In the advanced form of religions, there are hardly any animistic beliefs left in the world. One of them is Shintoism, a religious tradition linked to Japanese culture whose peculiarity is the veneration of the forces of nature, the kami (deities).
Shintoism is often related to Buddhism, since they share the same philosophical root: both propose a path to perfection through the connection of the individual with nature.
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What is Shintoism
When Shintoism was born in Japan, more than a thousand years ago, the Japanese language was not typified. For this reason, a word of Chinese origin was chosen to define this belief: Shinto, which means “way of the gods”. Thus Shintoism was born.
We can summarize its philosophical basis as a religious tradition of the animist type, that is, it attributes the category of gods and deities to the elements of nature. This, in Shintoism, is called kami. The peculiarity is that in this belief there are no scriptures or dogmas , and it is lived and perceived individually and non-transferable.
The importance of Shintoism is to have provided the Japanese people with a complex mythological narrative about the world and its phenomena., as well as a way of thinking and practices that complement other Eastern traditions such as Taoism and Buddhism.
Principles of Shintoism
In Japan, there are at least five beliefs that are nurtured and merged in a rich universe of philosophies, mythologies and practices: Shintoism, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Western influences.
Shintoism, according to official statistics, is the most followed in Japan, and contains a theological structure as deep as it is free from dogmatism. These are its elementary principles:
1. Animism: the force of nature
Unlike Western humanism in which man has an ascending position, Shintoism considers that the individual, located in avertical axis Sky-Man-Earth , it exists in a submissive way to monsoon nature.
The survival of this animist tradition is miraculous, since there are hardly any religions of this type left, without a pantheon of main gods or more dogma than faith in the divinities of nature. Its explanation lies in the very origin of Shintoism.
The Japanese archipelago was occupied by primitive tribes who brought with them their animist and shamanic beliefs , and when they found themselves surrounded by such a special environment, they began to see gods both in the sky and in the elements of the earth: a mountain, a river, a tree or a lake, for example.
Man was a submissive element, dependent on this nature, and his function was to venerate and offer sacrifices to these gods to obtain their “fruits”. Otherwise, they exposed themselves to the fury of those gods in the form of natural disasters.
2. The importance of the kami
Although in the West we translate kami as “god”, the concept is much broader and deeper , and constitutes the theological vertex of Shintoism.
The word kami includes the forces of nature, which have autonomous and superior power, but also the prominent figures of founding clans, such as heroes or ancestors, and a life force principle called musubi, which generates life.
The kami are the nature spirits of Shintoism. | Image from: Jelleke Vanooteghem/Unsplash.
The kami do not have shrines where they are venerated, but according to the Shinto tradition they manifest themselves in natural phenomena. Men worship the gods in festivals and rites to claim fertility , whether of the harvest or of the family. The only valid intermediary is the miko (shaman).
3. Reincarnation, the destiny of man
The creative principle in Shintoism is the musubi, which creates the elements through its transformation. In nature, this is quite simple to understand: all elements are transformed, like water when it evaporates and returns to a liquid state, or like decomposing matter is composted to give new life.
When it comes to the human spirit, the continuous process of creation translates into the elevation of the spirit until its own transformation to give rise to a regeneration. For this, three tasks are needed: the healing of the body, the preparation of the mind and the purification of the spirit.
Shintoism, in its ultimate goal, is an instrument for the free pursuit of happinesswithout dogmas or ties, and therefore it does not offer an absolute salvation or a paradise like the theistic religions, but a reincarnation once it has been possible to reach a higher spiritual stage.
In fact, according to Shintoism, when the dead man continues to perfect his spirit in another plane of reality, and that process can lead him to become a kami.
4. Belief without dogma or scriptures
What differentiates Shintoism from theistic religions is that there is no founding god or holy scriptures.
In the seventh century, the Yamato dynasty assumed the Shinto cult creating three thousand shrines and codifying certain practices, rites and festivities in some books. In addition, there are historical-mythological chroniclesthat explain the creation of the universe and the world through the animist conception, but cannot be considered sacred books.
It is, according to experts, a natural tendency of the Japanese spirit, which generally rejects dogmas as speculation contrary to common sense and good reason.
On the other hand, mythology and cosmogony are much more effective instruments because they allow the development of a looser body of beliefs that constitute, rather than a rigid structure of rules and ceremonies, a free, intimate and natural path towards renewal.
The Shinto cosmogony
According to the complex Shinto mythology, chaos existed before the universe, after which the Lord Center of the Universe appears:The first god of the Japanese is called Ami-no-minaka-nushi-no-kami. Two divinities are born from him: Takami-musubi-no-kami (second god, masculine, creator of plants) and Kami-musubi-no-kami (female god, orderer of life).
These last two conceive the goddess Amaterasu, protector of the Land of the Rising Sun. One of her grandchildren, Jimmu, comes down to Earth to be ordained as the first human emperor of Japan, from whose line the rest of the emperors descend to this day. In this way the creation of the world and the nation is woven together.
From this initial cosmogony, especially of the three creators, the rest of the divinities are born, numbering in the thousands.
The branches of Shintoism
As with other religious traditions in Japan, Shintoism has been incorporating new beliefs and practices to become, over the centuries, a syncretic tradition. Four large branches emerge from its complexity and heterogeneity.
1. Koshitsu Shinto
It is also called the Shintoism of the Imperial House and it is a set of rites performed inside the Imperial Palace of Tokyo, for the exclusive use of the imperial family. Through these rites, the emperor, who is the unifying being of the Japanese people , communicates with the goddess Amaterasu (founding god of the imperial family) to pray for the fertility of Japan.
The most important of the rituals is the Niinamesai, an autumn festival celebrated during the rice harvest:the harvested rice is appreciated and the new grain is offered . The ceremonial is directed at all times by the emperor, although due to its long duration it is sometimes shortened due to the advanced age of the president.
2. Jinja Shinto
It is the oldest form of Shintoism, also called Shrine Shintoism. In it, the kami are venerated in natural sanctuaries, although after World War II the temples became private institutions maintained through donations.
In any case, the important thing in Jinja Shinto is that the individual addresses the gods in a natural, sincere and obedient way, and joy and purity of heart are also highlighted. It is the widest branch of Shintoism, since it hasAround 80,000 temples or chapels in which the faithful enter to make offerings through the torii (portal).
3. Shuha Shinto
Also known as sectarian Shintoism, it arose when the Meji government attempted in the late 19th century to make Shintoism a state religion. Then, some individuals began to celebrate the ancestral practices individually and apart from the shrines used by State Shintoism.
Each sectarian group had its own leader who organized the practices and rites based on the tradition of primitive Shintoism. From these groups emerged the New Sect of Shinto, a mixture of Shintoism, Buddhism and Confucianism that form a syncretic philosophy.
4. Minzoku Shinto
It is the least visible and most lax form of Shintoism, because it is not attached to any specific ritual or to any sanctuary. It is something like the experience of Shinto ethics in the daily life of the common Japanese , a mixture of popular faith and superstition.
Thus, for example, in the harvest period in many communities a rite is celebrated led by a lay man, without the rank of priest, based on inherited knowledge. Inevitably, over the centuries it has incorporated all kinds of beliefs such as Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and other dual philosophies.
For Shintoism, shrines are natural places inhabited by deities.The communication between the individual and these deities is of an intimate nature and does not respond to the strict obedience of norms and prayers. But if there are some ritual practices collected in codes or transmitted orally.
1. The misogi
It is the washing of the body that the individual performs in a river near the sacred place . It is a basic element to receive the deity with a clean body. Usually it is enough to wash your hands and mouth.
They are ritual dances performed in the same sanctuary , to the sound of traditional music performed with ancient instruments.
We also detail some of the usual practices of Shintoism. | Image by: Bobby Hendry/Unsplash.
Believers who want to thank the gods or communicate with them usually make offerings, usually of some food or elements of nature itself , such as rice, corn or flowers.
A paper is folded to form figures that are intended to emulate the beauty of nature. It is an old Japanese tradition and is used to decorate natural sanctuaries.
celebrations They are normally celebrated around the spring and autumn equinoxes on the occasion of the beginning of the harvest and gathering . In addition, rites are usually held for local patrons and ancestors, and on the anniversary of the descent to the Land of Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan.
6. Celebrations of the phases of life
Since in Shintoism the evolution of man and his spirit is very relevant , the phases of life are celebrated. For example, at the Shichigosan Matsuri the temple priest blesses girls between the ages of three and seven and boys aged five.
Shintoism in contemporary Japan
Inevitably, as Japan became an international power in the troubled 20th century, Shintoism was devoured by new military demands and fashions in the organization of modern states.
As Japanese nationalism approached the abyss of the Second World War, the empire began to massively spread the ethical codes of the Japanese spirit, founded on the philosophy and mythology of Shintoism. Thus, faced with the threat of the rest of the nations, the emperor and the State found a united and conjured people .
The fact that, unlike Western individualism, Shinto ethics views man as a minutiae in continuous transformation at the hands of a sovereign nature, partly explains the ease with which young Japanese committed suicide in the famous kami-kaze cases.
After the military defeat of 1945, the emperor of Japan denied all divine ancestry andrecognized that the Japanese people “does not originate in legends or myths” . It thus broke with 1,500 years of Shinto tradition in Japanese thought.
What remains today is a folkloric and religious Shintoism detached from its unbreakable unity with the State. There is an extensive network of sanctuaries maintained with donations in a secular and non-denominational state , in which there is no lack of criticism of the imperial family for its Shinto rituals that many consider pure hypocrisy.
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LANZACO, F. Shintoismo, the path of the gods of Japan. Sophia University.
Musubi. March 10, 2015. The Path of Shinto.