Tag Archives: kami

A Shinto Experience in New Zealand

glowworm01In August, my family made a trip to New Zealand. My husband’s a Kiwi, so one of the main purposes of our trip was to catch up with members of his family. But of course we had plenty of opportunities to make the most of all the incredible experiences New Zealand has to offer.

New Zealand is a paradise for nature lovers and we were lucky enough to have plenty of chances to connect withthe country’s wild soul. We bathed in a natural hot spring that we dug ourselves at Hot Water Beach. We got up close and personal with friendly Kea (mountain parrots) and fur seals. We experienced the thrill of sailing under a waterfall at Milford Sound.

But among all these experiences, for me none were quite so profound as our visit to the Te Ana-au Glowworm Caves. From start to finish, it felt less like a mere tourist attraction and more like a spiritual pilgrimage – and in many ways, a Shinto pilgrimage. [Read more]

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Gods and Gratitude

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Offerings to the kami at Torigoe Shrine in Tokyo. By 江戸村のとくぞう / CC Wikimedia Commons

Two virtues that are important in Japanese culture are gratitude and generosity. The two are very closely intertwined. The Japanese have a strong sense of obligation and debt towards those who have shown them kindness, going out of their way to make sure no favour goes unrepaid – and the repayment will often be in the form of a physical, and sometimes expensive, gift. [Read more]

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Happy 2016: The Year of the Monkey

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The Three Wise Monkeys (Sanzaru) at a Shinto shrine. By そらみみ (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

 

2016 is the Year of the Monkey – specifically, the Red Fire Monkey. But what does the monkey signify in Shinto? Read more here!

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

EssenceofShinto

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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Tama the Cat becomes a Deity

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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.

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The Divine Masculine and Feminine in Shinto

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Izanami and Izanagi, Shinto’s divine creator deities

The common Pagan/Wiccan belief in the Divine Masculine and Feminine (or Great God and Great Goddess) is shared in many other faiths, and Shinto is no exception, having quite a few masculine/feminine parings in its pantheon. Shinto probably owes much of this to Chinese folk religion, in which the concept of Yin and Yang stresses the balance between Masculine and Feminine. Whenever I invoke the Great God and Goddess, I remember that I am also invoking those Masculine/Feminine deities in Shinto, and vice versa. Here’s a few of the divine Masculine/Feminine pairings that can be found in Shinto and related Japanese folk beliefs

Izanagi-no-mikoto and Izanami-no-mikoto – Two of the most important deities in Shinto, Izanagi and Izanami are the divine creators, responsible for the birth of the other kami (gods and goddesses). Their story is very similar to that of Orpheus and Eurydice – after dying in childbirth, Izanami decends into the underworld and Izanagi tries to follow her. Izanami warns Izanagi not to look upon her, but he betrays her and lights a fire to see her, and shrinks back in horror to find her rotten and decaying. In rage, Izanami chases Izanagi from the Underworld. Another account tells us that Izanami eats from the food of the Underworld which binds her there forever – much like the myth of Hades and Persephone.

amaterasu Amaterasu Omikami and Tsukuyomi no Mikoto – Like many religions, Shinto recognises the Sun and Moon as a divine Masculine/Feminine pair. But unlike many religions, the Japanese see the Sun as the feminine (the goddess Amaterasu Omikami) and the Moon as the masculine (the god Tsukuyomi no Mikoto). Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi were said to be born from the eyes of Izanagi upon washing them after his journey to the Underworld. It is fairly unusual that in this pairing, Amaterasu is most definitely the dominant force. She is often considered the most important deity in the Shinto pantheon, while Tsukuyomi holds a fairly minor role – little is known about him.

joutoubaJou and Uba – A legendary old couple who have become dosojin – wayside guardian spirits. A little more positive than Izanagi and Izanami’s relationship, they represent harmony and love in marriage. The characters of the Old Man and Old Woman are very important in Japanese folklore – a large proportion of mukashi-banashi (Japanese fairy tales) begin with the words, “Once upon a time in a certain place, there lived an old man and an old woman.” [Picture: By Yanajin33 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

OrihimeHikoboshiOrihime and Hikoboshi – Originally from Chinese mythology, Orihime is the “Weaver Princess” identified with the star Vega, and Hikoboshi is the “Cowherd Star” identified with Altair. During the Tanabata festival in Japan, the two are said to meet across the Milky Way – you can read more about this festival here. [Picture: “Yoshitoshi – 100 Aspects of the Moon – 40-2” by 月岡芳年 – http://www.ukiyoart.com/img/YoshitoshiShogokuKengyoiFullSize.html. Licensed under パブリック・ドメイン via ウィキメディア・コモンズ]

CraneTurtleTsuru and Kame – Tsuru means “crane,” and kame means “turtle.” Again of Chinese origin, cranes and turtles paired together represent longevity. In Japan, the famous mukashi-banashi tells of the legend Urashima Taro, who turns into a crane after falling in love with the sea goddess Otohime in the form of a turtle. So again, the two can represent the divine masculine/feminine union.

ObinaMebinaObina and Mebina – At Hina Matsuri, Japanese households display dolls representing an Emperor and Empress, called Obina and Mebina. Although not regarded as deities, there is still a sacredness attached to these dolls, and again they can be seen as representing a divine masculine/feminine pair. [Photo: “HinaDolls-Emperor-Empress-topplatform2011” by Nesnad – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

inari3Inari Okami – Although usually regarded as a single deity, Inari Okami nevertheless represents a union between the divine masculine and feminine for me. Inari-sama is depicted equally as male and female, and his temples are always guarded by a pair of fox statues – one male, one female.

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People as Gods

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Statues of O-Jizo-sama, the Japanese divinity of compassion and kindness. By Vanvelthem Cédric (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Worshipping forces of nature comes naturally to Pagans, as does worshipping plants and animals. But what does Paganism say about how we should treat other human beings?

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.

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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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Grieving for objects in Japan

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Funeral at Kofuku-ji for AIBOs (Courtesy Independent)

Various news sources have been reporting on the funerals being held for AIBO robot dogs in Japan. Since Sony stopped repairing and making spare parts for AIBOs, the dogs have been slowly “dying out.” In response to this, Buddhist priests have been holding funeral services for them. [Read more]

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Neopaganism v. Shinto: Sacred Objects

Shinto_gohei

A gohei “wand,” which sometimes serves as a shintai at Shinto shrines. “Shinto gohei” by nnh – photo by nnh. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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]

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