Worn wooden gate.... a threshold carpeted with the needles of cedar trees. The wavering path shadowed the turns of a parallel stream... leading upwards to the main shrine. It too was contructed of unstained wood... worn grey by snow, wind, and rain. The green carpet of the grove softened my footfalls. Patches of snow clumped near the stream... and here and there among the tree branches.
There were no bird sounds. No animal sounds. No sound of cars or machines. Just a light tickling of water from the stream.... and that pregnant hum which lies behind silence.
The Cedars were tall and straight. They seemed to block all incoming sounds. The grove was therefore a sanctuary... a fortress of tranquility and silence. I visited the place many times during my stay in Shiura Village... but never encountered another human being at the place. Often I sat for hours on a bench in the center of a small clearing. I sat and listened to the silence.
The small shrine contained candles, small statues of children, a bucket with water, a wooden ladel, and a book. Visitors left comments in the book to mark the occaision of their visit... or to ask for guidance and blessings. I wrote a short haiku in English (which I have since forgotten). But mostly, I imagine that people came for the same reason that I did... to cleanse, quiet, and purify their minds.
Shiura shrine is my idea of an ideal temple. It is a place of tranquility and silence completely in harmony with nature. There are no pews, no lecterns, no screaming ministers, no yammering discussions, no idiotic children's songs,... no noise of any kind.
It seems that modern folks already get plenty of noise and speech. What they lack is contemplation, silence, and a quiet mind. They spend all week jabbering at other people and being jabbered at. The stare at electronic boxes to absorb yet more jabber. On Sundays they sit in crowded ugly rooms and listen to yet more jabbering; They call this "church".
But the Japanese idea is closer to the mark. The country is filled with groves and shrines just like the one in Shiura (in fact, Shiura had at least four of these... probably more that I never found). These are natural places of healing. I found it impossible to spend 30 minutes in the shrine and remain emotional. The place seemed to suck up my anger, agitation, or sadness. I always left with a calm and kinder mind.
Most commentators claim that the Japanese are not religious. Using the western definition of "religion", they are absolutely right. But at a deeper level they are wrong. In my experience, a simple Japanese shrine has more spirit and grace than every overdone butt-ugly church in America & Europe combined.
We could learn a lot from Japanese Zen about the nature of spirit, true religion, and the perennial philosophy.
On a journey, ailing -
My dreams roam about
Over a withered moor.