Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Torii - Gates without Doors

Torii is a gate that marks the entrance to a Shinto shrine precinct. But they are not really "gates" at all, as they rarely stand within a fence or wall and have no doors to open or close. The purpose of the gate is to divide our world and the spirit world. They represent invisible barriers between an inner world that is clean, pure, and bright and an outer world that is spiritually polluted and morally uncertain. Thus, they are powerful symbols of the way that Japanese organize the world, associating the inner with the sacred and the outer with the profane. Shinto shrines supposedly don’t actually exist in this world. They do, but they don’t. The shrine grounds exist on a place that overlaps with the spirit world. Torii gates mark the symbolic entrance to this area. To pass through a torii gate is to enter a sacred realm.
The archways similar to the torii are in many parts of Asia -- in China, Korea, Thailand, and India. For example, the torana at Sanchi.
 The torii of Japan, however, are more than just the symbols of milestones on the road. They are part of the temple or shrine and everything that these signify. They are gateways of awakening  and the first stage in purification. At many shrines, the site is marked by a progression of torii gates, sometimes placed so closely together that they create a tunnel-like effect. Passing through these gates, there is a magical sense of deepening spirituality: a cleansing of outer pollution and a growing awareness of inner purity. As Tennyson wrote:
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.

Photo by Bill McIntyre

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