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A Visit to the Colorado TORI Shrine at Shambala

by Sean Hannon Sensei

Late this summer, I took a weekend drive up to the Shambala Mountain Retreat near Red Feather Lake, Colorado.  I’d heard about the Japanese TORII gates and KAMI SHINTO shrine at the retreat, but had yet to make the trip.  The weather, roads, and traffic were all cooperating with one another, so it seemed like a great time to go visit.​ The Shambalan Mountain Retreat sits on 600 acres of beautiful land in northern Colorado and has been around since the early 1970s.  They offer dozens of seminars and events each year on Buddhist meditation, yoga, and other contemplative disciplines.

Paraphrasing from the tori shrine at shambala website, the Buddhsim and SHINTO philosophies have successfully coexisted in Japan for over two thousand years.  ​SHINTO is frequently translated as “the way of the KAMI.” KAMI is the innate energy of elements in nature that evoke “a sense of wonder and awe in the human heart.”  All elements in nature such as mountains, lakes and trees possess the quality of KAMI. ​The SHINTO philosophy connects people with the energy of KAMI “through appreciation of the simple pleasures of life and nature.”

In the distance is a 20′ tall TORII gate, the first of three leading up the hill to the JINJA or KAMI shrine.  TORII gates are most commonly found at the entrance of or within a SHINTO shrine and they symbolically delineate the transition from the profane to the sacred.

As I approached the first TORII gate, a second DAI-DORO figurtively “illuminates the way” up the TORII gate path. ​TORII gates come in several different styles.  These particular TORII gates are of the ISE-TORII style. The Aspen-rich forest thickens as a much smaller second and third TORII gate (~10 ft) continue to guide us up the hill.

A third DAI-DORO, in the lower left-hand corner of the picture below, beckons me to pause my hike at this Japanese-style shelter. The shelter posts a sign that educates visitors on proper purification etiquette before reaching the shrine. ​Pictured to the left is the TEMIZUYA or purification basin intended to be used before approaching the DAITOZAN JINJA or the Great Eastern Mountain Shrine.

The sign at the shelter reads:​ Visiting the AMATERASU-OMIKAMI JINJA.  The GOSAIJIN, or main deity, enshrined here is the sun goddess, AMATERASU-OMIKAMI.  In SHINTO thinking, human beings receive their life from the sun, and human life is the temporary resting-place for divine solar energy.  ‘AMATERASU’ can be translated to mean, “brilliant rays of light shining in all directions,” and ‘OMI’, “great” or “ultimate.”  AMATERASU-OMIKAMI is the “shining deity of heaven” who presides over the solar system and heaven, nurturing, healing and maturing in human society.  We are fortunate to have this energy here on this land.

​There are also objects in the JINJA that identify with the energies of three other deities who are first, TOYOUKE-HIME-NO-O-KAMI, deity of the outer shrine, food and things made by human effort to sustain life.  The ‘UKE’ means foodstuffs and refers to the mysterious spirit in the five-grains, the source of life.  Second, SARUTAHIKO-NO-O-KAMI, the head of all earthy KAMI, primal KAMI of guidance, positiveness and protection; the KAMI who teaches human beings how to live.  And third, AME-NO-UZUME-NO-MIKOTO, the heavenly kami of divine movement, marriage, meditation, harmony, joy, defense who is the wife SARUAHIKO-NO-O-KAMI.​Purifying: (TEMIZU)  If the purification basin (TEMIZUYA) in this shelter is full, please cleanse yourself by rinsing your left hand with water from the lade. Then, rinse your right hand. Pour a bit more water into your left palm, rinse your mouth and spit the water on the ground.  Rinse the left hand one final time.  Be careful not spill rinse water into the basin.  Please leave the ladles on top of the lid of the purification well.  There is no need to rinse the mouth if the water seems dirty.​

After purifying yourself at the TEMIZUYA, proceed up the path offering a 90-degree bow from the waist at each TORII gate.  After reaching the courtyard, feel free to place an offering to the low table in front of the shrine.  You may experience the KAMIs’ presence by bowing twice, clapping twice and bowing once more whether you have made a physical offering or not.  The claps are like the two arrows in the SHIHOBERAI ceremony. The first arrow is cutting through obstacles, and the second brings down the blessings.  Perform claps at an even pace, forearms parallel to the ground about the level of the solar plexus.​Please do not open the gate to the inner shrine.  Daily offerings of water, rice and salt are made each day, weather permitting, and retried at the end of the day.  In the SHINTO tradition, water is seen as the basis of life, rice as the sustainer of life and salt as the purifier of life.”​

It was very peaceful up there as the the wind blew gently, leaves fell,and no other visitors where present.  The silence and solitude was refreshing, to say the least. While in the spirit, and although I know next to nothing about SHINTO or Buddhism, I decided to take a few minutes to contemplate at the shrine.  ​The posts and rope behind me is called a SHIMENAWA.  The white pieces of paper blowing in the wind behind me are called SHIME.  Most sacred places in the Shinto philosophy/religion possess a SHIMENAWA and it is used to indicate the presence of KAMI.  The white pieces of paper are used to symbolize purity in the SHINTO “faith.”

The short hike down the hill was even more rewarding than the way up.  The 20-foot TORII gate starkly contrasts with the big blue Colorado afternoon sky and the profile of the nearby mountains.  The Shambala Center truly has some beautiful land out here.

I was quite overwhelmed by the size of the TORII gate, I just had to get my picture underneath it to capture any sense of scale in a photograph.​ The next time you find yourself with a good half-day free, I would encourage you to take a trip up to the tori shrine at Shambala Mountain Retreat Center.  It’s worth the drive. And, if you are interested in learning more about Japanese culture and virtues from an AIKIDO or IAIDO point of view, come train with us.

This article was originally posted in 2010.