Exploring the Way of the Kami

This year's recipient of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine Scholarship , Barnaby Feder, shares his reflections on his two week residency in Suzuka, Japan: At midnight on Aug. 11, in a scene I could never have imagined, there I was, one American Unitarian Universalist among about 70 Japanese men, standing jet-lagged and barefoot among giant cedar trees on a gravel pathway at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, a center for Shinto worship for more than 2,000 years. All eyes were on the sacred waterfall before us. Lanterns and, for reasons that were mysterious at the time, scores of wooden and stone frog sculptures of various sizes, lined the stony walls of the grotto into which the falls plunged. Oh, did I mention that we were naked save for our white loincloths and our headbands, the latter carefully tied so that an orange rising sun was centered on our foreheads? I was not self-conscious about how pasty I must look to the men or the 20 or so women with us, dressed in thin white robes. Nor was I musing about whether, at age 60, I might be the oldest person present. I was too busy silently repeating a six-word prayer I had encountered for the first time just hours earlier: harai tamae kiyome tamae rokkon shojo. The prayer can be loosely translated as “Purify my soul, wash my soul, purify the five senses and my mind.” I was anxious to master it for my spotlight moment under the falls in a lengthy Shinto movement, chanting and meditation ritual called misogi. I would be on my own, my hands folded together with the middle fingers pointed outward, screaming out the prayer four or five times at high speed before being called on by a priest to step out of the falls to make way for the next participant. The priest, standing just a few feet away in the pool below the falls, would be praying loudly as well, but I would not be able to hear him clearly over the din of the cascade. Given the circumstances, my goal was respectful proximity to the words, not perfection. More than one Shinto priest had assured me that plenty of the shrine's visitors that night would do no better. In the ensuing days, I learned that in addition to being supportive the priests were illuminating the complex, intermittent relationship that many of their countrymen have with Shinto. I came to see that Shinto's deep roots in Japanese culture and history make it function on two levels: on the one hand, it represents a unique understanding of human relationships in and with the natural world and a form of spirituality accessible to religious free thinkers everywhere; on the other, many Japanese who say they have little or no interest in religion remain drawn to Shinto's rituals. It reminded me of how Jewish prayers remain a part of the identity of my wife and my atheist Jewish in-laws who scoff at their literal meaning. I had come to Tsubaki thanks to a scholarship program funded by the shrine and administered by the U.U.A. The program is an outgrowth of the longstanding ties between the shrine and our association through the International Association for Religious Freedom. It provides a window into something new – an effort to globalize Shinto as an international force for peace and understanding. That global vision began with Yukitaka Yamimoto, the former Guji, or chief priest, at Tsubaki, who survived horrific experiences in World War II as a Japanese soldier including exposure to cannibalism. It has been nurtured by the current Guji, Yukiyasu Yamamoto, his adopted son via marriage. In pursuit of that vision, Tsubaki has done more than reach out to the U.U.A. It planted the first Shinto shrine in North America in 1986 in Stockton, Calif., and currently supports the Tsubaki America Shrine in Granite Falls, Wash., which is led by Rev. Koichi Barrish, the first non-Japanese person to become a Shinto priest. The chance to become immersed in such a vital tradition at a time when it is looking beyond its native setting came as an unexpected blessing for me. In my long career as a journalist before entering Drew Theological Seminary in 2008, I had frequently reported on the activities of Japanese companies in the United States and Europe, but I had never traveled anywhere in Asia. I had only recently begun delving into Buddhism and had no exposure to Shinto. I am a lifelong U.U. who has never felt fully at home in either the Christian or humanist wings of our denomination. Shinto has raised for me the possibility that I might progress spiritually by worrying less about what I believe and more about how I feel with constant commitment to certain practices. Misogi was the most dramatic ritual I encountered. But it was everyday practices like joining the priests to sweep the ground of leaves and the morning service with its drumming and its prayer chants, or norito, that became a part of the rhythm of my life at Tsubaki and a more frequent source for reflection. I pursued those reflections during calligraphy lessons, through sketching, poetry and journaling, and on long hikes in which I did my best to ignore the sweltering heat of August in Japan (average temperatures routinely ran into the high 90's with high humidity). It helped my focus if not my perspiration levels that the priests asked me to wear the multi-layered white robes of a student priest while I was sweeping or attending services. By the end of my visit, I shared a linguistic routine with some young priests and the shrine maidens – unmarried young women who performed a variety of housekeeping and clerical tasks as well as ritual wedding dances. “Very hot,” a priest or shrine maiden would say tentatively, hoping his or her English was correct. “Hai, atsui, (Yes, hot)” I would reply, showing off one of the few Japanese words I could rattle off without fail. Shinto is theologically congenial for a wide range of Unitarian Universalists. The ancient stories about Shinto divinities or kami, including how they created Japan, gave it rice culture, and were the ancestors of the nation's imperial family, were not written down until shortly after the arrival of Buddhism in Japan in the 7th century. The legends have long been understood to be myth, so Shinto has been spared the kind of religious strife Judaism, Christianity and Islam have endured over the authority of the Bible. Shinto did not even have a name until it became necessary to distinguish it from Buddhism. (Its name translates best as the way of the kami, as opposed to the way of Buddha – the practices of both are celebrated at Tsubaki and many other Shinto shrines). Kami show up as both heavenly and earthly entities and sometimes, I belatedly learned, both. The frogs at Tsubaki's waterfall represent an animal form taken in some legends by the human kami, Sarutahiko, who is the main kami worshiped at the Tsubaki shrine. But the fundamental teaching of the Shinto legends and Shinto prayers is as simple – and profound – as a well-written haiku poem: harmony reigns when creation is aligned with kami nature. Shinto holds that humans are essentially good, but vulnerable to tragic events (like earthquakes), social disasters (like war), and individual misbehavior or mistakes that alienate us from the kami. Shinto purification rituals aim to overcome this separation. Heightened awareness of interconnectedness, gratitude, hope and intention to cultivate right relations are among the many fruits of the purification rights. According to some studies, they also lower a practitioner's blood pressure. I found that the rituals often felt like a momentary sabbath in which I was called to focus only what was available to my immediate senses. In that respect, they were similar to the several traditional Japanese tea ceremonies to which I was treated during my stay – two in an garden pavilion donated to the Tsubaki shrine by the founder of Matsushita, the multinational electronics company, and one in the elegant offices of the ancient Shinto shrine at Ise, to which I was taken on a field trip along with Scott Rudolph, a seminary student at Meadville Lombard whose visit began halfway through mine. Among the estimated 100,000 Shinto shrines in Japan, only Ise is recognized as older than Tsubaki, and, with roughly 100 priests to Tsubaki's 20, it is one of the few that is bigger. Guji Yamamoto is said to be the 97th generation of his clan to oversee the Tsubaki site, which celebrated its 2,000th anniversary in 1997. Tsubaki is nestled at the edge of green tea and rice fields in a thick forest at the foot of steep mountains about an hour's drive northwest of the sprawling city of Nagoya. It is the foremost center among an estimated 3,000 shrines in Japan honoring Sarutahiko, a frighteningly large kami with a long red nose. Sarutahiko was the first human, the legends say, to greet Ninigi-no-Mikoto, the grandson of Amaterasu, the Sun goddess, and progenitor of Japan's imperial family when he arrives on earth. Sarutahiko served as Ninigi's guide. Tsubaki also is home to the chief shrine for the Ame-no-Uzume, a heavenly kami viewed as the patron of entertainers. Her lewd dancing caused such an uproar that it lured an angry Amaterasu out of a cave in which she had hidden, according to one legend, which allowed the other kami to grab her and force her back into her rightful place in the sky. In the legend of the emperor's descent to earth, it was Uzume who volunteered to find out whether the imposing Sarutahiko was friend or foe. Sarutahiko, for his part, was impressed with her gumption and ended up marrying her. Uzume fascinated me as a character. I ended up writing a long poem for the priests speculating on the unreported parts of her story. Did she, for instance, begin dancing with the intent of luring Amaterasu from the cave as the story is commonly told or out of some private joy in the sudden darkness, unaware at first of the crowd? I suggested there was always more to a good story and that the kamis of story (I simply presumed they exist) were the “secret favorites” of Ame-no-Minakanushi, the principal creative force among the heavenly kami. And I directly addressed Uzume at the end, asking her: “...when it was over, who did you bow to first, Sun Goddess or crowd? Was there applause? Was it long and loud?” I left Japan with a lot of unanswered questions, of course. There were moments when I envied classmates at Drew who gain their cross-cultural experience (a Drew requirement) on trips overseas guided by professors. My only encounter with a professor came on my last day. It involved a chemical engineer from Ohio State University who was visiting a technical school in Nagoya. When his Japanese hosts brought him to the shrine for a tea ceremony, the priests assigned Scott and me to show them around and explain Shintoism to him. I think I achieved a respectful proximity to the truth. Barnaby Feder is a third year M-Div student at the Drew Theological Seminary and an intern minister at the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship.