The Way of the Kami

What is Shinto? The word Shinto is a combination of two terms --shin, meaning god, and to, or do, meaning way. Shin is the Chinese character for god and Kami is the Japanese pronunciation of that character. Shin, or Kami, means any divine being or anything in the world or beyond that can inspire in human beings a sense of divinity and mystery. "Do" can be the ordinary word for a road or it can have the same metaphorical meaning as in English, way of life or way of God.

Together, the terms mean "the way of the Kami", which can also be written Kami no Michi, the title of this book. Shinto did not have a formal title until Buddhism came to Japan in the 6th century AD, when a name had to be given to the older tradition to distinguish it from the new and foreign one. Buddhism then was called Butsudo, the way of the Buddha and to make clear what was what, the older folk way of worshipping Kami came to be known as Shin-do, or simple Shinto, the way of the Kami.

The Nihonshoki records that Emperor Yoomei said he followed the way of Buddha and revered the "way of the Kami". This was the first use of the term Shinto in the Japanese language. Thus Shinto received a name and it is that name by which we know it today.

Shinto has no written records as such, but within the ancient Japanese writings that recount the mythological origins of the people and their traditions, the Kami and the Imperial Household, there are some ideas and explanations about the origins of Japanese culture and beliefs. The text called the Kojiki, "Record of Ancient Matters," is one of the oldest pieces of writing in the Japanese language. The process of compiling the Kojiki began around 682 AD and ended around the year 712, according to most historians.

The Kojiki was said to have been compiled by a scholar called Onoyasumaro who received it in verbal form from a man possessed of an extraordinary memory, Hiedanone. The record was then formally presented to the Imperial Court for approval as the authoritative account of the origins of Japan and of the role of the Kami in the founding of Japanese culture. Although other writings came later, and in the Chinese style, more historically-oriented writings such as the Nihongi, the "Chronicles of Japan," written around the year 720, the Kojiki remains the more prestigious because of its emphasis upon the age of the Kami.

Basil Chamberlain, the British scholar who first translated the Kojiki into English in the late 19th century writes in his introduction that the Kojiki "preserved more faithfully than any other book, the mythology, manners, language and traditions of Japan. Written by Imperial command in the 8th century, this national history is Japan's oldest connected literary work, and the fundamental scripture of Shinto. It provides, fur ther more, a vivid account of a nation in the making."

The mythology of the early chapters are the most directly concerned with Shinto. What follows is an explanation of the mythology along with my interpretation.

When heaven and earth came into being, five Kami were born in Takama-no-Hara (the Plain of High Heaven, i.e. the entire universe) - Ame no Minakanushi (the Master of the August Center of Heaven), TaKami Musubi no Kami (the High August producing Kami), Kami Musubi no Kami (the Divine Producing Wondrous Kami), Umashi Ashikabi Hikoji no Kami (the Pleasant Reed Shoot Elderly Kami) and Kuni Tokotachi no Kami, (the Eternally Standing Heavenly Kami).

At the center of creation was Ame no Minakanushi no Kami , the central figure in the universe (Takama-no-Hara). As the universe formed from a chaotic mass, the Kami of birth and the Kami of growth initiated the development of the cosmic order because of their power to initiate creativity. The concept of musubi, the power of creativity is shown as a central aspect of Shinto.

The concept of Takama-no-Hara can be interpreted as the solar system. Further Kami appeared and from them came Izanagi no Mikoto (the Male Who Invites) and Izanami no Mikoto (the Female Who Invites). The first Kami, Ame no Minakunishi ordered the later Kami to model the universe on the principles of Truth, Reason and Principle. Izanagi and Izanami, the male and female principles were ordered to create the world. They stood on Ame no Ukihashi, (the Floating Bridge of Heaven) and dipped the jeweled spear of heaven beneath the clouds into the primal brine.

The brine that dripped from the spear coagulated to form the island of Onogoro, usually taken to be the islands of Japan but which can also be understood to mean the entire world. In its root meaning, Onogaro describes something that rotates by itself, which suggests the world.

Izanagi and Izanami then descended to the earth where they made love after which Izanami spoke of the greatness of the act. After seeking further guidance from the Heavenly Kami on how to fully perform and completely perfect the act of love, they returned to the earth and began to procreate various islands. Various other Kami appeared and the last Kami they produced was the Kami of fire. The utilization of fire by human civilization is marked by this incident. The dangers of fire are shown by the fact that after the birth of the Kami of fire, his mother Izanami became sick and died.

After her death, the grief-stricken Izanagi followed Izanami into the underworld, the land of pollution, Yomi no Kuni, where she was beginning to decompose. She told him not to look at her but he ignored the order and, in anger, she pursued him to the edge of the outside world. He blocked the entrance to the underworld with a great stone.

The story of the love between them and the death of Izanami is told in quite a moving way. In their closing argument, Izanami threatened to kill a thousand people a day if Izanagi insists on returning to the underworld. He responded that he can assure the birth of one thousand five hundred people a day. This affirms the power of life over death and herein lies the basis of the optimism of Shinto in its view of life.

After leaving the land of pollution associated with decay and death, Izanagi bathed in the Tachibana river to cleanse him self completely from the decaying presence. This act of ritual washing is the beginning of the idea of misogi, the physical act of ritual purification in water which is the prototype of the Shinto ritual of oharai or purification. Today purification is performed most often in a symbolic way by a priest waving a wand of paper streamers called a harai-gushi.

As Izanagi washed his face while cleansing, a Kami was born from his left eye, Amaterasu OKami (the Great August Shining Deity of Heaven, the Deity of the Sun.) Tsukiyomi (the Deity of the Moon) came from his right eye, and from his nose came Susanoo no Mikoto (the Troublesome Swift Impetuous Male Deity). Happy with the birth of the three illustrious Kami, Izanagi divided the rule of the universe among them.

Amaterasu OKami received the power and authority to preside over the universe and the solar system. To Tsukiyomi was given the power to reign over the night and to Susanoo no Mikoto was given the right to rule over the sea and the stars. In this way, the light and energy necessary for life comes from the Kami of the Sun, while that of the Moon presides over quietness and growth. The Kami of the seas is responsible for the rhythmic movement of the earth and its daily life as the stars are lit and life follows its cycle.

In Shinto, we call the restless and infinite movement of the heavenly bodies kanagara, movements that go "along with the Kami."


Kannagara would probably be called in the West "natural religion," meaning "natural" in contrast to "revealed," not a religion of nature. The life of man is located in Daishizen, Great Nature, the vast cosmic setting into which we are born, where we live and within which our lives find any meaning. Natural Religion is the spontaneous awareness of the Divine that can be found in any culture. People learn to see in the flow of life and in the processes of nature, promptings from the creative origins of the world. In response to these, the basic ideas of religion come into being at the birth of a new culture.

Japanese mythology speaks of how the ancient Japanese felt about their world, its origins and the origins of the world around them. These historical events mark the beginning of basic religious systems and human cultures. Shinto reflects an awareness of the Divine that calls for man to live "according to the Kami" so that he can find happiness and fulfillment in experiencing the basic joys of life.

Kannagara is not itself a religion, nor is it the basis of a religion although it is at the heart of Shinto. It is best understood as a non-exclusive principle of universalism that can exist in all religions and should exist as a self-corrective idea that calls every historical religion back to its fundamental roots and to the basic insight of all Natural Religion that the finest results for life are achieved when man lives "according to the Kami".

This is why a Shinto believer will not reject something just because it is not Shinto. A Shinto believer can be at home with any Kami that shows the power to elevate his soul. This approach to religion can be called the kannagara understanding of the place of religion in human life, human society and in human culture in general.

In a sense, kannagara refers to the underlying basis of spirituality common to all religions. Religions should therefore try to realize the spirit of kannagara in order to remain true to themselves. Kannagara need not be understood necessarily as unique to the Japanese but is a concept with universal significance and applicability. Kannagara has to do with spirit, and with bringing the spirit of man and his activities into line with the spirit of Great Nature.

The Spirit of Great Nature may be a flower, may be the beauty of the mountains, the pure snow, the soft rains or the gentle breeze. Kannagara means being in communion with these forms of beauty and so with the highest level of experiences of life. When people respond to the silent and provocative beauty of the natural order, they are aware of kannagara. When they respond in life in a similar way, by following ways "according to the Kami," they are expressing kannagara in their lives. They are living according to the natural flow of the universe and will benefit and develop by so doing.

To be fully alive is to have an aesthetic perception of life because a major part of the world's goodness lies in its often unspeakable beauty. Unlike Western Puritanism, which has reservations about beauty as a basis of understanding life, Shinto has never denied it. These ideas cannot be taught directly. They can only be captured by someone whose experience of them is sufficiently moving for him or her to realize their fullest meaning.

This is why Shinto is associated with sacred spaces, originally places of either striking natural beauty, or places that had an atmosphere that could strike awe in the heart of the observer. Shinto has no need of formalized systems of ethics which instruct people how to behave. People who are trying to express kannagara will be living "according to the Kami" and therefore will not require detailed regulations. If man were in need of detailed rules, claimed Motoori Norinaga, he would be little better than an animal that needs to be trained and retrained in order to behave properly. Humankind is surely beyond this type of morality. Beauty, Truth and Goodness are essentially related and when beauty is perceived, truth and goodness follow close behind.

Through participating in the spirit of kannagara, human beings, earth and heaven can achieve harmonious union. When their relationship is perfectly harmonious, the ideal universe comes into being. But of course, this does not always happen, and the reason is that man often makes mistakes that lead to his becoming impure. When people become impure in this sense, they stray from themselves and they have to find themselves again. If people can return to being themselves, then the Kami rejoice and human progress and prosperity become possible.

The manner by which that purity is restored is purification, or oharai in Japanese. The acts of purification are performed by priests who act as intermediaries when they are purified, speaking to the Kami on behalf of people they will in turn ceremonially purify. There are many forms of oharai, but in the traditions of Tsubaki Grand Shrine, misogi harai or purification under a free-standing waterfall is the most profound, most efficacious, most visibly symbolic of how mankind can restore the spirit of kannagara in the soul, can renew the spirit and can revitalize the creative force and energies of life.