An Alternative Paganism

Regardless of weather,

The moon shines the same;

It is the drifting clouds

That make it seem different

On different nights

     Basho

Zen and the Art of Positive Paganism by Melusine Draco

For the seeker of a spiritual mindset without the need for religious belief, the practical simplicities of this approach to animism make it very appealing to the Western perceptions with its twenty-first-century scepticism. Despite being around for millennia, Shinto has no founder, no scriptures and for a long time didn’t even have a name. The reverence shown by the Japanese toward Nature, however, stems from Shinto’s most ancient and fundamental belief that kami govern the natural world and inhabit every aspect of it – the rocks, trees, pools, waterfalls, the flora and fauna, and even natural phenomenon all have their own kami – or spirit energy. The world is inhabited by kami.

The sky, the flowers, the trees and the beautiful landscape speak to the Shintoist and Zen practitioner of beauty and purity. And so the animist in us looks upon such sights with reverence because we feel the awe in the presence of the pure loveliness of which we are so deeply aware … and the sacred essence, that manifests in all those multiple forms. Kami and people exist within the same world and share its interrelated complexity. Kami refers particularly to that power of phenomena which inspires this sense of wonder and awe [the sacred] in the beholder, testifying to its divinity. Nature is venerated and nothing is too small to be of importance.

And there were always the great festivals dating back to the Heian dynasty towards the end of the tenth century mentioned by Sei Shonagon in her Pillow Book: ‘the New Year and the Blue Horses in winter; the Hollyhock Festival in spring; the summer festival of the Iris, festivals for the Dead, for Chrysanthemums, for First Fruits, and, in October, the exciting Gosechi Dances …’

Despite the multitude of cultural, historical, mythological and purely national events, the Shinto calendar is still full of interesting holidays, rituals and festivals – some of which can easily be adapted to Western style celebration and observance without involving any religious commitment. Nevertheless, these practices can still provide a channel through which human beings are able to communicate with the festive spirit (kami) realm. The following are a few of the simple cross-cultural family or agrarian festivals that would easily adapt to the West because they often coincide with our celebrations of contemporary paganism and traditional folk-festivals.

Silently sitting by the window.

Leaves fall and flowers bloom.

The seasons come and go.

Could there be a better life?

January

In the New Year each house sets up two pines in front of the gate or doorway, one on each side. This decoration is called matukazari (‘pine decoration’) or kadomatu (‘gate pine’). In certain places, the decoration is limited to pine-trees only, whereas in others, bamboo and plum are used as well. This custom is several hundreds of years old, but its form has changed little by little during its long history. The reason why the pine-tree plays so important a part in the New Year celebrations is that its leaves are evergreen, and it withstands both heat and cold, remaining fresh and vivid throughout the four seasons, and attains an exceeding great age: thus it has the meaning of ‘prosperity unchanging forever’, and the pine-tree serves as the symbolic expression of this. From olden times, the pine has been chosen as the flower for January (Floral Calendar of Japan).

With the New Year also comes a series of personal and domestic festivals that are performed annually for the benefit of house and home. For example:

1 January Kakizome

This is the first calligraphy writing of the year in Japan but it is something we can copy on New Year’s Day in the West. Make a wish or charm for what you hope the year will bring. Create a simple poem containing words that echo your wishes. Write it in decorative script and add elaborate decoration as a border around the words. Slowly read your words and wishes. Then burn the paper in a fire-proof vessel and release the charm to the elements. Toast the future in sake or wine.

1–3January O-shogatsu (New Year)
Shinto shrines around Japan hold New Year festivals where visitors come to pray for good fortune and good health for the coming year. Similarly in Buddhist temples, visitors come to mark the changing of the year. If you have your own special outdoor place where you go for a moment of quiet spiritual contemplation, now is a good time to pay a visit.

8 January Dondo Yaki
Corresponds with the modern Twelfth Night celebrations when mochi (rice cakes) are toasted over fires of burning New Year decorations.

10 January Toka Ebisu

This is the first major festival of the year – Toka means the tenth day, and Ebisu is the god of good fortune in business and prosperity. Though centred on 10 January, this festival actually lasts for five days from the eighth until the twelfth and during this time thousands of visitors crowd into a shrine to conduct a simple ritual of prayer for ongoing success in their work and business. Ebisu is one of the Shichifukujin, the Seven Lucky Gods of Japanese folklore, who are traditionally associated with the New Year and is the only one of these seven whose story is home-grown Japanese. Many people buy branches of lucky bamboo grass, called Fuku-Zasa which has been blessed in a special ritual by a shrine maiden. They then buy more lucky charms and talismans, which they attach to the bamboo branch. These charms come in all kinds of designs, but two of the most common are treasure boats for wealth and red sea bream for future success. Why not buy a lucky bamboo ‘career’ plant for the garden (keep it in a pot as bamboo is very invasive) and add paper charms relating to your business or career as the situation demands.

14 January Seijin no Hi (Coming of Age Day)

This is a Japanese holiday held annually on the second Monday of January. It is held in order to congratulate and encourage all those who have reached the ago of majority (20 years of age) during the past year, and to recognise they have become adults. Festivities include formal ‘coming of age ceremonies’, as well as after-parties among family and friends. Although ‘coming of age’ ceremonies have been celebrated in Japan since at least 714AD  – when a young prince donned new robes and hairstyle to mark his passage into adulthood – the modern holiday was first established in 1948. Coming of age ceremonies (Seijin-shiki) reflect both the expanded rights but also increased responsibilities expected of new adults and offer the opportunity to celebrate a family member’s ‘coming of age’ if a formal celebration wasn’t possible on the actual birth date. Give a gift of some family heirloom that signifies your recognition of their attaining maturity – which is, of course, eighteen or twenty -one in the West.

16 Tokuwa no Tenjinsai

In recognition of the scholars in the family starting back to school or university, offer up a prayer to Tenjin, the Japanese god of scholarship and learning – or his Western equivalent. And make a small ‘good luck’ gift to aid their studies.

February

In this season of intense cold, the flower that blossoms in the face of the frost and snow is the utne (Prunus mume: plum tree), which has been held in great esteem by the Japanese people from ancient times due to the length of the tree’s life, the way in which the beautiful flowers unexpectedly come out from the old trunks having a charm of their own, the noble appearance of the blossoms, and the delicate fragrance which they emit in the depth of winter when nearly all other flowers are as yet asleep. The opening of the plum-blossoms may be said to be the first tidings of spring and the flower for February (Floral Calendar of Japan).

Many of the annual celebrations are fire festivals, just the same as folk-festivals in the West with a lead up to the beginning of spring.

1–2 February Kurokawa Noh
Ceremonial parades and seven sacred noh plays mark the beginning of the New Year, so why not restore the traditional family trip to the pantomime with a special high-tea or supper depending on the age of the guests?

2–4 February Setsubun Mantoro
At this twice-yearly festival in Nara, the shrine’s thousands of stone lanterns as well as its famous bronze hanging lanterns are all lit to magical effect; there are believed to be over 3,000 of them in the shrine precincts, many of them evocatively covered in moss. They are lit twice a year during the nights of the Mantoro festivals in (Setsubun) February and (Obon) August. Setsubun is the day before the beginning of spring in Japan, and literally means ‘seasonal division’, but usually the term refers to the spring Setsubun, properly called Risshun celebrated yearly on 3 February as part of the Spring Festival, Haru Matsuri.

In its association with the Lunar New Year, spring Setsubun can be and was previously thought of as a sort of New Year’s Eve celebration, and was accompanied by a special ritual to cleanse away all the evil of the former year and drive away disease-bringing evil spirits for the year to come. This special ritual is called mamemaki – literally ‘bean scattering’). The head of the household (traditionally the father) would take roasted beans in his hand, pray at the family shrine, and then toss the sanctified beans out the door, while the family say: ‘Demons out! Luck in!’ and slam the door. Beans are also used to deflect ill-luck of negative energies throughout Europe and this celebration coincides with the traditional Western Candlemas and Imbolc observations.

9 February O-tauesai

This rice-planting festival is a Japanese celebration of fertility. After the rice-planting ceremony, a ritual dance simulates a couple having sexual intercourse. Masked goblins also hand out ritual smacks with bamboo sticks to ‘drive the devil out’. Familiarise yourself with the spring planting traditions and customs from the county/country in which you live and inaugurate your own ‘fruitful new beginnings’ ritual.

12 February Hatsu Uma Festival
People pray for success in business to Inari (guardian of grains, especially rice and therefore business in general). Today, there is no need for a plentiful harvest since most people buy their food from the supermarket or via online shopping – but imagine what would happen if the global commercial growers suffered consecutive bad harvests. There would be a horror scenario of global proportions that would be a magnified problem of what our ancestors faced every single year of their lives! Offer a handful of rice to Inari.

19 February Hachinohe Enburi

This localised Japanese folk dance festival dates back to when people with no experience of farming were taught how to work in the fields through dancing. This is a good opportunity for a child’s introduction to growing things.

March

On 3 March the people greet the momo-no-sekku (The Peach-blossom Festival), when their hearts swell with a feeling that it is really spring. The momo-no-sekku is also known as hinamaturi (The Doll Festival), and is a festival for young girls. What must never be lacking in this festival is one or two sprays of momo (Prunus persica: peach) inserted in a vase. This also is a custom dating from ancient times, and has become one of the regular observances of the month of March. The festival is held in order to bestow blessings upon young girls, and the peach, in this connection, is said to have the power of driving away devils (Floral Calendar of Japan).

These spring festivals are performed for the benefit of the family and can be seen as a personal welcome to the new growing year. From around the first of February on the island of Okinawa and the end of March to early May, cherry trees bloom all over Japan.

1–14 March Todai-ji Shunie
Festival of water and fire. Priests conduct a fire ceremony every evening, swinging long torches in the air to ward off evil, while water is drawn from the 1200 year-old well and offered to visitors. Light outdoor lanterns to welcome the beginning of spring.

3 March Nagashi-bina.

An event that involves dispelling impurities and misfortunes by floating dolls away on water. In this rite, dry straw is woven into a boat, which carries a pair of male and female dolls to be cast adrift in the river. Girls float a pair of husband and wife dolls on the lid of a rice container together with some sweets to keep away misfortune and pray for good health. Nagashibina literally means ‘doll floating’ and refers to the ancient ritual, imported from Chinese Taoist and Yin-Yang theory (onmyodo in Japanese) which are at the heart of much of Japan’s ancient Shinto practices. In the ritual, these small dolls made of straw were floated down a river and out to sea, and each doll carried the ‘pollution’ or ‘sin’ of the person each doll represented; not too dissimilar to the Jewish custom of scapegoating adopted in European cultures. Purity, and its antithesis – pollution in a spiritual sense – is at the heart of many Shinto rituals, and throwing things into a river to be carried away to the sea is a fairly common concept.

3 March Hina Matsuri

Girls’ Day – also known as the Doll’s Festival – is to pray for the health and happiness of young girls and marked by families displaying a set of traditional hina dolls (often family heirlooms) in the house and serving special food delicacies that are ceremonially beautiful and delicious. Traditionally, girls in Japan invited their friends to a home party to celebrate this festival – which is an idea that can be adopted in the West.

6 March Otaue-sai
A ceremonial rice planting festival to mark the beginning of spring and traditionally features time-honoured kagura dances and bugaku court music. Sow the first seeds of spring.

April

It is the sakura (cherry) that is the queen of flowers in April, and it is so representative of all flowers in Japan:


The cherries of Yosino have blossomed –
The flowers of spring that are like the supreme ruler
How right we think it is that the cherry should be the favourite flower of the Japanese, for its splendour when it blooms and for its gallantry when it falls (Floral Calendar of Japan).

Again the festivals are focusing on the well-being and harmony of the home and family

1–30 April. Miyako Odori

This is one of the four great spring shows in the five geisha districts (hanamachi) of Kyoto, Japan. The dances, songs, and theatre productions presented in the framework of the Miyako Odori are performed by the maiko and geiko of the Gion quarter. The motifs draw from classical Japanese culture and incorporate everyday life as well as folkloristic elements. A good time to support a local theatre production or concert for a family night out.

First Sunday in April Obasama Festival

A spring planting festival that was performed in the hope of a good harvest ahead of the spring farming period. Plant the first of the year’s bedding plants or vegetables.

May

When the trees gradually begin to put on their summer attire, the leaves of the different trees first appear as a fresh, vivid green; then little by little they acquire a beautiful glossiness, just as if they had been brought back to life again. The weather tells us that summer has already come, but the calendar calls this month bansyun (‘late spring’). In Japanese poetical language the flowers of this month are known as yokwai (‘the left-behind flowers’), and in fact tutuzi (azaleas), huzi (wistarias), botan (peonies), kiri (paulownias), and honoki and taizanboku (different kinds of magnolias) flower one after the other as if they were trying to make up for being late (Floral Calendar of Japan).

The beginning of May is also a time for all manner of localised festivals and celebrations including puppet plays, parades and processions, storytelling and a range of other classical arts and festival amusements – all in keeping with the Western traditions surrounding May Day.

1–3 May Yotaka Matsuri

At the pre-festival, ando (large, magnificent paper lantern sculptures) light up the night. Believed to have started in the Taisho Period c.1652 to welcome the shrine’s kami and to ask for a bountiful harvest, decorative lanterns can be lit to accompany a request for prosperity.

5 May Tango no Sekku

This Boys’ Festival has been celebrated for over a millennium and was originally celebrated in the houses of warriors because it honoured boys’ courage and determination. Many of the symbols of this day are about having the character of a warrior and eventually this day became important to all households in Japan with boys. After WWII, Boys’ Day was toned down and the holiday officially became known as Children’s Day or Kodomo no hi. It was supposed to be a day to celebrate the health and happiness of all children but many still see it as Boys’ Festival. For those with children it can be celebrated as you choose – see 3 March.

8 May Yoshida Jinja

Offerprayers to the kami of cooking, eating and drinking. So celebrate with a home-cooked meal for friends and family.

Full Moon in May Uesaku Festival

Offer prayers to the kami for world peace with fires lit in the temple grounds.

June

Now, according to the calendar also, summer has really come. The earth is wholly covered with green, and all nature has put on its summer livery. It is in this month that, the grain harvest being over, water is run into the rice-fields, and the rice seedlings are planted. From about the middle of the month to about the middle of July warm, moist south-east winds blow from the Continent, and practically the whole of Japan is enveloped in the so-called tuyu or rainy season, during which we have spells of muggy, oppressive weather. The flower for this month is indubitably the hanasyobu (Iris ensata, var. hortensis: iris). This is a plant which is said to have originally grown wild in a small marsh in the mountains of north-eastern Japan, and that it was brought to Edo (the present Tokyo) some three hundred years ago and cultivated there. It is a perennial herbaceous plant belonging to the family of Iridaceae. Mention must be made of the syobuta (iris field) in the precincts of the Meizi Shrine, since it is the place where the hanasyobu is found in its greatest perfection (Floral Calendar of Japan).

June is the time for the major rice-planting festivals that date back more than 1700 years when women ritually plant rice seedlings in the paddy fields to the accompaniment of traditional music and rice-planting folk songs. This event was symbolically used at the end of the famous Akira Kurosawa film, Seven Samurai, with great effect.

Early-Mid June Chagu-Chagu Umakko (Horse Festival)
The Morioka region of northern Japan is famous for its horses and this festival was originally conceived by horse breeders who wished to pray for long and happy lives for their animals. It now features a parade of colourfully dressed horses ridden by local children with round 80–100 horses usually taking part dressed in konida costumes (worn by the horses of daimyo – feudal lords – in the Edo Period). The name of the festival comes from the noise made by the bells (chagu chagu) on the horses’ harnesses (umakko) and the event is designated as a national intangible folklore cultural asset. At the end of the parade, prayers are offered for a bountiful rice harvest and thanks are given to the horses.

July

Early on July mornings to stand by the edge of a pond and watch the lotus flowers open is an unforgettable summer experience. The hasn (Nelumbo nucifera: lotus) was originally a native of tropical Asia, but it has been cultivated in Japan from ancient times, and is seen growing in abundance in ponds in the gardens of temples and private residences (Floral Calendar of Japan).

July is the month for celebrating numerous fire festivals and folk traditions

6–8 July Iriya no Asagao-ichi
Iriya (morning glories) flowers are said to symbolise the beginning of summer and bring good luck. Every year, thousands come to the Kishibojin Temple area to buy morning glory plants from hundreds of street stalls. Plant the flower in the garden or large pots to act as your own annual symbol of summer.

August

The favourite flower for this month has been from ancient times the asagao (Pharbitis Nil: morning glory). Though the garden be, as they say in Japanese, ‘as narrow as a cat’s forehead’, if only the homeowner sets up this pot of morning glory in it and it blooms, they can appreciate the beauty of summer. The morning glory’s original home is in tropical regions, but in China there are records of its use as a medicinal plant 2,200 years ago, and it was introduced into Japan about a thousand years ago. As the morning glory has long been loved by the Japanese, it appears in many paintings and poems (uta and haiku) but because of its homeliness and its close association with the life of the common people, it does not often occur as the main theme, but is usually added as one of the natural features of the season (Floral Calendar of Japan).

The observances for this month are focused upon the ancestors and Otherworld activities similar to Hallowe’en in the West.

13–16 August Obon Mantoro

Obon (or Bon) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honour the spirits of the ancestors. This Buddhist-Confucian custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors’ graves, and when the spirits of the ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars. It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori. Kyū Bon (Old Bon) is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and so differs each year. 

Among the traditional preparations for the ancestors’ return is the cleaning of grave sites. The welcoming fire (mukaebi) built on the thirteenth and the send-off fire (okuribi) built on the fifteenth and sixteenth are intended to light the path. Families sent their ancestor’s spirits back to their permanent dwelling place under the guidance of fire: this latter rite was known as ‘sending fire’ and the closing of the festival. One traditional custom to mark the end of the Bon Festival is the lighting of small paper lanterns containing a burning flame that are either set afloat on a river, lake or sea, or let go and float away into the night. Their light is intended to guide the way for deceased family members’ spirits to return to Otherworld.

Toro Nagashi is a symbol of summer with the soothing beauty of paper lanterns floating along the tranquil Sumida-gawa River and as Obon occurs in the heat of the summer, participants traditionally wear yukata , or lightweight cotton kimonos. This activity is traditionally performed on the final evening of the Bon and is a hauntingly beautiful sight; the peaceful custom is a gesture of respect for those who have passed away and gives participants a moment to think about their ancestors, loved ones or even past pets. The three-day Buddhist Obon festival is held in honour of one’s ancestors; Toro Nagashi is meant to be more of a joyful celebration than a time of mourning.

September

Gathering the flowers blooming in the autumn fields —
When we count them
their kinds are seven.

This is a poem written a thousand years ago, and from ancient times seven flowers, known as aki no nanakusa or ‘the seven herbs of autumn’, have been taken as the representatives of all autumn flowers, and have been much used as subjects of poetry and painting. All are plain, homely flowers, without the least trace of gaudiness. They are: hagi (Lespedeza spp: bush clover); susuki (Miscanthus sinensis: pampas grass); kuzu (Pueraria Thunbergiana, var typica: arrowroot); nadesiko (Dianthus superbus: pink); ominaesi (Patrinia scabiosaefolia: golden lace flower); huzibakama (Eupatorium japonicum: aster), and kikyo (Platycodon glaucum: bell flower) (Floral Calendar of Japan).

At this time of the year, graveyards in Japan will be densely covered in bizarrely shaped crimson flowers brightly glistening in the autumn sun. That’s the higanbana – red spider lily (Lycoris radiate) and the best way to enjoy their dark beauty is on a sunny, autumn day’s stroll through the rice paddies at O-higan, where the deep red flowers growing alongside the bright yellow rice fields ready for harvest make for a colourful contrast. R9ice farmers don’t put them there solely for aesthetic reasons, though. As with any amaryllis, their bulbs are poisonous and they are supposed to keep moles, mice and other hole-digging vermin that might damage the crops, at bay.

O-higan

This the day of the Autumn Equinox and it’s a national holiday in Japan because from this day on (23 September to be correct), the dark of night will become longer than the day-light period and it’s time to get serious about the ghosts that haunt the long winter nights. Traditionally it is a time to take care of the unruly, potentially vengeful souls of the ancestors since higan translates as the ‘other shore’ – the land of the dead. Thus o-higan is the day to visit the family graves and to pray for the well-being of the departed souls; where old countryside graveyards will be densely covered with these bizarrely shaped crimson flowers  like violently shed blood rising straight out of the ground. Why not plant three or four bulbs in a large plot so that they bloom in time for the Autumn Equinox.

October

October is a month for fruits rather than for flowers. Apples, grapes, figs, kaki (persimmons), and chestnuts are the most important (Floral Calendar of Japan).

The Autumn Harvest Festivals are celebrated around the time of the rice harvest to thank the gods for a bountiful crop. There is no exact date, since it is varied and is only celebrated in the month of October.

Momijigari

Just as the sakura or cherry blossom represents spring, the momiji or autumn leaves, have traditionally represented autumn in Japan, and the pleasurable pastime of viewing autumn colours is called momiji-gari, which literally means ‘hunting the autumn leaves’. Japanese people enjoy momiji-gari, which is regarded as a seasonal event equally as important as hanami, or flower viewing, and both practices are deeply rooted in their lives. Originally the practice of viewing autumn colours is thought to have started off as an elegant pastime mainly enjoyed by the court and aristocracy in the seventh century. That changed, however, around the seventeenth century during the Edo period, when the custom spread to commoners and people began to hold sake parties and sumptuous feasts while viewing the beautiful autumn landscapes.

In general, the use of the term momiji is applied to all deciduous trees that produce autumnal leaves toned with a red or yellow, including maple, the Japanese lacquer tree, and the ginkgo. The term has also come to be used to represent the maple, the actual name for which is Kaede, because of the particular beauty of the leaves. There are many Japanese tanka and haiku poems about the autumn leaves and the joys of viewing them. The momiji tradition has also found expression in the noh and kabuki theatrical forms; kimono and obi sashes have also incorporated special traditional autumn motifs.

Like the cherry blossom, the momiji reaches its peak in a rather short time and then fades and drops off the tree. It represents delicate short-lived beauty that Japanese people are traditionally fond of, like a samurai, who has lived a short but honourable life. Autumn leaves peak and then fall, followed by the first snows of winter, completing the natural life cycle that Japanese have experienced for centuries. Make a habit of viewing this ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ wherever you can find it – and take the time to stand and stare.

November

The mountains become gay for a while with red and yellow hues; of flowers there is only the chrysanthemum to give colour to autumn as it dies. But the red foliage (momizi) of the trees and the chrysanthemums are able by themselves to make both the country and the garden as beautiful as did all the hundred flowers of spring. Places noted for their momizi or chrysanthemums are crowded with people, for November offers the last chance for outings in the year. Just as the cherry is considered to be the queen of flowers in spring, so the chrysanthemum is to be regarded as the queen of flowers in autumn. The crest of the Japanese Imperial Family is a chrysanthemum flower and as such is revered by the whole nation (Floral Calendar of Japan).

The beginning of November is the time for historical costume street parades, with festivals of dance and music to give thanks for the harvest, and a time to pray for family prosperity. It is also a time for a sacred fire ritual to banish evil spirits and anticipating the coming of winter with kagura dances, thundering taiko drums and bonfires celebrating the time when the gods landed on the earth.

December

We have finally reached the last month of the year, which, according to the Japanese calendar, is the first month of winter. Tya-no-hana (tea blossoms) and sazanka (Camellia sasanqua) are about the only flowers of this month. Tya-no-hana is the blossom of the famous Japanese green tea, and is white and very lovely; the blossoms have five petals and long yellow stamens. The leaves are gathered in May. The sazanka bears a resemblance to the camellia (tubaki), but it is quieter in appearance. The flowers are pale pink or white. It is cultivated in gardens, and is used for making hedges; in the south of Japan it is found growing wild (Floral Calendar of Japan).

13 December Preparation for the New YearPreparations for seeing in the New Year were originally undertaken to greet the toshigami, or deity of the incoming year. These began on 13 December, when the house was given a thorough cleaning; the date is usually nearer the end of the month now. The house is then decorated in the traditional fashion: a sacred rope of straw (shimenawa) with dangling white paper strips (shide) is hung over the front door to prevent evil spirits from entering and to show the presence of the toshigami. It is also customary to place kadomatsu, an arrangement of tree sprigs, beside the entrance way. This is in preparation for the New Year holidays. Decorations and sundry goods are sold at the local fair. Originally these year-end fairs provided opportunities for farmers, fisher-folk and mountain dwellers to exchange goods and buy clothes and other necessities for the coming year.

All cultures have their heroes and there are usually calendar days set aside to honour them, which are an important part of remembering our history and cultural heritage. For example:

14 December: The revenge of the forty-seven rōnin  Also known as the Akō incident – is an eighteenth-century historical event in Japan in which a band of ronin (leaderless samurai) avenged the death of their master. The story tells of a group of samurai who were left leaderless after their daimyo (feudal lord) Asano Naganori was compelled to perform seppuku (ritual suicide) for assaulting a court official named Kira Yoshinaka. After waiting and planning for a year, the rōnin avenged their master’s honour by killing Kira. In turn, they were themselves obliged to commit seppuku for committing the crime of murder. This true story was popularized in Japanese culture as emblematic of the loyalty, sacrifice, persistence, and honour that people should preserve in their daily lives. Each year in December, Sengakuji Temple, where Asano Naganori and the rōnin are buried, holds a festival commemorating the legendary event. There is a classic Kenji Mizoguchi film version of the story entitled The 47 Ronin.

 

31 December Ōmisoka

People do the general house cleaning (Ōsōji) to welcome the coming year and not to keep having impure influences. Many people visit Buddhist temples to hear the temple bells rung 108 times at midnight (joya no kane) to announce the passing of the old year and the coming of the new. The reason they are rung 108 times is because of the Buddhist belief that human beings are plagued by 108 earthly desires or passions (bonnō) and with each ring, one desire is dispelled. It is also a custom to eat toshikoshi-soba in the hope that the family fortunes will extend like the long noodles.

It should be obvious from the small selection of festivals mentioned above that the Japanese do – and always have – placed great emphasis on showing reverence for their ancestors and cultural heritage, while some tend to be more devoted to family participation. Even if we are not taking part in any religious tradition, we still need to observe certain personal devotions in order to make a statement of who we are – even if it’s only for ourselves.

When things flourish they begin to decline

At midday the sun starts to set

When the moon is done waxing

It starts to wane.

The Kensho Moment: Exercise

At the turning points of the year in spring and autumn, if we focus our attention on the wonders of Nature, we are also synchronising with the various folk-traditions for both East and West. These are the times when the changing natural tides influence spiritual and mystical matters all over the world.

Vernal Equinox (Shunbun no Hi) is a public holiday in Japan, usually 20–21 March, although the date of the holiday is not officially declared until February of the previous year, due to the need for astronomical measurements. Vernal Equinox Day became a public holiday in 1948 and prior to that it was the spring date of Shunki koreisai dedicated to the imperial ancestors and to the kami collectively. Like other Japanese holidays, this holiday was repackaged as a non-religious holiday for the sake of separation of religion and state in Japan’s post-war constitution.

  • This is the time for observation and silent contemplation in a natural landscape; ideally while ‘flower viewing’.

Yet Summer Solstice, or Geshi as it’s called in Japan, passes relatively unnoticed except for the ritual bathing in the sea to purify body and soul as the sun comes up between a pair of sacred rocks known as Meotoiwa. This ritual Geshisai takes place at daybreak every year at Ise – famous for being the home of Ise Jingu, the most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan representing as they do, the union of Izanagi and Izanami, the two Shinto gods responsible for the creation of the Islands of Japan. The sunrise is seen just at the midpoint of the two rocks for one week before and after the solstice; only during these weeks, the sun appears to come up from behind Mt. Fuji in the far distance, if the weather permits – but the chances of seeing beautiful sunrises there are not high because it is in the middle of the rainy season! This small shrine with one of its torii gates standing offshore is a popular tourist attraction. Meotoiwa is actually the shrine gate for the divine stone Okitama Shinseki located underwater about 700 metres offshore, which is said to be a holy rock, of the god of entertainment, Sarutahiko no Ookami.

  • Make a point of getting up early to watch the sunrise – even if it’s only from the bedroom window with a cup of tea – and bathe in the morning glow.

On 22, 23 or 24 September the Autumnal Equinox is celebrated as a national holiday in Japan and known as Shubun-no-hi. The exact day can vary due to astronomical observations, so the date for the following year is usually announced in early spring. This was originally known as the Autumn Commemoration for the Imperial Spirits (Shuki koreisai).

  • Legend has it that the scent of the red spider lily (higanbana) will bring back all the beautiful memories of the dead for one last time, before they disappear when they cross the Forgotten River. And their blooming represents the changing from summer to autumn. The transient beauty of the flower recalls those who have departed from this life but live on in our memory.

Even the Winter Solstice, Tōji, does not go unmarked in Japan, even if it is small-scale – the most well-known activity is taking a bath with a type of citrus called yuzu in the water. Although the power of the sun is weakest at this time of the year, it becomes stronger from this day and it is said that the fortune of people rise from this day.

  • Find a peaceful place to watch the sunset on this shortest of days and wait quietly for owl-light to descend to create that ‘time between times’ so familiar to those pagans in the West.

Be empty, be still

Watch everything

Just come and go.

Pagan Portals Western Animism: Zen & the Art of Positive Paganism by Melusine Draco is published by Moon Books  ISBN 978 1 78904 123 1 : 80 pages : UK£6.99/US$10.95 : Available in paperback and e-book format.

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