Shinto and the World's Religions

One of the easiest ways to get inside the basic spirit of Shinto is to put it beside other world religions for comparison. This helps to pinpoint the distinctive qualities of Shinto. The core concept is vertical musubi, the vertical musubi of kannagara. This is the attempt to bring the Kami, the divine into direct relation with humans. In Shinto rituals, the Kami alights on the sakaki, the evergreen tree and so the blessings and benefits are possible. The spirit, mitama, of any Kami can be invited to alight on a sacred purified place so that people may commune with the Kami.

Shinto grew and developed from these basic insights, none of which can be attributed to any particular historical founder. Shinto grew as a folk way of people seeking to met their Kami and consequently, the tradition expanded without particular historical personalities behind it.

This contrasts in a marked way with Christianity, which came into being because of the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whose historical life, teaching, death and resurrection became the basis of faith.

Buddhism looks to its founder, Gotama, whose historical experiences led him to sit under the Bodhi tree and meditate until he had unlocked the secrets of existence. Thus he formulated the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, known also as the Middle Way, and his teaching, the result of his Englightenment, led to the historical person becoming known as the Buddha, the Enlightened One. The same may be said of the Islam whose founder understood himself to be a prophet of God. The tradition of Judaism looks back to a catalogue of founding figures, to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and on through the ages of Hebrew history which is rich in dynamic and powerful personalities.

The characteristic feature of these traditions is what I would call their horizontal musubi, that is to say that the founder was a historical person who transmitted the religion or who embodied it in a way that it was transmitted horizontally from that point of history to other people.

Shinto at different times in its history found able exponents and scholars among its priests and devotees, but fundamentally none of these could be called "founders". They were engaged in the creative transmission of the traditions, in interpreting the Japanese classics or in researching the history of a particular Kami. They were not, in the Indo-European sense,"founders" or "spiritual leaders," although Japan has had these in Buddhism in particular.

Vertical musubi and horizontal musubi can be looked on in terms of the 'warp' and the 'woof,' as in a piece of tapestry. The horizontal and the vertical are basically alike in that they are constituents of a pattern. Their difference lies not in substance or form, but in role. The warp is constant and continuing so the thread must be long, steady, regular and firm. The woof makes the actual design reflecting the time, era and circumstances and consequently is capable of making a variety of designs according to the way it is used. Because the warp functions as the base, the woof can act with freedom, and in turn, because of the designs made by the woof a patterned fabric can be made. The warp and the woof complement each other. The question is not which is more important or which is "correct,",more useful or even ultiimately valid.

The same applies to the relationship between vertical musubi and horizontal musubi. Neither is more important than the other. The spiritual fabric I call kannagara cannot be manufactured without both warp and woof, that is without both vertical musubi and horizontal musubi. In kannagara there must always exist the two dimensions, we might even call them forces. Sometimes, they are vertical-horizontal, sometimes light-dark, or up-down, or right-left. It is the blend that creates kannagara.

A Shinto believer who denounces other religions is not a real Shinto believer. A real Shinto believer can be at home in a Shinto shrine at New Year, a Buddhist Temple at the Obon festival for the souls of the ancestors or a Christian Church on Christmas Eve. All of these make individual sense. They are authentic. They complement each other. This principle applies not simply to religion but to all the cultures of mankind. Non-rational creatures (plants and animals) do not possess the means necessary, the language, to create the vertical musubi without which a culture cannot come into being. Thus development is not possible even after tens of thousand of years.

Through language, human beings have been able to create traditions, to take what has been handed down by forebears and develop it. Language can make possible the flourishing of human culture through the vertical musubi, that is the specific time and environment of the development of a specific phase or moment of cultural creativity. Once created, traditions can be transmitted through the horizontal musubi.

It is through this process that the various cultures of the world have come into being, that humankind has developed as a species and prospered by extending intellectually, socially and geographically. The core of the vertical musubi is kokoro, the heart, while the horizontal musubi is necessarily accompanied by the material objects and artifacts of civilization. Physical objects (including people) are the core of the horizontal musubi.

At New Year, more than 80 million Japanese visit shrines like the Grand Shrines of Ise, Izumo Taisha, Tsubaki Grand Shrine, Meiji Jingu or Shrines of Inari, Hachiman or other Kami, yet how many Japanese can actually name the Gosaijin or enshrined Kami at each? From the viewpoint of Shinto, it is immaterial whether these people can answer the question or not, or whether they can answer other questions about who built the shrine, how it is administered, etc..

We see Christians going to Lourdes for cures, or pilgrims going to the Holy Land, or Mecca or even in Japan followers of Kukai or Nichiren climbing mountains or traveling great distances. These are specific, with devotions being focused not necessarily on one person but on the transmission of a tradition to a "saint" or sacred messenger like a prophet or apostle. They are cultural expressions or manifestations of horizontal musubi.

Shinto has few doctrines and virtually no canon of sacred writings. Muslims have the Koran, Buddhists have the sutras, Christians have their Bible and followers of Judaism have their writings which they share with Christians. It is not that Shinto has nothing at all. There are some writings - the ancient mythology, some norito or ritual addresses to the Kami - but these are short and fragmentary compared with the writings in other religions where records and teachings are very important, serving as the basis of authority on how the tradition should be interpreted and transmitted.

Shinto is often classified as polytheistic. The polytheism in Shinto is quite different from the polytheism found in primitive cultures usually contrasted with monotheism, however. There is ultimately only one Kami and all Kami share the same quality but the one Kami can divide into several parts and these can function in different places at the one time - in Takaamahara (the cosmos), Takama-no-Hara (the solar system) and Onokoro-jima (the earth) .

Each part has its own function that it exercises almost like parts of the human body, functioning separately but retaining integrity of existence because there is total organic unity. According to the idea that the one is many but the many are one, reverence for one Kami means reverence for all Kami. Irrespective of individual shrines or groups of shrines, reverence of the Kami means all Kami. This is the one very significant part of Shinto which makes impossible conflicts between denominations (the officially acknowledged 13 sects) or between particular shrines. Since Shinto is not an anthropomorphic religion with humankind at the center, it can more easily follow the way of kannagara. Religions derived from human initiative or inspiration require some form of interpretation. This is how their transmission and continuity is assured.

The more profound and subtle a doctrine is in a philosophical sense, the higher the standing of that religion will be. Human beings have their limitations, however, and they make imperfect judgments. Disagreements and conflicts are inevitable. This is particularly true in religions where doctrines are formalized and stated. The more subtle a doctrine is, the greater is the likelihood of disagreement among the individuals or groups involved in interpreting the doctrines.

The best example of this in the West is the battle in early Christianity over the definition of the substance of the person of Christ, whether it was like or the same as the substance of God. The difference in Greek was the letter iota. Here was a case of subtlety where there was literally not much more than an "iota of difference." When such divisions occur on interpretation of a doctrine, rival groups appear and new movements form. These probably will be subject to further dispute and subdivision. As this process goes on, endless numbers of new groups begin to appear.

This is the situation of religion today. There are, in Japan, for example, around 45 denominations of Nichiren Buddhism. There are estimated two thousand Christian denominations in the United States. When religion have "objects" at their center in the sense I defined earlier, these tendencies are unavoidable. There is a saying Shuron wa dochira makete mo Shaka no haji which means: "It doesn't matter which sect teaching loses to which, it is all to the shame of the Buddha."

Shinto is a pure and simple way of thinking about the divine in the universe. It constantly emphasizes happiness within life and within the world. It is concerned about human life within nature and under heaven, the relationship between human and Kami. The attitude and approach in Shinto to the world and to human life is positive, optimistic and open-minded.

In this sense Shinto is simple. Other religions may be more formalistic in matters of doctrine and more extravagant in terms of philosophy and ideas, but these also may have deep concern over sins, over human weaknesses and anxieties and cannot encourage an optimistic and positive approach to life.

Christianity in the West might disapprove suicide, but, according to a Japanese American scholar of suicide in Japan, Mamoru Iga, Christianity actually promotes a suicidal tendency in the Japanese mind because, he writes, "self-awareness and the sense of guilt are emphasized in Christianity. Self-awareness produces internal conflict in that country where 'selflessness' (or merging into society) is the basic value." Iga notes that this tendency to melancholy is notable among intellectuals in Japan who become Christian. He documents his argument with examples taken from writers in Japan who committed suicide. The point is simply that the more seriously certain aspects of inwardness are emphasized, the greater the risk of these kinds of ambiguity taking place.

In Shinto, the goshintai or object of reverence may be a single gohei, the piece of white cut and folded sacred paper which can be said to reflect the simplicity of belief of original Shinto. Others may have one or another of the Sanshu-no-Jingi, the three sacred treasures of the Imperial Regalia, the Mirror, the Sword and the Jewel. Still others may have a natural object such as a rock, as a goshintai.

Some people interpret the three sacred treasures rather narrowly from an old fashioned Confucian standpoint as the symbol of chi-yu-jin wisdom, valor and humanity. But taken in the wider sense, the three should be taken to represent the sammi-sangen, the principle of the three elements that constitute existence. Gas, liquid and solid are three elemental basics, and their role can be expanded to explain and interpret such elements as true reason and principle or mission, existence and destiny, or life, soul and spirit.

The objects revered or worshipped in other religions, in some forms of Christianity or in Buddhism, are much grander and gorgeously artistic than anything in Shinto. The same may be said of buildings and architecture. In contrast to the simple and usually unadorned wood used in traditional shrine building, the buildings of other religions such as the Vatican in Rome often seem to be competing with each other in size and extravagance.

There is a song that goes iwa to kagura no jindai yori miki agarume Kami wa nai. Kagura is a combination of two Chinese characters, one being Kami and the other being tanoshi happiness. Jindai or sometimes Shindai is another combination using Kami and a character meaning "ancient" or "classical". Miki is another combination of Kami and sake, and means the sacred rice wine placed before the Kami in rituals. No Kami from the classical age of the Kami ever refuses the sacred dance or the sacred wine.

Translated freely, this means that in Shinto, the Kami and the people join together and enjoy the activities of the matsuri, the festival which includes eating and drinking as necessary components of the ritual along with music and dance known as kagura which are enthusiastically performed in the great act of celebrating life.

Perhaps the best symbol of all these points is the torii, gate-like entranceway to shrine precincts. The gates have no doors and are open summer and winter, day and night. The open-minded and open-hearted aspects of Shinto become quite visible in this way.

Shinto and Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism was the first foreign religion to come to Japan, and because of this has a peculiar relationship with Shinto, a relationship unique in Buddhism anywhere and perhaps unique among religions. The relationship is long and complicated but somehow over the centuries both managed to work out a relationship that involved arguments as well as compromise. Sometimes the advantage went to Buddhism, and sometimes the advantage went to Shinto. In the case of the doctrine of Honji-Suijaku-Setsu, the idea of one religion being the manifestation of another, Buddhism took the advantage by having Shinto Kami understood as manifestations of the Buddha. In Ryobu-Shinto, Shinto syncretized with Buddhism, the advantages were more even. State Shinto was in complete control, favored over Buddhism, immediately before and during Pacific War by government decree.

No matter the era, no single Buddhist leader or founder of a Buddhist sect ever overlooked the existence of Shinto. Nichiren, the famous Buddhist figure of the Kamakura age was given a name that uses two characters.

One, nichi, means the sun, and the principal divinity of Japan is Amaterasu OmoKami, deity of the Sun. The other is ren, Lotus, the principal flower symbol of Buddhism.

One statue of Nichiren carries a sutra in one hand and a shaku (the wooden flat stick carried by Shinto priests) in the other. When Saicho was building the Enryaku-ji, the head temple of the Tendai sect on Mt. Hiei in Kyoto, he first built a protective shrine. Kukai, the other great leader of the Heian age, acted in a similar way when he erected the Kongobu-ji, the head temple of the esoteric sect called Shingon, on Mt. Koya. To ignore or belittle Shinto would be to ignore kannagara and that is something that even the most convinced or dagmatic would not do. They knew in their blood that such an attitude was not permissable.

Prince Shotoku Taishi, the regent to the Imperial House credited with introducing Buddhism formally to Japan, was never seen in Buddhist dress. He always wore the court dress appropriate to a Shinto priest, and was so depicted on the old ¥10,000 Bank of Japan banknote. He gave the nation a guide for national life called in Japanese the Seventeen Clause Constitution, which, while it speaks of Buddhism and Confucianism, deep down is based on kannagara.

Japanese religion at its roots is founded on the open spirit of kannagara which is best seen in the simplicity of Shinto that can freely meet and mix with any tradition that seeks for the highest in humankind to be infused with the finest that the divine can inspire in it. This is the secret of the way of the Kami and its long history both within the religious life of Japan and amongst the great religions of the world.