Fairies, Dakinis, nuns and Mikos, part three

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

Japanese Imperial Miko, or Shinto shrine priestess, dressed for an elaborate Kagura dance. Late XNUMXth century, hand-tinted albumen print. From wikimedia.org

The presence of otherworldly female beings in various religions, both East and West, collectively inspires contemporary research and practice among women from diverse backgrounds, which give individual meaning to these ancient presences. Elemental Celtic Fairies, Buddhist Mystics the dakinis, ecstatic hindu apsaras, celestial biblical angels and wise female deities of meditation spark divine activity and focus our attention on the mystical gravity-defying realms where transformation takes place. These characters belong to magical and mystical traditions that link fertility, healing, meditation, death, divine connection and wilderness.

As a result, there have always been living practices and professions for women (and also for men) who choose to pursue the practical facets of the wisdom traditions: Christian and Buddhist nuns; Buddhist and others tantrikas, priestesses of Shinto shrines; Druid Priestesses, practitioners of the Authentic Movement, Wicca and Kabballah, to name a few.

Vision of the dove of Saint Teresa of Avila, 1612, by Peter Paul Reubens. Saint Teresa of Avila, author of the spiritual classic, The inner castle, was born Jewish before becoming a Carmelite. At boijmans.nl

I have the pleasure of introducing you here to Elizabeth Tinsley, who devoted much of her life and work to the study and practice of the esoteric arts. Elizabeth is a serious scholar with two doctorates, including one in Japanese. She is a specialist in Buddhism and, more broadly, esoteric Japanese, Buddhist and Shinto traditions, as well as places where traditions overlap. Shintoism is the ancient, indigenous, shamanistic and animist religion of Japan. As such, Elizabeth provides rare insight into mysterious and ancient esoteric traditions with original research and immersive experiences.

Elizabeth Tinsley

Elizabeth Tinsley

In Japan, Buddhism and indigenous Shintoism are deeply integrated. The Japanese willingly visit Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. The seat of Shingon esoteric Buddhism in Japan is Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture. Elizabeth, who is British, studied, researched and practiced intensively at Mount Koya for several years until finally the abbot invited her to undertake Shido Kegyo, a ritual training to become a monk there. , lasting 100 days, which she successfully completed. This is a very unusual exercise, but nevertheless entirely practical, after years of scientific research.

Elizabeth's interest in Japanese esotericism extended beyond Buddhism to include the dancing of Shinto shrine priestesses known as Miko. Miko are extremely ancient figures in Japanese religious history, and there are different types of Miko lifestyles. However, most of them include dancing. Kagura is the most famous dance of Miko. There are different Kagura dances. These dances, all of them, are abstract motifs, without literal or dramatic intention. THE Miko always face the direction they are moving, creating a pure, strong flow of core energy. This type of abstract dance in ancient Japanese ritual is called May Shinto dances Miko influenced the Japanese Noh dance style, also called May

Kagura dance performed by a Miko character from the Noh play, Makiginu. In the play, a Buddhist priest meets a Shinto priestess possessed by a god or we. Main role performed by Ozawa Yoishihisa, Kita Noh Stage, Tokyo, 2005. Image provided by Kanze-Kai Alumni Association, University of Tokyo

Older than Noh, Kagura originally channeled We, Shinto animist deities. Talk and dance like kami, miko The dances were a type of spirit possession performed and were probably more improvised than the beautifully stylized dances we see today. Today, these dances are performed at Shinto shrines to worship and entertain the we. The classic Japanese phrase kami no asobi, or "the play of the gods", is an exalted term which derives in part from the nature of Kagura dances. Kagura was once a strictly ceremonial ritual art, emerging from a Miko oracular divination practices (Jp: kami gakari) and the pacification of the spirit (Jp: Chinkon). THE Miko also perform during martial arts demonstrations and competitions held at shrines. Kagura is danced with instruments such as folded paper standards called Gohe, and groups of portable bells called Suzuki. Miko sometimes dancing with swords and with cloth streamers.

A contemporary Miko or Shinto priestess. Culture core image

Beginning in 2008, Elizabeth studied Kagura at the Shinto shrine most closely associated with the esoteric Buddhist stronghold, Mount Koya: Niutsuhime Jinja. His teacher was Niu Chickae, wife of the head priest of Niutsuhime Shrine. Niu Myojin, a local deity or we is known as the goddess of cinnabar; and the we Kariba Myojin is the hunter deity. Together, these two ancient Shinto deities inhabit the Mount Koya region, embracing Buddhist and Shinto lands.

Elizabeth points out that a ceremonial music and dance performance called Bugkau Mandala was performed at the Niutsuhime shrine from the 12th century to the 19th. For this unusual syncretic performance on Shinto ground, esoteric Buddhist monks from Mount Koya courteously mingled bugaku Dance with shomyo, a vocal art of esoteric monks. The ritual has been revived in recent years. The integration of Shintoism and Buddhism is, in places, deep and mystical, and not just symbolic or social.

Shintoism we Niu Myujin, Japanese painted scroll, 14th century. This we, dedicated to Niutsuhime Jinja, is a local deity worshiped in the Buddhist enclave of Mount Koya. From metmuseum.org

After a few years away from Japan, Elizabeth returned to Niutsuhime Jinja this summer for an immersive, cloistered dance retreat to learn a Miko-mai and perform it in ritual. Based on ancient models, the specific Miko-mai that Elizabeth learned was choreographed in the 1930s, during Japan's expansionist period. These dances were performed in Shinto shrines in Japan as well as in Formosa (Taiwan) and Korea. Elizabeth comments: “Like others, this dance is a choreography of spiritual possession, as one scholar puts it. I experience it more as a trance induction technology, a phase of complete transformation of consciousness. I also understand the dance as a ritual of pacification of the deities.

Elizabeth Tinsley plays Miko-mai in Niutsuhime Jinja. Summer 2023

Elisabeth explains:

"When I started to learn the Miko-mai dance, by chance, the chief priest of Niutsuhime Shrine in Wakayama, whom I had consulted for historical information about the shrine and its main deity, invited me to learning from his wife, a professional dancer. I was drawn to it because I understood that how we move through the world is what makes us, and what makes our environment. Whether we are on a stage in front of shrines to Shinto gods, guided in our movements by invisible choreography, or in a city or suburb, we are in a social contract with our built environment. In deified nature, and much more so in a sanctuary, we are bound by a sacred contract with the power that shapes the way we move through space.

“Miko-mai is a form of dance, in the Kagura tradition, full of symmetry and mirroring. The movements of the two or four dancers are performed in perfect synchronization. At most, your teacher will focus on clean lines throughout your dance. The movements are perfectly controlled. I believe this creates powerful power – the power of a performance multiplied by the number of dancers. What is this power for? Why collect it? There are two reasons for this: in the past it was most likely a ritual, or part of a ritual, of possession of the shrine by the gods, and today it is of an offering to the gods.

“This is why power accumulates in this dance. Hearing the gods through a possessed figure has become much less common in Japan since the modernization of the Meiji period, and it is an aspect of the dance that has disappeared from almost all Miko-mai dances. Today, only the message sent remains: the offering. Even though they see us and hear us dancing, the gods remain silent.

“Today, the dance is that of offering. It is entertainment enjoyed by both humans and gods (Jp: Shinjin Waraku, 神人和楽), and a solemn offering to the gods of the sanctuary. Yet even as we move forward in the dance, something also moves through us. History imposes us in this dance, as the buildings of a city will impose themselves on a walker: just as we did not make the buildings, nor the dance. Miko-mai, via Kagura as a whole, was made by others a long, long time ago and has been passed down through the body until today.

“When we dance, we are enacting something ancient that even we no longer fully understand, in a cognitive sense. It’s a message that needed to be conveyed. And it’s still a powerful dance. Control, synchronicity, and mirroring are tiring on the body during training and performance, but the physical effort, along with the bond created when the group dances together in this way, also produces some power . This power, today, is used to purify sacred space and is also a power offered to the gods.

“The way you dance through life, the way you move through space, is the way life dances through you. That's what I experience when playing Miko-mai.

Miko ready to run Kagura. Circa 1885, hand-tinted albumen print by Kusakabe Kimbei
photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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