26 January 2010
Shinto incorporates spiritual practices derived from many local and regional prehistoric traditions, but did not emerge as a formal centralized religious institution until the arrival of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, beginning in the 6th century. Buddhism gradually adapted in Japan to the native spirituality.
Shinto practices were first recorded and codified in the written historical records of the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki in the 7th and 8th century. Still, these earliest Japanese writings do not refer to a unified "Shinto religion", but practices associated with harvests and other seasonal clan events, along with a uniquely Japanese cosmogony and mythology, combining spiritual traditions of the ascendant clans of early Japan, mainly the Yamato and Izumo cultures.
Shinto is a religion in where practice (actions) and ritual, rather than words, are of the utmost importance. Shinto is characterized by the worship of nature, ancestors, polytheism, and animism, with a strong focus on ritual purity, involving honoring and celebrating the existence of Kami (神). Kami are defined in English as "spirit", "essence" or "deities", that are associated with many understood formats; in some cases being human like, some animistic, others associated with more abstract "natural" forces in the world (mountains, rivers, lightning, wind, waves, trees, rocks). It may be best thought of as "sacred" elements and energies. Kami and people are not separate, they exist within the same world and share its interrelated complexity.
Modern Shinto does have a central theological authority but no singular Theocracy. Shinto today is an inclusive association of local, regional, and national shrines of various rank and historical significance. Practitioners express their various beliefs through similar language and practice, adopting a similar style in dress and ritual, dating from around the time of the Nara and Heian Periods.
Shinto currently has about 119 million known adherents in Japan, although a person who practices any manner of Shinto rituals may be so counted. It is generally accepted that the vast majority of Japanese people take part in Shinto rituals, while most would also practice Buddhist ancestor worship. However, unlike many monotheistic religious practices, Shinto and Buddhism typically do not require professing faith to be a believer or a practitioner, and as such it is difficult to query for exact figures based on self-identification of belief within Japan. Due to the syncretic nature of Shinto and Buddhism, most "life" events are handled by Shinto and "death" or "afterlife" events are handled by Buddhism -- for example, it is typical in Japan to register or celebrate a birth at a Shinto shrine, while funeral arrangements are generally dictated by Buddhist tradition -- although the division is not exclusive.
Shinto has shrines in many other countries, including the United States, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the Netherlands among others and is considered to be expanding to a global religion especially with the advent of international branches of Shinto shrines.
Shinto teaches that everything contains a kami (神 "spiritual essence", commonly translated as god or spirit). Shinto's spirits are collectively called yaoyorozu no kami (八百万の神), an expression literally meaning "eight million kami", but interpreted as meaning "myriad", although it can be translated as "many Kami". There is a phoenetic variation kamu and a similar word among Ainu kamui. There is an analog "mi-koto".
Kami are a difficult concept to translate as there is no direct similar construct in English. Kami is generally accepted to describe the innate supernatural force that is above the actions of man, the realm of the sacred, and is inclusive of gods, spirit figures, and human ancestors. All mythological creatures of the Japanese cultural tradition, of the Buddhistic tradition, Christian God, Hindu gods, Islamic Allah, various angels and demons of all faiths among others are considered Kami for the purpose of Shinto faith.
The kami reside in all things, but certain places are designated for the interface of people and kami (the common world and the sacred): sacred nature, shrines, and kamidana. There are natural places considered to have an unusually sacred spirit about them, and are objects of worship. They are frequently mountains, trees, unusual rocks, rivers, waterfalls, and other natural edifices. In most cases they are on or near a shrine grounds. The shrine is a building built in which to house the kami, with a separation from the "ordinary" world through sacred space with defined features based on the age and lineage of the shrine. The kamidana is a home shrine (placed on a wall in the home) that is a "kami residence" that acts as a substitute for a large shrine on a daily basis. In each case the object of worship is considered a sacred space that the kami spirit actually dwells, being treated with the utmost respect and deference.
Shinto teaches that certain deeds create a kind of ritual impurity that one should want cleansed for one's own peace of mind and good fortune, not because impurity is wrong in and of itself. Wrong deeds are called "impurity" (穢れ kegare), opposed to "purity" (清め kiyome). Normal days are called "day" (ke), and festive days are called "sunny" or simply "good" (hare). Killing living beings should be done with reverence for taking a life to continue one's own and should be kept to a minimum.
Modern Japanese continue to place great emphasis on the importance of ritual phrases and greetings (挨拶 aisatsu). Before eating, many Japanese say, "I will humbly receive" (戴きます itadakimasu), to show proper thankfulness to the preparer of the meal in particular and more generally to all those living things that lost their lives to make the meal. Failure to show proper respect can be seen as a lack of concern for others, looked down on because it is believed to create problems for all. Those who fail to take into account the feelings of other people and kami will only bring ruin on themselves.
The worst expression of such an attitude is the taking of another's life for personal advancement or enjoyment. Those killed without being shown gratitude for their sacrifice will hold a grudge (怨み urami) and become a powerful and evil kami that seeks revenge (aragami). This same emphasis on the need for cooperation and collaboration can be seen throughout Japanese culture today. Additionally, if anyone is injured on the grounds of a shrine, the area affected must be ritually purified.
Purification rites are a vital part of Shinto. They are done on a daily, weekly, seasonal, lunar, and annual basis. In many ways these purification rituals are the lifeblood of the practice of Shinto. Such ceremonies have also been adapted to modern life. New buildings made in Japan are frequently blessed by a Shinto priest called kannushi (神主) during the groundbreaking ceremony (Jichinsai 地鎮祭), and many cars made in Japan have been blessed as part of the assembly process. Moreover, almost every Japanese factory or international business built outside Japan has had a groundbreaking ceremony performed by a Shinto priest, with occasionally an annual visitation by the priest to re-purify.
Unlike many religions, one does not need to publicly profess belief in Shinto to be a believer. Whenever a child is born in Japan, a local Shinto shrine adds the child's name to a list kept at the shrine and declares him or her a "family child" (氏子 ujiko). After death an ujiko becomes a "family spirit", or "family kami" (氏神 ujigami). One may choose to have one's name added to another list when moving and then be listed at both places. Names can be added to the list without consent and regardless of the beliefs of the person added to the list. However, this is not considered an imposition of belief, but a sign of being welcomed by the local kami, with the promise of addition to the pantheon of kami after death. Those children who die before addition to the list, including miscarried or aborted children, are called "water children" (水子 mizuko), and are believed to cause troubles and plagues. Mizuko are often worshipped in a Shinto shrine dedicated to stilling their anger and sadness, called mizuko kuyō (水子供養).
Because Shinto has co-existed with Buddhism for well over a millennium, it is very difficult to untangle Shinto and Buddhist beliefs about the world. Though Buddhism and Shinto have very different perspectives on the world, most Japanese do not see any challenge in reconciling these two very different religions, and practice both. Thus it is common for people to practice Shinto in life yet have a Buddhist funeral. Their different perspectives on the afterlife are seen as complementing each other, and frequently the ritual practice of one will have an origin in the other.