How I Started with Shinto

I wrote a long e-mail today to the Shinto Mailing List and thought I’d go ahead and capture part of that in a more permanent place here.

How did I, a pasty white American guy, find Shinto?  How did I get started with such a different, and occasionally inscrutable tradition?

To be honest, I found Shinto because of anime.  I was watching, and enjoying a charming series called (among other things) “Our Home’s Fox Deity“.  One of the episodes contained a visit to a shrine on New Year’s, and the characters went and performed the brief steps of the formal shrine visit, or Sanpai.  (For a description, see “Who can visit the Shinto Shrine? How do I visit:“)

I remember watching this and thinking, “These actions mean something.”

Being me, I got on the Internet and started to read.  That lead me to several great resources, which I’ll probably put in another post.

I wound up reading a lot.  Web sites, a mailing list, and books.  I must have read a dozen books. I bought some, and I found some on-line, and I read some from our local library, and I got some from inter-library loan.

I liked the way that Shinto acknowledges and reveres all the sources of positivity and power in the world.  There isn’t one, huge, all-encompassing thing, but an uncountable number of local powers.  Waterfalls, mountains, trees, rocks, and oceans are all kami, to be respected and honored, but who can provide power, energy, and help.  The world around you matters, and you can give tribute and thanks to the nearby things that affect your life.

The more I read, the more I liked the religion.  It lacks the negative reinforcement of so many of the religions you commonly see.  Women are not denigrated, and can be priests.  People are not forever punished for not being perfect, but encouraged to try again.  You do not beg for forgiveness, but thank the kami for good fortune.

Shinto has not ossified as some of the big religions seem to have done, with attitudes stuck in the Middle Ages.  Shinto has rituals to purify and support cars and cell phones.  At least one Shinto shrine is active on Facebook.  There are shrines that will help you practice Shinto by mail.

(When condensed this much, I sound very incisive and thoughtful.  These conclusions took me months to arrive at, finding a clear sentence in a book, or having a conversation with a friend.  My feelings and opinions on this coalesced slowly over time, and as I thought about what I’d read, and discussed it with others.  It took a few months, and the feedback from a couple of different perceptive people to help me reach these conclusions.)

I found the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America‘s website.  It’s not far from Seattle… where I used to live.  I visit my parents there at least once a year, and I made a trip to the shrine that summer.  My Mother came with me.

Tsubaki America is a beautiful place.

Sacred Tree

Sacred Tree at Tsubaki America

While I was there, I had the Shinto priest, Rev. Barrish, perform one of the Shinto ceremonies for people at certain points in their lives, called a Jinsei Girei.  I was 40 years old, and my Mother was 70, and we were both entering “critical years”.  Rev. Barrish was interesting and happy to answer questions, and happy to do the ceremony.  The ceremony had moments that were almost unreal from the chiming of bells and the droning of the chant.  I understood what some of the structure of the ritual meant, but the feeling is hard to describe.

When I got home, I realized I wanted to try and be able to access some of that same good feeling on my own.  I wrote Rev. Barrish and discussed it with him.  I decided to build a kamidana, a little home shrine.  Between a charmingly kind seller in Japan, and Tsubaki America, I was able to assemble a kamidana which I have used for daily offerings since.

I’ve done some other things related to Shinto, and hope to continue to do so.  I find peace and a reminder that the world is a bigger place than the day-to-day grind in them, and they help me find and appreciate the beauty that is almost always around.



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