I have had a fascination with Japanese culture since I was a teenager. So, it became a natural extension of that interest that, in the years since leaving the faith of my childhood, I became increasingly interested in eastern religions, especially Japanese religion. I began practicing Buddhist meditation and eventually began attending a Zen group from a Japanese style. My Buddhist beliefs naturally complemented by Unitarian Universalist identity, and I have come to believe that they are both essential to my spiritual identity.
Japanese religion has, in turn, become an important part of my developing ministry as I seek to help those I serve understand UU Buddhists better. I realized, however, that I had little knowledge of Japanese religion outside Buddhism. I had a strong desire especially to learn more about Shinto, but am aware that Shinto is a religion that is best understood through practice rather than study. So, when I found out Meadville Lombard offers a scholarship to visit Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Suzuka, Japan, I decided it was an opportunity I could not pass up.
The setting of the shrine is beyond description. Nestled at the foot of the Suzukz mountain range among centuries old trees, Tsubaki Grand Shrine sits in a rural part of Mie Prefecture, about forty-eight miles east of Kyoto. During my three weeks there, I only encountered two non-Japanese people at the shrine, and both were among groups of Japanese business people. I was definitely off the beaten foreign tourist path. Because of this, I felt I was seeing what life was truly like for the Japanese in rural areas, much better than if I’d spent my entire time in Tokyo or Kyoto. Indeed, it is said that Tsubaki is one of the top shrines Japanese citizens wish to pilgrimage to at least once in their lives.
At Tsubaki, I found myself directly immersed in the life of the shrine, including the sweeping of leaves every morning and afternoon, a very spiritual practice for the priests there, participation in morning prayers every day, and the opportunity to view shrine festivals and rituals, including the beginning of the month blessing service and the annual rice festival, one of the shrine’s most popular events. All the while, I was asked to wear a robe that represented a Shinto priest in training. I think this confused more than one visitor as there have been very few non-Japanese people to be ordained as Shinto priests.
The Native American philosopher Carol Lee Sanchez says in her essay, “Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral” that what we believe about our reality largely determines our experience. In her view, much of the environmental damage that has occurred to the environment has been done by people who are disconnected from the natural environment and see it as something to be used at our whim rather than a sacred resource we are intimately related to. I realized during my time at Tsubaki that I have become disconnected from the natural world, and, through my immersion in the Shinto tradition, which emphasizes our connection with all existence, I have begun to recover my sense of the sacred in the natural world. Many Unitarian Universalists who have visited Tsubaki have written about the practice of misogi, the ritual water purification performed under a waterfall at Tsubaki, and, while I participated in misogi, the most meaningful part of the trip for me was the free time which gave me the opportunity to immerse myself into nature and contemplate my surroundings. I was given a book of Shinto
meditations on nature and, reading those meditations at Tsubaki really drove home for me what I believe to be the heart of Shinto: the interconnectedness of not just all beings but of everything. I feel I am a much better person for the reflection time I received at Tsubaki.
The hospitality I received throughout my trip was moving and unexpected. I did not spend all of my time in Japan at Tsubaki; during my first week, I travelled to Tokyo, where I was hosted by members of the Tokyo Unitarian Fellowship and Risho Kosei-Kai, a lay Buddhist organization with strong ties to both Tsubaki and the Unitarian Universalist Association, who arranged an apartment free of charge for me while I was in Tokyo. The opportunity to travel with them on retreat to their founder’s birthplace high in the mountains was a once in a lifetime chance. In addition, time spent in Kyoto, Nara, and Takarazuka provided me the opportunity to see for myself some of Japan’s most important cultural and religious centers. And Tsubaki provided me with the opportunity to visit Ise Shrine, the most important Shinto shrine in Japan, as well as a return trip to Kyoto, both with a priest as my guide.
On my last day at Tsubaki, I was given a box full of gifts from the priests there, momentos of my experience. Included were supplies to set up my own home kamidana, a Shinto home shrine dedicated to the kami. I found my time at Tsubaki so significant and life-changing that I decided to continue the morning chanting I learned at the shrine. To say that I was changed in ways I did not expect is an understatement. I am grateful to Meadville Lombard and Tsubaki Grand Shrine for this life-changing opportunity. I hope my colleagues in the future will continue to have the opportunity I did to learn about a tradition not in common practice in the United States.