Beseeching The Gods

Most religions in the world, being a part of people's daily lives, have some way to commemorate events such as the building of a home.

In Hawaii, when land is developed or a new home or other building erected, a blessing is held. For public buildings and businesses, in order to cover all the religious bases in Hawaii, there are often multiple blessings at one ceremony. A Hawaiian priest will chant a prayer and sprinkle water using a ti leaf. A Christian minister will offer prayers too (often the Christian minister is also the Hawaiian priest), and a Buddhist minister will say a few words as well. The last not asking for a blessing in the future, so much as acknowledging the blessings we already have already received and asking those present to be mindful and grateful in the future.

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Hawaiian/Christian Blessing

I had a friend and fellow real estate broker on Maui, Cliff, who went flying with me once, along with a mutual architect friend, to photograph some property in Kona, on the Island of Hawaii. Kona is an hour's flight by light plane over water from Maui. Although Cliff is of Japanese heritage, he has Hawaiian ways, and I will never forget my surprise when he showed up at the airport with a calabash (wooden bowl) full of water, and some ti leaves, and proceeded to "bless" the wings of my airplane with water for a safe flight! Well, perhaps appropriate, as I had named the plane "Manu Mele", Hawaiian for "song bird". Whether it was due to the efforts of my excellent mechanic and my own piloting skill, or Cliff's blessing and the Hawaiian gods, the flight was uneventful. It made Cliff feel more comfortable in any case and it is worth a lot to a pilot to have his/her passengers at ease.

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Manu Mele - Song Bird

In Japan, when a house is to be built, a Shinto priest is called to perform a ceremony. Such was the case just a couple of days ago, right across the street from our house. I had gone outside for something or other, and noticed a priest on the lot across from us setting up a kind of alter. The owners of the lot, some of their family members, and their builder were there as well. It was interesting timing, as just the other day, having passed Buddhist priest on our street where new homes were under construction, I had asked K if it was customary to bless a new house here, and she had explained a bit of the tradition.

Over the 14 months I've been in Japan, the people who own that lot have brought in fill dirt (sand really), built a low retaining wall, and planted the perimeter with some trees. We have been expecting a home to built soon and apparently that time has come.

Unsure of the protocol, rather than ask directly myself if I could take a picture and risk getting off on the wrong foot with a new neighbor, I came back in the house and asked K to seek permission for me. She wasn't sure either, but permission was cheerfully granted.

Not wanting to intrude, we stayed on the street and I just took a few pictures.

The Shinto ritual for this is a request for permission from the kami (gods) to build a house on their land, purify it, and protect the future inhabitants from disasters.

Let me say at the outset that this post only represents my own limited understanding of what took place and I don't guarantee that my interpretation of the meaning is entirely accurate.

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Momo Keeps An Eye On Things, Thinking "I wonder if they have food?"

Under the watchful eyes of Momo, looking on from our driveway, the priest set up four bamboo poles in a square at the center of the lot. A portable shrine, or alter, was set within this square, upon which offerings of rice cake, sake, and fruit were placed. A mound of soil was made to one side. A twine, or rope, called shimenawa, was strung between the bamboo poles at about eye level. Shimenawa is used to designate the presence of spirits - "kami". This was adorned with folded pieces of white paper called gohei, which are representative of an ancient Shinto myth. In the myth, the sun goddess got mad one day and shut herself up in a cave, plunging the world into darkness. Lesser gods convinced the goddess of mirth, Uzume, to do a dance and showed tree branches covered in jewels and silk. The sun goddess could not resist the sight of this and light was restored. I assume from that myth that the gohei papers are to attract the attention of the kami, so they will come to enjoy the sake and rice cake and grant the requests.

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Click to Enlarge

The priest went to one corner of the lot and put a bamboo stake in the ground. This was also adorned with gohei. Gohei were placed at various intervals around where the house was to be built.

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Returning to the shrine, the priest then chanted a "prayer", clapping his hands twice (to alert the kami that he was there) and bowing deeply at times as he chanted. Having taken my photos, I retreated to our house, but the chanting and activities went on through the afternoon.

When I went out again to have a look in the late afternoon, there were several more bamboo stakes in the ground with shimenawa strung between them, and a bamboo stake had also been pounded into the small mound of earth.

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Looking back at our home from the lot.
Late Afternoon

Bamboo grows quickly and straight, so it has come to represent vitality. It was also used to make bows and arrows with which "evil" could be fought, so is thought to have holy properties.

While the robes of Shinto priests are similar to many of those worn by Buddhist priests in Japan, I've always admired their "cool" looking hats and shoes. Sorry if they don't show up well in this post. Perhaps another time I'll post a better photo of a Shinto priest.

I don't know how long or how often I will be living in Japan, so it was a treat for me to have a close up look at this tradition.


The Moody Minstrel said...

When I took that orchestra from Garfield High School in Seattle on a tour of Kashima Shrine last July I had the opportunity to talk to the high priest there, and I learned a lot of things about Shinto. Some were things I had never heard before, others were additions and corrections to what I had learned elsewhere.

Shinto was originally a shamanistic faith (rather like Native American or Australian Aborigine religions) and its practitioners were exclusively women. Every village had a priestess (or order thereof) both to perform the necessary rituals and to consult the counsel of the spirits before any major undertaking. Quite often the high priestess was the true ruler of the tribe (something you can see in the movie Princess Mononoke).

During the Asuka Period (5th to 7th century), when Buddhism was brought over from Korea and became firmly established, Shinto was literally absorbed into the "new" religion, considered separate yet part of it. When that happened, the original priestesses were eliminated (because Buddhism was strictly paternalistic in those days), and the Buddhist priests served dual roles. This continued until the two religions began to separate again after the end of the Heian Period. (Perhaps that's why Shinto priest robes look like Heian Period courtly dress!)

Even though it was more or less a distinct religion again, Shinto continued to be subservient to Buddhism until the Edo Period (late 16th to 19th centuries), when it was given new recognition by the shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa, who practiced any religion he could find (including Christianity, apparently) in order to give himself as much divine aid as possible. Tokugawa was the one who had Kashima Shrine fully restored as a pure shrine, as it had mainly served as a Buddhist/Zen monastery from the 7th century.

Interestingly, after the Meiji Restoration, when Imperial rule was restored, Shinto actually came to be the dominant Japanese religion again as the newly-empowered emperor was believed to be a Shinto deity (a direct descendent of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu-no-Omigami, to be exact). This continued until the end of World War II. Now it seems to be more of a mere custom than a religion people actually believe in and practice.

I had a Shinto wedding. The Heian Period courtly music they played was eerie!

Pandabonium said...

Moody - Veritable fountain of information! Thank you for adding the historical context. I was only a aware of a few bits and pieces and your comments really make things fall into place.

If you don't mind, I'd like to add your comments to the blog as a kind of "guest post" to get them on the front page. Some of the people who read this blog just print it out and don't view the comments, and I think this would definitely be of interest.

Sam I Am said...

What an wonderful picture thank you for sharing ,Happy Holidays .

@ロウ 。LOW@ said...

Is that my "Manu Mele"? Opsss...i mean yours, hehe...

Well chinese believe that before we moved into an empty house, we should first of all "infrom" some spirits that could have been there before us that we are coming in. It's believed that "they" usually stay at each corner of walls in the house, hence we shall politely "invite" them to leave.

The next thing is, of course, seated few gods to "protect" our house. It's just a matter of cultural practise so basically every elderly know how to do it, priests or practitioners are not required unless something really "wrong" happen. Like "they" wish to stay with your family!

Again, the practise is now in much "simplified" form, as the younger generation (well, me!) couldn't care less about the whole fussy prosses. Put it this way: i'll probably moved into a new empty house couple of times in my whole life so i hope by then, the chinese temples are still around.

But all thanks to you, my friend, i should be preparing for my new house, well, if any. No harm to learn more things, in a proper right? And by the way, i guess it will be really nice if you can wrote a book about something or anything that you've known, blending few cultures together on first-hand basis. No all "Panda" talks, really!

I'll be the first buyer, especially on that "Dummies on How to Fly Song Bird".

P/S: Ok, i joke on the flying thingy but that book of yours, i am pretty serious! :) In fact, i hope to write a book myself, co-author with someone esle or in any forms, before i die! Well, have reader or not! I must be really rich by that time :p

Momo said...

Sam I Am,

Thank you. The shadow of the wall covered me, but it also shaded my eyes so I could watch the ceremony.

Pandabonium said...


That was Manu Mele right after a new paint job. I took the photo at Upolu Point - the northern most point of the island of Hawaii. In the original, you could see Mt Haleakala on Maui in the background.

I sold the plane to a guy who runs a flight school in New Zealand. Perhaps she has a Maori name now.

Maybe when I have time I'll try writing a book. Publishing is another matter. At least I could sell one copy, eh?

So sometimes the spirits hide in the corners? Perhaps the solution is a round house with no corners. hehe

There is an architect in Mexico, Javier Senosiain, who makes houses using what he calls organic architecture . He uses steel rods and sprayed on cement - sort of like they build swimming pools, but upside down. They have rounded windows too, and look like they grew out of the ground. I wonder what the spirits would think of that?

The Moody Minstrel said...

Low and Panda-

Ghosts and spirits tend to inhabit corners? Wow! Perhaps the gothic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft knew more than he thought! And Pandabonium's solution was one of Lovecraft's ideas!

In one of his more famous short stories, "The Hounds of Tindalos", a man had every corner in his house plastered over because he said some supernatural beings (dogs from hell, basically) were chasing him. He said that they could only come into "our world" through angles and corners.

In the end, an earthquake occurred, the plaster fell loose, and the man disappeared.

Maybe I need to read that story again and then brush up on my Chinese spiritualism...

Robin said...

If Momo is Bodhi, he will say:
"Hey this is no way in planting bamboo, let me show you how: You first dig a hole and you dig a bigger hole and dig a even bigger hole and dig...."

Momo said...

Yeah, Bodhi, when my master lets me off the leash sometimes I see how big a hole I can dig before he catches me and puts me back on the teather.

Here's a dog to dog tip: I found that if I run around a lot he leaves me alone, so then dig a little, then run some more, then dig a little more, and so on, I can make quite good progress before I am caught!

Happysurfer said...

Pandabonium, the Taoist Chinese have some rituals too but the younger generation hardly follows it. However, those who practice fengshui will have their fengshui master go over the land or house whichever the case. There are also some rituals when moving into a house such as what to bring in first or who to walk in first and so forth. My girlfriend follows this set of guidelines religiously everytime she moved house.

As usual, a most enlightening read - nice pix too. Thanks for sharing.

MM, thanks for the history lesson. Amazing details as only an encyclopaedia can provide. I have learned much. Thank you.

Low, writing a book? I read somewhere that everyone should publish at least a book in one's lifetime or something to that effect. Dreams are very powerful. Keep that dream alive.

Pandabonium said...


Thanks. As I often say, all I know about fengshui is really "wrong shui" - things like "never put a rock near a hard place".

Robin said...

Saying abt tradition and breaking ground.

I once witnessed a Muslim ground breaking ceremony where a live goat is sacrificed.

The offering `Udhiyah (sacrifice):
Udhiyah or animal sacrifice is an act of worship which reminds us of the great act of sacrifice that Prophet Ibrahim and Isma`eel were willing to do for the sake of Almighty Allah.


Which I have read 3 times and still do not understand...

The Moody Minstrel said...

In Judeo-Christianity, it is said that God tested the loyalty of the Prophet Abraham (or Ibrahim) by ordering him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, atop a mountain (whose name I don't remember...sorry). Abraham was prepared to do so, and went so far as to tie Isaac to the sacrificial stone and raise his knife to kill him. God's angels stopped him at the last minute, and then they found a goat with its horns stuck in a bush nearby. They sacrificed it instead.

The same story appears in the Quran, but in the Muslim version the Prophet Ibrahim is ordered to sacrifice a son who is not identified by name. Later Muslim scholars deduced that it was Ishmael rather than Isaac. Experts are divided as to the reason for this difference as are believers on both sides. It's one of many issues that will probably never be resolved.

The Moody Minstrel said...

I guess I should point out that by "Abraham's only son, Isaac", I meant his only son by his wife. Ishmael was born before Isaac, but his mother was the handmaiden of Abraham's wife. The fact of Ishmael being older is the reason why Muslims believe him to be the one named for sacrifice by God, though Abraham himself clearly favored Isaac.

Sheesh...first I went on and on about politics, now religion...

Pandabonium said...

Wow, Robin. That definitely would have ruined my whole day if my new neighbors had sacrificed an animal on their property.

I read the article you linked. It is a bit confusing, but there is another article linked from the bottom of that page which goes a long way toward clarifying this topic. It is titled "The Concept of Animal Sacrifice in Islam". I understand it a little better now.

I'm still glad I haven't encountered that ceremony!

Oops, Momo's asking for dinner. Maybe it will be a veggie dog food tonight.

Pandabonium said...


The timing of the births of Ibrahim's sons according to the Qur'an is the reason for the difference from the Bible version in terms of who was the son to be sacraficed. Also, in the Qur'an, Allah does not ask Ibrahim to sacrafice his son Ishmael, Ibrahim dreams it. This has some significant implications. See link I mention above.

Ok, Momo, dinner's coming.

YD said...

PM Koizumi with a Shinto priest when he visited Yasukuni shrine

Some muslim scholars' discussion about Udhiyah:
(sheep, camel or cattle?)

Besides sheep, other prescribed animals for sacrifice include camels and cattle. Some muslim scholars think that the best sacrifice is camels, then cattle, then sheep, then a share in a she-camel or cow. Three imams (Abu Haneefah, al-Shaafa'i and Ahman) explain the reasons: The origin comes from the Prophet's word concerning Friday prayers: "Whoever goes to [Friday prayers] early, it is equivalent to him sacrificing a camel." Speaking mathematically, a sheep is better than one-seventh of a camel of cow.

Another scholar, Maalik, argued that the best [sacrifice] is a young sheep, then a cow, then a camel, because the Prophet sacrificed 2 rams, and he never did anything but that which was the best (according to muslims' beliefs).

The counter-argument to that is that the Prophet always choose what was more appropriate out of kindness towards his ummah, because they would follow his example, and he did not want to make things difficult for them. (Fataawa al-Shaykh ' Abd al-'Azeez ibn Baaz).

YD said...

Another relevant culture of ground breaking in Taoism:

There are many tales and beliefs about a god figure in Taoism - 土地公, commonly called the "Earth God". Some define him as the god of a defined location such as town, temple or building; and some said he is the subservient to the City God.

Photo of 土地公

One of his seemingly many roles include giving blessings during the erection or destruction of buildings. When one moves, one bids farewell to the 土地公 at the old place and begins presenting offerings to the new 土地公 in new place.

He is commonly placed near the doorways of buildings, or on earthen platforms outside buildings, or in the form of stones statues at roadsides, by the trees, wells, center of villages, etc. (Similar god in Japanese custom is Jizo Bosatsu (Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva), i think)

Story of Jizo-sama

Pandabonium said...

Interesting stuff YD.

An architect in Japan, Hidetsugu Aneha, has been found to have reduced the reinforcing against earthquake in his building designs. Over 70 buildings he designed may collapse in a moderate tremor as a result. Of course, developers and construction companies are also implicated in the scandal.

I wonder how he will be judged by all these "gods"?

PS - gentle readers, YD has provided a photo of PM Kosizumi with a priest (cool hat and shoes, yes?) at Yasakuni shrine. May we delay a discussion of the PM and this shrine for another time? Onegaishimasu! (Please!).


YD said...

hehehe.. you caught me with my plot in the Koizumi-Yasukuni picture, panda!

Well, I will have to keep my mouth shut for the time being n wait...

(shifting restlessly on the chair)

Pandabonium said...

YD - you little trouble maker!

Yes, please wait. I will have a post in the near future about this topic. (sorry to have misspelled Yasukuni- I should proof read). I have been researching it of late, as well as other Japan political topics, for a client. When I'm ready, I will do a post about this controversy and all you folks can "have at it" to you hearts' content. 'Til then, "mums the word". OK?

If anyone has anything to contribute related to house warming/ground breaking customs, please feel free to contribute to THIS discussion.

YD said...

an update about Udhiyah:

Just had a discussion with my muslim friends. Apparently it is NOT a custom to do sacrifice for house-warming of Muslims, although it is encouraged in Islam to welcome people to your new house and give them food.

Quoted from my muslim friends:

"In Islam, all that is demanded as a sacrifice is one's personal willingness to submit one's ego and individual will to Allah.

Regarding the story of Nabi Ibrahim (one of the prophet):

"Ibrahim had a dream in which he saw himself slaughtering his son Ibrahim believed the dream and thought that the dream was from Allah, but the Qur'an did not say that the dream was from Allah. However, in Ibrahim and Isma`il's willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice—Ibrahim of his son, Isma`il of his own life—they are able to transcend notions of self and false attachment to the material realm, thus removing a veil between themselves and Allah, enabling Allah's mercy to descend upon them as the Spirit of Truth and illuminate them with divine wisdom (thus preventing a miscarriage of justice and once and for all correcting the false notion of vicarious atonement of sin).

For, certainly, Allah, would never ask a father to go against His command of "thou shall not kill" and kill his own son in order to be accepted by Him. For the Qur'an states that Allah never advocates evil (see 7:28 and 16:90) and that only Satan advocates evil and vice (24:21). The notion that Allah would want us to do an immoral act runs counter to Allah's justice.

As far as the yearly tradition that has followed this event (that is, the sacrificing of a ram to commemorate Ibrahim and Isma`il's great self sacrifice), we must understand it and the Qur'anic versus that pertain to animal sacrifice, in relation to the time and place circumstances under which these revelations were received and how people were trying to make a personal sacrifice by sharing their limited means of survival with the poorer members of their community."

My friends mentioned that this story is a controversial one that has been debated many times.

The Moody Minstrel said...

Man...I can't believe how much I'm learning from these comment threads! I guess I'm lucky to have become acquainted with such learned individuals and good thinkers!

I found this interesting:

However, in Ibrahim and Isma`il's willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice—Ibrahim of his son, Isma`il of his own life—they are able to transcend notions of self and false attachment to the material realm...

Transcending self and attachments to the "material world"? Where have I heard that before? That seems to be a common theme of many religions!

YD said...

Yes indeed moody, I was a bit surprised when I noted this similarity with buddhism, but haven't attached my comment.. I did not really know about the notion of detachment from material world in Islam before, and would like to refer to a few more friends, to learn whether it is a new development or old thinking, before making comments on this notion. :-)

Robin said...

Thanks Panda, Moody and YD, I have learnt from this post.

Yes Panda, after seeing the Muslim sacrifice, I was a vegetarian for one month. Yaks. The scene is too brutal for weak hearted soul like me.

Incidentally, on reinforcement and ground breaking tradition, I have something else to add.

When I was a kid (a long long time ago), my mum used to tell us that inorder to ensure that a new bridge is stable, the builder will sacrifice a child and buried the head at the foundation pillar. This story did add some spice when the old Toa Payoh Bridge collapse in Singapore and someone found a small skull there.

Spooky... till this date, I wonder if this is one of the granny's warning to prevent their kids from running on the street or some black magic which is practice in Asia.

Pandabonium said...

Robin, that is spooky. Sacrificing a child for a bridge or a building was not uncommon in Europe during the "dark ages".

Thank you for sharing the Muslim ceremony with us. We've all learned a lot we didn't know before by reading up on Islam, and YD checking verbally with friends.

Moody, that Islam article which speaks of transcending self and the material realm really struck a chord with me as well. I would have never guessed.

YD, I'm sure there is a diversity of opinion and interpretation amoung the followers of any faith. I'll be interested to hear what your Muslim friends have to say on the matter.

I have been delighted to watch how, in a matter of weeks, these blogs on the internet have brought together a diverse group of people from various countries, walks of life, religions, ethnicities, and so on who now learn from each other about our world and its peoples. Pretty amazing.

Oh, let me not leave out the dogs and cats too.

Bodhi said...

Yup Yup

Robin said...

Merry Christmas, Panda and EVERYONE!

(ps.. Hope you dun mind me quoting you in my latest post)