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!
I have to admit – the main reason I bought this book was because someone posted the cover art on a Pagan-related Facebook group, and I loved it. There’s something almost Miyazaki-esque about the colour, lighting and subject matter. That’s what prompted me to track down this fantasy novel. But you know what they say…never judge a book by its cover, and sadly, this book was a good example of this rule for the most part. Although the blurb describes it as a fantasy novel about magical forests and ancient gods, there’s rather little of this in the book. Most of it is focussed on a rather dull story of Mafia warfare and an equally dull family caught up in it all. The more fantastical parts of the novel are quite interesting, taking direct inspiration from Pagan ritual, worship of the Horned God and the concept of the resurrected Green Man but they are completely overshadowed by the aforementioned main plot. Disappointing, I’m afraid to say. Still, that cover though!
I bought this while getting Christmas presents at the fantastic Hedingham Fair online shop; I have a particular fondness for the Green Man but haven’t read books specific to him (apart from Greenmantle above). This is one of these books made by a small publishing house, and it feels it – it’s cheaply printed and bound and the text inside is amateurishly written, poorly edited and riddled with typos. Thankfully, there’s also something charming and nice about it – with its friendly tone and focus on local traditions, it feels very British. For such a little book, it’s also got a surprising amount of varied content on the subject of the Green Man, including legends, guides on local churches and landmarks where Green Men can be found, rituals for honouring the Green Man, craft ideas, and even the full script for a short Mummer’s play featuring the Green Man. I additionally liked the attention paid to the Green Man within Christianity – I much prefer it when Pagan texts emphasise the links between Paganism and Christianity rather than focussing solely on the differences. It may not be a slick product, but for lovers of the Green Man, this book would probably make a welcome addition to a collection of literature about this mysterious figure.
This really more of a bound essay than a book – you can read it very easily in one sitting. Herbert investigates the beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons, drawing from the writings of Roman settlers, the Venerable Bede, and texts of the Anglo-Saxons themselves (runes and Old English a-plenty). It’s a very detailed, interesting and academic piece, but due its length I can’t help but think the general reader would find this more appealing as part of a larger collection of essays on Heathenry, rather than as a stand-alone essay.
A Popular Dictionary of Shinto, Brian Bocking
Exactly what it says in the title – an A-Z of Shinto-related, Japanese terminology. I flicked through the whole book, which was very interesting and meant I discovered a lot of new aspects of Shinto, such as obscure kami and practises. Generally, I thought the explanations were pretty good – clear and easy to understand. But there were two things I thought could have been added to improve it. Firstly, it could perhaps do with a few simple illustrations to help those unfamiliar with Shinto tools and architecture; this is pretty common in Japanese dictionaries. Secondly, there isn’t a single Japanese character in the whole book. I thought this was a considerable oversight – the kanji used to write Japanese words is very important, especially in matters pertaining to religion. Including kanji for each entry should have been an obvious thing to do, and would have greatly aided understanding for those who can read Japanese (and there’s a lot of non-Japanese people interested in Shinto who can).
One day at work, I happened to be checking alternative readings for the kanji character 望. This fairly common character, which students of Japanese language will come across at about intermediate level, is usually read “nozomi” or “bou,” and is usually translated as “wish” or “aspiration.” But then I discovered that it also means “Full Moon.”
I was really surprised that this kanji could have two such different and beautiful meanings. I asked my Japanese colleague about it, and she confirmed that it is a fairly common way to signify the Full Moon (the even more common way to write “full moon” in Japanese is 満月, pronounced “mangetsu”). She even pointed out a Japanese calendar hanging up behind her desk, in which all the days of the Full Moon were marked with 望.
So I asked her, seeing as 望 also means “wish,” do Japanese people make wishes at the Full Moon?
Her answer really surprised me. She told me that actually, the best time to make wishes is at the New Moon. This is because the night is so still and the sky so clear that your wishes are more likely to reach the heavens at the New Moon than at the Full Moon.
I’d never heard of this before. While I try to make an occasion of the Full Moon (I try to hold a solo ritual for the Esbats), I do nothing to commemorate the New Moon. But now I’ve heard that the Japanese associated the New Moon with making wishes, I’ve now decided to use the New Moon to make extra prayers and offerings to Inari Okami and the other Shinto kami. So the Full Moon will be the time I devote most to the Western Pagan deities, and the New Moon will be for the Shinto ones.
The next New Moon will be on Sunday. I’ll see how my plan goes!
(Incidentally, the character for “New Moon” is 朔, pronounced “saku.” It’s made up of the characters meaning “moon” 月 and “inverse” 屰. I really like the idea of the New Moon being an “inverted” moon!”)
Another call to action! Your help is needed to preserve the continuation of qualifications in Japanese (and other languages) in the UK…
The exam boards AQA, OCR and Edexcel have stated that they will not re-develop, and in effect will withdraw, GCSEs and A-Levels in 13 languages – including A-Level Japanese.
(For those not in the UK, the A-Level is a major qualification taken around the age of 18 that can determine both whether or not you go to university and your future job prospects)
As a Shintoist, and as a life-long learner of Japanese language for whom the ability to speak Japanese has proved essential to my career, I believe this decision is utterly wrong and that the government needs to do all in its power to overturn it. It should be noted that many of the other languages planned to be axed, such as Arabic, Modern Hebrew, and several South Asian dialects, are strongly connected with members of particular religious groups in the UK, meaning that practitioners of these faiths will no doubt feel in some ways de-valued by these plans.
There is a ray of hope – the government has pledged its commitment to (some of) our “minority languages,” and that it will work to preserve their qualifications. But this is no guarantee set in stone, and we may find ourselves losing qualifications in some of these languages if we do not make our voices heard.
If you wish to help, please see the campaign page on the Speak To The Future website here, which includes further information, links to petitions, and other suggestions on how you can assist such as writing to your MP. You don’t have to be living in the UK to help – anyone in the world can voice their opinion!
Finally, if you need any further persuasion as to the importance of Japanese language to the UK as a whole, please see (and share!) this infographic produced by the Japan Foundation:
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.
An important part of Shinto worship within the home is the offering of Shinto prayers, or norito, to the kami. But this can be tricky for non-Japanese Shintoists, as norito are, naturally, written in Japanese. Moreover, the norito use rather archaic and poetic Japanese that’s even trickier, and they’re also intoned in a particular rhythmic, sing-song style that can be hard to imitate, even for proficient Japanese speakers. [Read more]
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]
There’s a tradition among Zen Buddhist monks and poets in Japan to compose one final poem during their final hours of life – a jisei, often translated into English as “death poem.” This poem functions as a kind of self-epitaph, a farewell to the world. In this book, Hoffman has collected jisei from Zen Buddhists and haiku poets from all over Japan and presented them, many for the first time, translated into English.
The book begins with an introduction not just to the concept of death poems, but also to the culture and customs surrounding death in Japan, in addition to Zen teachings and Japanese poetry in general. It’s a nicely-written introduction that serves as a good preface to the collection of poems, which is divided into two parts – jisei by Zen monks and jisei by haiku poets.
So what are jisei like? Actually, there is quite a difference between those written by the monks and those written by the poets. Let’s start with the monks first, with this example from Hosshin, who died in the 13th century:
Coming, all is clear, no doubt about it.
Going, all is clear, without a doubt.
What, then, is it all?
This abstract, enigmatic poem is typically Zen – questioning the nature of reality and existence itself. Many of the other poems by Zen monks are similarly cryptic and philosophical. Each one is like a miniature Zen teaching in itself.
To be honest, I preferred those written by the haiku poets, both for their beauty and their messages. As those familiar with haiku might expect, they are very short (three lines) yet rich in imagery and symbolism. Take this example by Baiko, who died in 1903 at the age of sixty:
Plum petals falling
I look up – the sky,
a clear crisp moon.
Although brief, this poem is full of meaning. Firstly, the “plum petals” allude to the season of early spring, and their “falling” represents both death and the transient nature of existence, a concept which is fundamental to Zen. Seeing the moon can represent enlightenment, and this is re-enforced by it being clear and crisp. From this beautiful, short message, we not only get a glimpse of the time and place where Baiko spent his last hours, but also his most innermost feelings. It sounds like he had made his peace with the world before leaving it. Don’t worry if you need some help with the symbolism with some of poems – many of them poems are given a short interpretation by Hoffman.
The above poem also demonstrates the combination of simplicity and philosophical contemplation with deep appreciation of the natural world – two very common features of the haiku form of jisei. I like to think of this almost as a fusion of Zen Buddhist philosophy with Shinto nature-worship.
Baiko’s poem also contains the quiet sense of calm, dignity and gratitude for life that permeates many of the other poems in this collection. I felt quite inspired to read such beautiful and profound poems written by elderly people at the end of their lives – not only do they give a unique account from elderly people experiencing something so personal and private yet common to us all, but I also find them comforting and positive in the face of a natural phenomenon that many of us find frightening. Some of the poems even have a bit of humour in them too:
Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
the cask will leak
(Moriya Senan, died 1838)
While I think this is a wonderful collection, with good accompanying text and translations that capture the beauty and nuance of the original poems very well, there was one thing I found to be a major disappointment. That was the complete absence of the poems written in their original Japanese characters. The haiku poets’ jisei are only accompanied by romanised Japanese, while the Zen poems don’t even have this, giving us only the English translation to read. Considering that in Japanese, the characters used brings an added dimension to the meaning of text and contributes immensely to both the aesthetics and semantics of poetry, it is a massive shame that there were no Japanese characters included at all. I even think this is true of the poems originally only written in hiragana syllabary – while one might argue that the romanised version suffices as it conveys no more additional meaning than hiragana sounds, I believe that romanised Japanese looks rather awkward, ugly and stark. In putting the poems into romanised Japanese without any Japanese characters at all, the original looses much of its beauty and fluidity. Even though the work is written in English, its rather niche subject means that many students of the Japanese language would be among the target audience, so leaving out the Japanese characters entirely seems a very odd decision. Most peculiar of all, Hoffman did decide to put the poets’ names in their original characters! I am very surprised and bewildered that he prioritised the characters for the poets’ names over the actual poems themselves.
Japanese Death Poems is beautiful, poignant and very unique – a very welcome addition to my collection of books on Japanese spirituality. I would recommend it not only to those with an interest in Japanese philosophy and poetry, but also those who want to deepen their understanding of the nature of life and death – especially those who find it difficult or distressing to come to terms with this sensitive subject.
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…]
At over £8.00 on Amazon for the properly bound printed version, it might seem a little steep for quite a slim book, but I would say it’s been worth every penny. And here’s why:
– It features a good Foreword and Introduction that include some really insightful and interesting thoughts on Shinto ritual
– It’s authentic. The prayers have been written down just as they are used at the shrine from which they come, without any attempt to adapt them to make them more “universal.” For example, there are prayers in there that refer specifically to Evans’ shrine (Tsubaki Okami Yashiro), so they can hardly be considered “general purpose.” But the fact they have been left unchanged and intact is what gives these prayers their rarity and uniqueness. And there’s plenty in there which are more general in nature.
– In addition to the English translations, each prayer is transliterated into romanised Japanese, and the original text is included too. For readers like me who can read Japanese but only as a second language, this is perfect. What’s more, in Shinto it’s believed that the very words of the prayer written down have a spirit of their own. And for anyone who’s not fluent in Classical Japanese (which is probably most people reading this), you will be relieved to know that hiragana readings are included for all the kanji.
– The prayers themselves are beautiful and would no doubt serve as inspiration for even non-Shinto Pagans. I was particularly pleased to see that there was one in there specifically for Inari Okamisama! I also like the short prayer for purification (which consists only of sacred syllables and has no literal meaning), which I intone when creating shide or otherwise want to purify or consecrate something,
– Right at the end, there’s an appendix (complete with illustrations) that explains how to perform certain Shinto rituals. These range from the commonplace (etiquette for visiting a Shinto shrine, making an offering at a kamidama household altar) to the more unusual (Misogi waterfall purification, chinkon meditation).
The only small problem this book has (and it is small) is that while the English and romanised Japanese passages are formatted to fit neatly on to the page so the text does not cut off mid-sentence, this has not been applied to the original Japanese. So if you’re reading the original Japanese out loud during ritual and have to turn the page mid-phrase, it does disrupt the flow. It might also make it harder for beginner-level Japanese learners to follow the Japanese text by comparing it with the romanised and English versions. But this is only a minor issue.
I highly recommend this to anyone interested in Shinto who wants to go beyond the usual “What Is Shinto” books and learn prayers and techniques for real-life Shinto worship.