Shinto: The Way of the Gods

How does ritual connect us to the sacred?  Our new Director of Religious Education Catherine Boyle discussed her time spent at Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Japan and the power and meaning of ritual within Shinto.

5-4-3-2-1, Happy New Year! As the world celebrated one successful rotation around the sun with cheers, I dug my hands deeper into my pockets and shivered, wondering why I had left the warmth of my house to face the crowds and chaos on the most holiest of days in the Japanese calendar. I taught as an English teacher in Japan and while most of my friends back home imagined my life as an amalgamation of a sci-fi film and anime filled with high rises, fast trains and hyper saturated colors of Tokyo, I lived far from the capital in a valley where I walked to work each day through narrow paths between rice paddies in the shade of the mountains. I hadn’t ever planned to celebrate the holiday in Japan, take part in the crowded rush to the shrines to beseech blessings for the year to come, an ancient tradition of the indigenous religion of Shinto to Japan.

As one of the handful of foreigners in my rural town, I’d stick out, get asked questions. In addition, I’d always felt uncomfortable as a visitor to shrines, like I was disrupting sacred space by not knowing when to bow, when to clap, when to ring the bell. Shinto is an elaborate religion, highly ritualized with many steps on when and exactly how to do things. It is origami, there is a lot of steps to get the right look. My mood didn’t help things. I was down because it was my first holiday season away from my family, I didn’t want any attention especially for a misrung bell; I wanted to be left alone. I was grumpy and sad and was determined to stay grumpy and sad.

Maekawa Chiyoko was having none of that. She was my student and a Shinto priestess at a local shrine and a heck of a force to be reckoned with. She had a superb emotional radar and she locked on to my season of discontent. She would not stand for my Shakespearnian tragedy behavior. “Come celebrate the New Year at my shrine.” She offered at our last lesson before the school took off for the holidays. I politely refused. Christmas came and went with me eating KFC alone in my house. Chiyoko messaged me on my phone that day with one word. “Come.” I blustered through a reply. But she must have sensed the lonliness through the chicken grease on my fingers because on the last day of December, she called me, “Come.” Finally I relented.

I walked under the torii gate, those great red or orange structures that denote the entrance to a holy place, that day and immediately Chiyoko greeted me. She led me through the steps of praying at the shrine, rang the bell, clapped and bowed with me, taught me the ropes. She gave me hot tea and sat with me, listening me to my hopes and wishes for the year to come. I left the shrine as the sun was beginning to set on January 1st with my heart warmed and my spirit rejuvenated by Chiyoko’s sincere kindness. She was truly the sun that day. She shone a light into my own grey realm and showed me a whole new world that had always surrounded me but I had never known.

I’ve been interested in Japan ever since I knew there was a place called Japan. This may be strange to previous generations who the country was either a source of distaste or fear. My high school was part of the bridge to strengthen relationships between the countries and our people had a strong relationship with a school in Kyoto and the exchange students and I became fast friends. We tried on homecoming dresses together and when I came to Japan on exchange, we tried on kimonos. I studied Japanese in college with aims of returning to the country. Finally as an English teacher, I did and although I had always considered myself a student of Japanese culture (eating raw squid and nudity in hot springs with others didn’t bother me), Shinto was separated by a veil that I felt uneasy, unable to pierce.

My uneasiness is hard to explain but perhaps it is because of the outside/in aspect of Japanese culture. The Japanese word for foreigner means outside person and as a foreigner, you are always on the periphery of Japanese culture, even knowing the language and customs because it is a homogenous culture that values its homogeneity. Furthermore, Shinto being the native religion to Japan, I felt this homogeneity was even stricter. I didn’t want to be a nuisance or disturb sacred space. My lack of understanding of the rituals and practices at the shrine was a barrier. I was terrified of messing up.

Yet, Chiyoko took my hand that day and showed me my misunderstandings. Her kindness was my first foray into studying Shinto and it was her heart that led me to Tsubaki Grand Shrine last September to spend an entire month not only studying Shinto but living Shinto under the priests and priestesses of the shrine. This experience lifted the veil for me on a religion many people on this side of the world either know nothing about or misunderstand and it is my hope that this sermon.

One reason for the veil surrounding Shinto is its age. Shinto is old as the hills, perhaps older than them. Archeological evidence exists from 7000 years ago for iit. Another reason is that unlike most religious traditions, Shinto has no primary text it derives from. There are no 10 commandments of Shinto or 8 fold path. There is no concept of evil, only that is what is polluted and must be purified. Like Unitarian Universalism, Shinto has no creed or doctrine but unlike this tradition, Shinto relies on rituals passed down through shrines and communities, practices that have been going on for eons. Ritual is the gateway to the sacred experience in Shinto. Constant and consistent dedicated practices of these rituals opens your heart and purifies your spirit because they connect you to the holy.

The kami are the divine, a mulititude of phenomena that are worshiped and revered in Shinto. There are kami of trees, mountains, but also kami of virtues like kindness, and action like fighting or dance such as Ame-no-uzume-no-mikoto, one of the kami worshipped at Tsubaki Grand Shrine. They are not separate from this world, residing in heaven or a place beyond us but are as much a part of this world as we are. They are manifestations of the energy of the universe. Some people would translate the word kami as god but scholars argue that is the most incorrect way to translate this word: They are not supreme all powerful beings in the western sense of god but are more something that cannot be defined; fragile grasping at translating an experience into English would be divine, holy, or simply as mystery.

Think of kami “…as anything that filled a human being with wonder and awe”, thus the natural landscape of Japan, a country full of waterfalls, mountains, vast storms and volcanoes is fertile ground for wonder and awe for the ancient people of Japan., the feeling of wonder you get when looking at the mountains in Shenandoah National Park, that is the feeling of the kami. Another way that the Japanese meaning of challenges Western ideas of God is the localized nature of them. For instance, there is not a of the mountains, ruling supreme over all mountains, instead there are particular of particular mountains, i.e. a separate Mt. Fuji. are everything, in rocks, lakes, trees, the warmth of a fire, the brush of wind against your face. Nature is Shinto’s scripture.

Thus the holy is not separate from us but surrounds us. Humans and kami have the same innate divinity for we are descendants of the kami. Yet, situations or actions may pollute our spirits and tarnish us. This is tsumi or kegare, a concept that is different from sin, for it is not a judgment or a condemnation. These impurities can be wiped away and as they are, the world improves. We are at our cores as bright and as radiant as the kami for all of us are part of creation. Each new day in life offers us a million new moments to connect to the Divine.

Kannagara no omichi, a term coined by the late Rev. Yamamoto Yukiyasu of Tsubaki Grand Shrine translates into the way of the kami, the path of the gods. This is the heart of Shinto: reverence for the sacred through ritual is the path to a world beyond ourselves. Ritual is communicating with the mystical and temporal through the tangible. Living in such a way, a way of reverence for the natural world around you, cultivates makoto, sincerity in the heart. Such a practice, Rev. Yamamoto, states is not isolated to Shinto alone but a universal tenant to all religions. Ritual requires three things: time, setting and space. For example, we gather here on Sunday morning.

When you come into the great hall today, you will not expect a disco ball or a recap of last week’s Walking Dead. The chalice lighting signals this is a place for worship, for fellowship, for deepening your spiritual connection to the world around you. This is holy ground, a place both connected to the outside world but within a shell of itself. Worship changes you, it surrounds you, it lifts you up, it connects you to something larger. It touches your heart. Awareness of this brings you to live your life according to virtue, what is true, what is good, what is beautiful, what is beneficial.

Ritual is key to spiritual practice. There is the saying that you need to do something 10000 times before you become a master at it. I don’t know if that is true but ensuring time, setting and space sure helps in creating the right head space for ritual. Each morning at Tsubaki Grand Shrine, they held chohai, prayer service. We sat on our knees on the tatami maps as the priest hit the huge taiko drum. We bowed and then chanted together a prayer to the six kami enshrined in Tsubaki Grand Shrine and all the kami.

“We beseech the kami to purify our path that we may fulfill our divine mission, remove every sort of obstacle, correct our path for renewed health, we originate from the same root as Heaven and Earth. We pray that kami help us to realize spiritual fullness.” The chanting, the smell of the trees blowing in from the open doors and the vibrations of the drums combined this into a true place of intention, a holy space of prayer for purification.

This was a long prayer. Usually by the end of it my feet were numb with pins and needles. I stumbled over the language. Clapping is the way to bring attention to your prayer, sometimes I clapped too soon or too slow, but I clapped. The rules of the rituals were, are important but you are going to make mistakes learning them. This consistent practice opened my heart, and I felt the fear of my imperfection slip away.

Everyday existence is ritualized at Tsubaki Grand Shrine. For example, before entering the shrine’s property, you go to hand-washing stations where the washing of your hands purifies your body and prepares your mind to enter sacred space. Even entering sacred space is ritualized as you walk into the shrine under a huge  gate. Cleaning is ritualized as a spiritual practice as the entire Shrine staff, from the head priest to the newest hire of a shrine maiden, cleans and sweeps the shrine together first thing in the morning and last thing during the evening. This act of cleaning is an internal purification ritual as I sweep the floors, I sweep my mind. Similarly lunch is ritualized as we all ate the same meal in the same room, making it an intentional part of our day and our togetherness as community.

These ritualizations marked the ordinary moments of the day to emphasize them, highlighting the sacredness of everyday existence and importance of being in right relation with each other. Not every day is a high holy day, but every day is sacred and thus, we should treat it so. So our relationships within the community. If we live in harmony with each other, we live in harmony with the world, with the divine.

Both high ritual and ordinary acts serve as ritual in Shinto. For example, offering of food to kami, can be performed both ways: such as the legions who till and farm acres of land for the most revered of all kami, Ameratsu-omikami in her Grand shrine in Ise or as everyday offerings of one’s own food to the of one’s own home on a domestic altar. Ritual ensures the mystery is accessible to all. Omamori, protective talismans, are mini-rituals whose purpose connect the human to the sacred: sold in shrines, they protect the holder against danger, shield them on journeys, grant good health, grades and luck.

Another way to connect to the sacred is through petitioning, writing one’s desires and wishes on a wooden board, an ema.This is the manifestation of a prayer and can be complex or mundane, just like any prayer from around the world.For example, one of family devoted an entire day to travel to a shrine far from home, fasted and abstained from all frivolity such as visiting tourist stops or shops before attending a shrine and writing an for their wish for their daughter to get married. Another of a woman who went to her local shrine, wrote an wanting her boyfriend’s attention to increase and ended her writing to include “After all, I’ve laid out 500 yen for this thing so it had better work.”

The relationship to the mystery is personal; while someone may practice ascetic practices like fasting to show devotion, others find the holy something tangible and practical. More so, while the practices before writing the ema or buying the talisman may be personal, the wishes written on them are displayed in public, everything from looking for love to struggling with addiction to suffering from health issues are displayed publically as these boards are hung up in the shrines. Thus petitioning to establishes not only a relationship with the itself but with the community: an individual’s concerns become the concerns of the group.

While these talismans and may be considered as superstitious by the Western mind, they are tangible evidence that the connection to the is relational. The holy is accessible and more so, the holy listens to humanity. Whether or not, the follow the will of humanity is another story but humanity is not separated from the holy.

I was wrong when I came to the shrine that New Year’s day. I thought Shinto was inaccessible, unknowable and too complicated for a foreigner to understand. Shinto at its heart is simple. It is living with intention and respect. Ritual serves as stepping stones to cultivate this mindset. Repeated practice of these rituals aligns the spirit with the flow of the universe. Like any cultivating any new habit, it may be hard at times, joyful at others but discipline and focus, open your heart. These rituals remind us that we are part of something larger, a grand epic of nature unfolding unto itself, a saga of awe and wonder. The world is sacred and so are you.

Blessed be.