Temples and Shrines
In May I helped lead a group of students on a study tour of Japan. We saw many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, famous places of worship that belong now to the tourist circuit, even if they remain active holy sites. It can be difficult to sense how people experienced them years ago, before adults with cameras and unleashed children swarmed the banks of the still lakes and surged like a mob through the gates to the stark or ornate buildings with their statues and shrines and bells and fountains and other features well adapted to our photographic purposes. To attract our attention as tourists, a church or temple needs to have historical or architectural significance, but if we’re worshippers, those characteristics don’t matter. What matters most is the hushed atmosphere or the inspired singing and preaching, the communication and communion. In Tokyo and Kyoto, in the courtyards of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, we moved together physically without being connected spiritually or communally. We shared an individualized purpose, each of us with a camera and a bottle of water. We watched people light incense and perform rites. At best, we tried to go through the motions ourselves, purifying our hands and mouths at the fountain, sounding a bell, clapping our hands or bowing, adapting for a moment to a foreign practice, sampling a feeling, but participating only in passing. Religion is normally about settling down, staying in one place, putting down roots. Tourists are vagabonds, always moving on to the next place. Even at home Americans find it hard to stay in one place. Video carries us away to fantasy worlds. Our cars give us the means and reasons to venture out, disregarding geographic limits. We aren’t bound to anything local. When our student group was staying in the Asakusa district of Tokyo, we often passed the ancient Senso-ji Temple, which is devoted to the goddess of mercy. We visited it, of course, and we also observed the annual festival. We saw the ordinary people of the district, dressed in special garb, carrying their neighborhood portable shrines through the streets to the temple, and we joined these wild, happy processions, pressed in with the local people and watching the shrine bob up and down in the river of the flowing crowd. Jostled by other bodies, sharing the space of the city, my own body joins with the general body. Giving myself up to that flow, I can feel in a visceral way what it means to be one with others, the ecstatic risk of communion. On all sides, people are smiling, helplessly, and I feel grateful, and I wonder if what I’m really experiencing is, in fact, mercy, and if mercy is precisely the release from the confines of the self, from personal history and from ownership. That would be the ultimate feeling of acceptance by the community, something like a return to tribal identity. Hidden behind our cameras, we pretend to be ourselves, but we don’t really know who or what we are. We are in the fictional process of becoming. Even our photos help us to put ourselves together, to extend ourselves into the future. I believe, though, that my students and I – derailed from our usual ways – got from our travels a taste of another way of being, a fleeting sense, perhaps, of a life immersed in other lives.