Reflections on “Shinto: A Celebration of Life,” Aidan Rankin

ShintoCelebrationlifeWhy did I choose to read this book?

It was on my wish-list of Shinto-related books and was one of the cheaper options available (books on Shinto tend to be pricey)!

In a nutshell, what it is it about?

Shinto: A Celebration of Life is an introduction to Shinto from a Western perspective. It’s quite a good contrast to Sokyo Ono’s Shinto: The Kami Way which I reviewed earlier; whereas Ono’s work is an objective study of the beliefs and practises of Shinto written by a native Japanese, Shinto: A Celebration of Life is a more emotive and subjective work which goes more into the philosophy and way of thinking behind Shinto, as well as drawing comparisons with other belief systems. Some of the concepts that the book explores in particular depth are kami, kannagara and musubi.

What did I particularly like about it?

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Shinto: A Celebration of Life. When I received it and took a look at the back, I noticed that the author Aidan Rankin is a member of the Theosophical Society and not a Japanese national or an academic of Japanese Studies, which immediately put me on my guard. I have been rather disturbed by the messages in books written by other notable members of the Theosophical Society, and dubious of those trying to write about Japan without some formal qualification. But in fact this is a really nice work, with none of the misguided views that other members of the Theosophical Society might have held in the past – it explicitly emphasises Shinto as a universal religion, relevant to those from all countries and walks of life. And what’s more, I found that for the most part, Rankin’s understanding and interpretation of Shinto corresponds well to other studies I have read on the religion.

“Celebration” is an apt word for the title of the book; it really is a celebration of Shinto which expresses the optimism and positivity of Shinto very well. Rankin holds the view that Shinto, as both an ancient, indigenous nature-based religion and as a religion that has stood the test of time and continued unbroken for its long history, holds some of the keys for all “developed” countries experiencing environmental, social and spiritual crisis. This includes the economy (“markets…make sense only when they serve the interests of communities and take account of culture and ecology as much as measurable statistics of profit and growth” ) , welfare (“We look after ourselves by looking after each other”) and respecting cultural diversity (“Preserving the diversity of human cultures ensures that as wide a variety of sources of wisdom remain at the disposal of humanity as a whole”).

I really liked Rankin’s broad comparisons between Shinto and many other belief systems, from Australian aboriginal religions to Norse beliefs to Daoism. The comparisons with Daoism in particular were very interesting – I had never before considered Shinto to be a form of “Dao,” despite the character for “dao” being part of the word “Shinto,” but I can now easily see how the Way of the Gods can be considered a Dao and I really like the idea.

Was there anything I didn’t like about it?

Although the tone of the book is friendly and its message is positive, whether it is a 100% accurate portrayal is occasionally questionable (one might have suspected that from the decision to use a typically Buddhist pagoda on the front cover rather than a more traditional Shinto object). Firstly, there are some outright howlers – Rankin seems to think that Ise Shrine, one of the most important shrines in Japan, is located in Nagasaki. Having lived in Nagasaki for two years and having visited Ise Shrine, I can say with every confidence that Ise Shrine is in Mie. Careless errors like this are damaging to the book’s authenticity and should have been spotted before publication.

Then there are a few disputable interpretations of Shinto beliefs. One is that Shinto is “free of neurotic fears about death.” While it is true that Shinto doesn’t have much to say on death and the afterlife, it overlooks the fact that death is very much taboo in Shinto and seen as something negative and unclean (which is perhaps one reason why Japanese may turn to Buddhism for answers about death, as Buddhism offers greater reassurance).

I was glad that sections from the Kojiki, the ancient text that features the myths of Shinto, were included, but occasionally they are hard to read due to the over-use of parentheses and awkward translations of kami names. Similarly, the way in which quotations are included is clumsy at times as Rankin seems to like using the “sic” suffix for even the most trivial of matters, such as not capitalising the word “musubi” where Rankin would. Using “sic” can imply a slight feeling of contempt towards the person one is quoting, so I felt it was far too over-used here.

The book is also lacking explanations and descriptions as to how Shinto is actually practised by ordinary people in Japan. Although there is a little bit of information on kamidana and a few other key ideas, I have a feeling that someone new to Shinto would not gain a good understanding of what this religion actually looks like in Japan.

Finally, I found the sections on “Musubi” and “Kannagara” to be rather long yet rather vague; I feel they could have been explained in a more precise and concise manner. Perhaps an examination of the kanji of these words would have helped.

How has it helped my spiritual development?

I found this book to be a very positive and affirming work on Shinto, which left me feeling good after reading it. Shinto is quite rule-bound compared to Neopaganism, and at times the effort to satisfy to all the requirements in Shinto can leave me feeling a little harried and touched with self-doubt. This warm and joyful book reminded that Shinto is, at its heart, a warm and joyful religion, and that at its heart no form of worship of Shinto can be wrong provided it is done with the right intentions. Some of the ideas that resounded with me in particular include:

  • Ancestor worship in Shinto is a way of remembering that everything is connected; that we are not only connected to those around us, but also those who came before us and those who will come after.
  • Shinto attempts to find a healthy balance between material living and spiritual living – “Connecting with Kami is therefore the opposite of withdrawing from the world.”
  • It doesn’t matter as to whether the concept of kami is monotheistic, polytheistic or something else entirely (something I explored in this blog here)
  • Shinto, and the related Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi, recognises that beauty is found within imperfection – “Nature’s perfection is expressed through flaws” 

Would I recommend this book to others?

Due to the lack of pure factual information on Shinto (as well as some of the factual errors) and some of the vague terms in which certain Shinto concepts are described, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as an introductory book on Shinto. However, to a Shinto practitioner who has already grasped the basics of this path, I would say this makes really nice side-reading alongside more academic works, and a great alternative perspective on Shinto.

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4 Comments

Filed under Reviews, Shinto / Japanese Religion

4 responses to “Reflections on “Shinto: A Celebration of Life,” Aidan Rankin

  1. EmilyAnn Frances

    Shinto is a religion of matsuri (festivals) in which the entire community participates and merges into one vibrant entity. That’s the way I’ve seen it. In addition to books like the ones you’ve reviewed people can gain insight at the most basic level through reading up on all the matsuri that take place throughout the year. There are so many regional festivals, too. Even for when different types of flowers bloom. The calendar really is attuned to nature on many festival days.

    Here in New York KInokuniya Bookstore sells small books with many pictures and brief explanations of the matsuri. If a reader selects a book you’ve reviewed here plus an intro to the festivals they’ll have more upon which to base their own conclusions.

  2. Hi Trellia, Thank you for reviewing my book. There is a lot of interesting comment that will influence and guide me if I come to write either a sequel or a follow-up. I know very well that the Ise Shrine is in Mie Prefecture; I don’t know how that mistake got into the proofs (probably I wasn’t vigilant enough) and I have asked the publisher to change it in all future copies.
    Best wishes,
    Aidan

  3. Pingback: Reflections on “Shinto Meditations for Revering the Earth,” Stuart D.B. Picken | Trellia's Mirror Book

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