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Constancy and Change: The "soul" of Ise Shrine Barry Magid January 12th 2008

The Ise Shrine is a Shinto temple, built in Japan in the 7th century. It's been in existence for over 1300 years, but has had an unusual kind of "continual" existence. You see, every 20 years, the Shrine is ritually taken apart and re-built according to the original plan, but using entirely new materials. This last occured in 1993, so now the Shrine, depending on how you look at it, is either more than 1300 years old or just 5 years old! Its existence is maintained the way a living organsim maintains itself: new materials - air, water, food - are regularly taken in, and new cells are constantly replacing old ones, but all the while the plant or animal retains its own identity as an individual organism of a particular type. Aristotle (in " De Anima") asked what it is that remained constant in the organism amidst all the change. His answer was the "psuche" or soul - from which we get our word "psychology." But "psuche" doesn't refer to any "self" or "consciousness" that the person, plant or animal possesses, rather it is what we might call the functional organization of its parts - the way they are put together so that the creature is alive rather than dead, the way bricks, wood, and tiles are asssembled in such a way a to make a temple. Later, Christian thinkers made the soul into a separate substance that could have a separate, immortal existence apart from the body. But for Aristotle the soul was simply this functional organization by virtue of which we were alive rather than a pile of meat and bones.

The "soul" of Ise Shrine however is not simply a blueprint. It's soul is in its continued re-construction as a temple. What if, one year in its long history , a feudal lord had commandeered the building for use as his private palace, or used it to stable his horses? Or if the local population remembered all the skills needed to re-construct the building, but lost their faith in Shinto, and instead decided to use it as their town hall? Or, if Disney were to come along and buy up the town and hire the workers to re-build it as part of a theme park? Because its use would have been lost, its soul, its identity would be lost in a far more profound way than is caused by the ongoing replacement of its constituent materials.

In Buddhist literature, we are constantly reminded of the empty, changing, impermanent nature of the self, of all things. But there is an element of constancy that we might call the "soul" of practice that we must understand as well. These days I manage to visit Joko out in San Diego only once or twice a year, but when I visit, even though I know everything changes, there's something about her that I expect to be the same. For instance, I don't expect her to one day say that she's given up Zen to devote all her energy to playing the stock market! If there's no permanent "self" that is Joko, what am I counting on? One way to look at it might be to think about what enables the Ise Shrine to be re-built generation after generation. There needs to both the presence of something, and the absence of something. We need the presence of a tradition of practice, which like the soul of the shrine is not simply in the mind or expertise or habits of any one individual, but which itself molds generation after generation of builders and practitioners. And yet each individual must also take responsibility for learning and maintaining his craft or practice. When we think of what could happen to destroy the "soul" of the shrine - the ego of a feudal lord, the lack of faith or ignorance of the local population, the greed of an international corporation - we are describing instances of what must be absent for true practice to continue. Our egotism, our greed, and so on - all the expressions of our self-centeredness - all have the potential to de-rail us from our path of practice. But the longer and more genuinely we practice, the less liable these self-centered reactions are to de-rail us. Instead they become the very stuff and object of our practice and our awareness. Gradually, self-centeredness plays a smaller and smaller destabilizing role in our lives; more and more our individual life and the life, or soul, of practice become one. This is what I can count on remaining constant each time I visit Joko. A life of practice less and less (but never never!) destabilized by self-centeredness.

When we ask how practice is supposed to change our lives, we can think of the Ise Shrine and how in any given generation it is being used. The same building could be used as a temple to enrich the lives of a whole community, or it could be used as a mansion to gratify the whims of a single person. The "same" building, but a different "soul." Is who we are fundamentally changed by practice? Or is it a matter of how we use our life, turning inward to serve the self-centered whims of a single person. or turning outward, to serve Life?

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Barry Magid January 19th 2008 The scowl of Bodhidharma

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