks a form, a practice, if only to come true to us, to enter our physical lives in manifest ways, as Oliver’s poem above reminds us. We do this and not that because it works.  Any claims about earlier or better or more spiritual or, Goddess help us all, divinely inspired and uniquely true forever and always, come along after.

Part 2 here.

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Mary Oliver. Dream Work, Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 1986.

Images: trees on cliff; Tsubaki Grand Shrine images (homepage auto-sequence), accessed 9 May 2014.

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