A Travellerspoint blog

January 2013


A brief interlude with the New Religion of Tenrikyō

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.

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. ------> large_More_Japan_472.jpg

Posted by Niadra 16:32 Archived in Japan Tagged religion new life origin years o musical service two shinto prince hundred peasant 200 healing miki tenrikyo tenri mikoto sazuke oyasama nakayama joyous Comments (0)


A visit to Mount Ōmine, the headquarters of Shugendō

WELL, I'm sure everyone is utterly shocked at this, but let me tell you a secret.

I procrastinated again.

Yes, I dropped the ball during my last month and a half in Japan. In my defense, we were all VERY, VERY BUSY. Writing research papers and going to class and attending Buddhist services. And ... a bit of aimless street-wandering. But I can promise you one thing; I WASN'T sleeping. Don't worry; I now intend to finish out this blog, aided by my extremely detailed travel journal. Which nobody else on earth can read, by the way. Pharmacists aren't the only ones with their own impenetrable fonts.

In early October, we visited Mount Ōmine to supplement our study of Shugendō, a Shinto-Buddhist syncretic religion centering around mountain asceticism. Shugendō is sometimes called the oldest surviving religion of Japan, since Shinto was never much of a conscious religious movement till the late 19th century, and Buddhist statuary and ideas made their way to Japan before the actual Buddhist texts. Ōminesan (Mount Ōmine) is the "headquarters" of the religion, the place where it was founded, and it's actually more of a mountain range. Its Gongen (Shugendō's kami-like mountain deities) is named Zao Gongen; the Ōminesan temple was founded in pre-feudal Japan by En-no-Gyoji, a devotee of Zao Gongen.

We stayed at a traditional pilgrim's inn called Hanaya Tokubei, located in the mountain village of Tenkawamura. It. Was. DECADENT. Aimee-Sensei's childhood friend was the owner. Of course. Its ofuro (bath) had big glass doors that opened onto a garden with a small shrine; the water came from a natural hotspring, and the bath was overseen by a statue of a friendly demon. The entire building was gorgeous and smelled like only the most amazing kind of wood -- which made sense because everything was made of amazing wood that was smooth and shiny and it all looked a bit like a very Japanese ski lodge. It was by far the nicest place we stayed during the program. You know what? I hate adjectives like "stunning." They are lame and don't mean much of anything. But god damnit, WHAT ELSE AM I SUPPOSED TO SAY. WORDS don't mean much of anything.


It was easy to see, especially after visiting Koyasan, that there was a great deal of Shingon Buddhist influence in the Shugendō sect. The most noticeable example was Fudo Myo-o, a wrathful Shingon deity -- there were more images of him in the Shugendō temples than of any Buddha.
The village was small, charming, and surrounded by mountains. The view from any given spot would blow your mind.


After dropping our stuff at the ryokan, we were immediately taken to the Shugendō temple grounds for the waterfall purification ritual -- wearing giant wooden clogs ingeniously engineered to make one fall on one's face. There they gave us very thin white robes (I take note of this because it was already pretty cold out). The waterfall was behind a wooden partition, and the men and women had to perform the ritual separately.


The boys went first and the screaming made it all sound PRETTY HORRIBLE. Now, I love cold water, but the keening coming from behind that partition made me eeeever-so-slightly anxious, especially during the part where Sam started hollering like twenty ninjas were stabbing him in the face without asking first. For some reason when it was the girls' turn, nobody seemed to particularly want to go first, so I went ahead and did it.

The waterfall ritual serves to purify the yamabushi (mountain ascetic) or Shugendō practitioner before he/she/they goes into the mountains. The idea is to enter the pool, bow to the stone statue of Fudo Myo-o carved into the rock wall, then back into the waterfall and stay under as long as you can while reciting screeching Fudo Myo-o's dharani: "Nomaku samanda bazaradan / Senda makaro shada / sowataya un tarata kanman."

The water wasn't actually as cold as I expected, once I got under there. The troublesome part was that it was hammering down on my head so hard I could only remember the first line of the dharani. So I just screamed that out over and over again, until somewhere past the point of brain freeze to all-over HEAD freeze, when the sounds I was making no longer sounded like words because I wasn't quite sure I even HAD a tongue anymore. Also my head felt like death. But specifically the kind of death where somebody accidentally sets a whale down on your head and it kills you.

Aimee-sensei claims I was under there for five minutes; I don't know if that's true, but all SHE cared about was that I was under longer than any of the boys, thus proving definitively what she was telling everybody all along: women are just BETTER than men. She pushed this point especially when we were talking to the Shugendō priest, who she trapped in a verbal corner and demanded for an explanation of why women are still not allowed to enter the holiest part of the mountain.


Once the shrieks of encouragement died down, the first thing I heard from the rest of the girls was "*extended stare* ..... YOUR LIPS ARE BLUE." I did not believe that for a second until I looked in the mirror and HOLY SHIT IT WAS TRUE THEY WERE SUPER BLUE and then I started to shiver and then I went back to the inn and got in the ofuro and I was still shivering after ten minutes of sitting in 104-degrees-Fahrenheit water.

Probably I shouldn't do that very often in my life.

That night the group was actually encouraged to get the craziness out of its collective system because this was probably the most laid-back place we would ever stay, so there was accidentally far too much sake and plum wine in my life and I MAY have decided it was totally okay for me to sneak into the men's ofuro at midnight because at the time I was feeling like a righteous champion of the war against gender segregation but I DON'T REALLY WANT TO GO INTO THAT STORY because that was ABSOLUTELY NOT ALLOWED. AT ALL EVER. So let's go with "I didn't actually do that."

Do you know what it's like to wake up in the morning with the only hangover you've ever had, realize that today it is your turn to assume the responsibilities of Program Assistant, and then attend a lavish formal Japanese breakfast that requires you to sit in seza position staring down a slab of raw salmon? Someone inadvertently took a picture of me doing exactly that. I look MISERABLE. No, I am not posting it. I'm posting these NICE ones instead. (Photo credit: Melanie Pawlyszyn).


After breakfast, we went on a hike through the mountains that followed one of the yamabushi trails. I think Zao Gongen took pity on me and suppressed my gag reflex as I groggily tramped up his mountain, trying (and SUCCEEDING!) to appreciate the beautiful scenery without retching all over the shrubbery. The path was tough, full of roots and rocks and steep slopes, and the more I exerted myself the better I stated to feel. Funnily enough, the least sick I felt was on a 50-meter-high suspension bridge that swayed ponderously underneath us. The whole village was visible from there, and the range of sacred mountains surrounded us on all sides.


Side-tracking for just a second, I wanted to show this picture of the yamabushi's traditional outfit. Strangely enough, pretty much every part of this flamboyant thing has a practical purpose -- for example, there's an odd little black hat you strap to your forehead, but which also doubles as a drinking cup. There is also a pelt that hangs down from the back of the belt so the yamabushi can sit down comfortably anywhere. Yamabushi are AWESOME, you guys. I wanna be one.


Shugendō practitioners have a practice where two yamabushi hold another off of a certain cliff, face-first over the edge. The one being dangled over that lethal drop makes a promise to Zao Gongen to improve him/her/their self in some way. If they don't swear convincingly enough to hold to their vow, they are pushed further over the edge. They are only pulled up again when their promises ring true. Sadly, Americans have a reputation for suing everybody for everything, so we weren't allowed to do this ritual. But I made a promise to Zao Gongen anyway, and talked to the kami continually as we walked. By the time our hike was over, I felt teeth-baringly, maniacally alive.

One of these cliffs is the one they hang each other off of!

No. Effing. Regrets.

Posted by Niadra 17:53 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto mount hiking japan mountain buddhism bridge waterfall hike ryokan shinto shugendo ascetic omine asceticism ominesan syncretic tenkawamura Comments (2)

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