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Seeking Enlightenment From Spirits and Forests in Japan

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The shrines at Kumano are among Japan's holiest places. Located in the mountains about 75 miles south of Osaka, Kumano Hongu, the main shrine (of three that make up Kumano), is indeed a magical place, full of history and legend. An ancient pilgrimage site with more than a thousand years of history, today it is a contemporary refuge, far from the noise and bustle of urban life.

Last week, an international gathering there, inspired by this United Nations Year of the Forest, made the argument that appreciating the spiritual ties between nature and mankind can offer new ways of understanding today's environmental challenges and, more important, acting on them.

There's a mystical dimension to Kumano and to the Shinto culture that it represents that defies verbal explanation. Story upon story weave together deep spiritual beliefs, legends and history, with whiffs of the modern world, including Japan's recent and very real tragedy following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the continuing nuclear drama. The kami (spirits) that are part of Shinto beliefs are present in all things, plants, animals and hills. Complicating the picture, Buddhism is almost as much a part of Kumano as Shinto beliefs, with Buddhist teachings and symbolic figures (hotokes) woven through the different buildings, symbols and commentary. Shintoism and Buddhism, the two traditions that mark Japanese culture in so many ways, look to thousands of years of history. In Kumano they are tied to a specific place that accentuates their overlays. I took from a long day of explanation and experience a sense that the essence may be a deep conviction that spirits and human life, nature and mankind, ancestors and our current selves are deeply, intimately united. It's about grasping the meaning of enlightenment, more through the senses than through the mind.

Take, as an example, an effort to delve into the significance of Kumano Hongu's visible symbol, the three-legged crow, Yatagarasu. He is seen as a messenger of the gods. Why three legs? Kumano's priests confessed that no one really knows, but told us they may represent the three ancient clans that dominated Kumano's history. Or perhaps the three main virtues of the gods: chi (wisdom), jin (benevolence) and yuu (valor). Then again, the three legs may stand for heaven, earth and mankind. The distinction hardly seems that important, any more than unraveling history and legend, Shinto and Buddhist, kami and hotoke, past and present matters much in sensing Kumano's spiritual significance and power.

Then again, why is the crow, often seen as an evil omen, Kumano's symbol and protector? Legend points to the crow's skill as a navigator, always able to find the way in unknown lands. Yatagarasu was said to have guided an emperor who had lost his way to the place. A sign at the shrine notes that the Japanese soccer association has adopted the crow as its mascot to make sure the ball finds its way into the goal. Helping those who are lost to find a path is the essence.

Another important element of Kumano Hongu was evoked time and time again. The shrine used to be located in a valley, on an island surrounded by the Kumano River. A great flood washed the shrine away during the Meiji era, in 1889. In only two years, with no modern tools, the priests and the people of the area reconstructed the shrine, exactly as it had stood, this time higher up in the mountains, where it stands today. The message? Where there's a will, there's a way, and the impossible can be achieved. For Japan's people today, looking ahead from catastrophe, that's a powerful message.

Enlightenment and guidance, wisdom, benevolence, valor, preserving the past in the realities of the present, determination and finding a path -- these themes were at the heart of the July 10 symposium.

Organized jointly by two NGOs, the International Shinto Foundation and Shinto Kokusai Gakkai, its aim was to contribute to the United Nations International Year of the Forest. About 70 percent of Japan's land surface is under forest cover, and Japan's people have what was described as an instinctive sense of the public good that forests provide. Even so, there is a danger that, in modern life, respect for forests is in decline. Sustainable preservation is thus an increasingly pressing issue. One way to regain a national commitment to preservation is through culture; reemphasizing faith and a practice of worship, the organizers hope, can allow people to recognize the presence of living spirits in forests and trees and to give them the love they deserve.

The symposium itself presented an intellectual menu, rich in history. The priests of the shrine and various scholars spoke with deep pride and at length about the history and spiritual roots of Kumano. Etienne Clement, representing the United Nations cultural organization (UNESCO), linked Kumano to the system of world cultural heritage sites, more and more of them dedicated to places like mountains rather than buildings and monuments. I linked the symposium to tensions and possibilities around indigenous cultures and forests; in Central America, South America, India and Southeast Asia, both forests and the people and cultures there are gravely threatened, but we can find hope in a rekindling interest in creative ways to give life to both. In Cambodia, Buddhist monks ordain trees to stress their sacred nature but also patrol the forests carrying GPS devices to report on threats from illegal loggers. In Africa, engaging communities in protecting their own forest lands in ways that offer them a livelihood work far better than strict policing.

The ideas at work in Kumano are worthy and well worth pursuing. However, time spent at the shrine trumped speeches in terms of insight. The spirit of Kumano and its lessons for the world do not convey particularly well in words. Kumano's kami and the hotoke, the spirits and the enlightened understanding that have such ancient roots there, are part of the air and feel of the place, and that is how essential messages comes through. The hope is that, both for Japan and the world, this spiritual sense and power, listening to such wisdom, can point toward ways to confront the threats that face our forests and our environment and give us the wisdom and determination to act upon them.

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