I’m not a religious person. I have strong suspicions that neither God nor gods exist. I can say with certainty that I don’t know what happens after I die. I’m pretty sure that no one does and I harbor strong suspicions that people who say they “know” are either lying to me or themselves. I prefer the scientific method for gathering information about this human life. But I also know that science will never penetrate certain areas. Either due to the amount time we have or the simply the confines of our human mind, there will be mysteries that are not only unknown to us now but, I suspect, will remain so until the end of time. I also think that humans lose something if we ignore the parts of our mind we can’t consciously access.
(This is Aoi-Aso Shrine in Hitoyoshi. It’s about 1200 years old and is the only Shinto shrine in Japan to incorporate both Shinto and Buddhist imagery. It was declared a National Treasure in 2009. It’s about 30 minutes from my house!)
These mysteries are how I understand the word “sacred”. Ignoring the sacred will leave your life empty, I think. Like a world without poetry. I really believe that at certain times, the human mind can “touch” the sacred, if only briefly. It’s as if the human mind connects to something vast, something beyond the rules of logic, and the mind leaps in elation. I’m not really a “spiritual” person. I don’t believe in some other spiritual dimension apart from this universe. I don’t even know what that would really mean. The universe is all there is now, ever was, and ever will be, to quote Carl Sagan. But that doesn’t change the fact that “something” strange happens during meditation. Something happens to the mind when we look up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, something different than just looking at something amazing. It’s something we don’t quite understand yet. There was something in me that leapt in elation when I realized that the star I was looking at was actually Jupiter. The distance and empty space between us shocked my system. Something beyond just the pride of knowing something. There is something different about the Hallelujah Chorus than Shake It Off. There’s something different about a Buddhist monk chanting prayers than a bunch of guys reading a grocery list in unison.
(This is a Buddhist Temple across the street from my house. As expected, the monk there is really nice. I love listening to his chanting with a drum at night. He also patrols the streets some nights ringing a bell and praying that no one’s house catches fire.)
You don’t have to believe in God and be religious to understand something as sacred. I believe it’s fundamental to our human nature. Maybe it’s the way our minds process cause and effect, maybe it’s a feeling our minds produce when we feel overwhelmed by the vastness of it all so we don’t fall into despair. I don’t know. But it’s not part of our usual, everyday human experience.
(My son and I at a shrine in the mountains. Drop a coin, ring the bell, and pray to the mountain gods.)
(A shrine at a nearby park in winter. Japan becomes a wonderland in the snow.)
I don’t believe in magical places. I don’t believe that the waters of certain rivers will heal your cancer. I don’t believe in “power spots”, not really. But I do believe in Sacred Places. The gods did not build these places. They are not sacred for lying in the path of ley lines. Humanity built them, and we built them to give us a place to experience the mysteries. Humanity gives sacred places their significance. A place to think about the things we know nothing about. A place to think about our place in universe. Where did we come from? What does my life mean? Sacred places are different than normal places. Anyone who has been in a cathedral knows it’s different than a kitchen or even an expensive hotel. Sacred places are places where we step out, for a moment, from our grocery lists and cleaning products to examine our relationship with the vastness and inexplicability of it all. A place to expand our human consciousness.
(A shrine overlooking the rice fields near my house)
One of my favorite things about Kuma Country is that the sacred abounds in abundance. The mysteries are everywhere. When you drive down a road, someone has put a small shrine there and dressed the statue of the god in red. Take a hike in the mountains and you will inevitably stumble across an old shrine to some forgotten god. There is a Buddhist temple across the street from my house and every night, the monk chants his prayers to the heavens. Almost every home has a Buddhist altar where even non-believers will light a stick of incense and remember their ancestors. The language of the sacred is written on every corner of Kuma County and that only increases the feeling that Kuma is somehow separated from the rest of the world.
(One of a thousand roadside shrines. These are all over Kuma County)
The people of Kuma County are not, as a rule, overly religious. They follow the typical Japanese way of holding onto their religious traditions and their deeper more humanist meanings without getting pulled into the black hole of fundamentalism. But the presence of mysteries, of Sacred Places, on every corner of Kuma County presents to the people here that something exists beyond us, something greater than us; something that pulls us to be greater than we are now.