Category Archives: Atheism

Love, Harry

The Meiji Shrine is just a hop-skip from Takeshita Street, with its cat cafes, kids in costumes, and stores dedicated to specialty socks.

But arriving at the shrine was like sinking into distant time and place.  The shrine—and I don’t know what makes it different from a temple—enshrines the deified spirits (but not the bodies) of the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken.

You may have heard of the “Meiji Restoration.”  It (to vastly simplify) was the reassignment of power to the Emperor Meiji from the Shoguns who had run things in Japan for hundreds of years.

During the shogunate there had been Emperors, but they were only figureheads, like today.  When the American Admiral, Matthew Perry, arrived in 1853 to press for a treaty after over 200 years of Japan being closed to foreigners, the Japanese recognized how far behind they were technologically.  The Emperor Meiji led the industrialization of Japan, along with other reforms.

Meiji was the 122nd Emperor.  That sure beats any European throne for continuity.  Naruhito, the 126th Emperor, just ascended to the throne after his father retired—a first in Japanese history.

I stopped at a café near the entrance to have a cappuccino and a red bean croissant and lace on my new walking shoes.  The café wasn’t anything special but I am still thinking about the croissant today, it was so delicious.  For the next month I would look for another one, to no avail.

The shrine is surrounded by 170 acres of woodland and gardens. The trees were so enormous it was difficult to capture them “on film.”  If you can make out the people in the photo below, it will give you a sense of the scale.

I had seen small wooden plaques at the shrine I’d visited the day before, but since my visit coincided with a torrential downpour I hadn’t lingered to inspect them.  Today it was dry.  This is just one of five or six walls of plaques. After observing for a while, I figured out that you buy a plaque at a little kiosk, write a prayer on it, then leave it behind—presumably in hopes that the Emperor’s or Empress’s deity will grant your wish.

Here’s Harry’s wish:

This reminded me of the western wall in Jerusalem, where people write prayers on scraps of paper and leave them tucked inside the cracks.  I did this.  In 1998 I left a prayer for my son to recover from addiction.  He is now in recovery.  So it worked!

Some of the plaques had illustrations of students taking exams or of boars—it being the Year of the Boar.  I bought a couple and tucked them in my bag.  I wasn’t going to leave them behind; they would make great little souvenirs.

I strolled through the gardens.  There was a bonsai exhibit.

And Iris gardens, which were cultivated in fields of standing water.

I caught a glimpse of a monk.

There was a gift shop; I bought a boar banner for 200 yen (less than $2) which I now have hanging in my entryway along with a plaque from a subsequent shrine.

I would travel to Nikko the next day.  I retired early to my hotel room and tried to deal with the mistaken charges on my credit card.  I got caught in a loop where I couldn’t login to my credit card company’s website because it wanted to send me a verification text due to me being in an unfamiliar location.  I couldn’t get texts, right?  And I couldn’t call them.  I tried Skype but my credit for regular calls had expired and when I tried to top it up it was somehow linked to Apple, which said my account was invalid.

Suddenly a slew of texts arrived.  I guess I could receive but not send.  My mother was in the ER, unfortunately a regular occurrence. I am on all her forms as the contact.  I had delegated to my brother while I was away but my niece stepped in and took charge.

My mom was released the next day.  I suppose I should have felt guilty about not being there, but I felt only relief.

Word of the Day: Death

I got up this morning to find that one of three kittens I am fostering for the Humane Society was dead.  It’s not uncommon for foster kittens to die.  The mother cats are stray, barely adults themselves, emaciated and hungry, and/or diseased. It’s a cruel world.

Later today I will attend a funeral where Vince will give the eulogy for his best friend from prison.  I don’t know how he died.  He was only 34.

For those of you who are new to the blog, I began writing it with my son when he was in prison.  As he transitioned from prison and addiction to a healthy, sober life, I was freed to write about fun things like travel.

I still try to contribute to efforts at reforming our US system of mass incarceration.  This week I attended a meeting with the new Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

We were there to demand a moratorium on a practice called crimeless revocations.  In Minnesota, out of the 10,000 men and women in prison, 24% are not there for committing a crime.  That’s right; they are in prison because, after serving their sentence and being released, they missed a meeting with their parole agent or—most commonly—they relapsed and used drugs or alcohol.

So we lock them up, where they sit in prison for four to eight months.  They do not receive drug or alcohol treatment or any other services because they are short-termers.  They lose their jobs, their housing, and whatever fragile relationships they have started to rebuild on the outside.

The commissioner agreed that this practice is a waste of time, money, and lives.  But he said he couldn’t stop doing it until he gets buy-in from all his people.  We’ll meet with him again in a month.

Vince wasn’t sent back to prison, but he had all his privileges revoked because he didn’t answer when his parole agent called.  He was doing community service work in a noisy warehouse at the time and didn’t hear his phone ring.  For a month, he was not allowed to leave the house for anything but work.  No AA, no socializing with family or his sober friends.  No gym, no runs. None of the things that were going to keep him on an upward trajectory.  It was his darkest month.

The prison system is designed to punish, not rehabilitate. One of the worst forms of punishment is to mess with people by setting unclear expectations, catching them on some minor infraction, and coming down on them like a sledgehammer.

In Japan, as I’ve described already, I stood to one side and observed as worshipers approached the inner sanctum of a temple or shrine.  In Tokyo, Nikko, Kyoto, Nara, and Koyasan, they bowed, clapped, threw coins into a donation box, and lighted incense or candles.

I’m not a believer, but I felt something, at times.  Perhaps it was because I was mystified by what was taking place.  Maybe I was moved by the sincerity of the worshipers, or the atmosphere.

Especially since my aunt died, and now that Vince’s friend has died, I would like to think there is the possibility of some lingering connection between the living and the dead.

Maybe I should turn the French curio cabinet I inherited from my aunt into a household shrine, complete with photos of ancestors and incense burners.

Day Two in Tokyo.  My sister-in-law’s father, Fred, is retired from a big Japanese company. He has been painting with a group of fellow retirees for years.  If I understood correctly, companies support their retirees to participate in hobbies together.  Fred is also in an essay-writing group.  Today I managed to find the building in which his painting group was holding an exhibition; these are his works.  He’s very talented.

I stopped first to get some pastries because that’s what people do in Japanese novels.

I’ve had eight hairstyles since I last saw Fred and Hiromi five years ago.  But of course I’m white.  He picked me out in the crowded building lobby, hugged me, and said, “Welcome, Anne-san!”

Meditations on Buddhism

I made it to the morning meditation, mainly because I was worried about not making it to the morning meditation, and so I couldn’t sleep.  Well, I only slept about two and a half hours because my legs were going berserk, but if that helped get me to the meditation, so be it.

Those of you who have been reading for a long time know that I am a Jewish Atheist Pagan, or JAP.  That’s better than the other thing that JAP stands for.  No, not Japanese—Jewish American Princess.

I don’t know much about Buddhism except that it began in India with the enlightenment of a monk named Siddhārtha Gautamaand and it spread across Asia.

As I write this in my room in the mountaintop monastery, the weird music they play at 6am, 5pm, and 9pm just started.  It sounds like the beginning of the Dr. Who theme song, then turns into a chime-y tune that I cringe in fear is shaping up to be “We Shall Overcome,” but then it fades into nothingness after a minute.

Each of the 52 monasteries in Koyasan, a tiny mountain town, has its own idiosyncratic brand of bells, gongs, chimes, chants, and other noises issuing through the air at all times of night and day.

Back to Buddha.  There many different representations of the Buddha, and bodhisattvas, who from my understanding are kind of understudies to the Buddha.  Is there only one Buddha? Good question.  I think there is only one and there are also thousands.  No one painted a picture of the original Buddha back in 4th Century Nepal.  This makes it okay to depict him in many different races and forms.  There must be hundreds of different strains of Buddhism.  I knew that Zen was a Japanese form, but as I’ve moved around Japan I’ve encountered dozens of others, mostly based on the teachings of some Buddhist master or other.

Buddha’s teachings are known as dharma and sutras are religious teachings.  He highlighted the virtues of wisdom, kindness, patience, generosity, and compassion.  The five main precepts of Buddhism, which are suggestions and not laws, are to refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication.  Well, I’ve never killed anyone!

As in many faiths, adherents practice meditation, and that can take many forms—silent, chanting, walking, using a mantra or symbol, etc.

In Japan, about 30% of the population is Buddhist and only three percent are Shinto, which is a Japanese indigenous religion. These faiths overlap and intersect.  Hinduism is also mixed in there.  Unlike with Christianity, none of the three seeks to stamp out the others.

Japan has a temple (Shinto) or shrine (Buddhist) around every corner.  Some are enormous, like Todaji Temple in Nara, which is the largest wooden building in the world and houses a 15-meter-high Buddha.

Others are obscure, like this tiny one I stumbled upon in Tokyo, dedicated to dogs.

At most temples or shrines, I have encountered people bowing, clapping, lighting incense or candles, ringing bells, or listening to monks chanting sutras.

Inside each shrine is … wait for it … an inner shrine.  In most cases these are surrounded by signs asking people not to take photos.  Here’s one that didn’t have any prohibitions.

The inner shrine at the monastery is much like this.  I made the faux pas of wearing my yukata, or dressing gown, to the meditation, and being told, “Yukata, no!”  I had read an etiquette book I bought, twice, and still got it wrong.

I ran up to my room to change and rejoined the group.  About eight guests were observing as two monks intoned (presumably) sutras, punctuated by drums, gongs, and bells.  One had a beautiful timbre to his voice, and the two chanted in harmony.  I have no idea what they were singing, but it was magical, surrounded by dragons, lanterns, candles, incense, lotus flowers and orchids, tapestries, and thousands of intricately decorated boxes.

The jury is still out on my phone but I am taking its darkness as the digital detox I have long discussed but never had the will power to carry out.  Maybe Buddha had a hand in it.

Circles

In one month I’ll be in Japan.  My plans are progressing.  I have been assured that my  investment of over $550 in a Japan Rail Pass will more than pay for itself.  I’ve booked accommodations in five locations and have two more to go.  I’ve downloaded apps like a free wifi finder, a Tokyo subway route finder, an offline map of Tokyo that turns out to be only in Japanese, and Google Translate.  I will test this last one out with my sister in law before using it on the street, just to make sure it doesn’t translate, “Where is the sub-way?” as “Where is the worst route?” or some such.

My aunt’s funeral took place last week.

The young priest at the small-town parish had alienated himself from the townspeople and congregants by firing the choir directors because they were openly gay.

Why couldn’t they stay closeted, like him and his “assistant,” Lance?

One day a month ago, my aunt had said to me and my cousin, “I hope you don’t think it’s weird, but I still want to be buried out of the Catholic Church.”  We assured her it wasn’t weird.  She’d been raised in the Catholic milieu of Small St. Paul in the 1930s and 40s.  She attended Catholic schools through high school and worked at a Catholic college.  There was, and still is, plenty of good work being carried out by nuns and Catholic lay people.

But she didn’t want the young priest saying her funeral mass, so my cousins imported a more liberal-minded visiting priest from St. Paul.  Other than calling her by the wrong name, he did a fine job.

You would think that a funeral would be the saddest part of a death, but this was a Catholic funeral, so it was all about Jesus and not my aunt.  Lance played the organ and belted out the hymns like he was in a broadway musical, so at least the music was good.

It’s the little reminders that catch you off guard.  Like seeing her knitting lying abandoned—the baby hat she’ll never finish. She knit baby hats for the local hospital.  I teared up when I came across her glasses, which she wore to read or work on crosswords, two of my own favorite pastimes.

While my aunt was dying—in pain or during moments of indignity she would have hated if she’d been conscious—someone asked, “What’s the point of all this!?” and I thought, “There is no point.  It’s biology, physiology, pathology at work.  It’s “nature, red in tooth and claw.”

And in my mind I start going around in circles like I always do, asking, “What’s the point of life?”

Some people seem to believe that the point is to be productive.  “I’m so busy!” is their refrain, as though that’s something to be proud of.  Others believe the point is to change the world for the better.  But I’ve seen so many well-intentioned do-gooders make things worse.  Is the point to live in the moment and be appreciate whatever is good and beautiful?  That seems a vapid, not productive….  Like I said, circles.

There are infinite details to figure out for the trip.  I need to get my duplex ready for the Chinese couple who are renting it while I’m away. And figure out how will I meet up with my sister in law’s parents to retrieve my nephew when the time comes.  And how do I buy tickets for a baseball game?  My nephew would love that. Must remember to register with the State Department.  Would it be worth going to Yokohama, where my dad was a sailor with the US Navy before I was born?  Should I get travel insurance?  What kind of gift should I bring for the in laws?  Japanese gift giving is fraught with peril.

And what is the deal with the baths?  Are they for health?  To get clean?  To socialize?  To relax?  There are so many types, and so many rules.  This CNN video clip about Japanese baths features Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who quips, “Having to say a prayer before you do something?  Makes me a little nervous.”

Walking in Bogota

Our itinerary said we would have a private city tour “after breakfast.”  What did that mean, and how were we supposed to locate our guide, or vice versa?  Breakfast at the hotel was from 7-10am, so Lynn and I had a leisurely couple cups of coffee and caught up on life events since we’d seen each other in Scotland.

The standard breakfast in all four places we stayed in Colombia included: eggs however we wanted them, arepas or toast, juice, fruit, and coffee. Arepas are little round flat breads—slightly chewy inside and slightly crispy outside—made of ground maize (corn).  They’re standard fare in Colombia and Venezuela.  The fruit selection usually included fresh papaya, pineapple, melon and, at the first hotel, ground cherries.

It got to be 9:30 and there was no sign of a guide so we moved toward the lobby to figure out Plan B.  And there he was, waiting for us.

“I expected you at 9:00,” he said.  We explained the itinerary had been nonspecific.  It wasn’t a big deal, and we were soon on our way.

Michael was wearing bicycle gloves and carrying a bike helmet.  This was our introduction to how integral bike culture is in Colombia’s cities. Bogota, for instance, shuts down its main streets every Sunday for people to cycle from 7am to 2pm.  Since the next day was Sunday, we witnessed this as we were being driven to the airport.  There were thousands of people out bicycling—young and old, families and groups of teens.  Some stopped to chat or picnic on the grassy medians, but mostly they were peddling.

“Maybe that’s why you don’t see many fat people here,” I commented to our driver.  I said “fat” rather than “overweight” because I wasn’t sure how much English he understood.  He laughed and replied, in Spanish, that all the gorditos—fat people—lived on the coast, where it was too hot to exercise and they ate lots of fried food.

“I’m a student, a biker, and an activist,” Michael told us by way of introduction.  He appeared to be in his early 20s.  His English was great and very, very fast.  As he led us down the street it became clear he was an activist first and probably a biker second and student third.

Bogota, Medellin, and Cartagena are home to impressive collections of public art.  Some is government-sponsored, but much of it is in the form of murals depicting political-socioeconomic themes.

“We don’t consider ourselves Colombian, or Ecuadoran, or Bolivian, or Peruvian,” Michael explained.  “We are indigenous, and we’re trying to make our voices heard but a handful of wealthy families own the country and control everything.

“For instance this is the Pachamama, the mother earth,” he said about this mural.

“That shop over there,” he indicated, “sells all the herbs used by indigenous healers.”

“Lots of tourists are coming now to try Ayahuasca.  It’s said it can cure any problems of the soul or mind or heart.”

“Maybe we could try it this afternoon,” I joked.

He didn’t think that was funny, and Lynn had wisely not joked along with me.

“It’s a medicine meant to be used only by shamans for spiritual purposes” Michael said, as he hurried us along.

“The Spanish and other Europeans tried to erase the Andean people.  Slowly, we’re coming back.  See that man up there?”

“It’s one sculpture of a man who is not a conqueror.”

“He’s juggling, on a unicycle?” Lynn observed.

“Much of the art is designed to be non-threatening, so it won’t be taken down,” Michael explained.

We entered Bolivar Square.  Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad de Bolívar y Palacios—or just Simón Bolívar, the liberator of the above-named countries plus Panama.

If this had been Rome or Paris or London, this square would have had tens of thousands of tourists jostling each other for selfies and photo opps.  But this is Colombia, in the early stages of tourism.

We stood in the square for a long while as Michael related the recnet history of double crosses, coups, war, and massacres.  No wonder people prefer to bike instead of attending church in the splendid but empty cathedral.

A Worldview from The Hill

A free day in Washington, DC.  There’s so much to see there.  It was a tossup between the two new museums, one dedicated to African Americans and one to Native Americans.  I chose the latter, since I had been to a Native wedding the previous weekend and had been thinking about cultures and spiritual traditions and my lack thereof.  Maybe I could learn something here.

And I hit the food-for-thought jackpot.  There was an entire exhibit about Native American cosmologies—worldviews and philosophies related to the creation and order of the universe.  It would take an encyclopedia to do justice to Native American cosmologies, so I apologize in advance for what I am about to get wrong or leave out.

I watched a 15-minute introductory video which made the point that the term “American Indian” encompasses hundreds of tribes from Bolivia to Alaska and from Seattle to Florida and that they all have their own traditions and customs.  The video showed a guy doing something most people would associate with Native Americans—drumming in a pow wow or carving a totem or some such (I can’t remember) and he said, “This isn’t something we do for fun—this is the way it is.”

I’ve been to pow wows so I think I know what he meant.  A non-Native could come away from a pow wow thinking, “Well that seemed like a nice excuse to dance and socialize and I’m glad they let me observe but it seemed kind of cheesy and repetitive and I don’t need to go again.”  Whereas for Natives who take it seriously, the regalia and music and dancing have significance way beyond their outward appearance.

The cosmology exhibit featured eight tribes.  An impression I’ve always had about Indian spirituality is that it’s nature based.  Having been raised in a Catholic milieu, I can’t think of anything related to the natural world in Catholicism.

Judaism, the world religion with which I’ve always identified, has a few nature-focused holidays.  Sukkot requires us to build a temporary dwelling outdoors and eat in it every day for 10 days to remind ourselves of the 40 years we spent wandering in the desert.  Tu B’Shvat is the New Year of Trees and we … plant trees.  We throw bread on the water (a river or lake) during the High Holidays to symbolize casting away our sins.  But these are once-a-year holidays.  We used to sacrifice bulls under the full moon but thankfully discarded that tradition.

The natural world was the starting point all of the tribal cosmologies.  Basically, each worldview started with some kind of geographic division: the four compass directions or, in the case of the Mapuche, six dimensions including the water below and Father God above.  Each natural sphere is associated with values or animals or human traits.

The values overlapped but weren’t exactly the same from tribe to tribe.  The Lakota Souix and Anishinabe are tribes that inhabit Minnesota and vast areas beyond.  Lakota values corresponding to the four compass points are generosity, wisdom, respect, and fortitude.  Anishinabe values also include wisdom, respect, and fortitude—plus love, courage, honesty, humility, and truth—but not generosity.  The Maya value wisdom, honesty, integrity, faithfulness, authority, and spiritual leadership.  The Yu’pik value respect, loyalty, and authority.

These are Yu’pik elders consulted on the exhibit.

In Judaism, I would say justice is the primary value.  I thought maybe the Lakota value of truth was close to this but for them “truth” is about things that are eternal, like the sun and the moon—things that never change.  Courage was the closest to justice; in the case of Natives it means moral strength to do the right thing.

I won’t get into the forms of worship—if that’s the correct word—but it does seem true that Native practices—at least the eight tribes represented here—really did spring from and revolve around nature.

Some tribes had worldviews that included an afterlife; some didn’t even have a future tense.  One of the afterlives was described as “a place where you go when you die to dance forever.”  I’m sure that sounds great to some people but not to me.  I’m a horrible dancer.

Big and Bigger

On to our final stop, Shaftsbury, via Sherborne.  I love its Wiki description:

Sherborne is a market town and civil parish in north west Dorset, in South West England. It is sited on the River Yeo, on the edge of the Blackmore Vale, 6 miles east of Yeovil. The A30 road, which connects London to Penzance, runs through the town.

Sherborne has a famous Abbey, the exterior too big to capture in a photo, but here is the interior.

A man was singing snippets of songs to test out the acoustics, which were great.  In fact, the elderley woman giving him and his wife a tour declared,  “Aren’t they orgasmic!” and this word rippled throughout the church.

This gate is carved out of wood.

There was the usual tomb of a dead 16th Century couple who may have founded or rebuilt or otherwise bankrolled the abbey; I don’t recall their names and sadly few other visitors will, even though the final resting place they splashed out on is so magnificent.

There was this more modest tomb containing six people, including children who died at 50 weeks and three years and someone’s 16-year-old wife.  You wonder if anyone in town lived to a ripe old age, which back then would have been about 40.

There was this splendid fellow on a monument out front, and a beautiful wrought-iron gate which was marred by a modern sign posted next to it which said, “No Dogs, No Cycling, No Ball Games.”  This was according to the Ecclesiastical Court Jurisdiction Act of 1860 and meant to protect “this consecrated ground.”

There are thousands of churches and abbeys and minsters and cathedrals in the UK.  Fewer than five percent of English people attend church.  The figure is almost nine percent in Scotland, but still much lower than the 38% of Americans who attend church on a weekly basis.

I’m an atheist Jew who loves old churches.  You don’t need to be a fervent believer in Jesus to feel uplifted—if not orgasmic—by soaring vaulted ceilings, stained glass, and all the history embodied—literally—in tombs.  I always drop some coins in the donation box.

Sherborne itself was a pretty town, with some well-preserved half-timber buildings.

And a gorgeous building that I believe was formerly some kind of monks’ residence, now converted into luxury flats, complete with signs that warned, “Private Property, No Entrance.”

And adjacent to the parking lot, this classic scene:

There are two Sherborne castles—“old” and “new.”  We stopped in the National Trust office to ask directions and walked off clutching maps.  We were soon leaving town on a narrow road with no sidewalk.  One sign early on pointed to the castle, then there were no more. We walked and walked.  A high wall on one side of the road prevented us from seeing what might be on the other side and the road had curve after curve which prevented us from seeing what was ahead.  It was high noon on a hot day.  We stopped in a shady spot for a rest.

“Do we keep walking?” I asked.

“It could be just around the next bend,” Lynn replied.  “Or we could be completely lost, as usual.”

“Yep.  I’m hungry.  Let’s give up and go to that historic pub the National Trust lady told us about.”

“Okay … but if we can’t find a castle don’t get your hopes up about finding a pub.”

We managed to follow the directions and find two other pubs.  No one had ever heard “Sherborne’s Oldest Pub” promoted in the tourist office and on the map.  Every English town has a pub called The George; we had lunch there.  I had a steak and kidney pie with a pint and Lynn had a fish pie with a ginger ale.

Next stop: the Cerne Giant.  Trigger warning: If you are offended by penises, stop reading now.  Although, if you are offended by penises you are probably already offended just by me writing the word penis.

Here he is, cut into the turf and filled with chalk.  Saxon god?  Political satire?  Teen prank?  The story is unknown but most agree he dates to the 17th Century.