Reflections on “The Essence of Shinto: Japan’s Spiritual Heart,” Motohisa Yamakage


Why did I choose to read this book?

I’d seen some good reviews on The Essence of Shinto as a source for learning more about Shinto. I have to say, I also really liked the cover, which may have influenced my decision to buy it!

In a nutshell, what it is it about?

This book is an analysis of the Shinto religion by Motohisa Yamakage, a Grand Master of the sect of Yamakage Shinto, or koshinto (“old Shinto”). It analyses the principles and rituals of Shinto from this particular perspective. Koshinto claims to be the branch closest to the “original” Shinto before it was influenced by Buddhism and other “foreign” beliefs (although I am skeptical of such a claim), and the secrets of koshinto are said to have been handed down from generation to generation of the Yamakage family. There’s also a section on chinkon meditation, an important aspect of Yamakage Shinto; Yamakage Shinto seems to be a little more esoteric and inward-focussed than the forms of Shinto most often practised by people in Japan.

What did I particularly like about it?

It’s nice to read a slightly different perspective on Shinto from a master of a different sect, and much of what Yamakage has to say interested me.

First off, I really like Yamakage’s definition of Shinto: “…our relationship and interdependence with Kami….the path through which we seek to realise ourselves fully as human beings by acquiring the noble characteristics of Kami.” This is possibly one of the best short definition’s I’ve seen of Shinto, even if it is from a slightly more koshinto perspective than “standard” Shinto. He also emphasises that the Shinto path is one in which gratitude and awe for the Kami is paramount, something I too believe.

I was happy to see that Yamakage is for the most part a progressive Shinto thinker. He believes that while continuity in religious tradition is important, adaptation and change according to the times is vital to its continuation, and that includes adaptations to Shinto. Likewise, he states that there does not need to be a standardised form of Shinto and that the many different forms of Shinto are a positive thing. He also holds that Shinto priests should not lecture visitors to shrines on moral or doctrinal teachings, but rather work to keep the shrine a clean and spiritual place where people can come and, in their own way, experience kami and discover their own morality.Yamakage also believes not only that all religious teachings are as one, but also that awareness of this is essential to any religion. He sees religion as very much a personal, individual matter – “…it is important for each person to experience and feel in his or her own way and not to use language to force others to believe in a certain way.”  All of these characteristics imbue Shinto with a liberalism that I believe all modern-day religions should share.

Additionally, I liked Yamakage’s frank approach to his personal faith and experiences in Shinto. He is not afraid to call it a “religion,” even though both Japanese and Westerners alike may shy away from the term (I’ve heard plenty of people claim that Shinto isn’t a religion, even though it has all the defining characteristics of one). And somewhat unusually for a modern-day Shinto scholar, he is unafraid to address the mystical and miraculous aspects of the religion, including giving his own personal accounts of receiving messages from Kami and experiencing spiritual forces.

It was interesting an unusual to see that The Essence of Shinto features quite a lot on Shinto attitudes to death. The usual perception is that Shinto has little to do with death, not only because it is a religion that emphasises the here and now rather than the afterlife, but also because death is considered a source of spiritual pollution in Shinto. It was refreshing to see a Shinto priest talk about the varied Shinto attitudes towards death, and even details about Shinto-style funerals. Perhaps Yamakage’s background as a koshinto master has something to do with this.

Finally, there is considerable practical information in The Essence of Shinto for readers as well, including directions for misogi purification, offering tamagushi at a shrine, setting up a kamidana, and of course chinkon meditation. Throughout the text there are photos and illustrations (some of which I recognised fas the same used in other books on Shinto), which are helpful.

Was there anything I didn’t like about it?

The Essence of Shinto felt rather divided for me. The parts that I mentioned above which I liked were all part of the first half of the book, which in my opinion is the strongest half. The second part, in which Yamakage elaborates on the more esoteric traditions of koshinto, was not as interesting for me. For one thing, Yamakage drew similar parallels between Yamakage Shinto and the schools of Theosophy, Anthropsophy and Spiritualism, all of which are paths which have never really appealed to me, which might explain why I didn’t find the specifics of Yamakage Shinto so compelling.

For another, while I appreciate that Yamakage is a strong advocate of mystical experience in Shinto, some of the claims about how the presence of kami can make you leap into the air during meditation seemed a little too close to Transcendental Meditation and other forms of “institutionalised” spiritual development for my liking. I am wary of such programmes, which are often led by privileged “gurus” charging ordinary people high sums of money in exchange for the promise of supernatural powers, and the form of Yamakage Shinto advocated her seems to be leaning that way (there is an emphasis that people embarking on a koshinto path “must be guided by an experienced and reputable instructor,” which I’m sure wouldn’t come cheap!). Furthermore, Yamakage distances his particular branch of Shinto from that of the masses by stressing that one should not indiscriminately worship at any shrine, even if it is a famous shrine visited on holiday. Going to different shrines around Japan has been a favourite past time of the Japanese since ancient times, so for me it was sad to see Yamakage turning his back on this tradition and, in doing so, possibly alienating the majority of casual Shintoists in Japan.

In fact, this “institutional” feeling was possibly what stopped me from liking The Essence of Shinto as much as other texts on Shinto I’ve read; it feels distant from the more folk-orientated Shinto practised by the masses. For me, folk religion, in which ordinary people develop their own rituals and traditions and are empowered by doing so, will always have greater appeal to me than organised and institutional religion, in which only a privileged few have access to the rewards that the religion offers (and those few often charge money to the common folk in order to gain more access). One thing I’ve always loved about Shinto is that, while there is organisation and a hierarchy and certain rights that priests have that common people don’t such as access to the inner sanctum of shrines, the majority of Shinto is very much held by and for the common people; the masses have communal “ownership” over Shinto. It is the common people who make offerings in places of natural places, common people who congregate on mass to celebrate Shinto festivals, and even common people charged with the responsibility of carrying the o-mikoshi – the portable shrine in which a kami dwells temporarily for a festival – through the towns during the festival. Advocating a more orthodox, esoteric and introspective form of Shinto as The Essence of Shinto does is fine, but in doing so, I personally feel that Shinto loses something of its appealing folk connection.

How has it helped my spiritual development?

There were a few additional things I learned about Shinto that I didn’t know about before; for example, I didn’t know that the shimenawa rope found at sites of special Shinto significance is actually intended to absorb impurities, and not simply act as a marker between the mundane and divine. It also has some information on kami-hitogata, paper charms make in the form of a person for cleansing purposes, which I had read about in passing and found interesting but hadn’t seen any information about since.

It was also uplifting and reassuring to find a book that highlighted so many similarities between Shinto and aspects of Neopaganism. Yamakage describes the importance of high-calibur Shinto priests, who in their rituals make onlookers “feel that Kami is truly present.”  Such is also true of Neopagan rituals; when properly performed, a Pagan ritual should also make those involved feel that the Gods and Goddesses are present in the Circle. There’s also an emphasis on the importance of salt and other elements that Neopagans see as sacred.

Overall, I was just happy to get another perspective on Shinto, and to broaden my outlook on my faith, even if I didn’t find everything appealing.

Would I recommend this book to others?

I wouldn’t recommend it for Shinto beginners as I don’t think the latter part is quite representative of how most people practise Shinto, and what’s more, the explanations that Yamakage gives already assume some knowledge of Japanese culture. However, those who are already grounded in the basics of Shinto might appreciate it in order to get an insight into different forms of Shinto, and indeed you might find introspective, meditative form of Yamakage Shinto appeals to you. I imagine it’s very much down to personal taste!


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Filed under Reviews, Shinto / Japanese Religion

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