Transcendence and water

One of the highlights of my visit to Tsubaki Grand Shrine(and from what I can tell, others’ visits, too) has been misogi, a purification ritual done in water.

A central part of Shinto, misogi is an act that strives to remove impurities from us so that we can better be in harmony with nature and the whole of existence. The purification has both spiritual and physical elements, embodied in the water, which is both the home of the kami and a physical presence of great power. Here at Tsubaki, that water takes the form of an ice-cold waterfall off a stream that flows down from the sacred mountains above the shrine (see this National Geographic photo of the place: just scroll over to it, it’s about the 15th photo). Because the waterfall itself is sacred—the kami, or spirit, of the shrine is thought to actually be present in the waterfall in one of his manifestations—it is necessary to purify oneself before entering the water.

This preparation consists of a prayer in the shrine building, changing into the loincloth and headband (yes, I said a loincloth), a series of physical and spiritual exercises, and then a walk down the steps to the water, where the leader purifies the water by spitting saltwater and throwing sake around. From there, one steps into the pool of water and splashes some of it onto the chest, face, and neck to get ready for the cold. When it is your turn, you step in, clasp your hands with middle fingers pointing out, and recite a short prayer several times: “Harae tamae kiyome tamae rokkonshojo,” which translates to something like “cleanse me of impurities.” You step out when told to, and bow to the water and the shrine, then go dry off and change.

When you step into the waterfall, it’s shocking. I can’t adequately communicate this in words. I thought I would be better prepared for it the second time, but if anything, it was more of a surprise since the water was much stronger after a week of rains. It is both very cold and very powerful, literally battering down on your neck and shoulders. It takes a second just to get your bearings, force your hands together and try to start speaking the prayer. It was an experience of transcendence, and I’ll be thinking about its significance for me for some time. I’m not yet ready to write about that, but it was powerful.

You might notice this post, unlike my others from Tsubaki, does not have a photo. No less a figure than John Buehrens himself advised me to destroy all pictorial evidence of my misogi. I haven’t done that, but I’m not publishing it here—at least not until somebody pays a large sum to the Christian Schmidt Scholarship Fund. Any takers?

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  1. […] Schmidt participates in a Shinto purification ritual called misogi. When you step into the waterfall, it’s shocking. . . . It is both very cold and very powerful, […]

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