the smell of deer poop
Today: back to Nara. Went to see the special exhibit at the National Museum on "Shinto Gods and Buddhist Deities" , which was definitely cool. (Though I could have used more English explanation - but not their fault I don't read Japanese, now is it?) Took about 2 1/2 - 3 hours to go through, so I'm glad I went last week to see the main exhibit (indeed, it was valuable background for someone not familiar with esoteric, Shingon, and Pure Land Buddhism, and their proliferation of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Myou-ou, Tenbu, and so on.)
Nearby, in Nara Park, is Kasuga Grand Shrine - which, according to the exhibit was one of the places the Shinto gods came to Earth. I stuck my head in before - the grounds are beautiful. This time I paid to actually enter the shine area, or at least the part of it open to tourists...pretty, but not all that exciting. So I headed over toward some little shops in front of Todaiji, bought some food there for dinner (a roasted yam, some of those great kusamochi, and some biscuits for the deer), and thought I'd walk back over into the hills behind the shrine a bit.
Wandering along the paths near the shrine, had the most amazing "coincidence" or "calling" or something...
A little behind and above the big main shrine, as I walked up the path I came to a small side shrine where a Nihonjin fellow was holding forth a little bit about Shinto to a family of gaijin tourists. Turns out he was a Shinto priest (plainclothes division, at least today) who had been playing flute (the "dragon flute", ryuteki), which the family heard and was drawn to. The priest, Kazuhito, gave us all a little lesson in basic Shinto ideas - basically, gratitude is the key concept. And he taught us the simple but precise bowing ritual by which this gratitude is expressed. It's just three bows and two hand claps, but of course each movement has to be just so. And the pauses, the stillnesses, very important - the spaces where the divine can enter.
As we chatted it turns out the family is from Maryland! The father, Gabe works at Goddard, he looked familiar, might have met around Greenbelt sometime (though they live in Bethesda).
The sun was going down soon, and Gabe and company had to split (though I ran into Gabe again later on the train back to Osaka, and he and I had a bit more of a chat). Kaz and I talked a bit longer, walked together for a way. I walked back to the JR station, decided to detour a bit to go and visit the Jizo statue by Kofukuji) where I practiced the ritual (no problem showing gratitude to Jizo, I think).
Now, here's a thing: Kaz asked us to teach this, to Japanese people even. He talked a bit about how many, even most, Japanese people have lost their history of what Shinto is about; he and I also talked a bit about the degradation of Japanese Buddhism into a wish-granting religion - Zen and some other strains excepted, but Zen is not that widely followed in Japan at the moment. (And of course Zen as an institutionalized religion is not immune from problems and corruption.)
Which in a strange way, is good to hear. When one is interested in, finds resonance with, the spiritual practice of a foreign people, it's easy to believe that you'll never be able to understand it as well as they do. When you find out that many of them don't understand it, there's a certain freedom. (I suppose the same applies to budo and karate, I think that's actually a big point in Kaicho Nakamura's autobiography, the degradation of karate-do in Japan.)
Maybe I'll try to teach this at FSG or Starwood. Ok, to be honest, there's some ego there; to be able to say to folks there "Well, this is a ritual I learned from a Shinto priest in Japan" would be pretty cool. But more than that, I think it would be an excellent way to connect us with the great lands where we hold these gatherings, to respect and honor the kami there. We need so much to do that, listen to the American kami again. It's not a foreign practice to our shores, it's what Thoreau and Emerson and Whitman did, what John Muir did, what drives people to the country, to the mountains, to the seashore. But most of us don't know what to do when we get there.
Words and sounds have power. Power to shape our minds and perceptions and experiences, to "prime" our brains one way or another.
I hope to meet up with Kaz again for further discussion.