A brief interlude with the New Religion of Tenrikyō
14.01.2013 - 21.01.2013
I don't know if I've ever been as tempted to impulse-join a religion as I was the week or so we studied Tenrikyō. And in answer to your question, no. It was only PARTIALLY because their food is the best.
Every morning for that week we attended a morning service at a nearby Tenrikyō church -- a simple service, about half an hour long, and totally fascinating, too. A priest, plus either three or four others, conducted the ceremony on a small stage at the head of a large Japanese-style tatami room. Each of them plays an instrument, and instead of chanting, they sing. Their songs sound like traditional Japanese folk music, and they make a glorious change when you've been listening to sutra-chanting nonstop for two months. The singers sit in seza position on small cushions, backs to the audience -- directing their songs and music toward three Shinto-style altars, all pale plain wood and mirrors, on the stage. Every day there were different offerings on the platforms -- one day a cabbage, another a bagged loaf of grocery-store bread. One altar is dedicated to their main object of worship, the Kami (deity) Tenri-ō no Mikoto (called "Prince Tenri" or "God the Parent" in English). Another enshrines Nakayama Miki, the peasant woman who founded Tenrikyō two hundred years ago (like I said -- a "new" religion . . . by Japanese standards). The third altar is for the veneration of ancestors. Tenrikyō is very, very big on gratefulness to one's ancestors. As the officiants sing and play, the other worshipers perform "hand dances" (just what it sounds like -- imagine if doing the Macarina was a religious practice) which mirror the meaning of the song. I quite like doing those.
All the people at that church (it feels weird to call it a "church" but that's the closest English approximation) were really, truly, genuinely good-hearted people. And I don't mean in an "our religion says we have to be nice to you, so we are grinning and bearing it and the muscles in our faces are super starting to hurt" way, like you get at some churches back home. No, these people were fucking magnificent. (Well, the abbot's son was a way hyperactive and liked to run around shining flashlights in people's eyes and hide under the table to grab your feet, but STILL. He was SO CUTE). OH AND LOOK I HAVE A PICTURE OF HIM.
Tenrikyō teaches that we are all brothers and sisters, and our goal should be to "create the Joyous Life" for ourselves and others. I could tell right away that this ideal wasn't just preached -- it was practiced. You won't find many people this good-natured, friendly, and joyful. On Friday night, the Kaichō (Tenrikyō abbot) invited our sangha to dinner at his house. It was a RIDICULOUS feast. They made Korean barbeque at the table, handed around beer (I noticed there was always lots of beer about this place). Immediately after dinner, without further ado or warning, the Kaichō lugged in a huge box full of instruments, which he passed out to us. Then he demanded we sing something.
So we played our instruments. We sang some Beatles songs (the default-favorite "American" music of Japanese people everywhere); we made things up on the spot; Ben beatboxed; Sam did a dance routine. We sang songs with made-up beats and wordless sounds. The Kaichō danced. We all smiled and laughed till our faces hurt, cheesy as that may sound.
It was a beautiful time. Some people really do know how to live. But before you think Tenrikyō is all about frivolous fun, let me tell you something else: this religion saved atheist Aimee-Sensei's life when she was twenty with an emergency operation at one of the many hospitals they build and run. The Kaichō and his wife have a daughter with Down's syndrome; their belief is that they were meant to have her because they have the means to take care of her like some families don't. Tenrikyō places great emphasis on healing -- on bringing life, health, and kindness to everyone.
The day before this dinner, we had gone to Tenri City (located near Nara), considered by some to be the "home" of the Tenrikyō religion. In any case, it is home to their headquarters, a massive sprawling temple complex bigger even than any Buddhist establishment I had ever seen. Their main worship hall was enormous; hundreds of tatami mats square. There were covered walkways leading from building to building in a massive square, smelling of lovely fresh wood and sparkling clean. There's a good reason for that, actually. When practitioners travel to this temple, many of them participate in the practice of cleaning the dust from the halls -- symbolic of clearing the dust away from one's own heart. A large box of clean rags was located at either end of the hall complex for the purpose.
In the main worship hall, we witnessed a Tenrikyō priest performing the sazuke -- a healing ceremony in which the hands of the priest on the practitioner's head become a vessel for the healing power of Tenri -- on an old man. We also saw, in the middle of the hall, a pillar marking the exact spot where Tenrikyō's cosmology teaches the first human beings were created.
Then we went to their cafeteria and had saba (mackerel -- my new faaaaavorite!) and rice. The cafeteria had infinite rice capacities. Are we seeing a trend here?
Our last day there happened to fall on a Tenrikyō celebration day, on which the sacred kagura dance is performed. Sam and I were both a bit late for the service because we had visited Jeff Shore, a Zen master who practices in Kyoto, to sit zazen and have dokusan (private instruction) with him. So that was intense, and wonderful, AND we made it for the last half of the Tenrikyō service. The dancing was beautiful, as was the music, and we saw several more people receive sazuke -- a young man with a broken leg, and an old lady.
AND THEN THERE WAS FOOD AGAIN. OH GOD SO MUCH FOOD. Apparently the Joyous Life involves LOTS OF FOOD.
Which makes sense, I guess, if you think about it.
They had to fill several rooms with tables (which was no big deal -- the Kaichō and his family live in this giant house, but there is plenty of room besides for any religious or social occasion they might come up with, or for extra people who might need to stay. Four to six people sat at each table, around a giant hotpot full of broth. We had noodles, vegetables, rice, chicken, mochi -- oh and, surprise, more beer. Nobody gets drunk at these things, though. It was kind of hilarious/disturbing/eh? to see these giant bottles of Asahi beer being toted around to the various tables by adorable four-year-olds who could barely get their arms around them.
There were tons of children there, running around misbehaving and generally being supercute. Japanese people really do not make much of an effort to discipline their children, past sowing the sneaky seeds of guilt toward the feelings every person and inanimate object they encounter. At the appropriate point in the child's life, these seeds will ERUPT into growth, transforming the naughty spoiled child into a painfully well-behaved, polite, hardworking person motivated by abject terror that they might hurt the feelings of a door if they slam it too hard. I do not THINK this method of parenting was ever used on me, but even so, oh god do I know how those people feel. Why does nobody care about the DOORS?! *weeps*
Two twenty-something girls named Nami and Mihi sat at a table with me, Aimee-sensei, Melanie, and Addie. They were incredibly friendly and talkative, and I actually managed to have legitimate (though limited) conversations with them in Japanese. At one point they asked me if I had a boyfriend, and I told them I didn't. They responded as if I told them my favorite hobby was Crusading and collecting foreskins. Specifically, they shrieked "EHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH???!" Nami didn't have a boyfriend either, but she was determined to get married. Soon. To . . . some man, presumably.
Different strokes, I guess.
Several of the churchgoers got up to address the room at large during the dinner. One tall thin man who acted as an officiant during the morning services spun a zabuton (sitting cushion) on his finger, treating it like it was a veritable magic act and yelling good-naturedly at people he didn't think were paying enough attention to him. The Kaichō's father got up and addressed us (the students), making a really touching speech about the importance of gratitude toward one's parents. Overall, I don't know if I've ever been in a room more full of joy and love for near-strangers. They almost cried when we left.
They are amazing people, and by extension, I TOTALLY approve of their religion. Stop looking at me like that. It is NOT because of the Korean barbeque. No, that is NOT a "become Tenrikyō" brochure you see on my desk. You are hallucinating. You loony. HEY look over there at Tenrikyō's garden. ------>