Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Thresholds of Divinity

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Thresholds of Divinity

Article excerpt

Symbolic gateways in the Japanese landscape mark the boundary between the realm of human experience and the world of the gods

No visitor to Japan can fail to be impressed by the many torii - simple yet highly remarkable gateways - which adorn the landscape in town and country, in field and forest, on riverbanks and even in the sea. Although unmistakably gateways, they consist simply of two pillars set in the ground, surmounted by two horizontal beams, one just above the other. A number of variations on this basic form may be encountered, but the principle of construction remains the same. Virtually devoid of decorative elements, the gateways are characterized by austerity and purity of line. Constructed of wood, stone, porcelain, metal or even reinforced concrete, they may be left bare or be painted red and black. The height and width of the gateway may vary from one metre up to twenty or more.

Composed of a few elegant strokes, the torii resembles an ideogram, a signature affixed to nature by human hand. A gateway without a gate, it cannot be closed nor does it form an opening onto an otherwise closed space. However, its very presence carries meaning. It is an emblem of faith. The torii stands as a clear pointer to the essential relationship between humanity and nature which has existed since ancient times. It forms a symbolic boundary between two realms which are fundamentally different in human experience: the sacred province of the gods (kami) and the profane sphere of everyday human activity.

The torrii constitutes an almost intangible threshold across which nature and humanity may communicate. A thirteenth-century painting depicts a sacred mountain at the foot of which one of these gateways may be seen. The mountain is the sanctuary, and the torii is the only visible sign of human presence.

* Sacred pillars

In addition to their aesthetic qualities, torii also have an ethical significance which extends far beyond the doctrinal framework of Shinto, which is the foundation of religious belief in Japan. In Shinto belief, the gods are neither omniscient nor omnipotent. These far-from-perfect entities are natural forces which bear a striking resemblance to human beings, although their behaviour sometimes defies human understanding. It is only by their works that the gods differ from mere mortals. As if to stress this proximity, Shinto conceives of the link between heaven and earth in a very concrete manner, as the "August Celestial Pillar" on the island of Onogoro. In a more general sense, the pillar plays an important role in Japanese mythology. The architecture and rituals of Shinto consider some pillars to be sacred. Anyone may pass through a torii at will, it is always open to wind, light and sound, and to animals and humans alike.

* The Suwa trail

To escape from the oppressive summer heat of Tokyo, I spent a few days in a mountainous region in the centre of Japan, staying in a small house situated in a forest of pine trees, silver birches and lacquer trees, the sap of which is an irritant to the skin.

At the point where the path to the house departs from the main road stands a torii built of grey stone. The rectangular plaque hanging from the centre of the horizontal beams is inscribed with a name of great resonance: Suwa Jinja. The Suwa sanctuary, situated near the Suwa lake on Honshu island, is particularly renowned for the four sacred pillars (tree trunks stripped of their bark) set at its four corners.

But this roadside torii does not lead directly to the sanctuary. The three or four-metre-high stone gateway, in perfect keeping with its natural surroundings, simply marks the entrance of the path leading to one of the subsidiary areas of Suwa Jinja. …

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