Shinto Sacred Sites: Musings on Natural Beauty and Power

When walking about in nature, I respond to the visual beauty of shapes and colors, the effects of light, and the motion of trees and water. The fresh scent after a rain or the call of a bird may add a grace note. The slower natural rhythms and quiet provide a soothing contrast to visually jarring aspects of the constructed world, tight schedules, and everyday stress. But on the other hand, when exploring in nature, one can suddenly come across a jutting cliff, or a rushing waterfall which has a sense of pure natural power which is anything but tranquil. 

When I visited Japan to view a number of famous gardens, I was expecting to experience integrated compositions of beauty, tranquility and harmony. I found these in abundance. I learned for example, that massed contours of clipped azaleas can make one feel levitated – like floating on clouds – and that some gardens unfold horizontally, as one might view a scroll in a sequence of linked images.

With these gardens, a vision is being shared and yet each person experiences the garden from their own individual perspective. In a way, a living dialogue happens. I observe and respond to the garden moment by moment, and the garden moves and changes as I move my eyes and feet. This provides delight, energy, grounding, peace, comfort and wonder. 

Upon reflecting back upon the many experiences of the trip, perhaps the least expected was the depth of my response to specific areas of Shinto shrines. These sites were not gardens but ancient sacred sites. Stone steps set in the earth led up a short way into the woods to a small square space marked off with a simple straw rope. Within this space was a low boulder.

Nearby was an enormous tree that curved up from a rectangular bed of gravel. The tree was circled by a rope from which hung white paper constructions. At yet another site, I saw a sacred spring that was noted with a sign.

For me, as a foreign tourist with no background in Shintoism, these ancient sites, with their trees and boulders, had a basic and primal quality which was very compelling. I responded to their simplicity, clarity of form, and relationship to the natural setting where dappled light through the leaves enhanced their ancient feeling. They had dignity and great power.


It is interesting to speculate whether these ancient sites have had an influence on the design of gardens created primarily for aesthetic purposes. In Japanese gardens, tress and other natural objects are used with great respect for their essential qualities, and boundaries are normally strong and clear.

When I returned to the United States, I went looking for places that had some of the natural power of these ancient sacred sites. I found that energy when viewing large boulders that had been jumbled together and left by the glaciers. 

I began to wonder if some of that power could be brought into a designed garden and whether it would prove to be peaceful or unsettling. The additional question arises of whether being unsettled in such a way would be a good or bad thing. The answers may vary from person to person, but it is always good to remember that we have a fundamental relationship with the pure power of nature. 

This article first appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening which has since been renamed, Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.

Whimsy Has Its Place

Many of us are attracted to the playful, quaint and fanciful.  Children take to it naturally, of course, but you can also find it in New Yorker cartoons and a satirical print of a calligraphy class – see detail below. I think that is a good thing. A taste for whimsy is one of the more appealing human traits.

The gentle art of whimsy can provide a point of light that is especially appreciated in dark times.  During the postlude to a virtual church service in these times of COVID 19 social distancing, two children vigorously “played” a large organ displayed behind them in their little Zoom rectangle.

When is the last time you engaged in banter or added a small whimsical touch where it could bring you and others a moment of joy?

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Cat calligraphy class print copy

Japanese Tea Ceremony’s Enduring Zen Flavor

Tea practice copy

Japanese tea ceremony’s flowing process for preparing a bowl of tea may strike one as elegant or beautiful. However, for those unfamiliar with the art, just viewing a demonstration may not provide much insight into the depth that lies just below the surface.

Tea practice evolved over time. After it was introduced to Japan from China, tea was grown at Zen monasteries. Processed and ground tea leaves were mixed into hot water to support the monk’s alertness during meditation. This emulsion supports considerable and sustained calm awareness all by itself. It was also used as a form of medicine – matcha has many health benefits.

When the warrior elite adopted the drink, they delighted in collecting and showing off costly tea utensils. These objects were used as proof of political authority, and given to generals as rewards.

In the 1500’s, merchants with Zen training adopted a style of sharing tea imbued with refined rustic simplicity. All classes and women were invited to participate. In this space apart, all present were honored and treated with great respect. Sen no Rikyu brought this style of tea preparation to its peak. Since that time, standards for Japanese tea ceremony have been maintained by hereditary tea schools.

Business executives adopted the way of tea followed by young women who would often return to it after raising their children. Learning about the many arts (like flower arranging, brush painting and ceramics) that tea ceremony employs was another way to fill free hours. Urasenke, the largest tea school, established chapters outside Japan in 1951. They recently began publishing books in English with detailed instructions and extensive photos starting with the styles of preparing tea that beginners learn first.

Tea practice in my tea hut (see the photo above) brings me into this season, and this time of day, embodied and grounded. There is something about the natural movements that brings one into accord with nature’s rhythms. Many comment on how time seems to slow down. With attention fully directed to what one is doing in the moment, there is no bandwidth left over for worrying about how one is perceived, or ego posturing. While you might think tea ceremony’s proscribed procedures would make it feel stiff or impersonal, it actually feels surprisingly intimate. Despite the formality, the caring generosity built into the practice is very real.

Under the right conditions, awareness may broaden to encompass everyone in the tearoom, the mossy tea garden and then expand outward from there. Even when mistakes occur or the right utensil is not available (creative improvisation is definitely appropriate per the tea literature), tea practice consistently brings me centering peace.

From tea ceremony I learned how bringing attention and intention to potentially annoying everyday activities can transform them. Washing dishes can become joyful service and meditative play. Tea ceremony teaches that it is possible to live life more like an intentional work of art with deep respect for the potential in each moment.

Finding Joy in Details – Morrisonite Jasper

I find Morrisonite to be particularly rich in details. Both the jasper and the beautiful location where it is found stimulate the imagination. I can count on delightful surprises when I attempt to capture its endless patterns and colors in closeup photos.

The slabs shown below include an entire cross section of a jasper seam. The second photo shows a small section of a slab. Several examples exhibit the overlapping egg pattern that also occurs in several other types of jasper.

Lapidary artists find a great deal to select from. While the finished cabs can be set in jewelry, the best are often acquired by collectors who prefer to keep these little works of natural and lapidary art just as they are.

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Abalone Tide Lessons

As soon as I started the photo series, I was totally entranced. There were worlds of dazzling design in the abalone shells’ spiraling concave interiors. I might discover an area of delicate veiled dreams or bold drama. Taking closeups and seeing what the camera had captured became an addiction.

I began to sense how the shimmering designs carried the rhythm of the tides that the abalone depended upon for all their needs. There were encoded hints of whale song yearning and how our planet breathes as it dances with its companion moon.

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The Colors of Labradorite

Turn a piece of Labradorite and you can sometimes see flashes of bright color.  The crystal structure selectively reflects these colors to the eye in an effect called “labradorescence”. A valuable variety from Finland known as “Spectrolite” has colors that stand out against a darker background.

While this stone has been compared to the Northern Lights and some prescribe to it protective or visionary qualities, Labradorite’s colors alone are enough for me to want to spend time with it.

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Dappled Light

Now we are keeping to our homes, animals are coming closer. During solitary dawn walks to listen to the bird chorus, I come across rabbits just sitting there in the middle of the road. A neighborhood fox ran across adjoining backyards. Our generation has access to so much recorded history and information, and to so many things. Yet nature has her own inescapable ways and her own time table.

My most recent post was about what happened after I removed a fence I had allowed to decay naturally. The table in the photos below will likely be around much longer. Lichens will shun it. If we are indeed living in twilight times, I cannot help hoping that dappled light will still find the shiny objects humans leave behind.

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What Removing the Sleeve Fence Revealed

I did not use preservative on the bamboo sleeve fence, preferring to let it weather naturally. In 2010, it was still holding up, drawing the eye to the glacial scraped granite outcrop at the center of the backyard. In winter, the slats captured snow.

By 2017, the fence had begun to disintegrate while the lace leaf maple behind it was making a more substantial statement of its own. In 2019, I decided to give the fence one more year.

In May 2020, it was time. With the cool weather, the oaks had not fully leafed out and light streamed from behind the tea hut. Perhaps light always filters through like that in the spring. With the fence in place, I might not have noticed. Paying attention to what inspires wonder seems particularly important in these dire times.

I wanted the fence to separate the sunken area behind the hut – to keep it special. Now a magical light radiated from that corner as if the spirit of the place had grown so strong it could no longer be contained.

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Reflections on a Tea and Dialogue Thesis

Tea hut 2 Jim & Anita Photo from video by Jeff Klein

Two older adults engaging in heart-felt dialogue.

After many years of having Japanese tea ceremony a part of my life, I began to think of the Zen art as a time capsule of wisdom that is very much needed in our challenging times. While I have deep respect for those who carefully preserve the traditional art, very few even in Japan, are willing to learn its choreographed procedures these days (Surak, 2013). But because I felt that “tea wisdom” is so badly needed, I longed to find a way so that more could access it.

Early in my studies in Lesley University’s Mindfulness Studies program, I realized there was a serious problem with that dream – The sustained awareness needed to enact tea ceremony’s proscribed procedures is also what provides access to much of its depth.

Fortunately, I learned about Insight Dialogue, a meditative dialogue practice developed by Gregory Kramer (2007) that also sustains a high level of awareness while interacting with others. Combining elements of the two practices would take the new practice far from tea ceremony’s flowing peace, but I knew that meditative dialogue has its own important benefits. For example, it helped me encounter and release a false story that undermined bringing greater peace to my everyday life.

I was lucky to secure an internship placement at the Arlington, Massachusetts Council on Aging where I offered ongoing sessions of tea and dialogue to older adults in a six-week workshop format. My internship supervisor told me her greatest concern for the clients her agency serves was their risk of loneliness and social isolation. Someone she saw participating in various programs the agency sponsored might simply disappear, never to return. Then she would worry because she knew social isolation has been found to be as bad for health as smoking or obesity. I told her I believed tea and dialogue provides supportive connection capable of combating that harm. My master’s thesis topic had, in effect, found me.

Using a new tea and dialogue mindfulness practice to combat older adults’ risks from social isolation, given it works via video conference, seems almost too relevant now. The COVID 19 pandemic has made social distancing a common practice for all age groups, and the virus particularly threatens older adults’ health. The harmful influence of ageism that I discuss in my thesis is also quite relevant. Keeping visitors away from vulnerable older adults in nursing homes makes sense to protect them, but “inspectors are likewise staying away” (Ornstein & Sanders, 2020, April 24) at a time when their oversight seems particularly important.

On the other hand, the importance of social connection for our species is gaining greater recognition. And more widespread use of video conference technology might reduce use of transportation dependent upon harmful fossil fuels.

About a year ago, I met a skilled videographer during a walk in my neighborhood. He agreed to help create videos of older adults engaging in variations of tea and dialogue practice. Starting to gather raw footage did not present a large risk. Even if the edited videos could not be used for a creative thesis as I hoped, I wanted videos anyway to help create awareness of tea and dialogue’s benefits. Words alone cannot do the practice justice.

If I gained approval to use the videos for my thesis, having gotten an early start would take the pressure off locating participants and accommodating their schedules. We could collaborate in “trust emergence mode” taking advantage of opportunities and there would be more time for careful video editing which can be time consuming.

While it would be important for participants to feel safe to speak candidly, what is spoken might not always be appropriate for videos intended for a public audience. But since the videos would need to be edited for length in any case, giving participants the power to designate exclusions might solve that problem. I checked this idea out with Gregory Kramer who created Insight Dialogue. He agreed and seemed reassured that expert Insight Dialogue teacher, Jan Surrey, was supporting the project.

After I started locating participants, I realized that jumping into the role of producer-director put me well outside my comfort zone. But it seemed like it would be too much fun not to try. In fact, I would be engaging in the creative collaboration that I love with an amazing team, while working on something I deeply believe in that might prove of real benefit. It does not get much better than that.

As it turned out, the experience was one of vivid aliveness. The topic we explored, “the unending sea of blessings” (Wilson, 2012, p. 135), and the Insight Dialogue guidelines – Pause, Relax, Open, Attune to Emergence, Listen Deeply and Speak the Truth – supported our interaction. The mood ranged from playful to solemn but there was always deep gratitude for each other that was at times acknowledged by explicit statements of appreciation.

Since video conveys tone of voice, changing facial expressions and meaning carried by coordinated actions, I hoped others could get a sense for the supportive connection we felt. You can judge for yourself by reviewing my March 2020 posts that provide access to the edited videos.

Like the older adults in my internship workshops, the video participants exhibited gifts for mindful communication. They shared generously and with open honesty. It was clear from their facial expressions that they really wanted to listen. And consistent with evidence that older adults can have greater sensitivity to the emotional implications of situations (Stern & Cartensen, 2000), they were sensitive, thoughtful, and kind.

Although there are many reasons to offer mindfulness practices to younger people, it is unfortunate that relatively few discover how fulfilling engaging with older adults can be. In addition to exceptional interpersonal skills, they often have considerable wisdom from life experience. Older adults can also be wonderful story tellers. This last ability was much in evidence during a tea and dialogue session with my mother.

The idea of bringing tea and dialogue to my 97-year-old mother came later. That seemed a great way to show the adaptability of the practice. We shared memories relating to our deep appreciation of nature, a passion we share. Afterwards, Mom told me, “That was a pure blessing.” Making minidocumentaries of tea and dialogue practice with older family members seemed a worthy undertaking in its own right. Such videos could well become family treasures while also helping to combat the invisibility that older adults often complain of due to ageism. The lingering closeness we felt from that session is now supporting us during this difficult period of social distancing and worries about the effects of COVID 19.

I was amazed at the abundance of research I could use to make a case in my thesis for this particular application of tea and dialogue. The factors involved with the growing seriousness of social isolation for older adults were clear and made an interesting story. Many sound studies provided evidence of harm from social isolation, and a number of fields were providing insight into the specific mechanisms involved with that harm. From work I had already done in various classes, I knew there was evidence for the benefits of tea and dialogue’s qualities of generosity, dignity, social connection and creativity. I was also aware of research on tea and meditative dialogue. I even found studies to justify using video as it conveys nonverbal social clues important to building trust.

I hoped that the spontaneous interaction already captured in the videos would provide ample examples of the ways I argued tea and dialogue should support beneficial connection. Experience and the research evidence I had found told me that should be the case. Fortunately, my gamble worked out.

Now, I find myself humbly realizing that what I have been working on might matter even more than I thought. I hope that some wise and caring older adults are inspired to engage in and promote tea and dialogue so they can help us learn how to become better at supporting each other in these challenging times. Although we are all vulnerable, we also have great power to support each other by tapping into our fundamental interconnection.

Books referenced in this post:

Kramer, G. (2007). Insight dialogue: The interpersonal path to freedom. Shambhala.

Stern, P. C. & Cartensen, L. C. (Eds.). (2000). The aging mind; Opportunities in cognitive research. National Academy Press.

Surak, K. (2013). Making tea, making Japan: Cultural nationalism in practice. Stanford University Press.

Wilson, W. S. (2012). The one taste of truth: Zen and the art of drinking tea. Shambhala Publications.

Tea and Dialogue in an Older Adult’s Home

T&D at Sally's
Photo from video by Jeff Klein

The simple Chinese restaurant teacups and thermal carafe we used are visible as Sally shares her story about all that she noticed during a walk in the woods along a dirt road.

On June 21, 2019, I made decaffeinated green tea in a thermal carafe, checked that the temperature was between 160- and 165-degrees Fahrenheit, and packed it along with teacups and a singing bowl. Jeff Klein gathered his video equipment and we went together to visit my 97-year-old mother. We hoped to capture the adaptability of tea and dialogue practice while also showing how well it works to bring it to older adults who may find it difficult to travel. A few still photos were added to help viewers relate to the memories we shared.

Video of tea and dialogue in an older adult’s home

At first Sally was concerned that she might not know what to say, but when I explained we would be sharing about “Nature as Artist,” that seemed to put her at ease.

I chose the topic knowing that the beauty of nature is a passion for us both. I also planned to adapt tea and dialogue to what seemed most beneficial at the time. Videos of a full version of the basic practice were captured of a session that took place in my tea hut.

Sally’s comment “It’s a party!” acknowledged the positive cultural connotations of sharing tea. Drinking tea as a focus for mindful awareness seems to work for most people. This was noted by artist Lidia Kenig-Scher in a video made of a creative variation of tea and dialogue. Jeff used a slow-motion camera to capture Sally drinking tea. That footage highlights the embodied awareness that presumably flows into and supports the dialogue that follows.

Although I did not anticipate it, the dialogue focused on sharing cherished memories. I spoke of memories of taking photos of leaves and Sally described what she experienced during a walk along a dirt road. Her detailed narrative of all that she noticed was a testimony to her natural mindfulness. There is research evidence that older adults may be better at telling stories than younger people.

What a contrast our interaction was to the invisibility that older women can complain of due to ageism. There was a lingering sense of closeness from the experience, and satisfaction from the understanding that both of us felt understood – that our appreciation for nature mattered. Jeff told me the video required little editing. He described it as “low hanging fruit.”

I am most grateful to Sally and Jeff for helping with this video.

Sally Fink started camping in the New Hampshire woods as a child. She and I have shared countless walks in the woods in many settings. After the session, Sally told me she regrets she can no longer take such walks. I said we can go there by talking about it and she agreed.

Jeffrey Klein is a bilingual videographer with a 25-year career in multi-media production in Japan and the United States including podcasts and videos intended for retail, business, entertainment and educational contexts. Samples of his work are available at his website.