Christian Schmidt is a third year UU seminarian at Andover Newton Theological School. In August 2011 he 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, Christian describes his experience there.
A Sacred Place
by Christian Schmidt
I don’t speak Japanese, I had only the barest notion what Shinto was all about, and I had never been to Asia before. And none of that was going to stop me from spending two weeks at Tsubaki Grand Shrine, a 2,000-year-old Shinto shrine in the Japanese countryside.
I learned more than I will ever be able to express, but it might boil down to this: know where you are, be prepared and be open. If I can take these simple things from my two weeks at the shrine, visiting as part of a program that sends Unitarian Universalist seminarians to spend time at Tsubaki each year.
Where You Are
The shrine is located about halfway between Nagoya and Kyoto, which puts it firmly in the middle of nowhere. You might even say it’s out in the wilderness. But out in the wilderness isn’t the same as “not important.” And the shrine isn’t just anywhere, either.
Place is important. That is one thing I will take away from time at Tsubaki. Place matters. The shrine isn’t just located anywhere. It is at the foot of a sacred mountain, in a forest of cypress trees. The shrine is in the same spot it has been for centuries. The original shrine was located nearby, at the top of the mountain.
In a larger sense, place matters, too. There’s a famous saying that goes something like this: “It’s impossible to imagine Shinto without Japan; and impossible to imagine Japan without Shinto.” To call Shinto the native religion of Japan is absolutely true, but it’s also necessarily simplistic. The most interesting fact I learned might be this: on the first three days of the new year all the Shinto shrines of Japan have about 130 million visitors. The population of Japan is about 130 million people. Some people visit multiple shrines, sure, but this still means that almost everyone in Japan goes to a shrine to pray for a good new year.
Most Unitarian Universalist congregations wish they could get such attendance. This was just one of the many differences in religious practice I noticed. As someone preparing for UU ministry, I was interested in learning everything. The generous scholarship that sent me there gave me the chance to spend two weeks absorbing all I could about Shinto, about the shrine, and about Japan. It was an experience that changed me forever.
The sort of rootedness to place that many Japanese feel is not so prevalent in American culture. For many of us, the place we live now is not the place in which we grew up. Japanese people are more mobile than they used to be, but there is still a very strong connection to the place from which they come. At the shrine, I saw countless families drive in for the day from other parts of Japan, coming home to visit family and the shrine that they consider their own, even if they live far away now.
That sense of place and its importance is obvious at the shrine. At Tsubaki, in the midst of the sacred forest, at the foot of Mount Udo, there’s a stream of clear, pure water. It’s not a river, more like a small stream that runs past the main shrine, through a rocky outcrop where it pours down in a waterfall. There is a smooth rock basin at the bottom, and you’re surrounded by a wall of rock on three sides, with candles placed all around. At the spot where the waterfall is, there’s a step up and handholds, almost like a huge shower. It’s under that waterfall that one of the central rituals of Shinto takes place: misogi.
Misogi is a purification ritual, if you have to reduce it to words. But it’s so much more than that, too. It is about preparing oneself to be purified. That sense of preparation is key to Shinto. There is a right way to do everything. One doesn’t just drink tea, one enters the teahouse in the proper way, one sits in the right place, eats a sweet cake, has the hand-prepared tea, thanks the tea house attendant, leaves in the proper way.
Misogi is no different. The waterfall is the home of the kami, Sarutahiko, the great spirit to whom the shrine is dedicated. Sarutahiko is the most powerful of the earthly kami, and he’s often depicted as a tall, powerful man with a long nose, clothed in leather and carrying a huge spear. The waterfall, whose water comes from above on the sacred mountain, is his home. As such, you have to purify yourself before you even go to the waterfall. The process is a sacred one. There are right things to wear: a loincloth for men, a simple robe for women, and headbands for both with a sacred symbol on them. A prayer of purification is performed in the shrine. After going outside, a series of physical exercises are performed, inviting energy into our bodies and cutting away impurities. My favorite part was forming a sword (the first two fingers of the right hand extended and held together) and literally cutting at the air while yelling as we removed our impurities. At the side of the waterfall, more preparation is necessary. A priest performs a ritual and prayer, then purifies the water with salt and sake (rice wine) by mixing them, then sipping the mixture and spewing it across the water. On my third time to do misogi, I got brave and asked more about this. Iwasaki-san, the priest, let me taste the mixture and spew it. It tastes terrible, believe me. But it’s a powerful gesture. Salt and sake are sacred to the Japanese, representing the ocean, food, and rice.
All of this is preparation for entering the waterfall. I stepped up into the ice-cold water, and it pounded down on me with hundreds of pounds of force. I forced my hands together, middle fingers pointed up in a sacred gesture, and shouted out the prayer: Harai tamai, kiyome tamai, rokkonshojo (roughly translated as “Purify my soul, wash my soul”) over and over, forcing the words to leave my mouth. It’s impossible not to be changed by that experience, to have the power of the water, the kami, the experience get into you. Stepping out is almost a letdown. You bow and clap to the waterfall, then bow to the shrine, and it’s done.
Shinto has something right in this. Preparing oneself is important, vital, even, to having a successful spiritual life. Too often, I have wanted to jump right into the water, so to speak, without preparing myself for the swim. We probably all have.
My life was also changed by life at the kaikan, the shrine hotel, where I stayed and ate most of my meals with the staff. I spent time in a traditional Japanese room with bamboo mats, sleeping on the floor. I watched some Japanese TV, especially the local professional team’s baseball games. More than anything, the food was an experience. I am not an especially brave eater. I like many foods, but there’s plenty I don’t like. I had a feeling that Japanese food was not going to be right down my alley, so before leaving I made a pledge to myself: I would try any food put in front of me. I might not finish it, but I would try it. I only failed once, on a day I was not feeling my best when a particularly fishy-smelling, boney fish was part of our lunch. Otherwise, I took at least a bite of everything. The best things: grilled slices of cow tongue, raw egg mixed with hot rice and a dash of soy sauce (which scared me, was tasty). The worst: goya, or bitter melon, which earned its name, and natto, or sticky bean, partially fermented soybeans, which have a powerful, unpleasant (to me, anyway) flavor and slimy texture. But by and large, I liked a lot of the food, even things I was doubtful about at first.
It was a revelation for me. I was trying new foods, trying new things and being immersed in a strange place with people who were not like me. It was scary, and sometimes lonely, but also invigorating and exciting. I hope to take this forward in my life, not merely in food, but in all things. I’ll try just about anything; that’s my plan. I hope it will open me up to new experiences, to new cultures, to new ways of doing religion and new ways of living.
Here’s what my trip taught me: know where you are, be prepared, and be open.
Know where you are: not just physically, but in what context and in what mental, emotional, and spiritual state. Knowing where you are and who you are is so important.
Be prepared: to learn, to explore, to pray, to be surprised. Be prepared, and know that all the preparation in the world won’t get you ready for some things.
Be open: to new experiences, to new things, to new places, to things you hadn’t expected, to things you already know that you might experience in a new way.