2016 is the Year of the Monkey – specifically, the Red Fire Monkey. But what does the monkey signify in Shinto? Read more here!
2016 is the Year of the Monkey – specifically, the Red Fire Monkey. But what does the monkey signify in Shinto? Read more here!
The story of Tama, the stray cat turned stationmaster at Kishi Station in Wakayama, has caught the attention of UK media for the incredible reaction towards her death at the age of 16. Tama was given a full funeral service, attended by by 3,000 well-wishers, and she to be enshrined under the title of “Tama Daimyojin” – “Illustrious Deity Tama.”
This episode not only reminds us of the importance of animism and nature-worship in Shinto, but also its role in rituals surrounding death. Most do not think of Shinto as being associated with death and funerals – that role usually goes to Buddhism in Japan – but it’s not true that Shinto has nothing to say about the afterlife. The fact is, a great number of kami in the Shinto tradition were formerly great noblemen, priests and other pillars of the community who attained godhood upon their deaths. So in fact, Shinto is very much rooted in a belief in the continuation of life after death. According to Shinto, all of us have the potential to become kami in the next life.
I believe the clear answer is that Pagans should be just as respectful towards people as they should be towards any other part of nature. Just as other animals are seen by some Pagans as divine, so we should see human beings as sacred.
In Japan, there is the phrase “okyaku-sama wa kami-sama” – “The customer is a god.” Although on the surface it simply means that customers should be treated with the utmost respect (compare with the American phrase “the customer is always right”), I think there is a slightly more literal interpretation of this. For merchants, customers provide money, which in turn provides food, and therefore customers are life-givers. Conversely, when they do not buy items, this gives them the power to take life-giving food away. In this way, customers really are “god-like” from a merchant’s perspective.
In my daily life, I try to extend this thinking not only to the people I serve at work, but to all human beings – especially those to whom I am grateful. I owe my happiness, health and indeed my life to my family and friends, as well as others in my community who have a positive impact in my life – doctors, teachers, cleaners, bank tellers, shop keepers, postmen, street sweepers….and many hundreds more. I’m sure that I am in fact completely unaware of many people’s positive effects on my life.
For these reasons, I try to treat people in my life with respect, as I would a deity. Just as I give my deities thanks for their blessings and offer them physical tributes in their honour, in the same way, I try to remember to always show gratitude to people around me and to do nice things for them, which sometimes means presenting them with a gift as I would a deity. I don’t always succeed as this, and I know I can be neglectful of other people, but I ask my deities to help me to remember my duties to other people and to show kindness always and gratitude whenever due.
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:
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.
In this blog, I’ve written a lot about the similarities between Neopaganism and Shinto, because I think they really do have a lot more similarities than differences. But there are differences, which can be tricky to deal with if you are practising both religions together. I thought it would be interesting to look at some of these differences. [Read more]
I was absolutely delighted and intrigued to read in the BBC News that locals have been putting tiny faerie doors on trees in Wayford Woods, Crewkerne.
Regular readers of my blog may know that I am fascinated with Shinto customs of leaving little offerings in sacred forests, especially at hokora (miniature shrines) which look a little like Western “faerie houses.” This is done in order to give thanks to the kami of the forest and to ask for their continued blessings.
In Wayford Woods, the faerie doors have been put up in order to delight the local children, who leave messages and gifts for the faeries. Although it is being done whimsically, I can see a lot of parallels with the Shinto custom of leaving offerings for kami in nature. I feel that this movement expresses a real, subconscious need to express the sense of awe and respect for nature, and to somehow connect with the “spirits” of nature, which many Westerners see embodied in faeries. In fact, I find a lot of similarities between faeries and kami and I personally view faeries as simply a type of kami.
Moreover, the offerings themselves do resemble the sort of offerings you might find in a sacred Japanese forest or shrine. The messages left by children remind me of the wishes people often write and leave at shrines, or those tied to bamboo at Tanabata. The doors perhaps serve a similar function to torii gates – a symbol of the divide between the mundane human world and the spiritual world of the fae. There are even tiny houses that bear an uncanny resemblance to hokora there. Although entertaining children may be the primary reason for creating these faerie shrines, I suspect that adults too feel somehow fulfilled in viewing and contributing to these offerings.
The woods’ trustees have expressed some alarm and concern at the sheer amount of faerie doors and other offerings that have appeared in Wayford Woods, but I really hope they don’t try to stop this movement (provided it does not cause significant disruption to the natural ecosystem, which it doesn’t look like it will). To me, it’s a sign that people long to re-connect with their long lost spiritual relationship with nature, through reviving the stories of faeries. And once people are instilled with a feeling of wonder and respect for forests, they will certainly think twice about destroying them.
In Japanese, the word used to refer to any kind of deity is kami, sometimes with the suffix “-sama” at the end to show respect. Out of all the words for “deity” I know in any language, “kami” or “kami-sama” is perhaps my favourite. And here’s why… [Read more]
In modern times, Paganism and Christianity generally tend to avoid each other. Although there are such people as “Christian Pagans,” I would say that they are in the minority. Indeed, it can be hard to see how the eclectic, spontaneous, nature-orientated polytheism of Paganism could blend with the rule-bound, human-orientated monotheism of Christianity – and that’s without considering the bitter history between the two. [Read more…]