As I mentioned in my last post, I am recently returned from an 8 day trip to Japan. As I write this, I am still recovering from the wonders of being crammed into a metal cylinder and hurled through the air at high speeds for approximately 12 hours. More than that, though, I am in the process of unpacking this phenomenal experience and what it is going to mean to me spiritually in the long run.
Here is a picture that I took at the Sengakuji Zen Temple – the memorial site for the 47 Loyal Samurai of Ako:
I include this photo because it speaks volumes to me about my Japanese experience. You will note a ladder in the foreground and a man on that ladder. That gentleman is up that ladder trimming this gorgeous tree by hand – with hand clippers. You will note that the grounds around him are also well manicured. That is because they, too, are carefully tended by a staff of gardeners who do everything by hand. The atmosphere of beauty and silence is thus preserved so that those who visit the site can contemplate the loyalty and sacrifice of these warriors rather than listening to power mowers, electric hedge trimmers and leaf blowers.
For those of you who do not know the story of the 47 Loyal Samurai, here is the Wikipedia site.
My visit to this site was one of the high points of my trip. My group spent the morning there, despite rainy conditions, and honored these samurai in our own way and with incense sticks that one purchases at the site. There is a deep sense of melancholy in the place but also a strong feeling of contentedness bordering on joy. It saddens the heart that these men had to go so far to restore their honor but it gladdens the heart to see that their sacrifice has been honored continuously for over 300 years. They have not been forgotten or relegated to the pages of a dry history book.
My major takeaway from this trip was a pretty simple one. The Japanese know how to honor their spirits.
Everywhere I went in Japan, from the densest urban area to more rural towns, I saw cemeteries with headstones and wooden markers that honored the dead. If one went into one of the cemeteries, one quickly found evidence that the memorial sites were tended and incense burned as people communed with their dead relatives.
Shinto (Japan’s native religion) temples/shrines abound throughout the country. I saw shrines in places like Mount Fujiyama and in the midst of Kashiwa City, where I was staying, as well as more elaborate temples in places like Nikko. No matter where those shrines and temples might be though, it was not uncommon to see someone making an offering and praying before the shrine.
During the trip, I was privileged to train with a Japanese sword master and Shingon Buddhist priest. Shingon is a melding of Vajrayana style Buddhism (think Tibet) and Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. Once our training was done, this sensei shared a meal with us and then took us into his garage temple before bidding us farewell. The atmosphere of that temple was so highly charged that I had trouble keeping my psychic feet on the ground. Why? In my view, it was simply because this temple, like so many others in Japan was well and truly cared for – the rites of Shingon were enacted there regularly and with the attention that only a true master can bring to such work.
I found my experience of Japan deeply humbling and more than a little unsettling. I think of myself as a spiritual person and, in the post before I left, I defined spirituality as finding ones place in the spiritual world, but the Japanese made me realize that I have a long way to go in that quest. As a consequence, I am considering how I can translate my experience into practice.
As always, I will keep you posted as I go along but, for now, I think that I am going to go place a plaque that I had carved in Japan on my ancestor altar and have a talk with the ones who seem intent on hitting me up side the head with a cosmic clue by four. I am sure that I will have more to say on this topic as time goes by – as I mentioned, I am unpacking a lot from the trip – but I will return to my more regularly scheduled program next week.