SHINTO---OR LIVING MINDFULLY WITH THE KAMIBy The Rev. Dr Ian Ellis-JonesMinister, Sydney Unitarian Chalice CircleI have made something of a studyof Shintō, both here in Australia aswell as in Japan, and for the mostpart I see much to admire and likein this quite unique system ofspirituality.As is the case with Buddhism,Shintō is a religion in some of itsmanifestations but not others. Tothe extent that it is a religion, it isone that is unique and peculiar toJapan, and one that primarilyconsists of numerous rites, customs, and festivals.We can also say this---Shintō is not really an ‘ism’, but more of ateaching or set of teachings. Ritual, as well as the observance ofancient festivals, ceremonial customs and sentiments, pilgrimagesto old shrines, and not belief, lies at the heart of Shintō, and ritualcan be very, very transformative. Never underestimate the power ofreligious ritual.So, what exactly is Shintō? Well, Shintō is the authentic, primal,indigenous (native---although the Japanese were not the originalnatives of Japan) spirituality of Japan with its roots stretchingback to about 500 BCE. It lies at the root, and the heart, ofJapanese pride and patriotism, culture, social and family structure,ethics, artistic and sporting life, and much else. Some have referredto Shintō as both the soul of Japan and the Japanese way ofliving.
2Today, there is a great deal of interest in the West in this spiritualand at times contradictory path which has no dogma or doctrine, nofounder or central figure, no idols, no concept of absolute or originalsin, no sacred books as such, and no mandatory precepts orcommandments. Shintō, with its respect and reverence for nature---Shintō calls it ‘Great Nature’---and its acknowledgment of theinterconnectedness of all things, has great relevance to theJapanese as well as non-Japanese.If you want to appreciate the fragility and yet preciousness andhere-and-now-ness of life, delve into Shintō. If you want to stayrooted in nature, and show respect, gratitude and love towardnature, indeed all living things, Shintō has something special to sayto you. If you want a simple, flexible, and largely naturalisticspiritual system with no religious fundamentalism attached to it,and little theoretical speculation about the supposed afterlife, andwhich provides numerous opportunities in this life for personalimprovement and mental cultivation (especially by stilling themind), look into Shintō. If you want to affirm the innate goodness(no-sin) of human beings, and are sick of religions which divide thepeoples of the earth into the saved (or chosen) and the unsaved(or the rest), with the latter destined---or perhaps evenpredestined---to go to Hell, then check out Shintō. If you want tolive life to the fullest here-and-now, try Shintō. You will not bedisappointed---unless your mind on matters religious andspiritual is well and truly already closed.
3The word ‘Shintō’ means, variously, the ‘Way of the Kami,’ the ‘Wayfrom the Kami,’ the ‘Way according to Kami,’ the ‘Kami-like Way,’and the ‘Way to [the] Kami.’ By way of explanation, the Japanese tōof Shintō is from the Chinese word tào [dào] (as in Taoism)[modernly: Daoism], meaning, of course, the ‘Way.’ The Shin is to beread as Kami---at least where the character occurs in isolation---themeaning of which I will now proceed to discuss.So, who or what are the kami? ‘Gods,’ we are ordinarily told, butthat is not quite right. Some say ‘angels,’ ‘spirits,’ ‘souls,’ spirit-souls, superior and extraordinary beings, or ‘natural forces’ arebetter English descriptions, but none of those is quite right. Indeed,there is no one English word that encapsulates what is meant bythe Japanese word kami. Indeed, it has been said that even theJapanese people themselves do not have a clear idea regarding thekami. In a narrow but very correct sense, we are talking about thesupposed native and indigenous spirits of Japan, as distinct fromforeign deities (eg those of Chinese Buddhism), but Shintō is nocrude animism despite what you might have read or been told. (Gotthat?) The celebrated Shintō high priest Yukitaka Yamamoto wroteof the nature of kami in these words: any divine being or indeedanything in the world or beyond that can inspire in human beings asense of its divinity and mystery. I think thats helpful---and morethan sufficient for present and other purposes. This is also helpful---its the text of a Poem Revealed to Mikado Seiwa:
4If we keep unperverted the human heart, which is like unto Heaven andreceived from the Earth, that is God. The Gods have their abode in the heart.Amongst the various ordinances none is more excellent than that of religiousmeditation.One sensible (in my view) thing about these so-called gods, thesekami, is that they are not all unfailingly just and benevolent.Indeed, some are quite nasty and cruel. Such is life, especially theworkings and effects of natural forces. This, for me, makes so muchmore sense that trying to hold on to a concept of one omnipotent(all-powerful), omnibenevolent (all-good) God where there is somuch misfortune and gratuitous suffering in our world.Anyway, this is how I see it. The word kami is a shorthanddescription, a code-like word, denoting the innate sacredness orholiness of all life---something that is overwhelmingly transcendentand awe-inspiring, even if it be the extraordinary in the ordinary,and which is sensed as a result of some emotional or intuitive (asopposed to intellectual or rational) stimulus. Speaking personally,although I reject the assertion that there are higher and lower levelsof reality, I have no difficulty in recognizing the transcendence, bothin time and space, as well as power, of nature itself over humanbeings, together with our utter dependence upon nature for thecontinuance of our lives both physically and otherwise. In short,there is a special quality about life that is ... kami-like.There is said in Shintō to be myriads of kami in and over all things,but collectively they are all one. Again, it is a case of the One---that
5is, the one life---becoming the many, but remaining forever One. Weall are children or descendants of the kami, we all have the abilityto get closer to the kami (particularly through Great Nature, whichis the living scripture in Shintō), and we all have kami nature (cfbuddha nature in some forms of Buddhism), and the innatepotential to not only restore our original kami nature but alsoactually become kami.Now, one doesn’t have to believe in the literal truth or existence ofthe kami. I don’t, and I also reject those bits of Shintō that I regardas crass superstition. (I do, however, respect the right of others tosee things quite differently, as many do.) For me, the use of theword kami is in the nature of a metaphor, referring, as mentioned,to the innate sacredness and holiness of life---all forms of life. If youwant to cultivate your kami nature---that is, renew yourself---perhaps the best way of doing that is to revere and get closer tonature. Shintō reminds us that we all have a duty to properlymanage, develop, protect, restore, enhance and conserve thenatural environment.Shintō has no theology in the Western sense, but it does have avery colourful mythology---indeed, more than one of them---towhich is appended much folklore. Again, one need not believe in theliteral truth or existence of the mythological hierarchy comprisingmyriads of superior and inferior deities that, it seems, developed outof the old ancestor-cult in Japan.
6And gone---hopefully forever---is that rather nasty, grotesque,militaristic, ultra-patriotic national cult of comparatively recent butquestionable provenance (namely, State Shintō) that was for atime the state religion of Japan. It is no longer a case of Japanbeing a divine country (kami no kuni) which excells all others(Oracle of the God of Atsuta). Nor is it a case of the divine descentof the Japanese race and its [generally assumed to be] living godemperor, who on that ground believed themselves to be superior tothe people of other countries, as well as divinely commissioned toforce the rule of the sun goddess upon the rest of the world.No, today it is the much more sensible and palatable case that allpeople come from the same sacred, holy source. Amaterasu, thesun goddess, is thus the mythological ancestor of us all, and notjust the emperor of Japan who supposedly was her descendant andrepresentative. Thus, Shintō now ascribes divinity---that is, basicgoodness and holiness---to all human nature, not just theJapanese. (If nothing else, Shintō has always shown a remarkableability to evolve and adapt. Its a pity so many of the worlds otherreligions are unwilling to do the same.)Shintō ritual and practice provide numerous and regularopportunities all designed to bring us into more conscious---and forthe most part, largely spontaneous---communion with nature andthe divine. Its all about connectedness---and interconnectedness.
7We need to cultivate purity, cleanliness, honesty, sincerity, and areverence and respect for all forms and manifestations of life. Acommitment to the all-pervading path or way of Shintō does notexclude the pursuit of other spiritual traditions and practices. As inall religions, love is the ultimate virtue. In the Shintō writingOracles of the Gods of Kasuga, one reads, The Lord will visit thehome where love reigns. Love is the representative of the Lord. Inother words, love is divine (cf. 1 Jn 4:8).So, how might someone who is not Japanese practice Shintōwithout actually being or becoming Shintō? Well, here are somesuggestions---and please note that word, ‘suggestions.’ There isnothing dogmatic in Shintō. There are no musts.First, spend more time mindfully appreciating Great Nature, and doall you can to protect, restore, enhance and conserve the naturalenvironment. The original Shintō shrines were groves of trees---howappropriate! Develop a reverential sense of the sacred (particularlyin trees, plants, animals, forests, lakes, streams, mountains, and allnatural matter, but also, of course, as respects your fellow humanbeings), and learn to live in harmony with nature, for we are notabove, beyond or separate from nature as we tend to think in theWest. Maintain a real, ongoing sense of awe, reverence andgratitude toward nature, recognizing the interconnectedness of allthings. As Shintō teaches, we are all offspring or ‘child-spirits’ of thegreat original Spirit of Life to which we all ultimately return, and inwhich we all live and move and have our being.So, treasure the mysterious and the awesome. In the words of thegreat mythographer Joseph Campbell, Shintō, at root, is a religionnot of sermons but of awe. I like that.
8Secondly, be clean within and without, reflecting the truth like amirror. Practise physical (‘outer’ or ‘bodily’) and spiritual (‘inner’)purity---that is, pure bodies and pure hearts---for purification is atthe heart of Shintō. We are not talking about asceticism in somenarrow flesh-denying sense, nor does Shintō have any silly hang-ups about sexual orientation or behaviour. Cleanliness is said tobe the balance of body, mind, and soul. There is a Shintō saying,‘To do good is to be pure. To commit evil is to be impure.’ Thatapplies at the personal level as well as to society and the world atlarge. Pollution is ‘evil,’ as is anything that obstructs the workingsof Great Nature. Another Shintō saying (from Oracle of Atago (theFire-God)) is:Leave the things of this world and come to me daily and monthly with purebodies and pure hearts. You will then enjoy paradise in this world and have allyour desires accomplished.The emphasis in Shintō is always on removing obstacles andbarriers (within ourselves, between different people, and betweenourselves and nature), correcting ones own path---that is, the paththat leads to purity and righteousness---and helping to returnthings to their natural state of purity, radiance, and, yes, godliness.Further, when we speak of purity and purification, we areconcerned not just with self but also with the purity andpurification of our local community and indeed the whole world,including, of course, and most especially, the natural world. Butchange begins with oneself. Another Shintō saying I like---this oneis from Oracle of Tatsuta (the Wind-God)---is this one:
9If that which is within is not bright it is useless to pray only for that which iswithout.Thirdly, strive to be happy, for Shintō encourages a cheerful andgrateful way of life, and places great value on the pursuit ofhappiness. Use and develop your intuition and practiseintrospection---but not of an obsessive, self-centred kind---in orderto discover the true path.Fourthly, be sincere in all your actions. Along with purity, sincerity---of an open-hearted and mindful kind---is the guiding principle ofShintō. It is written, ‘The first and surest means to enter intocommunion with the divine is sincerity.’ Shintō texts refer to thegreat way of single-minded uprightness. Banish pride. If you desireto obtain help from the Gods, put away pride. Even a hair of prideshuts you off from the Gods as it were by a great cloud (Oracle ofthe Gods of Kasuga). And remember also to practise gratitude andshow love, for it has been said that Shintō is essentially a religion ofgratitude, love---and mercy. So, if Shintō is a religion, it is certainlya very practical one.
10Fifthly, respect the spiritual paths and traditions of others, for noone---and certainly no one religion---has a monopoly on the truth,despite what some misguided but highly dogmatic people wouldhave you believe. Shintō seeks to allow each persons spiritualtradition to evolve freely. So, we are to live in conscious, mindfulcommunion with all people, indeed with all forms andmanifestations of life. There is a Shintō saying, ‘The heart of theperson before you is a mirror. See there your own form.’ As alreadymentioned, all people have kami nature, and we ought never toplace any artificial barriers---and that includes sectarian beliefs andpractices---between peoples of different nations, cultures,ethnicities, and so forth. So, try always to believe the best aboutpeople. Then, more often than not, they will rise to the occasion.Sixthly, develop and maintain a mindful awareness and sense of lifeas a continuum, embracing the past, the present, and the future.All things---and that includes the memory of persons now departedthis earthly life---continue to exist in the omnipresence of theeternal now, as part of lifes self-expression. In Shintō the emphasisfor the most part is not so much on the continuity of the individuallife but on the continuity and flow of life itself. Shintō treasures andcelebrates the truth that, though the forms of life are constantlychanging, life itself is indestructible and its ceaseless movement isever onward and kami-ward, so to speak.
11Seventhly, you may wish to set up at home your own little Shintōshrine (kamidana). There is plenty of good advice on the internet onhow to go about that. And there are some lovely Shintō prayers.Eighthly, practise mindfulness with a choiceless acceptance of whatis. In the Shintō writing God of Fujiyama we read, Every littleyielding to anxiety is a step away from the natural heart of man.There is much wisdom in that. Our natural heart---or natural stateof mind---is one completely free of worry and anxiety, for sucha mind (cf. our original face) is fully rooted and grounded in thehere-and-now with no concern for what might---or might not---happen in the future. Seek the sacred and divine in lifes ongoingonfoldment, that is, in the so-called ordinary and everyday. In thewords of the Shintō writing God of a Tajima Shrine:When the sky is clear, and the wind hums in the fir-trees, tis the heart of aGod who thus reveals himself.Finally, if you want to go further into the practice (note that word) ofShintō, locate and contact your nearest Shintō organization orpractitioner, for you will now ordinarily find at least one---andsometimes, more than one---such organization or practitioner inmost countries (especially the larger Western ones). If you happento live in Japan, well, you know what to do---if youre interested.First and foremost, Shintō is a praxis. Book knowledge,intellectualism, and rationalism are never enough. Indeed, thosethings can deflect one from the path. The essence of kami is beyondwords and reason. In the words of the noted Japanese philosopher
12and scholar Yamazaki Ansai, One should not bring reason to theexplanation of Shintō.In summary, this is Shintō in a nutshell. Stay close to nature. Showrespect and gratitude toward nature and the Spirit of Life. Andlearn how to grow psycho-spiritually by acquiring, developing andpolishing those qualities referred to in this post that are the directresult of ones contact with and reverence toward the Spirit of Lifethat sustains, animates and nurtures all of life. That, dearreaders, is the kami-like way.Note. The photos of Shintō shrines and related sitesand environs were all taken by the authoron his various trips to Japan.