A Seminarian’s Experience at Tsubaki Grand Shrine

By UUA International Resources

Ranwa Hammamy is a UU seminarian & 2015 M.Div candidate at Union Theological Seminary. In September 2014 she was the recipient of the UUA’s Tsubaki Grand Shrine Scholarship. Tsubaki Grand Shrine is an ancient Shinto shrine in Suzuka, Japan, and an historic interfaith partner of the UUA. In this essay, Ranwa reflects on her powerful, moving experiences in Japan. [gallery type="rectangular" ids="6854,6855,6872,6856,6857,6858,6861,6859,6860,6853"] Sitting in my dorm at Union, I often hear the bells of Riverside Church chime in the morning to announce the 8:00AM hour. I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to pause and listen to their familiar ring, reminding me that a new day is beginning - new opportunities, learning, and connections await. On days when my time management is lacking, their sound is also a reminder that I should be preparing for class. The Riverside bells have become a welcome piece of my routine, serving roles beyond simply being a marker of time. Since my return from Japan, these bells have taken on a new function. They remind me of another sacred sound, one that became familiar and welcome in my routine at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine. Every morning for my 10 days at the shrine, I would hear the sound of the taiko drum at 8:25AM, five evenly spaced beats, announcing that it was time for chohai, or morning worship. On most of these mornings, I would be helping clean the inside walkways of the shrine or sweep leaves from the gravel paths of its outside grounds. This practice of cleaning, of purifying the shrine, took place every day before worship. Its deliberate motions helped me remember each morning that the ground I walked upon was sacred. When the drums sounded at 8:25, I would pause in my cleaning and perform temizu, a purification ritual with water, before entering the main sanctuary for worship. The drum would return later in the service, as the leading priest would beat a specific rhythm towards the end of worship. I asked Ochiai, one the priests at the shrine, what the drum beat meant. He told me it was another form of purification. When I felt its vibrations run through my body, I was inclined to agree. I had learned from Guji Yamamoto Yukiyasu’s Introduction to Shinto that purification was a central aspect of the faith, but it was not until my time at Tsubaki that I truly experienced its impact on one’s spirit. Washing my hands and mouth before chohai, I remembered my childhood in Islam, and the ritualized purification with water that I would complete before praying. I felt the same connection when I participated in a sunrise misogi, another water-based purification ritual, in which you first awaken your spirit with yells and coordinated movements as part of a group, then chanting as you stood under the intense pressure of a sacred waterfall. As a child in Islam, and now as an adult immersed in Shinto, I was helping return my body and spirit to its natural and innately good state. I was recognizing that while we are created to connect in love, our spirits can be tainted by troubles or impurities that get in the way of our inherently good nature. I was preparing to deliberately remember my relationship with the source of creation, not only to express gratitude for all that I had received and to voice my commitment to living out my loving purpose, but to request help in remaining pure, sincere, and joyful, knowing that I could not, nor should not, do it alone. Harae tamai, kiyome tamau. “Grant us purification, grant us clarity.” We chanted together every morning, bowing twice, clapping twice, and bowing once more when we finished the eight minute Great Words of Purification. These words were followed by another chant, the Declaration of Faith. Kami no megumi to sosen no on to ni kanshashi akaki kiyoki makoto o motte saishi ni isoshimo koto. “I am grateful for the blessings of the kami and my ancestors, and will practice my faith with brightness, purity, and sincerity.” We spoke these words while sitting in the main sanctuary of the shrine dedicated to the kami Sarutahiko-no-okami, the kami of guidance and strength. Once more, I returned to my childhood, and the words of the surah al-Fatiha: “It is You we worship, You we ask for help. Guide us to the straight path, the path of those You have blessed.” Unitarian Universalism led me to understand these Shinto and Islamic prayers as the recognition that all is created by loving forces beyond our control or full understanding, and that with gratitude, humility, and reverence, we can celebrate our interconnected existence, and choose to live in harmony with the world. After chohai, my days included walks around the shrine grounds, speaking with visitors and soaking in the joy and peace that came from the sacred balance of humans living as part of, and not above, nature. I often paused to observe streams of water that flowed through all parts of the grounds, giving life to the tallest trees that I had ever seen. My favorite spot was a small stone bridge by the shrine where Amenouzume-no-mikoto, the wife of Sarutahiko and the kami of entertainment, harmony, fearlessness, and marriage was enshrined. The water flowed faster and louder here, aided by the force of a small waterfall near her shrine. Just beyond the bridge was a tea house, where I participated in tea ceremonies and learned the intricacies of the ritual alongside Haruna and Ryo, two of the miko I had come to know. I observed the intentionality and reverence demonstrated by the tea master, and broke into an exhilarated sweat as I rapidly mixed matcha and water with a chasen (tea whisk), eventually creating the desired frothy brew. Some days I would pause at the kyudojo and observe the practicing archers, moved by the reverent and deliberate nature of the smallest motions. When I had the opportunity to learn from the master, I found that I was not meant to be an archer, with my arrows landing in the soft grass 20 feet away. Nearly every day, I visited Amenouzume to sit in contemplative prayer, drawn to an energy that connected to my musical and peacemaking spirit. I offered words of gratitude for the gift of song that brought calm, joy, and healing to my body and soul. I prayed for the continued courage to pursue the difficult but beautiful and necessary work of interfaith healing that I was called to in my ministry. I even found myself offering a small song to the kami, believing the melody was one way that I was meant to bring harmony into the world. At times when it rained too much to stay outside, I found people and practices to connect with that helped me understand the many ways people relate to Shinto. Though I lack talent in the visual arts, one of my favorite activities was calligraphy lessons with Yumiko, who taught me how to write certain kanji. The words at the core of my lessons highlighted gratitude and connection: arigato (thank you), okage sama (gratitude for the gifts of life received that we have no control over), and musubi (the spirit of binding that connects us to the kami, our ancestors, and the world). We laughed at the excited kotodama (spirit of the word) that was clearly present in one of my kanji after she taught me to draw it by thinking of a cat stretching (I have a cat in New York). As she masterfully practiced her craft on the desk next to where I clumsily yet peacefully learned, I listened to her views on the respect that exists between the religious traditions in Japan. She shared how her experience with the Bible as a child showed her there were messages of peace and gratitude in Christianity. Other times I sat with the miko and helped them with many behind-the-scenes elements of the shrine, while we taught each other different words in our respective languages. There was no shortage of laughter when we were together. As we sorted tamagushi (branches used as offerings to the kami), Ai and I shared animal sounds. We found hilarity in the differences between our languages, and sometimes greeted each other with frog noises, her saying “ribbit” and me saying “gehku.” Not every day was spent at Tsubaki. On my third day, Ochiai and I visited Ise Shrine, where Amaterasu-Omikami, the kami of the sun and goddess of the universe, was enshrined. The year before they had completed rebuilding the shrine, a practice that occurs every twenty years, and uses the same construction methods and rituals from over 1500 years ago. As I walked up to the shrine to make my offering and prayer, I was humbled and excited by the incredible number of people who came to worship Amaterasu despite the rain that day. While walking around the sizeable grounds of the two Ise shrine locations, Ochiai and I spoke about the ways in which some people have turned religions against each other, and how we felt that there were other interpretations that could help all of them work together. We laughed about the reality that every religion’s flexibility of interpretation leads to intense theological debates among its own leaders, but recognized that it was those differences that gives religion its richness and mystery. Another day was spent in Kyoto, visiting Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, including Rokuon-Ji Temple, Heian Jingu Shrine, and Yasaka Shrine. At Ryoan-Ji Temple, home of the famous zen rock garden, we came up with what we felt were solid answers to the question of how one must look at the garden to see all 15 rocks. Ochiai suggested from the roof, which was when my Universalist kicked in, agreeing and believing that the roof would allow everybody to see all 15 rocks from many angles. We also thought that another way to see all 15 rocks is to be in motion, to know that that there is always a new way of looking at the world, and new pieces to be revealed. But not every moment was spent at a shrine or temple. In Ise and Kyoto, my sweet tooth led me to try various mochi-based desserts, reminding me that there was always room for sweets. In Suzuka, I spent an evening doubled over in laughter attempting to play volleyball with some of the younger priests and miko. On my last evening, after a night of karaoke that included a bilingual rendition of “Let it Go” with Yoshimi, Ryo, Hironori, and others that I had come to befriend, we shared a tearful farewell, as they gave me an album that held pictures and messages from the shrine staff. On my second day at Tsubaki, I met a visitor who said she came to the shrine because her friend told her that it was a place where she could feel good and “find many laughs.” Her words have stayed with me, because they could not be any truer. I came to Tsubaki to grow as a minister and develop my abilities as an interfaith leader. But my time with the people and energy at the shrine gave me the gift of a faith grounded in joyous reverence, personal peace, and gratitude for mystery. Beginning my days with a divinely mindful reminder that humans are inherently good and a part of nature; connecting with people who shook my soul with laughter; seeing the potential for harmony that a commitment to one’s traditions brings- my time at Tsubaki was a gift of a well-engaged destiny that revitalized my spirit and ministry. I found that my Shinto, or “way of the kami,” is one of grateful celebration, curious humility, and reverent joy. The last phrase that I learned the day before I left Suzuka was mototikimas, which means “I’ll be back.” I shared those words with the staff at Tsubaki, as a joyous and grateful vow that this visit would not be my last.

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