My Polytheism

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I found my polytheism in the suburbs of Tokyo, in a Shinto Shrine to a Buddhist Goddess called Benzaiten-sama. She is better known as the Hindu goddess Saraswati, but She is worshipped across pretty much all of South and Southeast Asia under many names. In Tibet alone She has a myriad of epithets, most famously Yangchenma, “goddess of melodious sound.”

In Japan though, she is Benzaiten-sama. She came across the waters from China and Korea with books and Buddhism, while I came roaring out of the skies jet-lagged and stumbling.

I’d worked with Her for a few months, and already fallen deeply in love, but it was not until I’d stood on the grounds of one of Her many shrines and met fellow believers that I truly understood what that love meant.

My polytheism was born of hospitality for both foreign mortals and foreign gods.

My polytheism is community in diversity

Inokashira-Jinja

Kichijōji’s main tourist draw is the Ghibli museum. It’s certainly the only thing that most Westerners I’ve spoken to are likely to recognize (though most admittedly don’t realize what it is until I mention Spirited Away and/or a few other of Miyazaki-san’s works). It’s not surprising that the neighborhood isn’t a big attraction; it’s a residential area and quite a nice one. It’s not meant to draw foreigners.

However the area is well worth a visit even if you are largely indifferent to anime and manga and have no intention to visit the Ghibli Museum. Inokashira park is simply beautiful, and it is home to my favorite shrine, one to Benzaiten-sama.

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I have posted this picture several times on this blog, and it is actually my desktop background at the moment. The Inokashira Jinja is and always will be very dear to me.

Inokashira-Jinja’s history dates back to the tenth century, when a court aristocrat was shipped off to what is now Tokyo, but what was then the middle of nowhere. He brought with him an icon of the goddess Benzaiten-sama. The shrine itself has been in its present location since the end of the twelfth century; it was built under the orders of none other than the very first shogun Minamoto Yoritomo. That first shrine was completed in 1197, though it has been remodeled and even totally rebuilt a number of times over the centuries.

In the Edo period, the shrine was immensely popular with the leading actors of the day, and even during the Meiji era and on through WWII, when other shrines to Benzaiten-sama such as that at Enoshima and in Ueno were shut down or rededicated to native kami, the shrine in Kichijōji remained unopened and undamaged. To this day, it is a hidden jewel worth seeking.

Ways Religious Syncretism Happens

Perhaps the most obvious form of syncretism in my own practice is Honji Suijaku, or the merging of Shinto with Buddhism. Benzaiten-sama was the Indian goddess Sarasvati, but was absorbed into the Japanese pantheon after becoming associated with the goddess Ichikishima-hima. She was eventually so thoroughly nativized that she was again syncretized with a Buddhist figure – this time Kannon, better known as Guanyin.

The Lefthander's Path

Syncretism is when you combine two things together to create a new thing, and it’s very common in many religions. It happens both historically and in modern times, for a variety of reasons. I’ll start by discussing historical examples, and will cover ways to approach syncretism yourself in another post.

Syncretism in the Roman Empire– We’ll Go to War with You and Then Add your Gods to Our Pantheon!

As Romans added territory to their Empire, they encountered people who worshiped other gods. Being polytheists, they didn’t really care so long as the Gauls, Germannii and so forth obeyed them. But the Romans liked to say “oh, that god you call Wodan is kinda like Mercurius”, just as they had done earlier with the Greek gods. This is referred to as Interpretatio Romana. Sometimes these foreign gods were adopted into Roman religion, often with Romanized names. Sometimes we…

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Tsuwano (2 of 3): Taikodani Inari Shrine

O-Inari-Sama!!!! *YAY*

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You might see these photos and think, “oh, I know this place!”

Let me remind you that this is a San’in region blog. This is not Kyoto. This is Tsuwano, the Little Kyoto of San’in!

Like the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Taikodani Inari Shrine is also dedicated to this popular fox deity. Also like Fushimi Inari and other Inari shrines throughout Japan, it has a tunnel of torii gates leading up the shrine, and pockets of little areas filled with fox statues left as offerings. It is said that there are a thousand gates at this shrine, and you can see the bright red shrine with a brilliant trail leading up to it from a ways away on the road, though what appears above the trees makes it look like it suddenly appeared on the mountain. Although it looks like a daunting hike, it doesn’t take very long…

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鷺娘の精 (The Spirit of the Heron Maiden)

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鷺娘の精 (The Spirit of the Heron Maiden) woodblock print by Taniguchi Kokyo (1864-1915), dated 1925; from my collection. Oban tate-e (27.0 x 42.5 cm).

“Sagi Musume no Sei,” the “Spirit of the Heron Maiden.” A kabuki hengemono dance (one actor/many roles) wherein the spirit of a heron changes into a girl and then back again.

A summary from http://www.kabuki21.com/sagi_musume.php :
“The set is a frozen pond in the middle of Winter. The music from the geza is the classic sound effect for falling snow. The spirit of the heron appears on a platform, dressed in white, solitary and silent. This dance is a series of transformations, done through costume changes using either the bukkaeri or the hikinuki techniques to switch the roles. The first change turns the dancer into a young maiden in love, dressed in a beautiful red kimono, who dances the joy of love in a lively atmosphere…

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Self-Definition

What am I?

I belong to Sarasvati. I am Buddhist. I am Shinto. I am Hindu. I am Pagan. I am a mystic. I am syncretic. I am an eclectic. I am an apostate. I am a heretic. I am Catholic, but I am not Catholic anymore. I am a Lokean. I am Nokean. I am a poet and a writer. I am a student and a teacher. I am a witch. I am not a witch. I am all and nothing. It’s complicated, you see, but it’s so very simple.

What do you want me to be? What do you need me to be? I am here to help you. That’s all there is to it.

The Cape of Miho: Ebisu’s Home

San'in Monogatari

Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815) illustration of Daikoku and Ebisu (Museum of Fine Arts Boston–click for source!)

We’ll start out with a fun fact: “Shimane” is written as “island” (島) and “root” (根), as it is like the root of the islands of Japan. As many cultural innovations entered Japan from the Asian continent through this area, this name makes some sense. Hideki Yukawa, the first Japanese recipient of the Nobel Prize, took it a bit further and said that Mihonoseki, the Cape of Miho at the northeast end of Shimane Prefecture, is where one can find the roots of the Japanese soul.

According to the Izumo-no-Kuni Fudoki (see below), this place is named after Okuninushi’s son Mihosusumi. Mihosusumi’s mother Nunagawa-hime was from the land of Koshi (modern day Ishikawa Prefecture), and according to their local mythology, Mihosusumi eventually returned to the Noto Peninsula. According to another Fudoki legend,

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