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Sacred Art: Transience and Continuity at the Grand Shrine of Ise

In the West, art is usually considered a product. Rembrandt would paint a portrait for a patron; it would be a masterpiece, and that would be the end of it. Bernini would sculpt Apollo and Daphne, and now it sits in the Galleria Borghese. Even the most monumental pieces — the Chartres Cathedrals or Sistine Chapel ceilings of the world — had an end date when their initial creation was deemed “complete.” After that point, few save art historians care to watch the work evolve with the centuries.

Much of this attitude stems from the Western fascination with permanence. We strive to build a lasting legacy; the longer it stands, the more impressive it becomes. Time is the threshing floor for tradition; only the wheat, we assume, can survive the harsh winds. Has Homer’s Iliad stood the test of time because it is a great work, or is it considered great because it has lasted so long? The answer lies somewhere in between, but there is something curious: long after its creator has died, the Iliad has been passed down, maintained, and translated by a diversity of people and cultures, such that its original significance has grown more and more opaque. It is this process that makes the Western tradition so beautiful, adaptable, and enriching. But longevity is brittle, and it also makes it fragile.

Eastern cultures maintain a different way of relating to time that, while on the surface seems more fatalistic, offers a suppleness that has allowed some elements of Asian life to stand essentially unchanged for hundreds if not thousands of years. By relinquishing the desire for unchanging permanence, the entire structure can withstand the winds of change.

Shinto is one of the more striking examples of this unique form of strength. Most of the world has long since abandoned the shamanistic religions that predated current world religions and even paganism; Shinto has not only lasted in Japan but maintained a firm grip over its thought and culture. Some of this comes from its practitioners’ willingness to collaborate with other major religions, like Buddhism. Its beliefs complement Buddhism’s emphasis on meditation and silence, in which the natural world is often used as an object of contemplation to move toward the spiritual life beyond. Shinto proposes that the world is full of kami, deities that inhabit natural things. There is a strong emphasis on ritual purification and cleanliness to show reverence for the natural world. A clean, well-kept shrine is the best way to show reverence for its kami.

Shinto has also been used to legitimize the authority of the Japanese Imperial family, who claim to be direct descendants of the primary deity, Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. By this connection, it entangles itself in the Confucian practices and beliefs that dominate Japanese political life.

The core of the Shinto religion lies at the Grand Shrine of Ise, or Ise Jingu, dedicated to Amaterasu and located in Ise in the Mie Prefecture. Here, Shinto’s adaptability and longevity are clearly on display. The shrine comprises two major sections: the inner and outer shrines. The outer shrine, or Geku, is dedicated to Toyoukebime, the goddess of food who is said to provide for the basic necessities of everyday life. Anyone can visit this section of the shrine, and many come from all over the nation to pray for prosperity and good fortune. The inner shrine, or Naiku, on the other hand, is all but inaccessible. It is Japan’s most sacred place, where the sacred mirror, one of the Imperial family’s three regalia, is enshrined. New rulers come to this shrine to receive the blessing of Amaterasu, granting them the authority to rule.

Unlike Buddhism and Confucianism, Shinto is a uniquely Japanese religion, and its presence, while usually less visible to outsiders, binds together all elements of Japanese thought. At the Grand Shrine of Ise, Japanese identity is most fully expressed, and the prayers of all people, from the lowest to the highest, find a place within. With this in mind, one of the most notable elements of the shrine becomes all the more astounding: every twenty years, it is rebuilt from scratch.

Practically, rebuilding the shrine is necessary; it is made of wood and other natural materials that would degrade over time, especially in Japan’s inclement climate. But the process of rebuilding the shrine — a ritual known as Shikinen Sengu — brings the nation together and reaffirms Japan’s traditions and identity. Visitors arrive from all over the country to participate in the process; everything, from the walls to the gates, is taken down, and new, identical structures are erected in their place.

The process keeps traditional craft techniques alive, but it also sends a clear message about Japan’s relationship with time. By embracing transience, the shrine can continue — even beyond that, its spiritual energy is said to be revitalized by the renewal. By intentionally replacing the old with the new, the Japanese culture can grow and expand while still holding to its core identity — and to represent this core, sacred objects such as the mirror are carried over from the old shrine to the new.

The Grand Shrine of Ise is, in one sense, much more fragile than its Western counterparts. Chartres Cathedral has stood for centuries and can stand for centuries more with relatively minimal human intervention. The ruins of the Roman aqueducts still stretch across Europe, striking awe in visitors with their imperviousness to the tumult of European history. Yet the same strength that makes these structures incredible also severs us from them: they are complete; they no longer need us. They are there to serve us, but we are free to pick them up and put them down at our leisure. Though Western structures — and traditions — are usually crafted with an eye to future generations, those generations have no obligation to maintain them. They are free to be lost to time.

Not so at Ise Jingu; there, the relationship between artist and art is much more intimate; the shrine relies on the people as much as the people on the shrine. Were the Japanese people to stop keeping it up, it would be gone within a century or two at most. But it is this very vulnerability that has motivated the Japanese to stay more involved in their Shinto beliefs, even amidst a changing world. By letting go of the idea of worldly permanence, they have paradoxically created something that is as continuous as it is transient.

Originally published in MutualArt Magazine on October 27, 2023.


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