Tag Archives: nature

A Shinto Experience in New Zealand

glowworm01In August, my family made a trip to New Zealand. My husband’s a Kiwi, so one of the main purposes of our trip was to catch up with members of his family. But of course we had plenty of opportunities to make the most of all the incredible experiences New Zealand has to offer.

New Zealand is a paradise for nature lovers and we were lucky enough to have plenty of chances to connect withthe country’s wild soul. We bathed in a natural hot spring that we dug ourselves at Hot Water Beach. We got up close and personal with friendly Kea (mountain parrots) and fur seals. We experienced the thrill of sailing under a waterfall at Milford Sound.

But among all these experiences, for me none were quite so profound as our visit to the Te Ana-au Glowworm Caves. From start to finish, it felt less like a mere tourist attraction and more like a spiritual pilgrimage – and in many ways, a Shinto pilgrimage. [Read more]

Leave a comment

Filed under Nature & Environment, Shinto / Japanese Religion

Yes, Environmentalism is Humanist

greenman4

By Lauren raine (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve heard some arguments that environmentalism is inherently misanthropic. In other words, environmentalism limits progress, oppresses the masses, and is rooted on the pessimistic assumption that humans are bad, destructive creatures undeserving of nature’s bounty. I’ve encountered some (but by no means all) Humanists  who hold this view, because they believe ultimately in the goodness of mankind, and that the needs of our species should always come first.

But I believe this is precisely why arguments for environmentalism are Humanist ones…[Read more]

5 Comments

Filed under Nature & Environment

Samhain 2015

WP_20151101_12_49_09_Pro

My Samhain offerings at the local cemetery

I tend to view all the Pagan Sabbats as a “season,” with the official date of the Sabbat acting as the epicentre of the season with ripples into the days before and after. That’s one reason why I decided to hold my solo Samhain ritual on the Full Moon prior to Samhain, and why I didn’t actually hold any sort of ritual on October 31st itself.

WP_20151031_14_14_24_ProHowever, I did make some Samhain Soul Cakes yesterday, using my favourite recipe with added matcha (Japanese green tea powder). Matcha is interesting to work with – when used as an ingredient combined with other things, it only really looks green in the presence of moisture, so the dough didn’t look green until I added milk, upon which it turned a very vivid shade of green. Unfortunately, when the moisture evaporated on baking the cookies, they reverted back to mostly brown with only a slight greenish tint. I can see that if I bake with matcha again and want to retain that green colour, I’m going to have to use a lot more. But this in itself is tricky because matcha is a bit like saffron – it’s expensive and can have a strong flavour, so you don’t want to use too much, ideally. It went really well with the cinnamon and nutmeg I also added to the mixture (hint: don’t be afraid to use quite a lot of cinnamon!)

I used a wonderful set of “Day of the Dead” skull cookie cutters. These were a gift from my sister-in-law, and it was great to have such a perfect opportunity to use them.

My husband and I took the cookies to my parent’s house, where we were taking part what’s close to a “religious observance” for my Kiwi husband and Welsh mum – the Rugby World Cup final! (To my husband’s delight, the All Blacks were victorious). But keeping with the Halloween theme, my Dad had bought the biggest pumpkin I’d ever seen, carved it and hollowed it out, and used the innards to make delicious pumpkin soup and toasted pumpkin seeds. So even though I didn’t hold a particular ritual on Samhain Eve, it was still meaningful for me to spend it with my family and enjoying some very Halloweeny food!

Traditionally Samhain continues into November 1st, and so today my husband and I went walking in the local cemetery, where I placed my offerings originally given at my altar on the previous Full Moon for the deities of death, departed friends and ancestors. It was an absolutely perfect day to do so – overnight a mist had descended over the town, and the cemetery looked beautiful and very otherworldly.

WP_20151101_12_41_58_Pro

WP_20151101_12_51_46_Pro

WP_20151101_12_52_11_Pro

I found a moss-covered tree stump that acted as a perfect natural altar, and placed my offerings of a miniature pumpkin, garlic, soul cake and dog treats there, as well as sprinkling some incense. I also offered a fallen branch of rowan. My offering was not only to my own ancestors and loved ones, but to all those whose spirits rest in the cemetery. I hope they liked my gift.

WP_20151101_12_49_15_Pro

On our way back, I noticed something I had never noticed before, even though I have been in this cemetery many times –  a grave with a pentagram on it!

WP_20151101_13_02_16_Pro

The pentagram is a sacred symbol in Christianity as well, so it’s not particularly shocking to see one on a 19th century gravestone, but nevertheless it seems to be quite uncommon. I wonder why Sarah’s relatives had chosen this symbol for her grave as opposed to a more traditional funerary symbol? Were there Freemasons in her family? Or did they simply like the design? In any case, I am really surprised I’d never spotted this before and I was so glad to see this reminder of the connection between Christianity and Paganism in our cemetery. Perhaps the spirits within the mist, still dwelling in this world while the veil to the Otherworld is so thin, had given me the extra clarity to see it today!

I wish everyone a very Blessed Samhain!

1 Comment

Filed under Nature & Environment, Places, Rituals & Festivals

Another stroll in Gravesend cemetery

WP_20150412_15_43_51_Pro

Perhaps my favourite place in Gravesend is the cemetery – in fact, I wrote about it in my first ever blog entry. Today was such a lovely day today that I decided to pay it a visit – and to see if the bluebells were out yet.

There were only a few bluebells out, but I really enjoyed my time there. The cemetery is a truly magical place – I find it very hard to put into words exactly how I feel when I go there. I find it full of an energy that’s powerful, yet serene at the same time. Of course, the beauty and nature of cemetery is certainly part of it. It is very well looked after with lots of trees and flowers, and I saw quite a lot of wildlife there – including a robin, crows and a peacock butterfly, all animals that have been associated with departed spirits. I also heard a woodpecker; the first I’ve heard this year.

I felt so spiritual there that I decided to meditate for a short while in a secluded part of the cemetery. As I hadn’t brought an offering this time (I hadn’t made it my intention to go to the cemetery when I’d set off for a walk so I hadn’t been prepared), I decided to do a little bit of litter-picking this time. Although, the place is so well cared for that there was little to pick up!

I can see how cemeteries (especially those like this one which are not located next to a specific place of worship) could be considered very Pagan places. After all, they combine two of the most basic principals behind most forms of Paganism – veneration of nature, and veneration of ancestral spirits. In fact, Gravesend cemetery has become something of a Pagan place of worship for me. I plan to visit it as often as I can during the good weather, when I need somewhere to go for quiet, spiritual contemplation.

Here’s a few other pictures I took at the cemetery today:

WP_20150412_15_39_26_Pro

Can you see the skull-like face in this tree stump at the cemetery?

wp_20150412_15_34_33_pro WP_20150412_15_45_20_ProWP_20150412_15_47_52_ProWP_20150412_15_51_00_ProWP_20150412_15_52_15_ProWP_20150412_15_49_02_Pro 

4 Comments

Filed under Nature & Environment, Places

Tokonoma – Japan’s “secular altars”

SONY DSC

“Kannonin Tottori16s4470” by 663highland – 663highland. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kannonin_Tottori16s4470.jpg#/media/File:Kannonin_Tottori16s4470.jpg

There are generally considered to be two main types of household altar in Japan. One is the kamidana, a Shinto altar that enables communion with kami. The other is the butsudan, a Buddhist altar that is used to honour the Buddha as well as deceased relatives. Out of the two, the butsudan would seem to be the most common in Japanese homes.

There is a third type of feature that can be found in Japanese homes, tea houses, traditional inns and restaurants that could also be considered a kind of altar. [Read more]

Leave a comment

Filed under Shinto / Japanese Religion

On Pagan “Temples”

Picture 106

Shinto shrines in Japan are designed to stand harmoniously within nature

There seem to be quite differing opinions within the Pagan community when it comes to the idea of building Pagan “temples.” On the one hand, some love the idea of having a building where Pagans can all go to honour the deities safely and comfortably. On the other hand, there are Pagans who see that their “temple” is all around them – in the form of the forests, rivers, mountains and oceans – and so a temple is not necessary.

When I read these debates, I always think that Shinto has a good solution. [Read more]

2 Comments

Filed under Nature & Environment, Shinto / Japanese Religion

Reflections on “Living Druidry: Magical spirituality for the wild soul,” Emma Restall Orr

LivingDruidryI realised that in my studies of Paganism, I’d read quite a bit on Wicca, Shinto and general Paganism, but little on Druidry. As Druidry is a major branch of Paganism yet one I don’t know so much about, I thought I’d investigate this path further. So I read Living Druidry: Magical spirituality for the wild soul by Emma Restall Orr as a start.

Initially, I had some issues with this book. Although it’s been promoted by its publishers as something of an instructional guide to Druidry, that is not what it is at all. Rather than getting cleanly laid-out chapters on the Whats and Hows of Druidry, I instead got a series of personal mini essays on what it is to be a Druid, interspersed with italicised, present-tense accounts of Druidic experiences. This made me very frustrated, as I felt that I wasn’t getting a clear understanding of Druidry at all.

But Living Druidry demonstrates that perseverance and re-reading can sometimes yield rewards. After my first unsuccessful read-through, I decided to give it another go. This time round, without prior expectations of it being an instructional text, I found I understood its messages a lot more.

Orr views Druidry as a shamanic form of Paganism, in which deepening one’s connection with nature in all its forms is the prime focus. Living Druidry is less about how one achieves this, and more about the philosophies surrounding such a lifestyle. In fact, I found this book to be an interesting exploration of what spirituality itself is, rather than specifically Druidry. Some of the messages of this book I found that resonated with me in particularly include:

  • Psychology can sometimes be overly dismissive of the spiritual experience
  • “Faith” is not necessary in order to be spiritual (“Instead of faith, what the tradition teaches is trust.”)
  • Druidry encourages “child-like” simplicity in one’s worldview
  • Historical practices in Paganism are not necessary to validate practices now
  • All of nature is sacred and beautiful – including viruses – and there are no dual forces of good and evil
  • It’s natural to feel guilty or selfish about spending time at one’s altar, but it is important for individual spiritual well-being
  • The ideas of “fertility” and “creation” are much broader than the archetype of male-female union

The book’s style reflects the spiritual lifestyle it promotes – personal, flowing, and contemplative, with no absolutes. Orr’s writing is pleasant and simple, with a lot of consideration for the diversity that exists in Druidry. But while Orr is undoubtedly a philosopher, I’m not so sure that she is an “instructor.” Living Druidry gave me a lot of food for thought, but not so much a clear idea of exactly what Druidry is. But I suspect that is Orr’s intention – she doesn’t want to give an absolute definition of Druidry, but let us find our own path.

One aspect of Living Druidry that I didn’t find very useful, even in the second reading, were the italicised accounts that read like journal entries, which break up the chapters. I’m not sure why Orr included them exactly – they are not given any context which means it’s hard to understand what they’re about, and they disrupt the otherwise gentle flow of the text. My advice to readers who find them distracting is to ignore them completely – I don’t think they really add anything to the messages in the book.

Although Living Druidry presents a very interesting interpretation of the Druidic path, I got the overall impression that it does not give us the whole story; it focuses mainly on personal experiences rather than analysing historical forms of Druidry or Shamanism in other cultures. I feel that if one wants to know more about Druidry, Living Druidry makes an interesting read on the subject, but you’ll probably want to read more conventional texts of a more historical/anthropological/instructional nature in order to get a more complete idea.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Worshipping the Seen and Unseen

DSCN0203

Sacred trees in Japan, their divinity denoted by the torii gate and shimenawa rope

Years ago, I read somewhere that “a Pagan is someone who worships what they can actually see.” To this day, this is one of my favourite definitions of the word “Pagan.”

We worship all those things that are very familiar to us  – the sun and moon above us, the ground beneath our feet, the trees, plants and animals around us. I think that this reverence for these every day things is extremely important to being a Pagan – it reminds us that everything, everything, is sacred in its own way, and deserves respect in its own right.

Sometimes it isn’t as simple as worshipping these things as they are. Using our imagination, humans have assigned deities to many of these things, and in these rituals we may invoke the deities rather than the thing itself. But still, whenever we call upon Apollo or Diana or Gaia or Pan, we are still evoking those very basic forces of the sun, the moon, the earth and living things.

Contradictory as it may seem, Paganism may involve the worshipping of unseen forces as well. This is very much the case in Shinto, where emphasis is placed on the fact that the spirits (kami) are invisible to us. That’s probably why you don’t see many depictions of kami themselves at Shinto shrines.  And yet, at a great number of Shinto shrines, you will see the kami embodied in natural things – often trees, rocks or waterfalls that are marked with a shimenawa rope or torii gate to show that they are the dwelling place of a kami. Larger things, such as mountains, bodies of water and even phenomena such as thunder, can also be considered to be of the kami. So even when the underlying force behind nature is unseen, it can be perceived by humans in the form of natural phenomena. In this way, even the unseen forces are actually worshipped as things we can see!

One of my favourite quotes from Douglas Adams’ excellent book The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” As Pagans, I think we can do a bit of both. I think that because a tree is a tree, a beautiful living thing that in turn gives us life, is reason enough to worship it. But I also think venerating tree-spirits – the “fairies at the bottom of the garden,” quite literally fairies for some Pagans –  helps us to connect to the tree on a more personal level. More often than not, our deities are anthropmorphised, so that they resemble us (at least in personality if not in appearance). Even in Japan, the unseen kami have rather human traits; they can act in a way that is both good and bad, they have likes and dislikes, and they enjoy receiving some of the same things we do, like food and alcohol. To be a Pagan is to both worship things as they are, and as symbols of particular significance to us as humans.

3 Comments

Filed under Nature & Environment, Shinto / Japanese Religion

Sunday at Higham Marsh

Image

Lake at Higham Marsh © Copyright Glyn Baker

Today being such a beautiful day, my fiancé and I went for a walk in Higham Marsh, just one train stop and a brief walk away from Gravesend.

When I was a child, my family and I would come here every weekend to walk the dogs – they loved running in the undergrowth and swimming in the lakes. But since the dogs got old and could no longer hack walking that far, we stopped going. This Sunday was the first time in over 10 years. And I was delighted to see that it hadn’t change a bit.

Although it’s hardly wilderness (there’s lots of industry in the area which is always present in sight and sound), it is beautiful and has a very interesting ecosystem, where the more unusual animals are the norm. Instead of the more familiar Common Frogs, you’ll see the bright green, speckled Edible Frogs; and instead of the usual black ants, there are yellow meadow ants and big wood ants. As usual, I made a small offering of herbs underneath a particularly beautiful cherry tree.

We walked for about an hour or so and really enjoyed being out in the sun and in nature. I would definitely like to come back again soon, and I have a list of things I aim to do next time:

– Try to go early in the morning so I get a better chance of spotting wildlife, such as lapwings (I didn’t see any this time)
– Do a bit of litter-picking (there’s an awful lot of litter there on the watersides).
– Take a camera!
– Try to identify more of the trees and plants – either bring a guidebook, or take photos of them and look them up at home afterwards
– Visit the nearby St Mary’s Church, which dates all the way back to Norman times.

Leave a comment

Filed under Nature & Environment, Places

Godzilla as Kami

ImageI’m certainly not the first person to draw comparisons between the iconic movie monster Godzilla (and other daikaiju, Japanese giant movie monsters) and the Japanese concept of kami, and I certainly won’t be the last. However, in the wake of the new Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla movie (which I’ve just watched), and as someone who venerates the kami, I thought it’d be good to give my thoughts on it.

One of the striking differences between the Christian concept of God (or the Devil) and the Shinto kami is that the kami are neither 100% good or bad. They are powerful, magnificent and morally neutral – exactly like Nature itself, in fact. Even my patron deity, Inari, who is usually considered quite a benevolent kami, has her dark sides in Shinto belief (she is associated with the foxes who are also considered mischievous and at times malicious in Japanese folklore, after all). It is generally how we approach the kami that affects their temperament. If we are respectful to the kami, they bless us; yet if we behave in a way that offends the kami, we risk incurring their wrath. Again, exactly like nature.

Godzilla, who has to date been the star of no less than 30 movies, embodies many of the characteristics of the kami. In most depictions, he is a creature of distinctly terrestrial origins (not extra-terrestrial, as is the case with many other movie monsters), and resembles a mixture of several familiar animals – as many fans know, his original Japanese name, Gojira, is a combination of the Japanese words for “Gorilla” and “Whale.” His appearance has been compared to dinosaurs, crocodiles and, significantly, the East Asian Dragon (Long or Ryuu) – another personification of the power of nature.

Yet Godzilla is nature violated. He usually arises as a result of human interference with the environment – most notably, our exploitation of nuclear material. It is our disrespect of nature that is responsible for unleashing Godzilla’s wrath, and once awakened, he strikes with nature’s full force, toppling cities and killing thousands – just as destructive as any earthquake, tsunami or indeed nuclear disaster. The idea of a nature spirit’s temperament, and even physical appearance, changing in accordance to how it is treated by humans, is common in Japanese film – remember the disgusting “stink god” in Spirited Away that turns out to be a venerable river god that has been polluted?

To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of the new Godzilla movie (too many bland characters and hammy acting and not enough Godzilla in my opinion!). But putting this aside, I did find Godzilla’s depiction interesting. Once again, Godzilla and the other kaiju (or MUTO, as they are called in this movie) are awakened thanks to humans meddling with nature (nuclear power stations again). Plenty of scenes then ensue that mirror the terrifying footage from the 3.11 Fukushima disaster (arguably to the point of insensitivity) and, interestingly, 9.11 as well.

But (without giving away too much) the Godzilla and other kaiju in the 2014 movie are ambiguous in nature. Their motivations seem to be purely animal in nature: that of survival. The havoc they cause is simply an inevitable and inadvertent result of their attempts to feed and breed. What’s more, certain characters in the movie allude to the fact that Godzilla is somehow nature’s way of balancing the destruction wreaked by humans. One character (the Japanese scientist) even states, “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around” – a clear acknowledgement that Godzilla, like the kami, represents nature’s awesome power that ultimately dwarfs that of mankind.

Finally, I would just like to make a comment on the name “Godzilla” itself. It does resemble the Japanese name “Gojira” in pronunciation, but it’s very interesting that the creator of this name chose to include the word “God” in the English rendition – almost as if they too noticed Godzilla’s parallels with the kami.

Leave a comment

Filed under Musings & Miscellaneous, Nature & Environment, Reviews, Shinto / Japanese Religion