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November 15, 2004

Prayer and Gregory Peck

There are several different forms of prayer in Shinto.

1) Omairi (Coming and Clapping at a Shinto Shrine)
The most common individual form of prayer is to bow twice, clap twice, and bow once before a shrine. I think that the attitude is probably very important but it would be difficult to say what exactly, that attitude is. Humility is probably important.

I like to think that Shinto shrine prayer in its purity is wordless but at shrines in Japan, one sees many people put their hands together, close their eyes, and (presumably) mentally voice silent prayers in the style of Christianity or popular Japanese Buddhism. Perhaps they are doing it right. 
2) Norito (High Prayer)
Shinto priests read prayers from the book of prayers out loud in to the spirits. They have an unusual pauseless style that makes it very obvious that they voice the text, rather than speak it, or even read it out. You can see some video's of a Shinto priest reciting Norito and listen to a audio file in one of the interviews on this page, this interview

Roland Barthes (in Empire of Signs) came to Japan and listened to a performance of Noh Drama. He said of the Noh drama that the actors presentation of their lines preserved the written text, in what he calls "the grain of the voice." I think the same is true of Shinto prayer in the sense of Norito.

Imagine the worst-possible style of giving a public speech, from a Western perspective. The good speach give has memorised the major drift of the speech so much so that it does not even look memorised, the speech flows from their lips as if they are thinking it up as they go along. This might be case even if they have some cue cards, or even the full draft of the speech, but which they would glance at but stillmake it sound as if the words are coming from their mind, not off the surface of the page. Someone who is not so good at giving a speech will just read the manuscript of the speach, adding some emphasis, occasionally looking up from the speech to the audience. The Shinto priests reading norito seem to want to make it plane that these words are not their own, and read them straight off the page breathlessly, *voicing the text,* the sacred prayers, not "reading and speaking" them. This is not to say that Shinto priests are bad at making speeches, but that the text of norito is so sacred that it should not go via the priest.

So while shinto priests "sound out" Norito, it may be difficult to say that they speak them.

One might even go so far as to argue that the act of "voicing texts" in this way, is common to the Buddhist technique of chanting. Many Buddhists, from Japan to Tibet, chant sacred sriptures or the name of the Buddha. The way that Japanese chant Buddhist scripture is very similar to the way that Norito are "voiced." The reason both Buddhist chanting and the voicing of Norito be to attain a mental purity by destroying speach in mind and turning off the process of mental signification, to come face to face with the immediate, and become one with the spirit.

In this light Shinto prayer might be interpretted as being anti-logo-phono-centric, not only wordless, but seeking to extinguish the word.

But what of Gregory Peck?

Ema (Pictures of Horses)
It is common for people to write their prayer on back of a wooden picture of a hourse and hang it in the vicinty of a shrine. Here prayers are not spoken but written. Again the written or visual form of prayer is prefered over the phonic form of prayer - prayer as speech.

C.f. A scene in the film  "Roman Holiday," after the bit where Gregory Peck pretends to have his hand bitten, where it would seem that Italians are doing the same thing.

Joe and Ann visit a wall covered with inscriptions:
Joe: Each one represents a wish fulfilled. It all started during the war. There was an air  raid, right out here. A man with his four children was caught in the street. They ran over against the wall, right there, for shelter and prayed for safety. Bombs fell very close, but no one was hurt. Later on, the man came back and put up the first of these tablets. Since then, it's become a sort of a shirine. People come and whenever their wishes are granted, they put up another one of these little plaques.
Ann: Lovely story.
Joe: Read some of the inscriptions. (Ann moves closer toward the wall) Make a wish? (Ann nods). Tell the doctor?
Ann: (declining) Anyway, the chances of it being granted are very slight.

4) Life and everything else
Perhaps kagura, misogi, making offerings, or just cleaning your shrine might also be considered a sort of prayer. Perhaps a Shinto life is prayer.

Posted by timtak at 10:47 AM | Comments (0)

November 03, 2004

The Origin of Amaterasu and Blanchot

What is the origin of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu? We don't know much about her but we are told that: She is probably female (but this is controversial), she was upset by her brother and hid in a cave, she came out of the cave when she was shown a mirror that she mistook (?) for herself, and that vast mirror she was given should be worshipped as if it were her. There is a mirror in most shrines in Japan, thanks to the Meiji reformers.

Theories regarding the origin of the Sun Godess, often mention the reference to a female leader of ancient Japan mentioned in the "Wajinden."  

One theory, says that there was a transition from a shaman like (female) person that tends to and communicates with the sacred, to that mediator being worshipped, as Amaterasu the sun goddess. Or in a phrase, "ancient vicar becomes godhead?"

This is, I believe, a famous theory. I am not sure if the writer of the link rerenced made it famous. But I have read it quoted more than once. Personally, however, I don't have all that much faith in it.

The Japanese have one ancient history book about their country written my a Chinese: the "Wajinden". This is like what the Romans had to say about the ancient Celts or Britons. It is a very important historical document, a direct link from that ancient time to this and, at the same time, it is of course pretty distorted. It was written by an outsider, and especially in the Japanese case it is very brief (a page or so in total).

The bit about Himiko, the ancient "shaman" queen of the Japanese people mentions (from memory, but there is not more than about 5 sentences)

The mini-countries in Japan had a war, and as a result eventually chose upon princess Himiko to lead a union.  She was in consort with the spirits and confused or spooked the populace (the Kanji is "konwaku" no "kon" or "madowasu"). She kept herself hidden communicating via her brother.

So, this hidden lady that speaks with the spirits and confuses people, and has a brother, does not fit too badly with the Amateraus myth. If someone that has the role of communing with the spirits can be called a shaman then Himiko was a shaman (but then so is a priest or vicar).

So perhaps, that is the origin of Amaterasu. Is her origin bound up with the political situation of ancient Japanese states?


But...I like to think that there is a lot more relevance for us now in the theory that the supreme spirit is the sungoddess. I prefer the Kuro-zumi Shinto sect theory (that there is a mirror soul of the sungoddess in all our hearts), crossed with Jacques Lacan (the mother/other in our psyche) and Phemenonology 101 (what is this disk of light that we are looking at anyway?) and a Jorge Luis Borges's story about a Celt losing a shiny coin with only one side.

Haven't we lost that disk? (Sounds like geek trauma!) But I kid myself that, when I pray at a shrine, I sort of find that disk again, darkly, and ever so fleetingly.

While the Borges's short story, "The Disk" (1975) is very cool, words like "disk" and "coin," make the sphere seem small. The Sun Goddess' mirror, we are told is much bigger, and "yamata," vast even.

I am not sure if this is at all relevant to the origin of the Amaterasu but in a story by Maurice Blanchot, he has a vision, an "agonizing contact with the day," when he sees a woman with a baby go first through a door, in "The Madness of the Day"

What did Mr. Blanchot see? He writes,

"As the cold wrapped around me from head to foot, I slowly felt my great height take on the dimensions of this boundless cold; it grew tranquilly, according to the laws of its true nature, and I lingered in the joy and perfection of this happiness, for one moment my head as high as the stone of the sky and my feet on the pavement. All that was real; take note."

I like to think he saw Amaterasu.

Posted by timtak at 08:36 PM | Comments (0)