A favorite Japanese water color by Koniten shows a small section of a mountain path winding among hills. Just at the turn of the road is a graceful gateway, the Shinto torii, and beyond, half hidden by the shoulder of the hill, is the temple itself, the airy and sky-seeking pagoda.
The magic part of it is that no pilgrim appears on the scene, no human figure at all, so that you yourself seem to be in the picture, treading the road, approaching the gate that leads to the temple. The feeling of suspense, of anticipation as to what you will find once you have rounded the bend, is remarkable. In the background the cloud-enfolded mountains, rather than a forbidding barrier, seem to draw you on irresistibly, with a promise of mystery, of hope, and of greater heights to be explored.
Meantime you, the beholder, are pressing forward; like the figures on Keats's Grecian urn, you are held immobile — yet you taste eternity. And then you remember a strange saying, uttered long ago: "Without moving, O holder of the bow, is the travel along that road." While you will never arrive — in the ultimate sense — there will always be other portals to be passed through.
Go deep enough into the halls of thought, and there is to be found a linkage between East and West in universal concepts among a surprising number of the writings that are left to us. As an instance, we find the "Weary Walker" of Thomas Hardy toiling undaunted oil the ancient way:
Past the first ridge another, / And still the road / Creeps on. Perhaps no other / Ridge for the road?
Ah! Past that ridge a third, / Which still the road / Has to climb furtherward — / The thin white road!
Sky seems to end its track; / But no. The road / Trails down the hill at the back. / Ever the road.
Topping the ridge, and beholding the wider vista spread before one, is like going through a gateway into another world. Topping the high point of the old year and moving forth into the dawning of the new is the same thing accented by nature's heightened forces at this season. And in fact this is the time of realization that
. . . all experience is an arch wherethro' / Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades / Forever and forever when I move. — Tennyson
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 along the pathway to the sun.
We learn from Fosco Maraini's Meeting with Japan that the torii is "a constant feature of every view, every valley, practically every mountaintop." Of some hundred thousand shrines that dot the Japanese landscape, "a few dozen are big and important, but the great majority are small, rustic structures . . . and in the country may well have been built of tree-trunks by peasants on a holiday afternoon."
Maraini also recalls that there are archways similar to the torii in many parts of Asia — in China, Korea, Thailand, and India. In Japan, it is popularly believed that "to pass under a torii is a first stage in purification." Every shrine has at least one, at times two; usually, there are three torii, and these are generally "associated with the cock-crow at dawn," for they were anciently thought to have been the perching places of these sacred birds.
And out of that, which is no doubt fraught with many deeper meanings, a modern Japanese author, K. Yamaguchi, gathers this:
As the cock is the announcer of the passing of night and the coming of day, so do the three torii prepare the heart of a pious worshipper for his purified appearance before the god. His passing under the god-gate expels the darkness from his heart just as the darkness of night is lifted at dawn.
The focal points of the year — the four sacred seasons — which affect the consciousness of all mankind regardless of their individual calendar festivals, can be, to a mind and heart rightly attuned, gateways through which we enter the various courts of life's Temple of Learning.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1984/January 1985. Copyright © 1984 by Theosophical University Press)