On Tuesday the 20th of June Jenny Raper presented this introductory paper for the Spiritual Reading Group at the Carmelite Library on the ancient Japanese religion of Shinto.
Our ancient forebears, all over the world, seemed to have had the same understanding about the universe and their special place in it. The question we now ask is 'is the DNA of humans designed to include spiritual beliefs and longings?' Three scholars, each one of them standing outside the theological arguments and influential in their own time in the debates tell us the following:
Frederic Myers, a pioneer in psychical research in the 19th century in England is quoted by William James, the American pioneer psychologist and brother of Henry James.
“First consider what are the facts. There exists around us a spiritual universe, and that universe is in actual relation with the material. From the spiritual universe comes the energy which maintains the material; the energy which makes the life of each individual spirit. Our spirits are supported by a perpetual indrawal of this energy, and the vigour of that indrawal is perpetually changing, much as the vigour of absorption of material nutriment changes from hour to hour.”
Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist, came to say that all the great myths, 'regardless of origin or time of creation shared a common pattern. He believed in the 'psychic unity of mankind'. He wrote in 2000:
“God is a metaphor for a mystery that transcends all human categories of thought, even the categories of being and non-being.”
“Whether it is putting you in touch with the mystery that's the ground of your own being.” (Depends on how much you want to think about it!)
Karen Armstrong, who calls herself a religious historian, not a theologian, writes the following in the introduction to her book The Case for God (2009). She quotes Martin Heidegger (1899-1976)
“'Being', a fundamental energy that supports and animates everything that exists. Being is transcendent...From the documents of later Neolithic and pastoral societies, we know that Being rather than a being was revered as the ultimate sacred power. ….Certain objects became eloquent symbols of the power of Being... a stone or a rock (frequent symbols of the sacred) expressed the stability and durability of Being; the moon, its power of endless renewal; the sky, its towering transcendence. None of these symbols was worshipped for in itself. People did not bow down and worship a rock..., the rock was simply a focus to the mysterious essence of life. Being bound all things together, humans, animals, plants, insects, stars and birds all shared the divine life that sustained the entire cosmos.
People felt it natural to imagine a race of spiritual beings of a higher nature than themselves that they called 'gods'. ….unseen forces at work in the world – wind, heat, emotion and air – these were often identified with gods.
The sacred place was one of the earliest and most ubiquitous symbols of the divine. ….it brought heaven and earth together and where the divine potency seemed particularly effective. …...imagining this fructifying, sacred energy welling up like a spring... people settled close to these places so as to live as closely as possible to the wellspring of Being.
There was no gulf separating the gods from the rest of the cosmos, everything had emerged from the same sacred stuff. All beings shared the same predicament and had to participate in a ceaseless battle against the destructive lethargy of chaos.”
An up-to-date description of Shinto comes from a Shinto priest (The Essence of Shinto Tokyo 2000) who writes:
“The essence of Shinto is found in our relationship and interdependence with Kami. … Shinto is the path through which we seek to realise ourselves fully as human beings by acquiring the noble characteristics of Kami. This is open to all men and women, but first we must become attuned to the spirit of Kami, which, in itself, is identical to Shinto.”
Ko-Shinto – the way of spirits was the ancient form of Shinto practised in the period known as the Jomon Period from C11000-300 BCE. The Japanese people followed this nature-based religion without any doctrine or creeds because they had no written texts. A pantheon of goddesses and gods – kami - were everywhere in their creation myths and they believed that every natural feature was imbued with spirits – kami- which were to be worshipped and attended to at certain times and for celebrations. Kami had both good and evil powers; just as nature is both creative and destructive and life brings both harmony and conflict, war and peace.
The Japanese had no writing system prior to the introduction of the Chinese texts. The first record of Japan comes from the Chinese dynastic histories, (C56CE). The earliest known examples of Japanese writing, dating back to the 5th and 6th Centuries A.D., are proper names inscribed with Chinese characters on a sacred mirror and a sword. We have had to rely on Chinese and Korean observations and much later (circa 712CE) Records of Ancient Matters and the Chronicles of Japan (circa 720 CE), written by Japanese scholars.
So, we are left with writings that are far from reliable, but which attempt to provide an historic background Some of the Chinese and Korean observations though are helpful in gaining an insight into Japanese life and culture, albeit seen from another cultural point of view.
Helpfully, the Chinese describe the country – 'The people of Wa live on mountainous islands in the ocean.” (De Bary p. 5). So, we can understand why precious natural features to the Japanese are water – the ocean, rivers and springs; the mountains and the sky, in particular, the sun. These natural elements are the foundation of the ancient myths that underpin Shinto. Scholars have discovered that Shinto is an amalgam of several ancient forms of religion – shamanistic and animistic practices which seem to stem from the mainland, and other very local beliefs and practices which are related to place . The Chinese also observed, with interest, that women in Japan seemed to be equal to men in the way they lived, worked and practised Shinto.
For these ancient Japanese people, living on islands (around 6,800 of them) shaped their spiritual beliefs and practices. As hunter gathers they took much of their food from the sea and thousands of rivers; they took natural vegetation and it is believed they grew some small crops; hunting for animals such as deer, hares, boars and eating birds such as pheasant. Their world was full of potential disasters though, tsunami, earthquakes and typhoons which caused flooding. Japan's natural environment provided the people with rich sustenance, and thus the people felt they were instruments of the kami who worked through them in whatever they did.
Probably the most sacred sites for these early residents of Japan were the mountains where great rocks and great forests were to be found. These natural wonders were filled with kami and the most sacred mountains, rocks, caverns and forest trees were set aside by specially knotted ropes (made from plants) and with simple gateways or square arches to designate their separateness from the secular life of the people. These places became known as 'shrines' and the 'gates' are known as tor ii. Probably certain men and women acted as shamans at these shrines offering simple rituals for the people – we know that ritual washing was vital to any Shinto practice for purification purposes. Modern Shinto practice is to wash the hands and mouths before a shrine.
What is unsure is the question of sorcery or witchcraft to deal with evil kami or demons. The Chinese visitors noted that a certain empress was a witch and practised sorcery. There is also no evidence of sacrifices, such as existed in other ancient religious practices.
We know that certain life events, such as birth, illness and death were all unclean in some way. People tainted by these events could go to their local sacred 'shrine' and carry out cleansing rituals using water and prayers to the local kami. In ancient times a shaman or priest was not required for these rituals. Japan's natural environment provided the people with rich sustenance, and they believed they were instruments of the kami who worked through them in whatever they did. What we would call 'religion' was, for these people, about living and practising simultaneously.
The Kami are not necessarily good – they have both good and evil powers. They understood that the forces of nature are both constructive and destructive and life brings both harmony and conflict; war and peace.
Evil spirits are known as oni and are responsible for a variety of human problems. Because of the oneness of all things, (nothing is one thing or the other) they can be ambivalent. For example, the oni fox spirit, is closely related to the rice god, Inari, who is popular and charitable. The god Susano after being expelled from heaven, became a positive figure who slayed a dragon and saved a maiden in distress. The misfortunes attributed to Oni are seen as temporary disruption of the natural order of things and not simple evil forces. (The Sacred East, ed, C. Scott Littleton.1966)
Ancient Shinto was closely connected with a system of clans and local Kami found around their lands. “Each person was born with a kami originating in the three creator Kami who transformed themselves and created all phenomena in the universe.” (The Essence of Shinto)
Out of this ancient world came a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses. The most important of these is Amaterasu (The person who makes the Heavens shine– the Sun Goddess and divine ancestor of the imperial family. She was the daughter of the Izagani-no-mikoto (August Male) who descended from Heaven to procreate with his wife and sister Izanami-no-mikoto and create the islands of Japan and then a series of gods and goddesses. Amaterasu was born from her father's left eye, Tsukiyomi, the moon god was born from his right and the god of storms, Susano (Raging Male) emerged from his nose. Amaterasu was given sovereignty over heaven and earth. She sent her grandson, to earth bearing the three sacred symbols – a sacred mirror, a magical sword and a wonderful, green fertility jewel.
Her grandson (Jimmu – tenno) is believed to have been the first ruler of Japan and right up until the end of World War II, the Emperors and Empresses of Japan were considered to be in direct line to Jimmu and so divine. They are holders of the sacred
symbols and only the Emperor or his maiden daughter or niece, can officiate at the most sacred shrine to Amaterasu at Ise. The inner shrine is designed in the ancient
style of a rice-barn and is situated within a compound that only designated people can enter. It is rebuilt every 20 years to exact design and using the exact timbers as the original by builders from the ancient families who have rebuilt the Shrine for generations. Within the inner shrine the sacred mirror of the Goddess is held. An outer shrine is dedicated to the rice goddess. The grounds around this shrine are spread with many special stones of differing colours and sizes for different areas. The gardens are designed to reflect the natural environment surrounding the shrine and the forests outside the walls of the shrine are considered to be most sacred and few are allowed to enter them.
There is evidence that around the 3rd century CE, ideas about the afterlife were more defined – some legends claim that the dead go to a place called yomi that is very like the Greek Hades and which is separated from the earth by a river. Later myths speak of resurrection and descriptions of the heavenly place. Shinto tends to be negative about death, which is a source of pollution called kegare. However after death many special individuals are enshrined after death, for example the Emperor Ojin (200-312 CE) was enshrined as the Hachiman the God of War.
It is difficult to describe Ko-Shinto because (apart from traditional practices and beliefs) the records we have come down to us as reports from other cultures. However, because some reports are detailed they do show curiosity and wonder of some aspects of the beliefs and practices of the ancient Japanese. The courts of China and the Korean Kingdoms were remote from the Japanese islands, but archaeology shows that there was seepage of beliefs and customs from the mainland before the formal visits of court envoys. Evidence of hydrology, rice growing and thus a gradual changing of how people actually lived, exists now.
“Shinto, however, certainly has its own way of thinking and feeling as well as its own distinctive world view that cannot be adequately contained within the western concept of religion. Underneath an array of expressions that ostensibly have no pattern, Shinto is filled with a world of faith.” The Essence of Shinto Motohisa Yamakage, Tokyo 2000.
Japanese Religions, Michiko Yusa
The Essence of Japan Motohisa Yamakage
The Sacred East ed. C ScottLittleton London 1999
Sources of Japanese Tradition. Compiled by Theodore de Bary, Donald Keen, George Tanabe, Paul Varley. New York 2001