Shinto and Human Life

The principle of sanmi-sangen explains the mystery of life. Sanmi-sangen means the three elements that constitute the basis of all forms of existence. These basic symbols both explain the meaning of and guide the destiny of human life. We can see sanmi -sangen operate at many levels, and it is the interaction of these levels that can produce forces that will work for the benefit and well being of those who follow their lead - people whose behavior and thinking are characterized by the spirit of kannagara, following the way of the Kami.

At the level of the Kami, Amaterasu OKami, the deity of the Sun who lives in Takama-no-Hara, the Utopia of brightness, is principal among the three important parts of the cosmological dimension of existence. The sun is the source of life, of growth and of creativity. Without its heat, power and energy, life could not exist. Therefore, the universe is totally dependent upon the primal force of the sun.

Tsukuyomi no Mikoto, the Kami of the Moon, is the guardian of night, the time of silent growth and development necessary complement to the day. The moon symbolizes this in its cycles - the new moon, the half moon, the full moon. The moon waxes and wanes as does life in the process of growth. Shinra-bansho, or everything in nature, depends on the growth time of the moon just as everything depends on the light and power of the sun.

Susanoo-no-Mikoto, the deity of the stars, was given authority over the vastness of the ocean, unabara. Without water, the earth cannot live. The ebb and flow of life is under higher governance and that governance is the destiny symbolized by the stars. The stars affect the destiny of man whose place in creation is described in Japanese by the expression bambutsuno- reicho, the lord of everything under the sun. These three, the deities of the sun, moon and stars, are called the san-hikari, the three lights, and their existence is fundamental for all forms of life in the universe.

The diagram below should explain the Shinto pattern of the universe and how humans are affected by these celestial forces. In Shinto thought, human life has a mission to fulfill under the light, power and guidance of the sun, moon and stars. Ukeau, the spirit of undertaking, is the key to how these forces can be united and how people can, according to the spirit of kannagara, fulfill the life and destiny for which they were born.

When Spring comes, all the flowers begin to bloom towards summer, insects begin to appear, birds sing and human beings begin to move in response to their ki, power or energy. Spring is naturally the time of romance when love blossoms, people marry and the soul of man enters the female spirit and body and new life comes into being. The flow of all things is from the gaseous state to the liquid and then to the solid. Ki generates feelings which turn to the liquid forms of love and then the solid forms of birth and reproduction. Thus nature flows eternally and is as we know it. In Shinto symbolism, the triangle symbolizes the gaseous, the circle symbolizes the liquid and the square symbolizes the solid.

This symbol is built into the floor of the Heiden, inner sanctuary, of Tsubaki Grand Shrine, in three colors of natural wood:


This symbolism encompasses all aspects of cosmic and earthly existence, showing how life is built and governed and how its destiny should flow. The Buddhist expression for this is Rinne, transmigration of the soul, Samsara in Sanskrit. To have meaning, life must have balance between mission and destiny. We must think quite deeply about these. Mission has quite a specific meaning. If two people produce a child, this does not mean the presence of mission. The child who is not the product of mission and destiny is the child who will perhaps end up abandoned, whose conception and birth were not surrounded by the protective structures that the union of life, mission and destiny can produce. If these are present, however, that life can be nurtured properly and grow into the fulfillment of its own destiny. In addition, that life, in union with another, will continue its natural flow, projecting life into the future, united in mission and destiny, according to kannagara. So the generations are born, and life ceaselessly flows. This diagram shows how three principles are related.


Sangen, the rule of three main factors, works at the level of everyday life and at the level of human destiny. In every shrine, offerings to the Kami on the sambo, offering stand, include certain items apart from sake, vegetables and fruits - namely salt, rice and water. The offerings, called shinsen, represent the basis of life.

For the Japanese, life has been based on rice, and rice requires water for growth. The ancient Japanese knew the power of water to make rice grow, and they knew its force and energy. People today seem to have lost the sense of water as a source of life. From the age of the Yayoi, the prehistoric Japanese, our people have known the secrets of nature which enabled the cultivation of rice. They discovered how to harness the power of water to make rice grow. The Shinto terms minaoshi (meaning "forward") and kikinaoshi (meaning "obedient") contain the secrets of how that power was harnessed.

Water in a bottle can be passive and obedient but uncontained, water can be a torrent tearing down trees and destroying walls. Water can fertilize and stimulate growth. If people could live like creative water, they would find life less tiring. The flexibility of water is a great lesson.

Allied to the role of water and of equal importance is time and timing. The shrine's nen-chu-gyo-ji, schedule of rituals, covers the entire year and each stage of the year is marked by an appropriate ritual, as is each stage in life. Shinto is very time conscious. What is the most important aspect of human existence? Some might answer "life," but I would say "time," because life is ery much a sequence of events.

These events follow in order, and that order cannot be changed. Cherry blossoms will not appear in December. No matter how much you may wish to see them, you have to wait until Spring. That is their time. Time is the framework and context of life and its sequence. That is perhaps why Japanese are so time conscious. Time you cannot see, but it is time that enables us to understand the processes of nature. This in turn encourages us to feel thankful. Thankfulness is important in Shinto because it expresses our respectful dependence on the powers that determine the flow of our lives.

Discontentment will lead only to frustration. If there is one word or one sentiment that should govern our way of thinking, and that expresses the true spirit of kannagara, it is the Japanese term kansha - simply giving things to the powers that make people their care and that assist them in reaching the true greatness of spirit they were born to know.


To illustrate the principles from my own experience, I was freed from the task of succeeding my father as a Shinto priest because he designated two of my brothers to become priests. When both of them died, I found myself cast in the role decided for another. This made me reflect profoundly on what all this meant. For me, it meant I was destined before I was even born to become the high priest of Tsubaki Grand Shrine, according to the principle of sangen-no-hosoku (rule of the three main factors). Even after I became priest, I engaged in numerous occupations and activities that enhanced my training and which were therefore part of my destiny. They assisted me to become a more broadly-trained priest able to appreciate the links between the world of commerce and the world of the spirit. My harsh and painful experiences in the jungles of New Guinea also prepared me by confirming my hatred of war and violence and strengthening my commitment to peace and, in the fullness of time, to the International Association for Religious Freedom.

Sangen-no-hosoku applies to every human being. Each has a destiny to work out, a mission or purpose that will give life significance. Part lies in the way we continue to further the great processes of life and in the way in which we pursue that purpose. It means closeness to the spirit of kannagara. As imperfect beings, we often fail to recognize our mission. These failures come about because we have lost something of our natural purity. This is why purification, or misogi is so central to Shinto. It enables man to cultivate spirituality and to restore his or her natural greatness.

Cultivating Spirituality and Misogi Harai

There is a much deeper longing for a spiritual understanding of life among people than is generally realized. While the mainline churches in the U.S.A. and in Europe are not gaining supporters and members that around, half of the teenagers in the U.S.A., around 14 million, belong to some kind of religious cult. Many of these cults are bizarre and even dangerous, and often people need to be rescued from them, or deprogrammed against their wishes to be restored to a normal frame of mind. Whether these young people find what they are looking for in cults, I do not know, but they are surely looking for something that they cannot find in more conventional forms of religion.

I think that they are genuinely searching for a more spiritual way of life. The fact that they are exploited and deceived and often abused in no way detracts from the sincerity of their concern. The failure of main line churches and religious groups to recognize their need is one of the facts of modern religious life.

In Japan, similar problems have occurred, and many strange religious groups have appeared in recent times. In one group, seven members committed suicide when their leader died. These are symptoms of a discontent or hunger that drives people into the arms of cultic personalities and strange beliefs. Interestingly enough, in Japan we have seen the revival in recent years of many different kinds of gyo or discipline, that make real physical demands upon people.

In Shinto, the gyo is misogi, purification under a waterfall, a part of our practices at Tsubaki Grand Shrine. Misogi is demanding, and many people feel uncertain or even afraid of standing under the waterfall. Yet our Misogi-kai, misogi association, has a large membership of regular participants from all walks of life who seek something more spiritual in life amid the materialism and indifference they find in everyday life.

In Shinto, misogi is the primary act that can produce purification and enhance the spirituality of those who practice it. As human beings, we are the children of the Kami and as such we try to work for the progress of human culture. The shrine is a place where human beings and the Kami may meet and be united. Misogi is one of the ways in which that meeting can be effected. In Shinto belief, human beings can come close to the Kami through training and discipline. The human soul inclines naturally toward the Kami and can be cultivated to become more deeply-related through the right kind of activities. This is a matter for attention every day. People seeking to be close to the Kami should work at showing cleanness, brightness and diligence in all they do and should seek to cultivate harmony in personal relations. Misogi regularly practiced can help in this. Musubi, creativity, brings people close to each other and closer to the Kami. The harmony of the universe, according to the mythology of the Kojiki, was achieved through musubi. How do we cultivate spirituality in daily life? Consider the daily offerings made to the Kami at the Kamidana, the household mini-shrine that sits on a shelf high on the wall inside the principal room of the house. The offerings, shinsen, include washed rice, water and salt. People offer these, clap their hands and pray in front of the Kamidana.

The washed rice symbolizes good health. Water preserves life and cleanses. Salt is for shiokagen, the act of seasoning food to bring out the flavor. Salt represents harmony. These three things are essential for people to live satisfactory and useful lives. If people had these, life would be ideal, but this is not the case. Many things prevent people from achieving their full potential. They can be undermined by conflict and misfortune; they can become preoccupied by distress and anxiety; they make mistakes, commit sins and lose their purity.

Misogi is efficacious in restoring the natural greatness of soul of which man is capable. The limitations on development are lifted and the restoration can take place. Misogi has therapeutic as well as spiritual effects. The impact of the waterfall on the back of the neck is a source of removing stress. On one occasion, we checked the blood pressure of several participants before entering the waterfall, immediately after and 30 minutes later. Each showed a marked lowering from the pre-misogi level. This suggests misogi has some effect in stress reduction and thus indirectly improves health and longevity.

Misogi in the style of Tsubaki Grand Shrine has been practiced for centuries and there is good reason to believe that people in ages past knew more of the secrets of nature than we know in our modern state of alienation from nature. My own experience with misogi for almost 60 years convinces me of its power to do many good things for those who are receptive to its healing and renewing power.

Birth of the Misogi Kai

Misogi is one of the important spiritual activities of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine as well as one of its most characteristic activities.

In 1959 I revived the full ritual of misogi with elements of the esoteric that we share with Shingon or True Word Buddhism, introduced from China by the Japanese saint Kukai ( 774-835) and mingled with aspects of Shinto . Kukai was a devotee of many of Japan's oldest mountain shrines. The movement known as Shugendo (the way of mountain asceticism) was an amalgam of Shinto rituals and Buddhist esoteric practices. Our version of misogi includes both. The Tsubaki form of misogi draws on the ancient heritage of Japanese religion of which our Shrine has for centuries been a jealous guardian.

During the era of State Shinto, many ceremonies and rituals were suppressed by government order because they represented natural religion rather than the government manufactured ideology that Shinto has been distorted into becoming to further the ends of national unity at the expense of either genuine spirituality or truth.

The end of the Pacific War meant the liberation of many groups to restore shrines that had been closed down by government order (and there were many in Mie Prefecture), to revive many practices that had been suppressed, especially in mountain shrines where many Buddhist practices had been mixed with Shinto rituals. The revival and growth of our Misogi-Kai (Misogi Association ) is one such story.

I was in the waterfall performing my gyo late one night when I heard a voice from behind. Surprised at being disturbed so late and a little bit annoyed at the intrusion in my private devotions, I turned to see six people who asked if they could join me in misogi. I explained that I did not wish to be interrupted when I was practising misogi myself, especially in the middle of a long period of gyo.

They persisted in asking for an appointment and I finally gave in. Their earnestness seemed convincing and I agreed to meet them on the 11th of the month. From then on, on the 11th of every month, I have held a misogi gathering at which anyone who wishes to join the association can come.

Shinto is nothing new, and yet, because of its belief in the endless power of renewal, it is ever new. It is old but ever new. It is primordial. Before man set pen to paper, or rationalized doctrines or formulated scientific principles, people of old had intuitive insights that were probably as basically true as the proven truths of modern science. They caught the spirit of the cosmos.

Today, we have to be taught these things. Perhaps Shinto can remind us that we were born as children of the Kami, fully equipped to fulfill our role and achieve satisfaction as we are. Perhaps it can further remind us that if we probe deeply enough into our spiritual roots there lies within our grasp enough wisdom, truth and goodwill to solve even the most serious of the problems besetting our modern world.

Let us join hands and hearts in the way of the Kami, the way the divine in the universe has given us to discover, and realize the highest and best of which humankind is capable - a world of peace, truth , justice and freedom.