Sakura blossoms in Kyoto rain

Today, Kyoto again, Nanzen-ji.

     Sakura blossoms in Kyoto rain
     I think of my grandfather

(maybe I'll try to make that into a proper Nihongo haiku...someday)

Nanzen-ji, big Zen temple complex. Great big old central temple, a painting of a dragon on the ceiling - you can only see it from outside. Apparently there's some thing about sticking your hands through the bars and clapping to make an echo. I follow along. (I bought a poster of the dragon painting.) Lovely lovely gardens, a great painting of Bodhidharma on one wall in the abbot's quarters. Had real o-cha in their tea room looking out at a waterfall and garden, very nice.

But then. Go up the hill behind. First a small old Buddhist temple, Saisho-in; not so much a touristy place as an active, day-to-day, actively used community temple - the kind I love to find. As I stand there for a moment of meditation, a woman parks her car just outside the grounds, walks up quickly, bows to the shrine, and hurries back out. Just stopped by to say "Hi" or "Thanks", I guess.

A beautiful small cemetery behind it, stand and watch the rain fall, see an offering of sake left on a grave, think the young man in the inner city pouring out a 40 for a fallen homie, consider that the Buddha was a prohibitionist, contemplate the adaptability of the dharma.

And then. Continue on up the hill, now in the woods. Small Shinto shines, a tree, two rocks, girded with braided rope. Continue up to a small waterfall shire, where (if I read my guidebook rightly) people will sometimes sit in the fall and meditate. A little above and to the side of that, a small cave, a shrine or altar within...someplace where, hundreds of years ago (maybe just decades) I feel some seeker lived in the mountain for a while.

I touch the rock; convince myself I feel the power, the connection to the Earth.

I have the place to myself for ten on fifteen minutes. I take some photos, stand contemplating the waterfall. I hear the clapping hands of someone praying Shinto-style, he comes up to the waterfall shine. We nod at each other; I step away a bit to free him from uncouth barbarian eyes as he prays, lights a candles an a stick of incense. As he continues up the hill, a younger man comes up, also has his little ritual at the waterfall.

A cave, a waterfall, here for thousands of years perhaps; used as a temple for hundreds at least, maybe millennia; still active today.

And yet...Japanese people will often tell you that they're not religious. But there are small Shinto shrines all over the place; the sumo tournament can't be held without the ritual that builds the dohyo. The Buddhist temples don't seem short of visitors at all.

Which raises the question: just what is religion? Dogma? Frequent attendance at some worship ritual? These seem to be our Western measures: "Do you believe in God?" "How often do you go to church or synagogue or temple?" The answers to these determine if you're a "religious" person or not.

But this sort of "religion" doesn't seem to be helping us much. (Which I suppose is why more and more people identify with labels such as "spiritual but not religious".)

Are there other sorts possible?

I think I've been part of a different sort for about seventeen years now; trying to formulate exactly what it's about, is part of why I'm here. I need to see more examples, more data points, than our American Christianity and the American Pagan movement, to be able to say what religion is.

So beside statements of dogma and visiting a church on a weekly basis, what else might qualify as "religious"?

When in doubt, we can turn to the writer's cheap trick of etymology. "Religion" comes from the Latin "religere", meaning "bind again". It seems to me that a more meaningful rendering into English might be "to reconnect".

To reconnect what to what? To reconnect the self, the individual human, to something - to the larger human community, and/or to the world in which we live.

This may be an "exclusive or" - if the community in which one lives is divorced in some way from the larger cosmos, one may have to choose between a good and harmonious relationship with one's neighbors, or with the Universe.

I suggest the relationship with the Universe take priority; it is much larger and longer-lived that your local town or nation. This can make for difficulties, however; crucifixions, witch-trials, and the like. Even the Buddha had assassination attempts made against him.

Anyway, we can see how this notion of connection can get confused with dogma. Shared beliefs are certainly one way to bind, to connect, a community of people together. But it is a limiting one, forcing minds into a mold; the connection shared by two pieces of mass-production.

Shared ritual, if well-designed, at least allows for differing interpretations. Obviously if the ritual or service involves charnting a declaration of dogma, a creed of some sort, it tends in the limit to indoctrination. But a well-designed ritual can accommodate widely varying beliefs; in large Pagan gatherings, I have shared rituals with people who identified as several sorts of Wiccan, Druid, Jewish, Buddhist, Atheist, Agnostic, Taoist, Discordian, Subgenius, even Christian. (Some of us identify with many of these labels.) Widely differing ideas, but we all found meaning and use in the same practice. (And then might go off for smaller rituals, sharing that was closer and more limited in scope, but we had still all drunk once from the same well.)

Another way to make this connection, this "ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night", is through the stories that we tell ourselves; do we tell stories of connection or isolation? Through the practice of mindfullness, we learn to observe and eventually control the mental process of storytelling that is consciousness.

Mindfulness, and ritual. This is what I call, "Zen Paganism".

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