One of the wisest thoughts I’ve ever encountered about impermanence is this one from English writer W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, THE RAZOR’S EDGE:
“Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.”
It reminds me of a Hawaiian aesthetic that holds that beauty is made more precious when we understand that it is ephemeral and will not last.
The world changes and changes and, if we are wise, we will drink in whatever beauty we find and enjoy it while it is still with us.
Delighting in the beauty that we encounter and not begrudging the limited time it can stay, is the only response that makes sense in this world of change, Hawaiians say.
The glory of rainbows must surely be affected by our understanding that they do not linger on and on. They come. They glow. They fade away.
One of the most beloved flowers used for making Hawaiian lei garlands is the pua kenikeni.
This tubular, five-petaled wonder has a strong, unique fragrance that lingers as (in one day’s time) a strand of the flowers slowly morphs from being an exquisite creamy whiteness to a vibrant golden orange before becoming a collection of brown straggling bits.
The entrancing dance of lava flowing from the Big Island’s Kilauea volcano in this National Geographic Showcase Short Film produced by Lance Page and Wesley Young is hypnotically beautiful. The YouTube video was published in 2015.
Always, the eruption of one of our volcanoes is a dramatic reminder that change happens and the display of destruction and creation can be very beautiful.
All of these likely Hawaiian examples of impermanence are taken from nature, but in Japan — another island kingdom across the Pacific — honoring the beauty of impermanence, process, and regeneration takes a more human turn.
ANOTHER PEOPLE’S WAY OF HONORING IMPERMANENCE
For 1300 years and more, the Japanese people in the city of Ise and the surrounding areas in the Mie prefecture have carried on a tradition of cyclical reconstruction and deconstruction.
Every 20 years or so the people connected to the place rebuild two of the holiest of their holy buildings as well as a number of other structures that comprise the Shinto Ise Jingū or Grand Shrine.
The rebuilders use Hinoki cypress wood — some from trees that are over 400 years old with trunks that are 4.5 feet (1.4 meters) in diameter — taken from ancient mountain forests that surround the area.
The cultivated trees are planted, maintained, earmarked and harvested on a cycle that spans hundreds of years in order to provide material for the great work.
This short 2019 YouTube video, “Ise Shrine/Ise Jingu,” which features a tour of the shrine complex was uploaded by travel vlogger Charlie Casia. The serene beauty of the complex shines.
The two main shrines in the complex are the Gekū (Outer Shrine) and Naikū (Inner Shrine). They are separated from each other by about four miles (6 kilometers) of forested land. More than 120 smaller shrines and sanctuaries have sprung up around them as well.
The main shrines were originally built from wood harvested from the same forest that surrounds the latest iterations now.
These days, the local Hinoki wood is not as abundant as it once was so the shrine rebuilders have come to depend on other domestic producers who insure that only the very best wood is used for the work.
Logs are obtained from the mountains and floated down the rivers flowing past Ise.
Once the logs are harvested, they are put through a lengthy seasoning and drying process during which they spend several years in a pond before being dried and prepared as building material.
Timber for Gekū is landed from the Miya River while that for Naikū is landed from the Isuzu river.
No nails are used in the shrine construction. The master artisans who erect these buildings use an ancient post-and-lintel technique with intricately cut and fitted joints that are designed and carved to fit together like puzzle pieces.
My favorite YouTube video about the miyadaiku carpenters of Japan is this one, published in 2019 by a Great Big Story.
It is titled, “In Japan, Repairing Buildings Without a Single Nail” and features Takahiro Matsumoto, a miyadaiku from Kamakura, Japan who assesses and repairs damaged temples in his own city. It shows the kind of work these master craftsmen do.
A 100-meter long (longer than a football field) wooden bridge that spans the Isuzu River at the entrance of the Naikū shrine is rebuilt as well.
It’s actually a part of the training process.
The bridge is a journeyman project for the traditional miyadaiku temple builders — craftsmen and artisans who will, if they become masters, be entrusted with the next rebuilding of the main shrines.
The two shrines are each rebuilt on an empty building site that is adjacent to the current shrine. Each rebuilding has always alternated between these side-by-side building sites.
(The next scheduled rebuilding of Naikū, which is deeply connected to the Japanese imperial family, is scheduled to occur in 2033 on the lower, northern site.)
Other shrines in the complex are also included in the rebuilding project.
While the people at Ise Jingū are not the only ones to practice this kind of rebuilding, these structures are the only ones that have been consistently rebuilt through the many centuries of their existence.
Besides the builders and carpenters involved in the building, scores of other craftspeople prepare thatch for the roofs using traditional techniques, cut the gold sheets that make certain of the ridge poles shimmer in the sun, weave the cloth used for hangings, and attend to the myriad details that go into making the newest shrine incarnation real.
All over the country other artisans create the sacred offerings and utensils that will be used in the renewed structures as well.
The local people in the surrounding areas are often deeply involved in the process, participating in various traditional events as well as a number of festivals that also include the millions of pilgrims and tourists who visit the Grand Shrine complex every year.
There’s a special festival when some of the logs and timber that will be used in the rebuilding are moved onto the site with help from many willing arms and backs.
This video, “Ise Shrine,” was published in 2007 by Journeyman Pictures and offers a slice of the experience from one tourist vlogger.
The pebbles in the courtyard surrounding the newly built shrine are gathered, washed, then moved to the site and placed there by respectful human hands in a two-month process that involves the residents and visitors to the area.
(Afterwards the pebbles from the old structure are returned to the river. One day they may be returned again to the site.)
The entire reconstruction process ideally takes about 17 years, with the initial years focused on project organization, general planning and fundraising, and the last eight years concentrated on the actual physical construction of the buildings.
Ritual and celebrations orchestrated by the Shinto priesthood is generously mixed in throughout the whole process and the people come to help and to participate in and watch the spectacle slowly unfold.
About six months after each new shrine building is completed and the sacred objects housed in the old shrine are ceremonially transferred to the new one, the old shrine is disassembled.
Some parts of the old shrine are kept for use in the next rebuilding effort.
The old major shrine’s two massive main pillars are repurposed to make the enormous torii gate that greets the multitudes of pilgrims and other visitors to the shrine complex.
Other parts of the old shrine are used to repair and maintain the smaller shrines that have sprung up around the two main shrines or are distributed around the country to other shrines that need repair.
And still other bits will become part of Ise amulets that are then sold throughout Japan to be placed on household altars – in Japan and almost certainly in other parts of the world as well.
The thing about the Ise Grand Shrine rebuilding is that it continues, rippling through the world in ever-widening circles.
MORE THAN JUST A HUGE CONSTRUCTION PROJECT
Each rebuild costs about half a billion US dollars (of which at least half are paid for by Japanese tax payers).
Every rebuild requires about 10,000 to 12,000 old cedar trees, many of them grown and harvested from areas outside Ise, and all of them expensive.
It is a costly proposition, keeping the culture alive.
However, it is worth noting that the Ise Grand Shrine rebuilding is an ages-old, ecologically sustainable practice that provides a structure and a framework for renewing a deep national commitment to an ancient spiritual and creative tradition.
This tradition brings together large numbers of like-minded individuals as well as those bound to the place through all the generations of families who have been a part of the ongoing project.
How much is an affirmation of Life-Its-Own-Self really worth?
NOT A UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE
As I’ve said, the rebuilding of the Ise Grand Shrine is all about honoring impermanence, process and regeneration.
Maybe that’s one reason why these holiest of holy buildings in a country that is full of them – buildings that have occupied their current sites for more than 1300 years – have not made it onto the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) began their famous list of sites that are judged to be “important to the common culture and heritage of humanity” in 1972.
These sites, they say, have cultural, historic, geographical or some other unique feature that make them worthy of protection from harm.
Some of these UNESCO sites are considered to be places where humans made great strides in advancing technology or intellectual and spiritual thinking.
The UNESCO list and the preservation program connected to it, it is said, is one of the most widely acknowledged international agreements.
The sites on the list are very popular with world travelers and tourists as well.
[Click the button below for the latest iteration of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.]
There are currently 1,121 sites on the list. Twenty-three of them are in Japan.
You will notice, however, that Ise Jingū, the Shinto “Grand Shrine” complex which is not only historically connected to the imperial family of Japan but is also a justly famous pilgrimage site, is not on the list.
It’s said that the Shinto Imbe priests who care for the Grand Shrine have resisted the inclusion of it on the UNESCO list.
The priests say they do this because the shrines are a part of an ongoing, living tradition that continues still.
That reminds me of one old Hawaiian friend who once pointed out, “Preservation is not the same as perpetuation. Preservation is what you do to make pickles. When you perpetuate something, you are helping to keep it alive.”
Through the centuries of practicing this form of reverencing life and caring for the sacred within the world, the living tradition evolves, passing through the hands, hearts and minds of many people, and yet it remains the same.
Here’s a poem:
Rushing on and tripping
Over rocks and logs,
Half-seen in the depths
Of the river that
Flows on and winds
Past cities, towns and wild places,
Moving on and through
And in and out
Of the mind’s panoramic landscape,
Moving on and always
Moving forward, never back,
Carrying memory and recall
Into the future.
By Netta Kanoho
Header photo credit: “Ise” by Bong Grit via Flickr [CC By-NC-ND 2.0]
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