March 25, 2011

Prayers Since Ancient Times・・・・・

Shinto is indigenous religion of Japan and based on nature worship. It is said that there are eight million Shinto deities. They are everywhere, residing in the sun, the moon, mountains, rivers, rocks, waterfalls, trees and more.   Shinto deities are almost synonym of Nature.

Japan has been blessed with abundant harvest from the earth and sea, but at the same time Japan has suffered from many earthquakes and Tsunami.

Since ancient times, people have been thankful to nature and  continued to pray to the deities for happiness, peace, no disease, good weather and good harvest.   Now, I realize the most important prayer among them is good weather which also means no natural disasters. How powerless we are in front of  Mother Nature! So many lives were lost because of the earthquakes and Tsunami on March 11th. Our happiness, peace, no disease or good harvest - everything seems to be based on good weather.

These are sincere and quiet prayers offered to Shinto deities,  and I pray for the souls of the dead and the people in suffering. No more earthquakes, no more Tsunami, no more nuclear plant threat, no more hysteria following them.

Shinto priests pray and float white paper dolls down a river to wash away bad luck.
Torments or sufferngs, go away!.

Worshippers  pray to the deity.

Various dances dating back to the ancient times  are offered
 to the deity or deities with prayers.
This is a rehearsal. 

Miko, a shrine maiden,  quietly performs the sacred Shinto dance.

Boiling Water Ritual for purification.

Two weeks passed since March 11th.  TV news showed in a shelter  children speaking to  elderly people, and giving massage to them with beautiful smiles . The elderly people also smiled to the children. When I saw this scene, I felt this is the first  light of the hope for recovery and could believe that Japan will rise again.

A number of warm messages from the world have been arriving here in Japan through internet or social networks. This is "Pray for Japan (Your message is translated into Japanese)" of facebook, whose site is attached at the top of my sidebar. Messages sent from the world are translated from English into Japanese by volunteers so that the people can read them.  I am one of the volunteers and wish I had more time as the words have strong power. While translating them, I am moved to tears sometimes.

I thank all of you and the world for thinking Japan and praying for us.

March 15, 2011

To My Friends

Since the most devastating earthquake and Tsunami hit the Northeastern Japan on March 11th, the worst scenario has been rewritten every minute. Now nobody knows what will come next.  My heart is being rent.  Fortunately I live in Nara far away from the epicenter and these disasters could have happened anywhere in Japan. While watching TV news, I find myself not listening nor watching but just sitting there. For the time being, I 'll be absent from my blog.
How I have appreciated your warm concerns about my country and the people! How encouraging it is that global rescue teams are arriving one after another!  My deepest gratitude to you and the world.

This is a beautiful sunset. A small silhouette is the roof with a pair of "Shibi"s, of Great Buddha Hall of Todai-ji Temple.
Amida Buddha resides in  the Western Pure Land of the Buddhist universe and welcomes the people who pray to Amida Buddha by name. So in  olden days, children who lost their parents would join their hands and pray to the sunset, thinking "Father is over there, Mother is over there."

The superintendent of Todai-ji Temple made the special announcement to tell us to do three things.
1.  "Pray for the souls of the dead."
2. " Think about the people in suffering and share the sufferings."
3. " Find what you can do and do your best to help recovery."

Now we are finding what we can do.

March 12, 2011

Reflections・・・ Huge Roof in Tiny Puddle

(This time, I wondered to post or not. While time goes by, the situations seem to go worse. Fortunately Nara where I live is far from epicenter.  But , I thought also if Ididn't post, someone might think I were in terrible trouble. So I decided to keep doing  things as usual . We are Ok. Thank you for your concern.)

Can you guess what a pair of golden ornaments??

In the early sunset, everything is bathed in golden tint!
The pair of golden ornaments are called "Shibi" which are placed on the roof ridge of  Great Buddha Hall of Todai-ji Temple in Nara and serve as charms against fire.  It is said they are in the shape of imaginary fishtails or birdtails.  I think they must be the fishtails. I'll tell you why. The fishtails are on the roof , so where the bodies of fish are?  Yes, the bodies are under the roof, it means Great Buddha Hall is under water as fish live in water.  How securely the hall is protected against fire!

Even though  the original Great Buddha Hall was 1.5 times bigger,  still the present one  is the largest wooden building in the world. When I found this reflection, I smiled "What a lovely reflection it is!.  "Shibi"s  and the huge roof are in such a tiny puddle!" Oh, now I am a puddle sucker.
The puddle is on this stone.

On a snowy day or rainy day, the subtle reflection of "Shibi"s appear on the  approach
to Great Buddha Hall  like mirage. 
Which reflection do you like the best?

For your reference:
 The Great Buddha Hall was burnt down  and rebuilt twice.
The original hall was built in the  8th century.
The second one was rebuilt in the 12th  century.
The present one was rebuilt in 1709 and is designated as a World Heritage Site. 
The hall is 57 meters wide, 50 meters deep and 49 metre's tall.
Since 1709 "Shibi"s have perfectly protected the hall without fail!!

Click to see the rules and to take a badge for yourself.

March 08, 2011

Ceremony of Fire and Water

This is the most exciting and  mysterious ceremony full of legends !
Real spring comes to  Nara  after "The Second Month Ceremony" is over.  In February Hall of Todai-ji Temple, this ceremony has been held  for 1260 years without interruption since 752 when the temple was built. The ceremony is  held from March 1st through 14th.

This is February Hall. On the left there is a roofed stone staircase
 leads to February Hall with a balcony. 

the stone staircase viewed from the balcony

People are waiting for the start of the ceremony under the balcony.

 Every evening, ten of  the eleven priests climb up the stone steps to February Hall
 one by one,  each of them guided by an attendant. 
Each attendant carries a huge flaming torch made of a big  bamboo
 with cedar branches attached at its top. The biggest torch is 8 meters in length
 and 70 kilograms in weight.

 From the balcony of the hall, each attendant  swings and spins the flaming torch. 

Then  he runs across the balcony.

The torch is huge!

At the other corner of the balcony, he swings and spins the torch again.

              The breathtaking shower of flying sparkles from the torch
 fall down on people like a cascade!

 How exciting they are - the smell of scorched cedar leaves, the sound of sparkling wood and flowing down  sparks over people!  Now they are involved in  a huge ripple of excitement.  According to one theory, this ceremony was influenced by Zoroastrianism which was introduced to Japan along Silk Road.

If they get sparkles or embers, they are promised to be healthy throughout the year. 
They bring the embers or cinders home so that their prayers and wishes will be answered.

Torch Ceremony" is so famous that people are apt to think it is "Second Month Ceremony". But
 " Second Month Ceremony"  consists  of many  rituals  precisely scheduled.  "Torch Ceremony" is one of them.  The ceremony is  also known as  "Water Drawing Ceremony" based on the  mysterious legends.  However, the true essence of " Second Month Ceremony" is repentance.  Six times a day, the eleven priests perform repentance rite in front of the eleven- faced Kannon Bodhisattva. They pray to the Kannon for happiness, peace, good weather and abundant harvest on behalf of people all over the world. These pious prayers  reflect the current affairs.  On Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 or 9/11 in 2001,  eleven priests prayed for the souls of the dead and for that it would never happen again. Behind the white curtain, eleven priests are holding the rituals in front of eleven-faced Kannon.

Even though Todai-ji Temple is a Buddhist temple, this ceremony is said to be the assimilation of Buddhism and Shinto- indigenous religion of Japan. Every night, the priests call a numerous number of Shinto deities' names and  invite  them to guard the ceremony. Shinto deities come to gather around  February Hall from all directions. Now this place becomes the most sacred place in Japan.

 February Hall is protected by boundaries too. The boundaries are stretched
 here and  there to drive away evil and protect  the hall.
White paper is for Shinto and green  leaves are for Buddhism.

At the entrance of the stone staircase, the torches are placed on the walls.
Before Torch Ceremony on Marchy 2nd .

AfterTorch Ceremony on March 2nd .

An elderly man standing next to me said ," This ceremony is so addictive that it makes me feel like coming here everyday!" I felt deeply that the fusion of Buddhism and Shinto can not express the nature of this ceremony well. It transcends Buddhism or Shinto, and it  is something  like the hometown of people's heart.

On the way to February Hall, I saw a stall vending baked sweet potatoes. 
It is difficult to resist the tempting smell.
                                                         In front of Great South Gate, Main Gate to Todai-ji Temple

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March 04, 2011

Reflections・・・Quiet Prayers

This is a candle holder at  a temple. The candles are offerings from people.
In the dark the glasses reflect the soft candlelight - quiet prayers of the worshipers.

There are three offerings given to Buddha everyday.
To light a candle
To burn incense
To ring a bell or a gong 

 I felt as if I'd heard the sincere whispers of the worshipers
while looking at the flickering flame of the candles.

Click to see the rules and to take a badge for yourself.

March 01, 2011

Joy of Spring

This  may be the first rite of the year to pray for good harvest of rice, called  "Rice Plating Ritual". 
It' s the rite of Shinto which is indigenous religion based on nature worship.

This rite  is held all over Japan. Some are rustic and others are refined.  Here the rite I saw is the one
which evokes a sense of nostalgia. It was held on February 25th
 in Sugawara Tenmangu Shrine in Nara.
There are many stone bulls. They are the messengers of the deity.

There are many stages in rice cultivation. In olden days,  farmers performed religious rites almost in each stage.  Nowadays the  number of the rites has decreased  and human labour has been rapidly replaced with machines. But  the farmers' prayers for a bountiful rice harvest  never change. 

These are offerings to the deity.

This is one of four boundaries which are made of twisted rice straw ropes with white zigzag paper.
They are stretched from corner to corner to enclose the square area where the rite is held.
They drive away evil and  protect the sacred area  .
An elderly farmer prays to the deity for the good harvest and plants bundles of pine leaves
which represent rice seedlings.

Then many stages of rice cultivation are shown comically.
He is cultivating  soil with his cattle pulling ploughs. He trys to tame the cattle,
 but it becomes out of control many times. People laugh and enjoy it.

He is working the field.

                                                  He is fertilizing the field with  human waste.

 He uses even the last drop of organic fertilizer, never wastes anything.

He is seeding.

He is pulling weeds.

Bundles of pine leaves, representing seedlings,  are being  thrown to people.

The rite is over.  This is the moment of sincere prayer as well as joy of spring.

This shrine is dedicated to Michizane Sugawara, the deity of wisdom. 
As he loved Ume, Japanese apricot very much, beautifully blooming Ume are here and there.

Outside of the shrine, there is a stand selling Japanese sweets for the visitors.


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