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Tsukinamisai; The Sabbath of Shinto (Jan.– Jun. 1983)

By Masamichi Tanaka

The moon has had a strong influence on, and connection with, the life of ancient peoples throughout the world. The moon was the main source of light against the terrors of the night, and its phases, its waxing and waning, were a perpetual fascination for primitive man. The moon regulated the tides. Its influence on the all-important art of fishery was profound.

When people began to express their gratitude for a bountiful harvest or pray for healthy crops, the necessity of setting up a cycle of the seasons arose. Moon and stars provided appropriate yardsticks. All tribes and races on earth worshipped Nature in accord with the phases of the moon which furnished the basic rhythm for such ceremonials.

The Jewish people seem to have celebrated the sabbath once a month in the early days of Isaiah and Hosea. "From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before Me." (Isaiah lxvi, 23) But turning to the doctrine of the creation (". . . the creation of the world was completed in six days ; and God rested on the seventh day. . ." Gen. ii, 1-2) and a covenant between God and Israel along with various other ideas, the Israelites gradually substituted a weekly sabbath in the place of a monthly ceremony.

Since then the idea of a weekly service became fixed in the minds of Western peoples. But in the Orient, in India, China, Korea and Japan, religions have preserved the original concept of the monthly ceremony through the centuries.


Japan has always been a rice-cultivating society, and primitive religion took shape around this all important fact. Later, when the Imperial Court was ruling the islands, it fixed the form of religions converting the agricultural forms of worship into the religion of the ancient state, the worship of the deities of heaven and of earth — in other words, Shinto (God's way) .

In Japan, Shinto places of worship are called shrines as distinguished from temples which are Buddhist. Shinto is the religion of the Imperial Court, of the grand shrines of Ise and lzumo, and of numberless shrines throughout the country. The practice of Shinto involves the observance of numerous festivals : a New Year's celebration, Setsubun purification, the doll festival for girls, a boys' festival, thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest, and other seasonal ceremonies. In and among these yearly festivals come the monthly ceremonies called tsukinamisai, celebrated for hundred of years in all parts of Japan.


Oomoto's first monthly ceremony, or tsukinamisai, was performed in 1894, two years after the founding of the religion, when the Foundress, Nao Deguchi, rented a small room from a neighbor and enshrined Oomoto's God. Nao's followers started to enshrine the deity in their residences in 1893, and in 1900 the Foundress fixed the style of the shrine as we know it today. The Co-Founder Onisaburo joined her and established a religious organization, setting up the liturgy for the ceremonies in accordance with Shinto tradition.

At the sanctuaries in Ayabe, Kameoka and Tokyo, as well as at local branches in cities and villages, and at the household shrines of Oomoto followers all over the country, monthly ceremonies are observed. There is neither a fixed date nor time of day for the monthly observances. It depends entirely on the convenience of the community or of the family.

During important religious services in Oomoto, priests wear silk robes and lacquered head gear, the traditional vestments of Shinto, which originated with the fashion of Chinese courtiers around the time of the T'ang dynasty (618-907) . Imported Chinese fashions were assimilated and converted into the Japanese Imperial Court fashion, developing into a style of its own and becoming fixed during the Heian period (794-1191) .

Unlike other Shinto

sects, Oomoto has no professional priesthood and all the ceremonies are performed by volunteers. Most of the followers study the liturgy as part of their education. Women also undertake these studies and perform the ritual.

The Ceremony

Before entering the sanctuary, priests and congregation rinse their hands and mouths. It is a part of the purification and a universal Shinto observance. In ancient times, Shinto priests bathed in the sea or in a river. In the early days of Oomoto, the Foundress ordered the followers to bathe in the river even at the height of winter, but these days a more symbolic manner of washing away the dust of the world has been substituted.

The music of the yakumo-koto, a two-stringed Japanese zither, opens the ceremony. The sound calms and purifies the minds of the priests and of the congregation. To the strains of this music, the priests enter the sanctuary and take their seats before the altar.

The purpose of the monthly ceremony is to give thanks and to pray for the happiness and peace of individuals and of the community. All Shinto ceremonies as well as the ones in Oomoto involve four elements : purification, offerings, invocation, and a symbolic feast.

The Shinto preoccupation with purification perhaps deserves a word of explanation. According to Shinto concepts, man is a child of God, and his inborn nature is originally pure and good. But worldly encounters bring him into contact with the various aspects of evil, the effects of which cling to his nature in the form of impurities. He may succumb to temptation or become infected by the evil of his surroundings. Therefore the life of man is a long struggle against contamination, always unavoidable to some extent, and requiring repeated purification. Washing the hands and rinsing the mouth are among the commonest rituals, symbolizing how this aspect of human existence is to be dealt with.

An Oomoto worship service opens with a prefatory ritual — a priest reciting a prayer of purification before an altar dedicated to the deity of purification. Another priest takes a purificatory wand and by waving it over the offeratory food, pine branches, priests, and the congregation, he purifies them.

Then the chief priest approaches the high altar and, without a word, bows his head and claps his hands to indicate that the main ceremony can now begin. The handclap is a characteristic item of Shinto worship probably deriving from Chinese Taoism, the concepts and rituals of which greatly influenced early Shinto. It is praise to God and an expression of joy. Hands are clapped before and after the prayers are recited. The word yahirade (eight flat hands) appears in an ancient Shinto invocation. Onisaburo interpreted this as four handclaps. At most of the Shinto shrines, they clap hands twice, but in Oomoto, we clap hands four times.

After the chief priest retires to his seat, other priests leave their seats and, accompanied by koto music and singing, transmit the food offerings by hand in a zig-zag formation. The order of the priests is fixed according to their "rank", that is, according to the roles which they play in the ritual. Tray after tray of rice, barley, soybeans and other cereals, sake (rice wine), mochi (rice cakes) , fish, sea weed, green vegetables, carrots, radishes, peppers, mushrooms, nuts, potatoes, peas, fruit, water and salt pass from hand to hand until they reach the altar. In Oomoto foods are always offered uncooked and in a natural state, unlike some Shinto shrines where they offer cooked dishes.

The invocation is written on a piece of folded rice paper. The Chief Priest takes his seat before the high altar, bows his head, claps his hands, opens the scroll and recites the invocation : "Before the Lord of Creation enshrined at this high altar, I bow my head and speak with reverence and in awe. We choose this day as the most joyous of days herewith to celebrate the monthly ceremony. Before Thee we have placed offerings of good savour, and we beseech Thee with gentle words to hear this our prayer : May all of us live free from the harm of evil spirits ; forgive us our shortcomings ; protect us from loss ; keep us in the path of duty ; brighten our nature as children of God ; and cause our families and our posterity to flourish everlastingly. And for Thy protection, in the day and in the night, and for Thy blessing, we humbly pray in reverence and in awe."

After the recitation of the invocation, the Chief Priest and representatives of the congregation offer pine branches on the altar to the gentle flow of the koto music. During the ceremony, food, clothing and shelter, the requisites of our daily life, are offered. Pine branches symbolize timber for the construction of the heavenly shrine. The paper attached to these branches symbolizes silk for celestial raiment. In ancient Shinto and in the early days of Oomoto, real silk was attached to the branch instead of paper.

After the offering of pine branches, all the priests and congregation recite in unison a long prayer, Miyabi no Kotoba (words of gratitude and prayer) , an original prayer text composed by Onisaburo. Occasionally, in its place, they recite the Kamigoto (words of God) , a long prayer of purification which is as old as the Imperial Court.

The chanting of a hymn follows the prayer. All hymns in Oomoto are Onisaburo's versification.

Again, to the music of the koto, the priests in single file move slowly down the main aisle through the congregation and leave the sanctuary. After the ceremony, priests bring the offeratory food down from the altar, and share it with the congregation — a symbolic feast. They sip sake, and eat some small fish, pieces of rice cake, seaweed, and fruit and take the remaining vegetables home. People receive the blessings of God in token by sharing the offeratory food.

Thus, the monthly ceremony for hundreds of years has brought people together in their homes, at local branches, and in the sanctuaries of the grand shrines. It is an occasion to renew and to consolidate our faith, and to be reminded again that it is the spirit that is the source of all that sustains us in this life. It is in the ritual of the tsukinamisai that we may express our gratitude to the spirit by a token return of the basic necessities, laid with reverence upon the altar.

The monthly ceremony is an occasion of unity : unity of the secular and the sacred, of joy and of devotion, and of man and God.

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