Tag Archives: Japan

Sacred Rope (Shimenawa)

DO NOT FOLLOW IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE OLD MASTERS,

BUT SEEK WHAT THEY SOUGHT.

BASHO

On carpe diem haiku kai, one of the recent prompts for creating a haiku is the Sacred Rope, or shimenawa in Japanese.  This is one of my favorite symbols in Shinto, and it always warmed my heart when I passed one–in a shrine or even in the countryside.  It is a twisted rope used to denote the sacred energy of a place–such as Mount Fuji:

shimenawa fuji

It is often seen circling a tree both to honor the soul of that tree and to call attention to its unusual life force:

shimenawa tree

The zigzag strips of paper are called Shide, and are often used in purifying ceremonies, attached to a wand (e.g. a gohei) and waved over anything from a building to a new car.

One of the most famous Shimenawa in Japan is pictured by Chèvrefeuille  on his website:

near wedded rocks

These are the Wedded Rocks, or the Married Couple Rocks, found near the Grand Shrine of Ise. The rocks symbolize the Shinto version of the Creator Deities, as told in the 8th century chronicle, Kojiki.   The story goes that the kami Izanagi and his wife Izanami (She Who Invites) were tasked with creating the Japanese islands.  They were given a heavenly spear, and standing on the floating bridge of Heaven, they swirled the waters of the sea.  As drops fell from their spear, the islands of japan were formed. The story continues with the death of Izanami, but their wonderful creative relationship is commemorated at this lovely spot, and sanctified with the shimenawa:

bridge

I will use the following photo for inspiration.  The young woman is called a Miko, a Shrine Maiden who in the olden days was regarded as a shaman.  Today they are young girls who help at the shrine and sometimes perform the sacred dance called the kagura.

Great Shiminawa

a lovely miko.

sheltering shimenawa–

no dogma, just dance

Japanese Images of the Virtues

Tenryuji pondThis is the temple pond of Tenru-ji, Arashiyama, Kyoto.  The pond is in the shape of the Chinese Character “Kokoro,” which means heart, mind, or spirit.

The images below are in no way “official.”  They are simply paintings or statues that I came to love during the years I spent in Japan.  For me, they embody the Buddhist ideals called the four Bramaviharas.  This word refers to the “sublime attitudes”–loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity– that open the door to the “dwelling (vihara)” of the “Divine (Brama).”  They are sometimes referred to as “the four immeasurables ” since their attainment is without end.

These four are also called the “Buddhist virtues.”  As I have suggested in other posts, the idea of “virtue” has become etiolated in the modern world, perhaps as a result of a Puritanical focus on sexual propriety.  The notion of virtue, however, has a rich heritage that carries across many cultures:  Toku in Japanese (as In the great Shogun Tokugawa: the River of Virtue); Te in Chinese (this is the Te of the Tao Te Ching);  Arete in Greek, referring to the excellence of things from crafts to character; and Virtus in Latin, deriving from the word Vir (man, or more generally human).  In all of these traditions, I believe, Virtue points to a maturely developed human character–or more simply, a grownup.

The cardinal Western virtues of Wisdom, Courage, Temperance and Justice are all complimentary facets of the jewel of character.  They exist together or not at all.  For example, one cannot be courageous, temperate, and just unless she does so wisely.  Thus all the virtues infuse and empower each other. They include perspective and focus of mind, a generous and open heart, integrity or centered and present wholeness, and a sense of fairness to all.  Aristotle said that Happiness (eudaimonia, or human flouishing) consists in activity in accord with virtue.  I believe this is a philosophical way of saying that a flourishing life is one lived from the very best in ourselves.  That, to me, is a noble aspiration.

The Eastern Virtues are likewise complementary.  It seems to me, however, that there is a shift of emphasis from the Western tradition of Wisdom as the lynchpin of the Virtues, to Loving Kindness as the leaven of the virtues.  Thus, the Western list of Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, and Justice, becomes Loving Kindness, Compassion, Joy, and Equanimity in the Buddhist tradition.  Here are some of my favorite images:

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Sentō (銭湯): A Japanese Public Bath

The cicadas of July were singing wildly as I made my way through the streets of Kyoto. It was 1987, and this was my first trip to Japan. I had been lucky enough to receive a grant to study Japanese language and culture for a year in an American college, and then to spend a full month in any part of Japan I chose. Since my interests centered on Japanese religions, I of course headed straight for Kyoto. Reading Chinese characters, or kanji, was far beyond me, although I did have a tenuous grasp of the Japanese syllabary. Reading the street signs, however, was out of the question, and I had a feeling, both terrifying and liberating, of being an illiterate three year old.

I had arranged to stay at a temple lodging, a shukubo called Myoren-ji, in the Nishijin area on the northwestern side of town. After wandering the neighborhood for an hour or so, I luckily discovered a narrow wooden temple gate opening onto a long stone path that I followed to the door of the lodging. On my calling hello, the door was opened by a smiling woman of about 60. Her name was Iida-san, and during this and subsequent stays at her temple, we became good friends.

She poured me a cup of tea, and in very good English explained that I would be sleeping on a futon in a lovely tatami room opening onto an inner garden. She continued that I could assist the priests with chanting in the morning at 6:30, and she would serve breakfast at 8. So far so good, but then the idyll ended, and my neophyte’s heart skipped a beat. There were no bathing facilities at the temple, she said, but she would give me a bathing bucket, soap, a towel, and a ticket each day for the sento just around the corner. I was going to become much more intimate with the Japanese people than I had anticipated.

That evening at around 6 o’clock, I found the sento. I pushed through the noren curtain at the entrance, having no idea what I would find on the other side. I immediately found myself facing a high desk manned (and I use that word advisedly) by a Japanese woman in her 80’s. She immediately sensed my discomfort, imperiously snatched the ticket out of my hand, and disdainfully tossed her head in the direction of a door to her right. The pink door on her left was clearly not for me, so I figured I would at least be spared a bi-sexual bath.

I passed through the blue door, and found myself in a small locker room. This wasn’t too different from my high school, so I quickly and completely disrobed, locked my locker, and hanging the key on my wrist, opened the door at the other end of room.

Sento1

Now I was in another world. Along one wall there was a series of spigots perhaps a foot off the floor. Along the other side of the room were three steaming tubs that I will describe in a minute. Four naked men were each sitting in front of a spigot on a tiny plastic stool on which one was expected to sit while washing. My first fear was that I would never make it down to the stool, and look foolish suspended in mid-air. I did make it, however, and then tried surreptitiously to watch the other men in order to learn the protocol. You filled your bucket with water and poured it over yourself, and soaped vigorously from head to foot. It then required many buckets full of water to rinse. I can’t tell you how awkward I felt, sitting cheek to jowl with a bunch of strangers, trying to bathe in a tiny bucket.

sento2

At least I had remembered that one washed thoroughly before getting into a tub. But now it was tub time. There were three tubs from which to choose. The first was filled with a bilious looking green concoction. The second was filled with clear water, but one finger told me it was beyond hot. As I stuck my hand into the third tub, I was literally shocked by a pulsing current of electricity coursing through the water. My only option was green, and it was actually quite relaxing. After a ten minute soak, I met the final challenge of the night: drying myself with a tiny wet towel. Believe it or not, it worked, and I headed out into the Kyoto night with a feeling of accomplishment.

The second night went off without a hitch, and on the third night I confidently strode into the sento like a seasoned Japan hand. The old woman even greeted me with what seemed like a friendly nod, and chatted away. Her lack of teeth, however, did not help my fledgling understanding of Japanese. At any rate, i was walking tall as I entered the locker room and began to undress. Suddenly my fingers froze on the third button of my shirt. The outer door of the room burst open, and the ancient ticket-taker walked in trailing three of her cronies. They were carrying folding chairs that they set up right behind me, and settled in for their evening’s entertainment. I didn’t have the nerve to bolt into the night, so the only thing for it was to continue disrobing with as much aplomb as I could muster. Every piece of clothing that disappeared into my locker was greeted by hoots, waves of laughter, and a running commentary in Japanese whose meaning was both unintelligible and unmistakable. I finally turned to them and offered the full monty with a deep formal bow. They applauded my performance like school girls, and their raucous laughter pursued me as I escaped into the tub room with a red face and a white bottom.

I soaked for as long as I could, and was relieved to find that they were nowhere to be seen as I dressed in the locker room. On returning to the temple, I recounted the story to Iida-san, and she began to laugh as hard as the sento ladies had. “Oh John-san,” she said. “They are not used to seeing western men naked, and they were enjoying your hairy body.” A week later, I told the story to my American friend, Birger. He, too, laughed, and then asked “Did you understand anything at all?” “Well,” I said, “I did pick up the word ‘saru,’ which means monkey.” “Well, old buddy,” he said, “at least they got something right.”

Hiroshima and Wounded Knee

The southern coastline of Honshu sped past the window of the Bullet Train. This trip to Hiroshima was near the end of my first stay in Japan. A deep, albeit vague, sense of atonement had finally outweighed my apprehension, but I still felt a quiver as the train glided smoothly into the station. I had a compelling urge to announce to everyone within earshot that I, too, hated war.

I stepped onto the platform, descended the stairs to the main level, and emerged at once into the heart of the city. To my left was a row of buses. A sign in English read “Peace Park, Bus No.5,” and I joined the line of Japanese passengers. A fifteen minute ride through the rebuilt city brought us to the Atom Bomb Dome, the only original building which remains at the sight of the blast. Although it was a commercial building during the war, it now resembles the charred remains of a celestial observatory that stands as a sentinel at the entrance to the beautiful acres of grass and trees which memorialize the dead of Hiroshima.
the-dome-at-peace-park
As I entered the park, I struck up a conversation with a couple from Kamloops, British Columbia. The husband taught grade school there. He carried a suitcase filled with hundreds of paper cranes folded, origami style, by his students. He had carried them thousands of miles to add to those already draped over every tree and statue. Schoolchildren from all over the world were creating a peace memorial that most of them would never see. At his invitation, I slipped a white crane into my shirt pocket as we joined the people streaming into the park.We paused first at the Peace Memorial Cenotaph, commemorating the 200,000 people killed by the Atomic Bomb. The cenotaph is plain and dignified. An eternal flame burns in front of a reflecting pool. On the face of the cenotaph the motto of the park is carved in stone in Japanese and English: “Repose ye in peace, for the error shall not be repeated.”

The largest building in the park is the Peace Memorial Museum. It houses displays which evoke the devastation in somber tones. In the corner of one case rests a wrist watch with its hands forever frozen at 8:15. In another room, the marble stairs from the Sumitomo Bank are discolored by the shadow of a man who had been sitting on them. He had been disintegrated by the blast. Pictures of horribly burned men, women, and children are everywhere.

Back outside in the sunshine, I watched laughing schoolchildren feeding flocks of doves. Their carefree abandon washed away some of the horror I had just witnessed. I sat quietly for a while. Then I walked slowly away, still stunned by the enormity of the event, but comforted by the awareness on the part of so many people that the tragedy visited upon this city was indeed an error never to be repeated. Finally, on the way out of the park, I visited the gift shop where I picked up some postcards and a lovely bronze plaque inscribed with the motto of the cenotaph.

One week later upon my return to the States, I met my wife, Carolyn, in San Francisco, and we began a drive across America to our home in New England. Three days later, we found ourselves in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. We stood on top of a knoll under scudding grey clouds, etched against the vastness of the surrounding prairie. My trouser legs snapped in the relentless wind which rolled off the Black Hills thirty miles to the west. Carolyn stood on the other side of the mass grave into which troops of the United States Government had tossed over 150 men, women and children on the evening of December 30, 1890. My heart felt numb, as bleak as the sere landscape of Wounded Knee.

We had spent the morning searching for this place. At the Pine Ridge reservation heavy men sat on broken porches. Their opaque eyes formed a wall we were afraid to breach. We drove through without stopping, and thirty miles east swung north on a narrow road to a large decrepit sign announcing the Massacre. Nothing pointed to a grave. A small hill half a mile west seemed a logical place for a cemetery, however, and this is where we found all that remained of Big Foot and his followers. The only marker on the grave was one erected by a son of one of the slain Indians.
OfficialWoundedKneeMemorial
The sighing wind and aching loneliness contrasted sharply in my imagination with the flash of devastating violence which erupted here just over a hundred years ago. Alarmed by the death of Sitting Bull and afraid for his people, Big Foot had led his band of 350 ill and undernourished people toward the Pine Ridge Reservation seeking the protection of the great Chief Red Cloud. They were met by soldiers under the command of Major Samuel Whitside, Seventh U.S. Cavalry. Whitside forced the Indians to camp in a circular enclosure at Wounded Knee. He mounted four Hotchkiss guns on the surrounding hills. Throughout the night Big Foot’s people suffered terribly in the bitter cold. In the morning, as Whitside’s men attempted to disarm the Indians a shot rang out. The men on the hills panicked. As the Hotchkiss guns raked the enclosure, Indians fell by the score.

The slaughter ended as quickly as it had begun. The deep mud, now crimson with the blood of the murdered Sioux, muffled the cries of the wounded. A blizzard loomed on the horizon, so the soldiers gathered those who were still alive into wagons and hurried off to Pine Ridge. In their haste they left the dead where they lay.

A burial party returned the next day to find countless bodies frozen into grotesque postures. Quickly, almost furtively, the soldiers dug a huge hole into which they threw the bodies of the fallen Indians. Then, like a cat covering an obscenity, they closed the grave and turned away. A picture of Big Foot’s corpse can be seen today at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington; the mass grave, however, lies forlornly in the desolate, forgotten emptiness of Wounded Knee.
dream catcher

The Sioux Shaman Black Elk was present at the burial. Many years later, he delivered this prophetic epitaph:
“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream… ”

Carolyn and I were shrouded in silence. We had no words for each other, for the Indians, or for God. She returned to the car, leaving me alone with the wind. After some time, Carolyn climbed slowly back up the hill to where I stood. She knelt down for a moment, then straightened and took my hand. I looked down. There on the grave at our feet rested a white paper crane. Next to it lay the bronze plaque from Hiroshima. “Repose ye in peace,” it said, “for the error shall not be repeated.”
white crane