A Natural World of Shrines and Spirits: Hayao Miyazaki on Japan and the Sacred

A Natural World of Shrines and Spirits: Hayao Miyazaki on Japan and the Sacred

[credit: Studio Ghibli, 1988]

“Westerners tend to think of dark and light in opposition: light is good and dark evil. I dislike this dichotomy….For Japanese who don’t think that way, the gods are in the darkness. They may come out into the light at times, but they are usually deep in the forest or mountains. When a holy spot is created, the gods drop down onto it. That is why, in the shrines that are closest to their original form that still exist in Okinawa, though there are altars in the shrines, the image of the god is just a tree or a stone. And such a shrine isn’t in a bright, shining place, it’s in an overgrown dark area where the silence is deep–a butterfly might flit about, but it’s a bit eerie. When I went there with my children, they felt the eeriness and said it was scary. It felt as if something were there. This sense of dark awe is the sort of veneration that Japanese have toward certain forests and natural objects–in short, it’s an animistic primitive religion. Many places have a ‘forest that shouldn’t be entered.’ Even people who are used to working in the mountains feel there is something there. They are suddenly overcome with fear and it becomes the custom to avoid certain places. These places exist. I don’t know what it is there, but I think they are real. I’m not a believer in the occult, but the world is more than we can fathom with our five senses.”

(Source: Hayao Miyazaki, Starting Point: 1979-1996, page 359)

City of Light and Water, City of Immigrants Atop an Ancient Homeland, City by the Bay

City of Light and Water, City of Immigrants Atop an Ancient Homeland, City by the Bay

[photo credit: David Martínez]

Spent a couple of February days recently staying at the Harbor Court Hotel and wandering the streets of San Francisco. During my brief stay I was especially fascinated with the SFO Bridge, which stood majestically across the street from my hotel. Without intending to I caught it expressing a range of moods. Click through and see….

Below This City Are the Bones of My Ancestors, Above Are the Names of Conquerors

Below This City Are the Bones of My Ancestors, Above Are the Names of Conquerors

[photo credit: David Martínez]

As I rounded the corner of the Asian Art Museum, I was struck by what I saw in the middle of Fulton Street, in front of the San Francisco Public Library. Despite how multicultural and cosmopolitan the City by the Bay has become over the generations, there are instances like this one that hearken back to a bygone era in which men raised monuments to their self-proclaimed destiny as pillagers and conquerors. For me, California is a snake biting its own tail. It is the alpha and omega of a civilization built on the ashes of others, including those who were Indigenous to places like the peninsula that is now home to San Francisco, not to mention those who sought their fortune here, only to be eaten up by poverty, fire, and earthquakes. As I’m looking at this picture now, I’m listening to a song by Erika M Anderson, a singer-songwriter better known as EMA, whose song ‘California’ keeps playing through my mind:

“You never seen the ocean,
You never been on a plane,
Schizophrenia rules the brain,
Aliens coming to take you away,
You’re still my favorite Past Life Martyred Saint.”

“Neither what is nor what is not, but only Shiva”: My encounter with the divinely other

[photo credit: David Martínez]

My first trip to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco turned into a sojourn the moment I encountered the 10th century face of Shiva. Demonstrating a power beyond the life and death of mortal creatures, this four-faced lingam evoked in my mind an ancient reverence for the earth’s four directions, from where the seasons, animals, and spirits keep their homes, and within which humankind fulfills its journey in this life. The mind of the divine, the Creator, who is also the Destroyer, of Life comprehends the eternal cycle of birth-decay-death-and-rejuvenation. Such beliefs, the foundation of all existence, which is the inspiration for song, prayer, dance, and ceremony, have metamorphosed across time and space as humans have migrated and adapted into an infinite array of environments, in which people have had to learn how to live in balance with nature. In the case of India, such beliefs and customs became known as “Sanatana Dharma, which means eternal faith, or the eternal way things are (truth).” What I experienced, in turn, as I meandered through the Asian Art Museum’s galleries was a stream of consciousness from which emerged a spectrum of sacred images, from India to China to Japan, segueing into Thailand, Cambodia, Mongolia, and Afghanistan, even reaching into the island Pacific. What I ultimately witnessed in these works was that each land, language, and people was following the path given them from their Creator, which they pursued for the sake of their well-being in a world where they, like all humans, would perish in the end.