What Shinto Can Teach Paganism

I very much dislike the “open/closed” dichotomy that pagans sometimes apply to the religious traditions of other cultures. It insists on two categories of religion, those that outsiders may never legitimately practice, and those that are “free” for anyone to disassemble and borrow from. Obviously Shinto is neither: anyone can do Shinto, but everyone says it should be done properly. Certainly this means Shinto practices should not be mixed with pagan practices: such a pastiche would erase the meanings attached to Shinto forms. However, while Shinto is very deeply Japanese, there are some principles and ideas within it that are of a universal nature, that I believe can usefully inform modern Western paganism.

I don’t live in Japan or even speak Japanese, so everything I write here is gleaned from English-language books and translations, Shinto practitioners on various internet forums, and my experiences visiting shrines in Japan. So there may be misunderstandings! I’ve done my best, in any case.

There’s no kind of modern Western paganism that directly resembles Shinto, though there are occasional parallels and similarities. Probably modern druidry (deriving from the 18th century, not Celtic reconstructionism) comes closest in spirit. In general, I’m guessing you’ll probably appreciate Shinto more if your paganism leans towards the localist / animist / naturalist side rather than the theological / Platonist / “hard polytheist” side.

1. The concept of kami.

Shinto is the way of the kami. Anyone can practice it, Shinto is something you do, not something you convert to.

According to the 18th century Japaneseness scholar Motoori Norinaga, and widely understood in Shinto today, a kami is anything of surpassing awesomeness. This can include natural phenomena and physical objects, such as mountains, rivers, and the Sun. People can also be kami, while still remaining entirely human:

I do not yet well understand the meaning of the word kami (and all the old explanations are wrong), but in general, the word kami refers to, first of all, the various kami of heaven and earth spoken of in the classics, and the spirits [mitama] enshrined in their shrines, and it goes without saying that it also refers to people, and even birds and beasts and grass and trees, ocean and mountains — and anything else which has superior and extraordinary power, provoking awe. Here, “superb” means not only superior in nobility and goodness, but also awe-inspiring things of great evil and weirdness, anything which provokes a high degree of wonder.

Of people, those called kami of course include the most exalted lineage of emperors, who are called “distant kami” since they are so far removed from the ordinary person, and worthy of reverence. Then there are the human kami, who existed long ago and also at present; a certain number of human kami exist in each province, village, and house, each in accord with his or her station.

The kami of the age of kami [jindai] were also mostly men of that time, and since all the people of that age were kami, it is called the “age of kami.” Of those things which were not men, for example, lightning was known as a “sounding kami” [narukami], and the “sound of kami” [kaminari], so also the dragon and tree spirits, and foxes, since they were uncommonly mysterious, were called kami

There were also many occasions on which mountains and oceans were called kami; this does not mean that a spirit [mitama] indwelling the mountain was called kami, but that the mountain itself, or the ocean itself, was kami, and this, too, because of their superbly awe-inspiring quality.

In this way, kami are of manifold varieties, some noble and some base, some strong and some weak, some good and some evil, each being immediately in accord with its own mind and behavior. — [Kojiki-den, referenced here, which has a lot more on kami]

In this sense, kami are recognised rather than theologically defined. Anything and everything might potentially be a kami. What matters is the direct awareness of presence of kami, rather than an abstract belief in their existence. In this way, Shinto sacralises that actual real immediately-present world, rather than abstract Platonic ideal forms.

Just as kami are conceived phenomenologically rather than metaphysically, Shinto does not make a metaphysical distinction between “the natural” and “the supernatural”: rather, Shinto speaks of a phenomenological “seen world” (kenkai) and “unseen world” (yukai) that are simply what is seen and unseen in this world. Indeed one person might see what another does not. The spirits (mitama) of kami inhabit the unseen world, thus, kami may have both seen and unseen aspects.

Since Shinto has no formal doctrine, it doesn’t fit cleanly into the familiar Western belief-based classification of religion. Instead you can find many themes, for example:

  • Polytheism: there are innumerable kami, and any may be a focus of religious veneration.
  • Monism: some say that all kami are ultimately part of one kami that is everything.
  • Animism: things may be beings with which one might form a relationship.
  • Naturalism: it is “the mountain itself, or the ocean itself” that inspires great awe, that is the kami. In this view, kami are forces of nature because everything is a force of nature: nature is everything and there is nothing else.

Although the kami experience is universal rather than specific to the Japanese, there isn’t a good unambiguous English translation of the word. The word “spirit” is misleading. Rather, the concept of kami as divine natural phenomena gives us a particular concept of “god” that may appeal, I hope, to anyone who may see the sacred in the present immediate world.

What would a paganism informed by the kami-concept look like? Such a paganism would start from experiences of the divine that you or I may have, and always be rooted in this. It would identify and sacralise those worldly phenomena that inspire a feeling of power and awe, that inspire veneration, and reveal them as beings with which we can form religious relationships. These beings might be physical objects (such as mountains), or aspects of our lives and culture, such as love, virtue, craft, justice, and so forth, or yet some other more subtle aspect of the world with no common name.

2. The cultivation of sincerity and gratitude.

In escaping the moralism of Abrahamic religions, modern paganism tends to neglect self-improvement as any kind of religious goal. This is not the case for Shinto. Sincerity (magokoro) and gratitude (kansha) are essential to Shinto practice. Offerings to kami are performed in gratitude for the blessings the kami have provided.

Many pagan polytheists follow the “do ut des” model of interaction with their gods, a Latin formula meaning “I give so that you may give”. They sacrifice offerings to the gods so that the gods may reciprocate with their blessings. Afterwards, the offerings are discarded, even tossed in the trash.

In Shinto one might think of this as reversed (“das ut dem“): the kami have already given us so much, so it is natural and healthy to express gratitude for it. Shinto festivals typically involve beautiful displays of foods, drinks, and other offerings. These are displays of bounty for which to be grateful. The consecrated food and sake are not sacrificed or destroyed, but are instead shared at a feast (naorai) following the ritual.

Offerings are worthwhile because they are an opportunity to express gratitude to the kami and everything they do for us, rather than because of some expectation of divine tit-for-tat reciprocation. (Though if you do need the help of the kami for specific life problems, you can obtain an amulet at a shrine in exchange for a small donation, or a wooden plaque on which to leave your wish.)

Consider the Sun. In Shinto, the Sun is the kami Amaterasu-Omikami, and widely venerated. No matter what you do, no matter whether you, or your culture, or humanity, makes offerings or does not, the Sun will provide its divine blessings of light to all life. Isn’t this a cause for deep reverence and gratitude?

3. Practices of purification.

When performing pagan ritual, there is always some kind of mark or separation from the profane, always some intent to make these acts specifically religious ritual acts rather than ordinary acts. Wiccans, for example, “cast a circle” to demark their space and actions as ritual.

In Western paganism and ceremonial magic there is the notion of banishing evil spirits to purify place, but not so much for purification of oneself, of casting off spiritual as well as literal “dirtiness”, to make oneself suitable for ritual, or simply for one’s own well-being.

Purification (harae), of both place and of person, is a big part of Shinto. For example, when visiting a shrine, before praying to the kami, one should first wash one’s hands and mouth at the fountain for that purpose (temizu-ya). Misogi is a more intense form of personal purification, involving standing in a river or waterfall. Purification cleanses kegare, the kind of spiritual uncleanliness and defilement that arises from particular actions and situations, and more generally from the stress of everyday life.

If pagan temples become properly established, they should be places for this kind of ritual renewal, to resacralise ourselves, to cleanse our spirits and to receive the blessings of the gods.

4. Rootedness in culture and land.

Modern paganism, particularly in the United States, sometimes seems caught politically between a deracinated universalism and a racist folkishness. Among reconstructionists of ancient paganisms, the tendency to flit from ancient culture to ancient culture, as if those religions are meaningful when torn from their original cultures, is an example of the former.

In the latter category are white people using pagan religion as an adjunct to white nationalism. These people call themselves “folkish”, and bar practice to anyone they do not deem racially “white”. This kind of racial concern is unhistorical and indeed just plain racist. “Folkish” paganism is generally reviled by other pagans.

Shinto is not “folkish”. Shinto is deeply rooted in present and past Japanese culture. I have heard Shinto described as “the essence of Japaneseness”. And yet it is freely open to anyone to practice. For example, shrines in Japan are generally open to anyone to visit. Meiji Jingu, a large shrine in Tokyo, gives instructions on its website in English on how to do so properly (it’s actually not difficult). Shinto priests are keen on both Japanese and non-Japanese alike visiting their shrines, in the proper manner.

What would a properly culturally-rooted paganism look like? It would be rooted in local folklore, history, and land. It would measure its authenticity by cultural intelligibility. That is, though only a minority of a culture might practice paganism, others would nevertheless recognise it as part of their culture. Of course, it would be open to anyone willing to make the effort to learn to practice properly.

Actually, in Central and Eastern Europe, and elsewhere, there are already good examples of this kind of paganism, sometimes called ethnic religion or native faith. Examples include Romuva (Lithuania), Maausk (Estonia), Finnish Native Religion, Ősmagyar Vallás (Hungary) and so forth. What gives such ethnic religions authenticity is that they are intelligible by the people as belonging to that people, even if only a minority actually practice. For example, according to one report, while only 4% of Estonians practice Estonian paganism, a majority consider it to be the true religion of Estonia.

Who are your people, and what are your traditions? What are the pagan-ish and animist traces and flavours in your folklore? How is your land already honoured and sanctified? What are the stories that connect these things?

5. The sanctification of place.

It is a delight to walk in a Japanese city or countryside and to come across a shrine, large or small, or even a tree with a sacred rope (shimenawa). The presence of the shrine reveals the presence of the kami in that particular place, and reveals its sanctity. This, here, is the place.

What are the magical places where you live, which have that feeling of being the place? …where there are great giants in the rock formations, or where if you fell asleep you might end up in fairyland? …where some great deed was done, or where some ancient building once stood?

6. A language of traditional forms.

Like any long-established tradition, particular forms for ritual, dress, shrine layout and architecture, etc., have arisen in Shinto with particular meanings, that create a kind of symbolic language that enriches all aspects of practice. Paganism would benefit from having more established systems of meaning for its outward forms, but perhaps this is something that takes time to build and there is no shortcut.

More about Shinto

This series of five videos is a good starting point for learning about Shinto. Living with Kami has a good reading list.

If you want to practice Shinto, the best thing to do is simply visit a shrine the next time you are in Japan. Priests encourage this, provided you do so in the proper manner. This is not hard to learn: the Meiji Jingu explains on their site, or you can see it demonstrated by a naturalised Brit or by four hyperexpressive young women.

— Ashley Yakeley

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