Here is a photo of an o-mikoshi, a portable shrine used in traditional Shinto activities such as parades, and in this case a dance called o-iseiodori, which has an uninterrupted local history of 250 years, according to the dancer I talked with.
The mikoshi was carried around the neighborhood for about an hour by local men (also bearing sake and little dried fish) and set up at one end of the dance site. From time to time people would walk up and toss some coins into it, clap, bow, and clap again. You can see the same sort of thing at a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple; the clapping is supposed to awake the attention of the god or bodhisattva to give you fair fortune.
While at times these mikoshi, temples, and shrines seem quite barren and meaningless to me, I have also sometimes felt a sort of awful wariness around them, as if evil spirits dwelt within. I'm not altogether sure they don't; in fact, I would be willing to bet that at least some such objects do harbor malicious beings.
But one thing I hadn't considered before popped into my mind when I saw this mikoshi. Look and see how ornate the thing is; how detailed the workmanship.
At the top there is what I thought was a rooster, but Wikipedia informs us is a phoenix.
Why all the trouble?
You might think that's an absurd question, unless you had lived here and observed how dismissive people are about "religion" in general. It doesn't seem to matter to them one way or the other; they just head to the local temple or shrine when tradition dictates that it's propitious to do so. Never mind that Buddhism and Shinto are different religions; Shinto is accommodating enough to let in any number of buddhas and bodhisattvas among its pantheon, and Buddhism is relativistic enough not to preclude the existence of Shinto's little local deities. Most people, it would seem, couldn't care less about either of them.
So I wondered again, why all the painstaking trouble to make that mikoshi into a work of art?
It struck me almost immediately. People want to worship something greater and more beautiful than themselves, and they make their places and objects of worship beautiful to remind themselves of that transcendence. If any ever thought of worshipping a cow, it was not long after that they made the cow a thing of gold, flashing in the burning sun. (A far cry, I might add, from the wretched creatures stuffed into cages and killing machines in factory farms.)
Then came another thought. This shrine is portable, like the Ark of the Covenant, like the statues of Jesus and Mary that are carried in church processions, like a monstrance. We humans also have the desire to lift that which is stronger, more beautiful, and more glorious than ourselves on our shoulders and parade with it through the streets amidst song, dance, and many like-minded companions. A desire, again, to praise.
Throughout its hundreds of years on these islands, I think Buddhism has done a very thorough job latching on to and promoting the part of Japanese thinking that focuses on transience-- think of the cherry blossoms, quick to blossom and quick to fall. In ancient times, court lords and ladies composed poetry about such changes on many occasions. From all of this sprang the wabi-sabi aesthetic, which summarized, boils down to the idea that there is nothing but transience, which means, of course, that everything is empty and ultimately futile. Meaningless.
Small wonder then, if people came to believe "religion" was also basically meaningless, except for the part of it that was simply tradition, a link with the past and with their ancestors.
Now, a Christian would agree up to a point that the things of the world are empty and meaningless in and of themselves-- hoarded or sought to the neglect of God and other people. But at the same time, it is the Christian who rejoices in the beautiful things of the earth and sees in them reflections of the beauty and creativity of their Maker. And what was that poem by Hillaire Belloc? Something about wine? Ah, yes:
"Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There's always laughter and good red wine.
At least I've always found it so.
So in a sense you could say that a Christian sees the transience of the world but glorifies God for its beauty and the eternity it points to, while a Buddhist sees the beauty of the world but focuses on its transience with a sort of grim satisfaction at not being 'taken in.' Again, a Christian believes he must empty himself so that he may be filled with the Holy Spirit and put on Christ; a Buddhist believes he must empty himself so that he may be filled with Nothing, with emptiness. The point of the Christian kenosis - emptying - is to embrace suffering to be like Christ. The point of the Buddhist sunyata (and also enlightenment, satori) is to embrace nothingness to escape suffering.
At this point, I hardly know where to place Shinto. I don't think it possesses anything like the assertions of truth made by Buddhism and Christianity. A folk religion, it would seem to have much more in common with other folk religions from around the world than with the austerity and atheism of Buddhism... and yet the two have been intertwined for about a thousand years.
I recently read two books by Shusaku Endo, one of modern Japan's more successful authors, and allegedly Catholic, although I think he really wasn't. Not while writing and publishing those books, anyway. At any rate, both "Silence" and "The Samurai" are historical fiction set in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when the leadership in Japan decided to purge Catholicism (the only form of Christianity that had taken hold, since the English and Dutch weren't interested in evangelizing) from their islands. And in both books, a complaint was made that I think is also a central complaint of Endo himself: 'Why did you foreigners have to barge in and force this Christianity on us? We, who were so content with our lives and getting along well enough before you came along.' His missionary characters are no help at all, motivated either by pride and ambition or by a shallow faith and delusions of grandeur.
I read Endo in the hopes of gaining insight into the way Catholic Japanese people see Christianity and religion in general, but I shall have to keep looking for authors to read and people to talk to. Apparently, "Silence is going to be made into a movie by Martin Scorsese; the topic caused quite a discussion over at Catholic in Japan.
The impression I get from Endo is that religion isn't important and faith isn't important, that the only redeeming thing about Christianity is a God who emptied Himself to die on a cross and therefore tolerates and accepts anything from anyone, even an apostate in the act of trampling on His image. Which is going too far. Religion and faith were undoubtedly of the utmost importance to the Japanese martyrs and to many Japanese people today, and not only the Christians.
When I went to see the o-iseiodori dance I wrote of earlier, some of the people who came up to throw coins into the mikoshi and clap and bow were some really wizened old women. You could tell by looking at them that they believed in what they were doing and that it was eminently meaningful to them.
It's sights like that, and the ornateness of the mikoshi, etc., that remind one that no matter how much transience and emptiness are touted as "the essence" of Japanese religiosity and culture, there are in fact a lot of people here who care deeply about a 'something' as opposed to Nothing.
That is an encouraging thought.