03 April 2011

Shinto ( 神道 )

Well I'm not quite through my book (or my blog posts) on Korean history, but I've already started investigating Japanese history and I think that a thorough understanding of Japan's indigenous belief system is essential for a complete comprehension of Japanese culture and history.

Torii at Itsukushima Shrine
As a side note: I'm pretty good at reading Korean, but I'm not very familiar with Japanese, so if anyone who reads this sees any problems with the translations or with the Japanese characters please let me know.

Shinto ( 神道 ), also known as kami-no-michi, translates to "the way of the gods".  Shinto appears to have originated around 500 BC, but the first documentation of the legends can be found in the Kojiki ( 古事記 ), which means "Record of Ancient Matters" and was written in 712 AD.   The first logograph (the term comes from the Greek "logos", meaning "word", and "grapho", meaning "to write") is "Shin" and means "kami" or "gods".  The second logograph is "to", which stems from the Chinese term "tao", meaning the path or the way.  So basically, Shinto is the way of the gods.  However, the term "gods" in the western sense of the word isn't really the most accurate translation.  For starters, the gods as a whole are known as yaoyorozu-no-kami ( 八百万の神 ).  This term literally translates to "eight million kami", but is understood as a numerical representation for infinity.  Kami can take the form of actual material beings (natural or man-made) or the qualities that an object possesses.  Like the western idea of gods, kami are supernatural forces that are above the thoughts of man, can respond to prayers, and can influence the course of events on earth.  Kami are also a part of everything on earth and there exists both good and evil kami.  However, there are some major differences between "kami" and "gods".  Kami are not omnipotent, they are not perfect, and while they may be supernatural beings, they do not exist in a supernatural universe.  Kami is both the spirit that dwells within all things and also the things themselves.  The following is summary of the most well-known kami:
  • Izanagi ( 伊弉諾 ) - Male deity, who along with Izanami, created the islands of Japan
  • Izanami ( 伊弉冉尊 ) - Female deity, who created the islands of Japan with Izanagi, her husband and brother
  • Amaterasu ( 天照 ) - Sun goddess, ancestor of the Imperial family, and greatest of the kami
  • Tsukuyomi ( 月読命 ) - Moon kami who rules over the night
  • Susanowo ( 須佐之男 ) - Brother of Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi who controls the storms and the seas
  • Hachiman ( 八幡神 ) - Guardian of warriors and protector of Japan
As is the case with almost every "religion", Shinto has its own creation myth:
     In the beginning, the universe (really just the earth) was shapeless.  However, the particles began to move and since the light particles were the fastest, they reached the highest point in the sky.  The particles first formed the clouds, then Heaven (known as Takamagahara, or 高天原), and then finally Earth.  There were then five gods formed spontaneously, none of whom had a gender or a partner, and all of which subsequently went into hiding and were never heard from again.  Two more sexless gods were spontaneously created and then five pairs (male and female) of gods were born and the last of these gods were Izanagi and Izanami.  These two gods were given a spear, which they dipped into the ocean, and when they took it out the drops of water from the spear formed the islands of Japan.  They then descended from Heaven and gave birth to kami.  Unfortunately, Izanami died while giving birth to Kagutsuchi ( 迦具土神 ), the kami of fire.  Amatersau was then born out of Izanagi's left eye, Tsukiyomi was born out of his right eye, and Susanowo was born from his nose.
Kushida Shrine decorated for the new year
Notice in the previous paragraph that I put the word "religion" in quotes.  This is because it doesn't really apply to Shinto, but as was the case with the words "gods" and "kami", it is probably the closest word that we have to describe it.  Shinto involves many rituals and really infiltrates every aspect of Japanese society.  But my problem with calling it a religion stems from the fact that it has coexisted with Buddhism for almost 1,500 years.  By coexistence I do not mean that half of the population practiced one religion, while the other half practice another.  I mean that people generally have no problem following both ideologies.  As of 1999, 83% of Japanese citizens followed Shinto and 76% adhered to Buddhism.  There's obviously some overlap there.  Coexistence cannot occur with two separate religions.  Have you ever met a Muslim-Jew?  Or a Christian-Hindu?  It just doesn't work.

Buddhism and Shinto are able to compliment each other very well primarily because Shinto is not a religion of absolutes.  Shinto also does not sufficiently address death or the afterlife.  Buddhism has always taken precedence in regard to funerals and the afterlife, so there hasn't been much of an incentive to develop the ideas within the Shinto ideology.  Neither "The Dark Land" nor "The High Plain of Heaven" are adequately addressed, so while it shares many attributes with the western idea of religion, its exclusion of any explanation about life beyond this world seems to separate Shinto from what we have come to view as religion.  How exactly do they reconcile the differences between the two thought processes you might ask?  Well as an example, within Buddhism the kami are viewed as manifestations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and in Shinto the Buddha is seen as yet another kami.  The ideologies have been able to coexist since 552 AD and this intermingling of thoughts has created a truly unique Japanese viewpoint on life and the afterlife.

Despite the absence of absolutes in Shinto, here are some basic beliefs:
  • The Four Affirmations
  1. Tradition and the family
  2. Love of nature
  3. Physical cleanliness
  4. Matsuri - Worship of kami and ancestral spirit
  • Musubi - The mysterious and harmonizing power of kami.  The nature of kami transcends the thought process of man, but it can be viewed through the forces of nature.
  • Makoto - Translates to either "sincerity" or "true heart".  This is a principle by which all people are supposed to live their lives.
  • Tsunagari - Translates to "community" and establishes the importance of recognizing one's lineage and participating in various social groups.
  • Cyclical history - Shinto does not believe in Armageddon and views the recurrence of historical events as evidence that the world is cyclical in nature.  
  • Purity - This is generally considered the most important aspect of Shinto.  Impurity is defined as anything that separates a human from kami or musubi.  Human beings are born pure and later introduced to tsumi (pollution or sin), which makes them impure.  A major difference between tsumi and the traditional thinking on sin is that impurities can be caused by things (such as evil spirits) that are beyond the control of humans.
Hakozaki Shrine
    So how do human beings become pure again?  Ritual practices are extremely important in Shinto (they are in many ways actually the religion itself), so here are some quick points about Shinto's religious practices and some of the well-known rituals:
    • Worship should be done with cheerfulness, sincerity, and purity
    • Worship can be done on any day of the week (there isn't a holy day in Shinto) and can be practiced either in public or in private.  Worship at home takes place in front of a kamidana ( 神棚 ), or kami shelf, which can be used to present offerings to kami and to say prayers.  Public worship takes place at shrines and can be done for spiritual reasons or to make a request to the kami.
    • Omairi - Anyone, Shintoists and non-Shintoists alike, is welcome to visit Shinto shrines.  However, there are some steps that are not necessarily required for non-followers, but should be followed as a sign of respect.  
      1. Approach the entrance and bow respectfully
      2. Use a ladle at the hand washing basin to first wash your left hand, then your right hand, and then rinse your mouth (but don't swallow the water or spit back into the basin).  Then tilt the ladle backwards and use the remaining water to wash the handle before setting it back down.
      3. If offering a prayer, approach the shrine and provide a donation.  Then perform two bows followed by two claps.  After the second clap, hold your hands together in front of your heart.
    • Harae - The purification rites, which can be performed in a number of different ways.  Some notable methods include temizu (simple washing of the face and hands), Oharae (ceremony of great purification), shubatsu (sprinkling salt on priests, worshipers, or the ground for purification) and Haraigushi (a priest waves a purification wand).
    • Kagura - An ancient ritual dance
    • Jichinsai - Ceremony held before the construction of a building
    Itsukushima Shrine
    So hopefully that provided a good introduction for anyone unfamiliar with this ancient religion.  Shinto is a fascinating religion and one that cannot be fully explained in one blog post.  Further study of the religion can be accomplished by reading either the Kojiki or the Nihon Shoki.  Shinto does not have any holy scriptures, but these two books document the myths and teachings of ancient Japan.  There are many fascinating aspects to Japanese history and I am looking forward to exploring these in future blog posts.

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