japonisme: because it's there

29 July 2009

because it's there

The sacred places and pilgrimage traditions of Japan have been conditioned by geographical and topographical features as much as by religious and cultural factors. Over 80% of the Japanese country- side is hilly or mountainous terrain. This physical condition gave birth in ancient times to a unique and enduring tradition of religious beliefs and practices focused on mountains. While never systematized, this tradition was so wide spread that Japanese scholars have termed it sangaku shinko, meaning 'mountain beliefs' or 'mountain creed'.

Sangaku shinko should not however, be thought of in the narrow sense of mountain worship, but rather understood to have a broader meaning which includes the mythology, folk beliefs, rituals, shamanistic practices, and shrine structures that are associated with the religious use of particular mountains.

H. Byron Earhart, a scholar of Japanese religion, writes that "Most of the mountains whose sacred character is attested by archaeological evidence are also prominent in the earliest written records of Japan. In these writ- ings mountains play a religious role in the cosmogony and theogony of the formal mythology and are prominent as dwelling places of the gods, as burial sites, and as sacred sites of great beauty. In the two court compilations which represent the earliest writings in Japan, mountains appear in almost every imaginable religious guise". 1

in the west, needless to say, the dynamic is different. in the eastern depictions of even their holiest mountain, it hides, it doesn't loom. it sneaks into the picture rather than dominating it. even when the portrait is of that mountain particularly, one must work to find it. one would be hard pressed to find an alternate display. in paintings, the west's mountain's are bullies, and like any bully, they're 'asking for it.' 'take me down,' they seem to challenge.

and in the west we only very rarely find the mountains themselves sacred. 2 we worship 'on the mountain,' or, ' at the mountain,' or 'in the mountains,' ... but that's different. perhaps the western opinion of god is that she's blatantly before you, whereas in the east one must search, and then to find?

and then perhaps also the societal imperatives about individuality come into play? self, or group? is part of the japanese pattern of asymmetry simply another way of indicating the sweep, not the center?

Shingon in particular, founded by the sage Kukai (774-835), placed emphasis on sacred mountains as the ideal sites for religious prac- tice and the attainment of Bud- dhahood. Ascents of the mount- ains were conceived of as metaphorical ascents on the path of spiritual enlightenment, with each stage in the climb representing a stage in the passage through the realms of existence formulated by Buddhism.

During the Heian period (793-1185) Buddhist temples were increasingly built on the sides and summits of many Shinto sacred mountains. It was believed that the native Shinto kami of these mountains were in reality manifestations of Buddhist divinities thus pilgrimage to the mountains was believed to bring favors from both the Shinto and Buddhist divinities simultaneously. 1

am i suggesting that there is not meant to be an aspect of holiness in these western images of mountains? no, not at all. nor do i mean to suggest that every japanese printmaker was a saint (or whatever). these western prints and paintings were all completed in the wake of the wall of japan's influence. i'm just saying that i find these all very interesting questions, ones which i hope you will help to explore.

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Blogger balsamfir said...

Definitely an interesting comparison. Keith Basso talks about the embodiment of place in Apache culture in his essay for Senses of Place, and in his earlier monograph who's name I've forgotten. Its very hard for westerners, particularly immigrant Americans to understand the way a place can carry/embody a message. He describes it as being part of their language, not just in stories. Sounds as if the Japanese have retained, or longer retained, this connection to their place, perhaps because they've stayed put awhile.

30 July, 2009 09:37  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

oh.... that's very interesting. and of course, as i forgot to mention, the native populations of this country also felt mountains to be sacred.

i'll go look up those references -- thank you; i'd definately like to think more about this.

30 July, 2009 09:50  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

i'm posting this for neil who hasn't been able to get a post to go through:

"Lily, I tried twice the other day to leave a comment on this - first time I obliterated my post by mistake, second time I evidently did something else wrong! Hard to remember now what I wrote then, but essentially it was a thought about how Japan is dominated by mountains, but Britain by valleys. The sacred landscape here has been about the valley as a sacred vessel, and the importance within that landscape of elements such as springs and groves. Not that hills and mountains have been ignored, but there is definitely a different - perhaps a more female - emphasis."

this is a fascinating idea, neil -- thanks for adding it to the conversation.

if anyone else is having a difficult time posting here, check out these things i've learned by screwing up myself:

i had that same trouble on a couple of different blogs until i sort of accidentally noticed that i waited for the page to finish loading completely the comments went through.

also.... i've realized that if i go off and leave a comment in the middle while i have to do something (or think about it more) then come back to complete it it will disappear. very frustrating if you've put a lot of time into it.

actually... the same thing is true of a blog post. i've learned that if i leave it hanging for quite a while, mid-post, i'm better off going to 'edit posts' than just finishing it up and posting it.because the second method has also made stuff disappear (despite the fact that it appears to be saving).

30 July, 2009 18:52  
Blogger lotusgreen said...



30 July, 2009 18:56  
Blogger Margaret said...

What lovely, relaxing spaces. And such a great piece about the east/west consciousness. Neat!

31 July, 2009 08:16  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

aren't they grand?....

and thank you

31 July, 2009 09:46  
Blogger Roxana said...

i remember attending a conference and some professor told us a story after we listened to a paper on Heidegger - that Heidegger is very popular in Japan and he had asked a Japanese colleague about it, how come, if the translation doesn't pose any problems etc. and the Japanese professor answered: well no, it is very easy for us to relate to the concepts, when we take 'Dasein', for ex., - being-there, presence, existence - we say 'mount Fuji' and eveything becomes clear.

03 August, 2009 02:40  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

oh my roxy -- isn't that wonderful. your personal experiences add much to this blog!

and what your comment them makes me wonder is if in fact existentialism is itself another arm of japonisme; were these philosophers also influenced by the influx of japanese thought?

03 August, 2009 06:27  

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hi, and thanks so much for stopping by. i spend all too much time thinking my own thoughts about this stuff, so please tell me yours. i thrive on the exchange!

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