Understanding Shinto

You may have heard of Shinto before. In a nutshell it is a religion of eastern Asia originating in Japan, which focuses on nature and cleansing rituals. But there is so much more to Shinto than what can be put into a single sentence. I became fascinated with this religion a number of years ago, as I began to study Japanese history on a whim. But I soon moved on to other childhood pursuits, and forgot about most of it over time. Recently, I decided to look back into the subject, in hopes to better understand the cultural, spiritual, and personal applications that this philosphy has to offer to me and others.

Shinto, also known as Kami-no-Michi, focuses on the divine of the natural world. the word kami, while it has no direct English translation, would most accurately be translated as ‘divine,’ and is meant to describe the sacredness inherent in the natural world. And nearly anything could be considered, or become, kami. The sun, moon, water, unique trees, and even people have kami associated with them. What’s more, there are kami unique to different regions of Japan, based on the cultural and communal interests of the local people in each region.

A good example of a human attaining kami status is the emperor Ojin, who, upon his death, was enshrined as the kami Hachiman. Hachiman is the kami of war, and is considered a protector of Japan. Human beings becoming kami can also extend to ancestors, or founders of communities. Much of the concept in Shinto centers on the idea that as one thinks of the thing, if it conjures a sense of awe or wonder then it is kami. Many kami have messengers associated with them, who most often are manifest in the form of animals. The kami agriculture, industry, and success, Inari, has foxes as it’s messenger. Not all kami are inherently good, though. There are also kami that can represent calamity, hardship, or evil. These kami are often enshrined to abate them; in those situations, the process of making them kami is an act of cleansing, as well as a means of breaking the bad luck or tragedy associated with the spirit.

Purity is a key point of Shinto practice. Purifying rituals can be done in a number of ways and for a number of reasons, from christening of children, blessing new homes or vehicles, or to restore someone to health spiritually. The most common things associated with being pollutants and requiring purification after being exposed are disease and the dead. Most purification rituals revolve around bathing, often in water or salt water. Some others will have a priest or priestess apply salt to the individual partaking in the ritual, as salt is seen as a pure element.

Where moral direction is concerend, Shinto does not provide as robust a directive as many other modern religions do. Rather than decrying many behaviors, or extoling others, Shinto focuses on balance with nature and the cosmos, finding the place where you are most at harmony with your fellow beings and the world around you. Being in harmony can mean being productive, but most often it means being sincere and honest in your interactions with others.

This moral code, called kannagara, guides practitioners of Shinto to behave with the future in mind, considering how their actions will affect themselves and others. The overall desire here is to do good, with good meaning being kind to others, nature, and yourself, and avoiding actions or places that would lead to impurity.

Balance with nature and with ones self can lead to a greater sense of personal fulfillment. What’s more, understanding the messages of Shinto does not require someone to leave behind any other beliefs they may hold already. Many Shinto practitioners will participate in religious ceremonies of a number of faiths, celebrating Christian holidays, or having Buddhist funeral rites for their loved ones, along with their own activities. This open-mindedness is what excited me most. The idea that though we may all be different, we can learn from one another, and enrich our lives by finding new ideas about the world around us to help us find common ground. In the end, all beings are simply trying to find a way to be the best version of themselves, and hoping to leave the world in a better condition than they found it.


Published by AC Moore

My goal is to one day change the world in the same way Shakespeare did: by infusing the thoughts of the human race with such language and turn-of-phrase that they say them daily, and never even know it was I who wrote it.

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