What is Shinto?

I wrote about a visit to a Shinto shrine last week, and hadn’t touched the topic here before, and thought I’d change that.  Since I’m wordy, there’ll probably be several parts.  This one is to discuss what Shinto is, at least, what my understanding of Shinto is.  I feel like it’s a new topic for me, and one that I don’t know much about, but I’ve been reading about it steadily for months now, so I’m probably better informed than I give myself credit.

Shinto is a form of animism.  That means that it respects and honors the “souls” of natural objects.  In Shinto, anything in nature that can inspire awe or wonder is a kami.  Some translate that as ‘god’, but it’s really closer to ‘spirit’ or ‘force’.  Kami are worshipped through offerings and norito, which are chants or prayers.  There is no single written work for Shinto, and no single religious leader.  There are many sects, both large and small.  Shinto seems to be a positive and encouraging set of beliefs, lacking the fire, brimstone, and damnation of Christianity.  Instead, Shinto encourages order, is concerned with purity, and thanks the kami for good results.  Shinto is not an exclusive religion, and welcomes anyone, anywhere.  Shinto does not mind if you have other beliefs too.

One of the translated phrases that’s often heard is “a myriad of myriads of kami”, which is a poetic way of saying there’s an enourmous number, possibly uncountable.  There are kami for mountains, rocks, trees, oceans, the sun, and the moon.  There are kami for mythological people, famous people, people who have died in war, and Emporers.  Many Shinto shrines have a shimenawa (a rice straw rope, decorated with white paper zig zags) around a tree or a rock.  The shimenawa denotes a purified, sacred space, and they’re showing this tree or rock is a kami.

Have you ever been to the Redwood forests in California?  It starts out as any other day trip; perhaps a picnic lunch, some packing, some kerfuffle to leave.  You drive way the heck out to the middle of nowhere to a state park, and park.  Then you walk down a trail, often a wide and well-maintained one, practically a sidewalk.  Once you’re there, you look up… and up… and up… and all you can think is, “Wow.  That’s a really big tree.”  That feeling of awe, that’s it, right there.  That’s what kami is.  Give the trees a hug, appreciate their giant, silent grandeur, and let that sense of wonder and respect for that that is more than you stick with you.

Kami are all over.  I drove from San Jose to Seattle.  The impersonal, beaucratic force of the California Department of Transportaion didn’t put a shimeawa around it, but they thought Mt. Shasta was pretty special.  They put four separate vantage points in, to stop your headlong rush down the Interstate and look at the great beauty and power of Shasta.  It is sacred to the Native American people, and it’s clear why; it’s a beautiful, impressive mountain.  In Japan, they build shrines that face mountains and pay respects to them.  Here, it’s viewpoints off the Interstate.  The State Parks and National parks respect similar things.

The most significant kami in Shinto is Amaterasu OmiKami.  This is the sun goddess, and her energy and brightness gives life to everything.  Anyone, anywhere on Earth can step outside, face the sun, bow twice, clap twice, make a prayer, and bow again.  That’s the simplest form of Shinto there is, and lets you show respect to and thank the sun goddess for her favor and light.

Shinto has no concept of original sin, and won’t send you to hell when you die if you haven’t done all the right things.  There are not demons that are trying to steal your soul and destroy you.  There may be angry kami or confused spirits that cause difficulties, but these can be calmed, soothed, or purified.  Purity of thought and action are important to Shinto, and will lead you to a better, more complete life and allow you to ascend more powerfully in the afterworld, but everything and everyone will ascend to kamihood and will eventually succeed.  I found this very appealing.

Shinto shows respect for an involvement with Great Nature of the world.  It focuses on the bright, pure energies and wants to help make everything that way.  It has rituals for purification, for energizing things, and for encouraging rightness.  It does not demean, nor threaten.

Another thing I found appealing was that the kami are personalities.  The closest thing the mythology has to a “satan” is Susanoo-no-mikoto.  He did some fairly unpleasant things to his sister Ameterasu.  He didn’t do them because he was irredeemable, or Just Plain Evil, but because he was angry and hurt and wanted to make an issue of this.  In the end, he left.  Later, he had recovered from his bad mood, and wound up helping people and protecting them from things they did not deserve.  All the kami – just like all the people – have moods and want to be respected and thought well of.

This was first made clear to me by a description of one of the Shinto rituals.  When you’re going to build a new building, there’s a ritual to purify the area before you build.  All the unwanted spirits are shooed off, and the area is purified with salt so they can’t come back.  The last step of the ritual is to offer them saké, to let them know it’s nothing personal and that you don’t want them angry.  It’s hard t hate a drinking buddy, spiritual or not.

The faith is also positive thinking.  There are rituals to give you energy to get through hard times.  One of the big festivals is early in the year, and isn’t “Please give us a good harvest” but “Thank you for the excellent harvest we will have!”  It isn’t begging but a pre-thanking.  And what kami could give you a bad harvest after yo threw it a big party?

On some of the more modern issues, Shinto does okay.  Women are generally respected and can be priests.  Many of the well known kami are strong female role models.  Sex isn’t evil, but can be powerful.  I haven’t seen Shinto blamed for, or degrading LBGTQ folks, but I haven’t been looking.

So, there’s my understanding, from the dozen books I’ve read and the many blogs and pages I’ve found.


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