Saturday, February 28, 2004

SUGAWARA II: Hot Prayers

You know how it is when at last you find the grail, holy or otherwise: you get giddy. Like us, most of the folks who had managed to find the Famous Firewalking Ritual were pretty giddy, in their case perhaps moreso at the prospect of walking barefoot through fire than anything else. But when we finally stumbled upon the Renowned Shrine right where I presume it has always been, things hadn't gotten too far under way; we slowly worked our way through the crowd toward the front where the chanting was going on in front of a not-all-that-imposing shrine (you don't have to be all that imposing, if you have the gravity of age going for you, and 1300 years is doing pretty good in this Mcera), before a sort of fire altar made of cedar branches arranged over cedar logs with a bamboo rail on top, tall bamboo stalks and a gohei (in the photo at left, the cut white paper wand on the altar; sort of a two-dimensional helix, it represents the structure of kami), all ringed by shimenawa, several priests chanting the long prayer invocation leading up to the sacred conflagration.

Then a priestess in red and white began dancing an ancient ritual dance with sacred golden bells in her hand before the green altar and then around the front of the crowd, blessing us all with the uplifting sound; when the dance was concluded, the guji, the head priest of the shrine, stepped out from the crowd in vivid scarlet robes and high-ranking lacquered cap, strode to stand before the green altar and began the more to-the-immediate-point invocation, during which the many assistant priests handed him one by one the thin cedar boards of varying lengths upon which supplicants' names and hopes had been written, they gave him the largest boards first (the biggest donations), whose inscriptions the guji read out before standing each one on the altar, starting at the center, the boards getting smaller and the invocations shorter till all the boards were on the altar, then he stepped back, received the long flame-tipped bamboo pole from an assistant, lit the green altar and stood back to watch the hot prayer grow. In reality, this segued smoothly into the next part.