Spirits of Place

March 19th, 2011

This is a torii, a Shinto structure through which the Gods enter.

You’ll find a torii in front of every Shinto shrine in Japan. You’ll also see them free-standing, like this one, wherever there seems to be a vortex of kami, or spirits of place. Many of them stand in seawater, either in the ocean or in bays.

Shinto is perhaps the oldest Japanese religion and the closest to being home-grown, although the name is taken from two Chinese words, shin, meaning “spirit,” and to, which is a derivative of tao (as in Taoism), meaning a path or a course of study.  So I suppose you could say it’s a spiritual path of study.  It’s sometimes translated as “the way of the gods.”

Despite the borrowing of Chinese words — probably chosen because Japan never invented a written language of its own but instead appropriated the character-based system of the  Chinese — Shinto is Japanese to its roots. The Shinto creation story is essentially the story of the creation of Japan.  In it, two powerful kami, Izanami and Izanagi, were deputed by other gods to create the world. After some trial and error, they created the eight islands that became known as Japan.

Izanami and Izanagi at work

Therefore, Shinto holds Japan itself as sacred.  It further holds that kami are to be found in all aspects of the natural world and that the natural world is therefore the source of beauty and goodness.  Nature is sacred.  To be removed from nature is to be far from the gods.

Shinto gods have no investment in morality.  They do not judge or punish.  Human suffering, presently so abundant in Japan, is not seen as punishment but as a state that is sometimes unavoidable.  In times of suffering, people might go to a shrine and seek purification.  Most Shinto shrines are built to house an especially strong or vital kami, and therefore they literally mark places that are rich in spirit.

A visit to a shrine actually begins with a ritual cleaning. There is a basin outside virtually all Shinto shrines.

Here is how it should be used.

Hands and mouth should be washed thoroughly. Cleanliness is an important aspect of Shinto.

Then one may ring a bell or clap one’s hands and pray.

The purpose of prayer is not to atone for past wrongs or to avoid future misfortune.  It is to strengthen one’s connection with the earth, with the source of spirit, and to hasten the reestablishment of one’s own equilibrium.  It also may help turn away the influence of mischievous spirits.

Once one has visited the temple, one is supposed to behave properly, which in Shinto means in a way that furthers the aims and the harmony of the group.  This probably explains the extraordinary behavior of the Japanese in the wake of the recent disasters.

These are pictures of Shinto Shrines at Fukushima, neither of which may be standing now.

One of the first things that strikes me when I look at Shinto shrines is how they mirror the Japanese aesthetic of natural simplicity, an aesthetic that clearly has its roots in the belief that the natural world is the source of spirituality.

Shinto is not an exclusive religion.  It recognizes the multitudes of angels, demons, messiahs, saints, and spiritual leaders from other religions as kami. Most Japanese, if asked, would probably say they practice both Shinto and Buddhism.

But there’s a functional division between the two. Shinto, which doesn’t really touch on the afterlife, is the religion of daily life, while Buddhism is the religion (at least in part) of the afterlife.  Most Japanese weddings are Shinto ceremonies, but almost all funerals are Buddhist.

I’m certain that Buddhism is much on the minds of the Japanese today.

8 Responses to “Spirits of Place”

  1. Suzanna Says:

    “…the natural world is the source of spirituality.”

    “To be removed from nature is to be far from the gods.”

    “The purpose of prayer is not to atone for past wrongs or to avoid future misfortune. It is to strengthen one’s connection with the earth, with the source of spirit, and to hasten the reestablishment of one’s own equilibrium.”

    This is a lovely, Tim.

    Apparently my views on nature/spirituality have a lot in common with Shintoist beliefs.

    Every day I seem to learn something new by reading your blog, Tim.

    Thank You!

  2. Laren Bright Says:

    Very nice tour of Japanese spirituality. Very interesting.

  3. barbara macdonald Says:

    Thank you Tim, I learned a lot from this post and it gave me momentary respite from the recent events in Japan.

    8 years ago My oldest daughter taught english in Rikuzentakta for two years and fell in love with the town and the people. The town was virtually wiped out by the tsunami and many are still missing.

    Despite her deep sadness she has heard that a close friend and her two daughters are alive but there are so many not yet heard from, the students she taught, the other teachers and general citizens, all of whom were wonderful to this lone Canadian while she was there. This disaster cuts deep and I know many others have similar stories.

    Eerily enough the captcha is shintoshu kedizo…..

  4. EverettK Says:

    The closest thing I’ve ever come to what *I* consider a ‘church’ or ‘shrine’ is walking through an old growth Douglas Fir forest in the summer time, with 6-8 foot diameter trees trunks all around me, towering up into the sky, and a ceiling of fir boughs far overhead, with the sun beams slanting down through the columns of the trunks to light our way.

    That’s my idea of ‘heaven.’

  5. Tom Logan Says:

    Thank you, Tim. This one was worth waiting for.

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, everybody, and glad you liked it.

    Shinto is one of those religions, like Buddhism, that has nothing to do with a deity who created the universe and remains somehow active, or at least interested, in its affairs. Instead, it locates spiritual power here, in the perfect balance of the natural world.

    That makes it an animistic belief. I’m deeply attracted to animism myself. Some of my most powerful memories are of being alone in the woods or beside a creek that ran through the woods and being uplifted by the energy that flowed through, and from, my surroundings. This conviction was enhanced when I experienced mescaline and peyote in places like Joshua Tree and literally saw the pulse of life in everything, saw how trees arranged and balanced themselves, saw the luminosity in everything alive. Had a coyote walk up to me. One of the things I love about Thailand is the practice of wrapping the saffron of a monk’s robe around certain trees and stones, places of power. I’m for it absolutely.

    Suzanna, thanks for the personal reaction. I think one of the problems of urban life is that people in cities, especially in poorer communities, are so severed from the natural world and its meditative power. It’s easy to believe that people are all there is in that kind of environment.

    Thanks, Laren — means extra coming from a spiritual practitioner like you.

    Barbara, my heart aches for the people of Rikuzentakta and all the other towns in Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures that simply disappeared. Whole worlds gone, especially since the average age in the north is older; the young tend to leave and go to the urban areas. I don’t know who the great poet, or even cinematic poet, is of older, rural japan — maybe Ozu. Maybe I should watch some Ozu, since I have about 20 of his films here. And of course, the Shintoshu is a Shinto book from the 14th century, although I think it’s more anthropological than religious, since it was compiled by Buddhists.

    Everett, I’ve shared that forest experience and it moved me to my core. I went with Munyin, who had signed up to run the marathon called the Avenue of the Giants, up near Eureka, on the Russian River. I was supposed to hold her stuff and drink coffee while she ran, but when the gun went off, I started to run, too, and found myself in an old-growth forest of redwoods, just an outdoor cathedral. I kept running for 13 miles, the first half of the marathon, and it was days before I could bend my knees.

    Thanks to you, Tom, and thanks again for coming back.

    All compassion and support to the people in the north of Japan.

  7. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    This is so beautiful and so poignant. I think animism has a lot going for it. The first time I was in Yosemite National Park, there was snow on the ground and we wandered through the very old redwoods. I swear I got this mysterious high where I could hear the sap running, and just FEEL the life of the trees. Something happens to me when face with that kind of grandeur. Of course, I scared my family-what’s wrong with Mom? Nature provides its own cathedrals, if we would only look. Thank you, Tim. (captch is ipsp sencei)

  8. Stephen Cohn Says:

    Beautiful and illuminating blog, Tim – Thanks.

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