Sunday, March 21, 2021

Japanese Shinto Hits the Maga Nail on the Head

Shinto, Japan’s ancient indigenous religion, is wrapped in mystery. There are no sacred scriptures or writings. There exists no central authority. There is little, if any, evidence of the origins of their rituals and beliefs. No one knows for sure how many kami there are in the Shinto pantheon; gods inhabit all manner of Nature, from rocks and trees to mountains and oceans. The Shinto priests recite age-old prayers in a language barely resembling Japanese. I don't think they even know what they are saying.

The word Shinto means ‘The Way of the Gods’. There are no specified moral guidelines attached to The Way. Yet for over two milennia it has served as the foundation of 'Wa', the harmony so deeply imbued in Japanese society.

The core of Shinto is the belief in ‘kami’, the deities that inhabit every aspect of the natural world. Kami is often translated as ‘god’, but the concept of kami is actually so far from the omniscient, omnipotent being of the religions of the West that saying the kami are gods causes more confusion than understanding. Japanese kami reside within everything, even natural disasters, and might well be best explained as the very elements and events of Nature itself.

At the same time, the kami are not considered to be entirely, metaphysically different from humans. The concept of kami is so vague yet inclusive that it is even possible for living human beings to become kami. This is how the Japanese emperor could be considered a deity by the Japanese people; their idea of kami was nothing like the western idea of God.

Meanwhile the term Shinto itself is so vague in origin that no one is sure if its etymology is even Japanese.

Shinto is fascinating and confusing. Simple and complex. One could spend a lifetime trying to work out all the intricacies of Shinto and come up way short. A much better, more enjoyable, more fulfilling pursuit would be to spend some time among the people of this land, and to walk the grounds of a few Shinto shrines.

As Shinto is so closely tied to Nature, its shrines are necessarily surrounded by the trees and rocks and water the kami inhabit. (In contrast, as Buddhism is concerned with existence apart from this world, a Buddhist temple is not at all out of place in the middle of a swath of concrete.) To walk among the cedars and the serenity of a Shinto shrine is unlike a visit to a church, temple, synagogue or mosque (and I have managed to experience them all). To be fair, there are a few Buddhist temples where I’ve felt that same serenity. Perhaps not by coincidence those temples stood not on swaths of concrete but in the quietude of the woods – almost as if they were trying to be more Shinto.

I’ve come to see no difference between Nature and God. I don’t see God as some external entity, looking down from an ethereal perch. The God I do sense permeates the world I see. Yet my concept of God does not equal the physical world. God exists for me not in but as the world. The natural world, then, is both the substance and the expression of God.

When this idea is lost - when there is separation of God from Nature, of God from Man (man being a part of Nature despite what his ego may want to believe) - the expression of God in the everyday is lost.

This is, for me, the shortcoming of western religion, where God is seen as an entity that exists 'out there'. Shinto places God - equates kami - with the world that surrounds us. I think it is notable that Japanese surnames, almost without exception, involve an aspect of Nature.

As the natural world in its entirety is the substance and expression of God, there seems no room for the idea of an anti-God, or what some people would call the Devil. To me darkness is merely an absence of light - a separation from the kami.

Shinto belief, as set forth in the book pictured here, explains the concept as such:

In ancient Shinto the concept of moral good and evil, good and bad fortune, good and bad quality in material were all expressed in terms meaning to have or to lack worldly value: yoshi (good) and ashi (bad). The soul of man is good. Shinto does not have the concept of original sin. Man by nature is inherently good, and the world in which he lives is good. This is the kami-world. Evil then cannot originate in man or in this world. It is an intruder. Evil comes from without. The source of temptation and evil is the world of darkness. The cause is evil spirits, called magatsuhi. Evil caused by magatsuhi is called maga. Moral evil is thus an affliction, a temporary affliction. While man’s soul is good, the flesh and senses readily succumb to temptation. Man commits evil because he has lost, has been deprived of, the capacity for normal action.

I don't believe in evil spirits. I believe in the uniquely human ability to separate from the kami-world.

“God is great,” I was taught in elementary school. The semantics as well as the spirit (not to mention the big brooding woman in the habit) demanded a reverence to a being separate from us. That separation, the mark of western religion, leads to the belief that our efforts make us more like God, or bring us closer to God, which in turn creates degrees of closeness, of likeness, to God. From there, people, and groups of people, come to believe they are more godly than others, and begin to act accordingly.

In The Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceRobert Pirsig said (basically) that Quality is not a thing or a state but an event. Quality – in the mechanical workings of a motorcycle or the relationship between a father and his son, or between people in general – arises from the combination, the confluence, of substance and expression.

I do not believe that God is a great and separate being. I believe God is Greatness. God is that Event - the ongoing, eternal confluence of substance and expression that is the natural world. Moment after moment, unfurling in line with the kami that exist in everyone and everything; to me, that is where Greatness is found. That is what God means.

This was originally intended to be a short, snarky post on the maga bit from that book passage up there. But without any forethought these words turned out as they have, because the coincidence was too thick to ignore. I don't recall being taught that Jesus promoted anything but love. (Interestingly, the idea that Jesus was both God and man seems first-cousin to Shinto.) But I think that the findamentals of western religion have inadvertantly allowed for people, politicians, and even priests to justify something less.

I don’t believe in evil spirits. But I believe the originators of Shinto were clearly on to something.





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