Joseph Anderson

Japan: The Spirit of Devotion

By chance one day we happened upon Rokkaku-do, a little temple nestled in the middle of a city block in the center of Kyoto, surrounded by skyscrapers.   In this unpromising spot the evidence of devotional practices was everywhere: in the paper strips tied to willow branches, in the incense and candles and coins offered at the various shrines and sacred personages, in the chanting of the young man next to me, who stood and recited the Heart Sutra in Japanese as I stood beside him and listened and joined my heart with his in this beautiful text about the power of emptiness.


In many ways I felt like an outsider in this country. Language and custom, the shared experience of school and university, the incredibly clubby and collective nature of so much that happens, along with an overriding sense of decorum and graceful self-awareness (which I admire but don’t possess)–all these separated me from those around me. I was constantly reminded that I am an American and I am an outsider.

But this devotional impulse, everywhere present, is one way in which I felt much more at home here than in my own country. I saw people touching images with tremendous dedicated loving care, I saw them ringing shrine bells and doing processions and chanting and climbing mountains wearing robes they painted themselves with sacred calligraphy. I saw huge mounds of votive tablets inscribed with personal wishes and heard the clink of coins dropped into a hundred coin boxes to call the attention of a hundred statues of deities to the intentions and dedication of their petitioners.

And this all felt surprisingly comfortable to me. But then, I’m a devotional person too: I was four years old when I “gave my heart to Jesus” (and meant it); I spent two decades singing Gregorian chant and especially loving the chants in honor of Mary; most recently have found myself engaged in a practice of honoring and expressing gratitude to the spiritual helpers and teachers that have come to me through my practice of shamanism.

So after stumbling off the subway, having dropped my change, talked too loud, eaten in the wrong place or the wrong way, envying the incredible belongingness of growing up in a place that is all about belonging, been frustrated yet again that absolutely everything, even the writing on the manhole covers, was in a language I couldn’t really understand – well, then places like Rokkaku-do and many morem like it were just a brilliantly wonderful relief and a tremendous joy that made all the dislocation worthwhile.

I am treading a fine line here, since the mantra I have been using on this trip is “I belong here just the way I am.” The devotion that I am practicing now (unlike those of my past, and perhaps unlike what I saw around me in Japan) is not a substitute for honoring myself as an individual. The devotion I am working on is rooted in my expression of individuality, the power of my imagination to construct the sacred world I need to live into, the potential of my soul in its current configuration to help bring about healing and blessing and wisdom in new ways. This can only happen through me, as I am, in this place and time.

Nevertheless, I put my palms together in a gassho for the ancient Shinto sages, for Kukai, Shinran, Dogen, and the millions of their followers who have created a society built on devotion.  Devotion has its problems, and it is not all that I am. But it is an enlivening core, a coil of energized wire that drives the movement of my being: I embrace that devotional core now, more than ever, with an open heart. I invite Spirit to work with me to discern what that means in the midst of my quasi-secular worklife and my individualistic, non-tradition-bound path.

Rumi says “there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Here at home, it can seem hard to believe that there is even one. Japan has taught me that Rumi is right.