Katy Butler finds her spiritual ground
This was my wordless introduction to folk Shinto, Japan’s indigenous, pre-Buddhist religion. It has no founder, no dogma, and no scriptures—just rituals tied to the natural world. It honors a world spontaneously brought into being by the hard-to-translate kami— spirits of nature embodied and embedded in everything beautiful and therefore sacred: a rock, a lightning bolt, a waterfall, a grove.
“Do not be attracted by the sounds of spring or take pleasure in seeing a spring garden,” Dogen told his disciples in thirteenth-century Japan. “When you see autumn colors, do not be partial to them. You should allow the four seasons to advance in one viewing and see an ounce and a pound with an equal eye.” But outside his monastery gates, rice farmers were welcoming the spring with Shinto festivals and giving thanks for the harvest in autumn, knowing full well that the seasons would turn and come again. I picked up a broom, entered the little enclosure, and swept the shrine free of fallen leaves.
A few days later, in the mountains near Yoshino, I watched two young monks chant the Heart Sutra in a small temple built over a stream. They were followers of an ascetic and syncretic Shinto-Buddhist mountain tradition called Shugendo, which venerates snakes and waterfalls as well as buddhas and bodhisattvas. Blowing on conch shells, they exited the temple and walked up a series of stone steps, bowing at dozens of small altars. They bowed equally to peaceful stone bodhisattvas lined against a rock face running with water, and to a huge dragon-headed metal snake twined around a Shinto spear. I followed them, bowing, the two halves of my religious life finally coming together.
It is usually three or four in the afternoon when I retrace my way off the mountain, leaving the redwood grove and moving through bays and grasslands, passing a red-tailed hawk swooping across the bowl of the hills. Car sounds return. I descend past the rich houses of Flying Y Ranch and Cowboy Rock, into the valley of my daily life. I put my sweater back on, and start thinking about dinner. I start the car and drive home, to our dishwasher, coffee grinder, microwave, computers, and panoply of electric lights. The joy of my day on the mountain has fueled my efforts to live a saner life. It somehow helps me meditate for the rest of the week.
At home, I pick up the phone, call my mother, and reconcile. Then I take Dogen down from my bedroom bookshelf and read “Instructions to the Tenzo,” a practical guide for the head cook at a Zen monastery. Its severe tone seems at first to have little in common with the mysticism of his Mountains and Waters Sutra. Lose not a grain of rice, he says. Take care of the monastery’s rice and vegetables “as though they were your own eyeballs.” And when you boil rice, “know that the water is your own life.”
I try to obey. At dinner, I put the newspaper aside, light candles, and eat with full attention. “Innumerable labors brought us this food,” goes the meal verse we chanted at Tassajara. “We should know how it comes to us.” I try to remember where everything I use comes from and where it is going. I feel a mixture of guilt and gratitude. I try to regard every thing I handle—my rice, my sweater, my vacuum cleaner—as if they were my own eyeballs.
I blow out the candles. I clean the table and stove using super-cleaning microfiber cloths that require only hot water rather than chemicals. I apply elbow grease.
These forms of attention are more mundane and difficult for me to practice than the ecstasy I often feel on the mountain. Yet they too express a reverence for the natural world and an understanding of interdependence, just as my mother did when she squeezed water out of her laundry in England, and as Mirabai did when she worshiped the mountain energy night and day. Ultimately, Dogen says, housewifery and ecstasy are not that different. “Taking up a green vegetable, turn it into a sixteen-foot golden body,” he challenges me.
My altar holds not only a Buddha, but a seashell, a metal cricket, a snake, and an image of Mary. Likewise, my religious practice now is a hodgepodge of nature worship and Buddhist meditation and twelve-step programs, and I cannot make it all sound logical or consistent. When I’m tired or lonely and want to be numb, you can often find me driving alone up Highway 101, feeding the hunger that isn’t hunger, stopping at Whole Foods and Costco and Trader Joe’s, loading up on Brazilian papayas and toilet paper from the forests of the Northwest and my favorite yogurt from Greece. Sometimes I think I’m in the realm of the gods when in reality I’m acting like a hungry ghost. I forget that there is something in the brain that never hears “enough.”
Yet I don’t want to become so ascetic, taking no pleasure in a spring garden, but rather to open my heart and my senses to the vivid love I have for the natural world. The paradox is that when I open myself fully to pleasure, I use and waste less.
The next morning at breakfast, I light the candles, bow over my food and chant. I eat a bowl of oatmeal and half a papaya with a squeeze of lime. I dig the spoon into a bowl of smooth Greek yogurt. I let it roll off my tongue. It is not only asceticism that will save us, but delight. All the universe is one bright pearl, wrote Dogen. Everything is holy.
Katy Butler trained at the San Francisco Zen Center in the 1980s and was ordained into Thich Nhat Hanh’s Tiep order in 1991. Her last article for Tricycle, “The Lotus and the Ballot Box,” appeared in the Fall 2004 issue.