Shinto’s Material Spirituality

One of the books I brought along to read while in Japan is Shinto: The Way Home, by Thomas P. Kasulis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2004). The introduction is available online in PDF form. Here’s how it begins.

Westerners with some exposure to Shinto know it also as a religious tradition stressing sensitivity to nature, purification, and simplicity. Most foreign tourists to Japan have been impressed with the extraordinary serenity, restrained design, and natural beauty of many Shinto sites. Towering trees, white gravel grounds, carefully pruned shrubs, and beautiful flowers instill peace in many visitors, a peace arising not from an aesthetic flight from the world but from a heightened appreciation and outright enjoyment of it. Boisterous Japanese families with young children and old folks on pilgrimages suggest Shinto not only celebrates life but also brings celebration to life. I have heard many foreigners say they felt oddly at home in such environs. Some who have lived in Japan for some time have gone so far as to say that on many occasions they have “felt Shinto” themselves.

Most people are aware of another dimension of Shinto as well: the Shinto of nationalism, imperial reverence, and ethnocentricity. It is the Shinto of kamikaze pilots and militarist fervor, the Shinto of a divine emperor leading a unique global mission for the Japanese nation and its people. It is the Shinto that dominated the international politics of the first half of the twentieth century.

This book investigates how these aspects—the traditional festivals and rites, the celebration of nature and life, the nationalism and militarism—can coexist in the same religion. Is there perhaps something about the paradox in Shinto that can shed light on other religious traditions as well? Or, on the contrary, is the case of Japanese Shinto unique? In exploring such questions we will examine Shinto spirituality as both point of departure and ultimate destination. By framing the discussion in this way, we will find subtle links within the development of Shinto that we might otherwise overlook. There are two warnings, however, about the term “spirituality” as employed in this book. First, the term is not being used to emphasize personal over social or institutional religiosity. Second, the term does not necessarily imply something mystical or transcendent. Let us consider each point briefly.

With respect to the first admonition, when some people hear the word “spirituality” rather than “religion” they think of a religious experience that is especially personal, individual, and outside “organized” religious institutions. Yet reflection shows that spirituality is seldom a strictly private affair. Felt as an inner resonance, spirituality is not an external phenomenon we can study simply by looking at it. Its character emerges only through the intimation of those who share their intimate experiences with us. The neophyte internalizes spirituality by doing what others do and talking how they talk. To express one’s own spirituality, one must first be impressed by the spirituality of others. Even the Buddhist or Christian hermit, alone in an isolated cave or cell, sits in the lotus position or kneels in prayer. The hermit did not invent these postures but learned them from someone else. Even in solitude, the hermit reflects a communal context. We must not overlook this vital communal dimension in even the most personal expressions of the spiritual.

The other admonition is not to assume that “spirituality” always implies a belief in something transcendent or supernatural. People sometimes think that spirituality is inherently mystical, a withdrawal from everyday affairs. It need not be so. Whereas any religious tradition may include ecstatic departures from the ordinary, religious people frequently find the spiritual in the most quotidian of human experiences. Spirituality can be like our awareness of light: we might experience it as a blinding, all-encompassing flash or as the medium through which we see the configuration and coloration of our ordinary world. It is the difference between a flashbulb going off near our faces in a darkened room and our being engrossed in the luminescent nuances of an Ansel Adams photograph. Both are experiences of light. Indeed the light of the flashbulb and the highlights on the misty peak of El Capitan are in some respects the same thing—light. Yet the different contexts make for a different kind of experience. So, too, for spirituality. It may appear so intensely and abruptly that it obliterates everything else, or it may be reflected off or refracted through the most mundane events. As we will see, Shinto spirituality most often takes the latter form. To limit our sense of spirituality to the mystical would be to miss a major part of what it means to be Shinto.

Long ago, when I was freelance proofreading to support myself in grad school, I had the chance to proofread Kasulis’s Zen Action/Zen Person, a book that very much impressed me with its creative thinking and clear writing. This one looks to be similar.

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