Friday, March 25, 2011

In Praise of Lesser Gods

Standing exiled on the outside of institutional religion, sometimes we’ve looked in with longing. Sometimes we’ve set our faces firmly away and trekked into the desert, knowing that the way forward isn’t the road back. If sometimes we’ve reinvented our spiritual lives in ongoing struggle with traditions that have oppressed us, at other times the life-saving choice has been just to walk away, however empty the landscape in front of us has seemed. We’ve decided–or had the decision thrust upon us–to seek out the wellsprings that nourish our inner lives from the bottom up, rather than waiting for sustenance to drop from above.

Along our paths through the wilderness, we’ve turned aside to see wonders we can’t always explain or understand: the stone by the edge of a lake where we’ve dried ourselves with friends in the summer sun after a swim; the bathhouse cubicle where we experienced the exquisite kindness of a stranger whom we’ll probably never see again; the bed in which we cradled a dying lover; the garden pond he built in his last year of good health; the estuary swarmed by dozens of men trekking from the beach at afternoon high tide.

We need to give these experiences their due, to listen carefully for their wisdom, without forcing them to conform with a top-down theology that has already weighed on us so heavily.

We need ways to honor these unobtrusive times and places, where we glimpse–what? The Divine? God? A less absolute but clear inner truth? A signpost to a destination we still can’t grasp? We need ways to mark them without making either too much or too little of them. The absolute claims of the monotheistic religions may not help us much here. We need space where the small glimpses of a deeper reality can simply remain what they are for the time being, without being drawn prematurely into a Big Picture.

We need the lesser gods, and means to revere them.

Perhaps we need to draw on the resources of Shinto–a tradition of practice virtually without abstract theology, untroubled by any compulsion to reduce the variety of transcendent experience into an orderly system. We need simple means to set apart places, objects, and experiences as sites of mindfulness and of continued, focused reflection.

Lanterns to mark a path toward the place of encounter with what lies beyond.

A ceremonial vermillion gate, the torii, to divide the ordinary from the extraordinary.

A basin of water, and a ladle for purifying one’s hands and mouth.

A rope, the shimenawa, to cordon off and declare holy a tree; a well; a bed of moss; an empty space that holds nothing visible at all, but only the memory of what has come to pass there.

Strips of paper folded in a zigzag pattern, the shide that hang from the rope and strengthen the intention of reverence it represents.

A rack on which to hang votive tablets bearing the prayers of the devout. And that’s all. What it means comes later. This isn’t the time or the place for answers. It’s the time and the place for Meeting.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Groping in the Dark

Daisho-in sits atop a rise at the west end of Miyajima village, which stretches along the shore of the best-known island of the Inland Sea. Below, at water’s edge–in fact floating on the waves at high tide–stands Itsukushima Shrine, whose great ceremonial gate is one of the most photographed sights in Japan. Twenty-seven kilometers to the east, an atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima sixty-six years ago this August.

Curving up the slope to the left of the temple’s main lower gate commences a trail to the top of Mt. Misen. In about ninety minutes you can walk it to a small hall just down from the peak, in which a fire smoulders that was first lit in the eighth century by Kobo Daishi, the wide-roving saint who brought Shingon Buddhism to Japan. It’s hard in central Japan not to cross Kobo Daishi’s many paths; he was the founder as well of the eighty-eight temples that ring the island of Shikoku with a 1000-kilometer pilgrimage route.

A stone staircase ascends from Daisho-in’s entrance to its upper gate and main court. Turning ranks of prayer wheels mounted beneath the banisters, you gain the merit of reciting the sutras embossed on their cylindrical surface. Further stairs lead from the central plaza to more shrines and halls, including a resting place of Kobo Daishi himself. The sound of chanting to a rapid, regular drumbeat reverberates from one of these, and from the loudspeakers that broadcast it to the whole complex.

In the Kannon Hall, a large ritually displayed photo of the Dalai Lama belongs here by virtue of his status as the living incarnation of Avalokiteshvara-Kannon. It also attests the temple’s solidarity with Tibetan Buddhism in its struggle for survival against the Chinese government's campaign of cultural genocide, as does the sand mandala made by visiting Tibetan monks, displayed beneath an acrylic shield.

Prostrating myself before the photo of His Holiness, I attract the attention of a middle-aged woman with a broad smile and an enthusiastic rapid-fire delivery. The only word I catch in her entire speech is roshi, “teacher,” but it’s clear from her gestures that she wants me to descend a staircase cut into the floor below the hall’s central entrance.

I have some idea of what’s below: a pitch-black course through a narrow, winding corridor, emerging up a flight of stairs opposite these that go down into the earth. Another Kannon temple, the Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, has a similar arrangement. To descend is to enter the womb of the Boddhisattva.

At Kiyomizu-dera the beads of an enormous mala strung along the wall serve as guide through the labyrinth. Here, there’s nothing but an uneven floor and walls that fall away from my blind groping on one side, then reappear on the other. I half-consciously intensify the sound of my breathing, in part to reassure myself, in part to signal my position to those ahead of me or behind.

And then out of thick darkness, limned in dimly glowing lines of gold on backgrounds of pale rose or blue or purple, a rank of boddhisattvas materializes on my left, each coming into view just as a partition I only perceive as an absence of light obscures the last. I can’t distinguish one from another by details of their dress or gesture. This is no time for detached analysis, even if I could. To identify and catalogue would accomplish nothing. They float here to light the darkness of a mind poised on the narrow ridge between calm and rising anxiety.

As the last of them disappears behind me, the darkness thins near the curtain that veils the exit. When I’ve ascended, I’m greeted again by this woman whom I can’t understand at all, and whom I understand , and who understands me, perfectly. At last, the words that only divide us fall away. Bows and a final smile are enough.

A few minutes later, I leave by the temple’s lower gate, where a sign in English reads, “It was prayed well today. Please return carefully.” I start up the mountain.

A few hours later, about 3 p.m. on Friday, 11 March, out beyond the protective barrier of Shikoku, a tsunami will claim thousands of lives.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Kyoto Gosho, March 4

Newfallen snow, gone
from mountains and roofs. Below,
a single pine bough
still dusted where courtyard shade
slants over the stone garden.

Flash of midnight blue
strutting across the raked court:
a crow in sunlight
under watchful surveillance
of minor functionaries.

A shell of itself
clinging joyfully to life:
the ancient plum tree
but two branches flowering
from a rind of hollowed bark.