Call it earth worship, call it Gaia, call it neo-paganism, but ancient elements of animism are finding new life in a New Age, and as the revival takes hold, the commonalities with Shinto become ever more apparent. But whereas Britain’s paganism is having to be resurrected, Shinto has long remained a living force in Japan. Small wonder therefore that visionaries are looking to borrow and synthesise the two traditions.
A book on Japanese Culture written by an academic and subtitled ‘The Religious and Philosophical Foundations’ hardly promises to be light reading. Yet this relatively slim volume (154 pages), while not exactly a bundle of laughs, is clear, accessible and informative. Indeed, one could go further and say that it’s one of the shortest yet authoritative overviews in print. ‘A well-rounded, succinct, and thought-provoking analysis’ says Alex Kerr.
The contents speak of the clarity of concept. After a couple of short sections on The Origins of the Japanese and Approaches to Japanese Cultural History, the book lays out its essentials – Shinto, Buddhism, Taoism, Zen, Confucianism and Western Influences. Refreshingly, there’s no attempt to put forward a theory explaining Japaneseness. Rather the book has a sythesising function, with the main assertions referenced to standard authorities such as Reischauer and Alan Watts, etc.
The book evolved out of classes taught at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo to groups of international business students, and it takes the form of a textbook in that each section is followed by Discussion Questions. However, that does not mean that it is unsuited to personal reading, for the material is well-written and the discussion questions provide food for thought.
The book steers a sensible course through the choppy waters of unadulterated praise and outright condemnation. I was happy to see acknowledgement in the early chapter that ‘the earliest religion (Shinto) has much in common with the Shamanism of north-east Asia’ rather than the trite assertion of it being unique to Japan. The book acknowledges too the borrowings from ‘southern China evident in Japan, including the wet cultivation of rice and the Japanese physique’. Despite this, the book notes, the Japanese have cultivated a self-image of being racially pure and homogenous. (Interestingly the selection of mixed blood models for Miss Japan and Miss Japanese Universe in the past couple of years show that this is now being challenged.)
Not all the material is familiar. For example, the idea of menstruation as an impurity is relatively well-known in Shinto, but the book provides some surprising details: “Women’s menstruation is still considered to be kegare (impure), and so women are barred (or used to be barred) from certain practices in Japan. For example, they are still not permitted to enter the dohyo in Sumo, some mountain shrines such as the one at Mt. Ishizuchi still prohibit women from attending the mountain-opening ceremony every July, and there is still a belief that pregnant women should not attend funerals.”
Some of the assertions are also far from standard. ‘Early Shinto in Japan can be classified into two categories, ujigami and hitogami‘, the book asserts while referencing a 1967 article by I. Hori. ‘The former was closely tied to the clan system and the agricultural rituals of agrarian communities; the latter is linked to powerful shamanistic individuals, both male and female, who were believed to have intimate access to kami and the world of the spirits.’
The importance of Taoism and Confucianism in shaping Japanese thinking is often overlooked, but the book gives a good account of their significance. If there was one section I found problematic it was that of Zen, where the author seems unduly influenced by the D.T. Suzuki school of thinking and makes expansive statements about the sect influencing the whole mentality of the country and its cultural arts. Many of the influences cited, such as the emphasis on simplicity and purity, predate the arrival of Zen, as do other aspects such as the evolution of haiku. In a series of postings on the subject, Green Shinto has tried to show how in fact Zen itself was shaped by Japanese culture, absorbing many of its salient characteristics.
Nonetheless the book can be thoroughly recommended for anyone wanting to get a basic appreciation of the historical factors shaping Japanese culture. It serves as a basic introduction, but there is much to learn from even for those familiar with the concepts. With his balanced air and refusal to indulge in glib theories, Roger Davies has produced a book that helps enormously in the demystifying of Japan.
This summer I made a brief pagan tour of Britain, starting with the most famous site of all – Glastonbury Tor. It reaches up out of low-lying land surmounted by an ancient tower like a finger pointing heavenwards. It is a natural hill, but has been shaped by man most notably in the form of a prehistoric labyrinth that wound its way towards the top where rituals may have been carried out to facilitate entry into the world beyond. From the top are views over the Somerset Levels far away towards the sea on the far horizon.
There are many myths and legends surrounding the Tor, many of which have to do with Faeries, the Underworld and King Arthur. It is thought to be the mythical Isle of Avalon, for until modern times the lowlands flooded for most of the year leaving the hill stranded like a magic island in a watery dimension (the name Glaston derives from the ‘glass’-like shallows that surrounded it).
The uncle of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, is said to have visited the area as a tin merchant and to have brought the young Jesus with him. Intriguingly, there is a thorn tree of a type only found in the Middle East which is said to be descended from a stick Joseph planted into the ground. The legend inspired a famous poem by William Blake, which was later set to music as Jerusalem – ‘And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s mountains green, and was the holy Lamb of God, on England’s pleasant pastures seen! (Curiously the oddest experience I’ve had on the Tor, to which I like to make a pilgrimage whenever possible) is being rubbed on my back by a sheep while in a state of deep contemplation.)
Early Christians were drawn to the hill, perhaps because of its spiritual heritage, and there may have been monks’ cells here at the time of St Patrick (also said to have visited). Later a church was raised to St Michael, defeater of dragons, in order to channel the energies of the ‘power spot’, but ironically an earthquake in 1275 destroyed it. A second church was put up but demolished in 1539 at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII (the church belonged to the Abbey in the town below). All that survived was the ruined tower that caps the Tor to this day.
In 1191 the monks of Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have discovered the grave of King Arthur. It was an audacious claim at a time of failing fortunes to increase the fame and thereby the income of the Abbey through the donations of those who came on pilgrimage. So wealthy was the Abbey that Henry VIII eagerly seized it for the state, hanging the abbot for resistance on top of the Tor. Now it has been reclaimed by New Agers and neo-pagans, who can often be found along with the day trippers and tourists absorbing the spirit of place.
A couple of recent articles in The Guardian tackle human relationships with non-sentient phenomena, and the way that trees relate to each other. The first is by Dr Penelope Dransart, reader in anthropology at the University of Wales.
Paul Kingsnorth urges us to follow the poet Robinson Jeffers in “unhumanising” our views, to open our (human) minds “from ourselves” (The call of the wild, Review, 23 July). He presents an inspiring list of novels to help us to acknowledge the sentience of other beings. Many ethnographers also help us to gain precious insight into other ways of thinking. From the 1930s Alfred Irving Hallowell adopted the phrase “other-than-human persons” in his exploration of relationships between entities such as rocks and humans among the Northern Ojibwe (Canada) and how these sentient others reveal themselves to people.
More recently, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro has been urging us to exchange perspectives not only with other human beings whose intellectual traditions differ from the “artifact[s] of western individualism” discussed by Kingsnorth but also with other sentient beings of the cosmos. In what he calls perspectival multinaturalism, Viveiros de Castro argues there is no one undifferentiated state of “nature” as western orthodoxy would have it. Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think is an example of an ethnography that dissolves human and non-human categories. He set himself the task of understanding the existence of forests as an emergent process in which human and non-human beings engage in making and communicating signs to each other.
The second article, by Tim Lusher, concerns how trees communicate with each other…
Trees have friends, feel loneliness, scream with pain and communicate underground via the “woodwide web”. Some act as parents and good neighbours. Others do more than just throw shade – they’re brutal bullies to rival species. The young ones take risks with their drinking and leaf-dropping then remember the hard lessons from their mistakes. It’s a hard-knock life.
A book called The Hidden Life of Trees is not an obvious bestseller but it’s easy to see the popular appeal of German forester Peter Wohlleben’s claims – they are so anthropomorphic. Certainly, a walk in the park feels different when you imagine the network of roots crackling with sappy chat beneath your feet. We don’t know the half of what’s going on underground and beneath the bark, he says: “We have been looking at nature for the last 100 years like [it is] a machine.”
There’s a touchy-feely warmth to the book – an “ouch!” when he describes trees having branches hacked, roots cut or being gnawed by insects – and he talks about “brainlike things” going on in trees that enable them to learn over their long lifetimes. He points to scientific research – by Aachen University, the University of British Columbia and the Max Planck Society – that he claims underpins all his vivid descriptions, but he writes as a conservationist and admits that much is still unknown. “It’s very hard to find out what trees are communicating when they feel well,” he says.
Wohlleben – the name translates as “Livewell” – has developed his thinking over the past decade while watching the powerful but self-interested survival system of the ancient beech forest he manages in the Eifel mountains of western Germany. “The thing that surprised me most is how social trees are. I stumbled over an old stump one day and saw that it was still living although it was 400 or 500 years old, without any green leaf. Every living being needs nutrition. The only explanation was that it was supported by the neighbour trees via the roots with a sugar solution. As a forester, I learned that trees are competitors that struggle against each other, for light, for space, and there I saw that it’s just vice versa. Trees are very interested in keeping every member of this community alive.”
The key to it, he says, is the so-called woodwide web – trees message their distress in electrical signals via their roots and across fungi networks (“like our nerve system”) to others nearby when they are under attack. By the same means, they feed stricken trees, nurture some saplings (their “most beloved child”) and restrict others to keep the community strong.
“Trees may recognise with their roots who are their friends, who are their families, where their kids are. Then they may also recognise trees that are not so welcome. There are some stumps in these old beech reservations that are alive, and there are some that are rotten, which obviously have had no contact with the roots of supporting neighbours. So perhaps they are like hermits.” It sounds like living in a small village – as he does, in Hümmel, near the Belgian border.
He writes about the unforgiving woodland etiquette – no one likes a showoff who crowds everyone out and hogs the resources. When trees break the rules, you end up with a “drunken forest”. He describes “upright members of ancient forests … This is what a mature, well-behaved deciduous tree looks like. It has a ramrod-straight trunk with a regular, orderly arrangement of wood fibres.”
In Wohlleben’s analysis, it’s almost as if trees have feelings and character. “We think about plants being robotic, following a genetic code. Plants and trees always have a choice about what to do. Trees are able to decide, have memories and even different characters. There are perhaps nicer guys and bad guys.”
So which are good, bad and sad? Beeches and oaks form forests that last for thousands of years because they act like families, he says. Trees are tribal (“They are genetically as far away from each other as you and a goldfish”) and ruthlessly protect their own kind: “Beeches harass new species such as oak to such an extent that they weaken.” Douglas fir and spruce also bond within their species.
Willows are loners. “The seeds fly far away from other trees, many kilometres. The trees grow fast and don’t live very long. They are like Usain Bolt – always the first, then they can’t breathe any more after 100 years and then they are gone.” Poplars aren’t social either and “a birch will wipe other trees away so it has more space for its crown. That doesn’t sound very nice but I think birch has no other choice because that’s what it’s grown like because of its genes.” City trees are like street kids – isolated and struggling against the odds without strong roots.
Wohlleben, 52, used to work as a state forester, viewing trees as lumber, then began running survival training courses and log-cabin tours. Since 2006, he has managed the forest on behalf of the community, banning machinery and selling burial plots with trees as living gravestones. His book became a bestseller in Germany last year, charting higher than memoirs by the pope and former chancellor Helmut Schmidt. His accessible, chatty style made him a hit on TV chatshows but he doesn’t want to be seen as a tree whisperer, telling the Frankfurter Allgemeine: “I don’t hug trees and I don’t talk to them.”
He talks about the natural world admiringly, wondrously even, but unsentimentally. “The question for me is not should we use any living being but just how to deal with them.” He wants us to cut down our wood consumption and enjoy trees more – he describes them as “plant elephants”. Have we lost our connection with the natural world? “No, I don’t think so. Perhaps we have a little distance because scientists over the last 200 years have taught us that nature works without soul.”
The Hidden Life of Trees, What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben is published by Greystone Books.
Moon-viewing is an aesthetic custom in Japan with a spiritual component. For Buddhism, the full moon is a symbol of enlightenment, and the phases of the moon indicative of the ever-changing nature of life. Nothing is constant except change itself. For Shinto the moon is a symbol of the wonder, beauty and awe of natural phenomenon, compelling realisation of mankind’s place within Daishizen (Greater Nature), a true creature of the environment.
Japanese culture reflects a long obsession with the moon and its effect on the poetic sensibility – the poet Saigyo is a marvellous example. Yet the Shinto moon deity Tsukuyomi does not figure very much in the mythology, nor is worship of him widespread – Amaterasu fell out with him over his killing of the food goddess (perhaps a reference to clan clashes in ancient times). Yet he was not only one of the three primal deities to emerge from Izanagi’s first ever misogi, but he was brother and husband to Amaterasu herself. One might expect him to have a high profile in Shinto terms. After all, the moon lights up the darkness in mysterious and entrancing manner, with a spiritual quality that lies beyond the powerhouse of the sun.
Green Shinto has written previously of the autumnal full moon ceremony at Shimogamo Jinja, a wonderful cultural event that brings together people to celebrate the beauty of the occasion – a prime example of the importance laid on aesthetics (rather than morals) in the religion.
On this occasion, I would like to hand the content over to our Green Shinto friend, Megan Manson, who has written a piece on moon-gazing from a neo-pagan perspective. (Her writing can be investigated further on the following blog: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/pagantama/author/mmanson/)
Interestingly, she raises the featuring of rabbits/hares in such stories. Cocks, bulls and horses are associated with the sun worldwide, but hares and rabbits serve the moon (lunacy connected with the moon seems to have affected the image of the Mad March Hare).
It was noticeable on my travels this summer through pagan parts of England how often hares were featured, for the animal held some kind of fascination for people of the past. It was thought that they could shape-shift or disappear, rather like foxes in Japanese folklore. They were liminal creatures, and their shape-shifting relates them to the constant changing of the moon. As part of the shape-shifting they were able to turn from male to female and thereby self-impregnate, becoming a symbol of fertility. Similarly the autumn moon speaks of plenitude, fullness and harvest blessings.
Can it be just coincidence that in this ninth month of the year, the plump roundness of the autumn moon is celebrated in Japan as being the most beautiful? Perhaps the allure is abetted by the magical promise of creating new life. Look hard enough, and within its pregnant bulge can be seen dark shadows outlining the shape of a rabbit.
Moon Gazing At Tsukimi: Japan’s Autumn Festival
It is a beautiful autumn evening. As the cool breeze sweeps over rivers and mountains, a woman creates an altar outdoors in honour of the Full Moon. Offerings of autumn’s bounty – chestnuts, pumpkin, wine, potatoes, and home-made sweets – are carefully stacked upon a raised platform, and beside it is placed a vase of autumn greenery. The woman gazes at the Moon, drinking in its beauty and its mysterious power, and she may even be inspired to write poetry about the scene. Once her contemplation of the Moon is over, she and her family eat the offerings together, thankful for the gifts that Nature provides.
This may sound like a typical Full Moon ritual performed by Neopagans all over the world. But this isn’t a Neopagan ritual. This is a ritual for Tsukimi – Japan’s annual Moon Gazing Festival.
Like many of Japan’s festivals, Tsukimi (usually referred to with an honorific “o”, O–tsukimi, in Japan) has its origins in China, where it is known as Zhōngqiū Jié – the Mid-Autumn Festival. It may date as far back as the Shang Dynasty (16th to 10th century BCE) and was held in order to commemorate a successful harvest. It was a time to give thanks to the spirits of nature for their gifts. Today it is celebrated in countries throughout East Asia, including Korea, Vietnam and, of course, Japan, on the 15th day of 8th month according to the Chinese calendar. This usually translates as the September 15th of the Gregorian calendar (this year, the Full Moon will fall on the 16th, so I will probably celebrate Tsukimi then).
In addition to celebrating the the autumn harvest, the Mid-Autumn Festival is linked to Moon worship. In China, the Moon is revered as the goddess Chang’e. At the Mid-Autumn Festival, offerings are made at altars to Chang’e facing the Moon, in the hope that she will bless her worshippers with beauty. In Japan, the kami of the Moon, Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto, is usually thought to be male. However, his name or image do not usually feature in Tsukimi imagery. Perhaps this is because Tsukuyomi is sometimes portrayed as rather sinister; according to the Kojiki (Japan’s ancient record of myths), Tsukuyomi angered the kami of the sun, Amaterasu Ōmikami, by killing the kami of food. Or perhaps it is because Tsukimi is of clear Chinese origin, so it is not as strongly associated with the kami of Japanese origin.
The image you are likely to see at Tsukimi, both in China and Japan, is the rabbit. Rabbits and hares have lunar associations in many countries and East Asia is no exception. Throughout East Asia, people interpret the markings on the full Moon to be a rabbit (whereas Westerners often see them as a face). The Chinese say that the rabbit is a companion of Chang’e, while according to a Buddhist legend known throughout Asia, the rabbit was put on the Moon to reward him after performing a deed of self-sacrifice. According to Japanese tradition, the rabbit in the Moon is making mochi (sticky rice cakes) with a hammer and mortar; you’ll therefore see lots of depictions of rabbits eating or making mochi at Tsukimi.
(From Kyoto Visitors Guide)
Sept. 15: Shimogamo Shrine
During this moon viewing music festival, traditional dance and music, and a koto harp music will be performed from 17:30; The performers and players wear gorgeous Heian period costumes. Tea ceremony: 1,000 yen; Tel: 075-781-0010.
Osawa Pond in Daikaku-ji Temple
Since ancient times, people have enjoyed full moon viewing from boats on Osawa Pond. Tea ceremony is held on the boats and participants can enjoy an elegant evening in a spectacular setting. A koto harp concert will also performed twice a day. Boat ride: 1,000 yen, tea: 800 yen (Admission to the temple: 500 yen); 17:00-20:30; Tel: 075-871-0071.
After a special dance performance, special sweet dumplings and sake will be offered to the first 300 people from 18:00. Admission free.
Could you tell us about how you came to be a pagan?
I had been interested in Paganism for many, many years before I actually started practising it! My interest almost certainly comes from my Dad. He isn’t a Pagan (funnily enough he raised me Catholic!), but he is a history buff and he’s always had an interest in the Arthurian legends and ancient Celtic beliefs. I think it was this interest that inspired him to launch a business selling Pagan-related jewellery and gifts, which has been running for about 30 years. So for my family, Paganism was literally our lifeblood – Pagans made up a large percentage of people who bought from us, and therefore they were people upon whom we depended for putting bread on the table.
But despite already having a considerable grounding in Pagan basics from an early age, it wasn’t until much later that I considered myself a Pagan proper. For a long whether the Pagan path was truly right for me. I had continually resisted embracing my passion for Paganism and graduating from “Pagan enthusiast” to “practising Pagan.” What seemed to hold me back was my assumption that I could not consider myself to be both a rational, scientific person and also a follower of a religion. I love science and technology, so how could I essentially turn my back on science by embracing the realm of the supernatural?
How did your interest in Shinto come about?
It was actually Shinto that helped me resolve my “science verses religion” conflict with Paganism! I’d graduated with a degree in Japanese from university prior to working in Japan as an English teacher, and later returned to England to work in the field of Japan-UK relations. I’d written about Shinto and other forms of Japanese spirituality in undergraduate essays, and participated in Shinto directly in Japan by going to Shinto shrines and festivals.
The Japanese have a great respect for science and technology – just look at their contributions to the global field (I believe there are currently 16 Nobel Prize winners from Japan in the fields of physics, chemistry and medicine). But this devotion to science sits comfortably with an open-minded attitude to supernatural experiences and a great enthusiasm for ceremony and ritual based on religion; that’s probably why Japan has so many festivals. There are many possible reasons for the harmonious relationship between the scientific rationality and spiritual outlook held by a large proportion of the Japanese population, but I think one of the most important is that in Shinto, actions take precedence over belief. In my experience, many Japanese aren’t too sure what they believe at all – additionally, they do not consider having well-defined spiritual beliefs as particularly important.
When I realised this, I understood that this was the missing piece of the puzzle for me. I had approached Paganism from a Western, Christian perspective, probably due to my Catholic background. I thought that faith was a fundamental starting point for spirituality, and that one had to essentially choose between whether to trust in science or believe in religion. Shinto taught me that this was not the case at all. It taught me that it was OK to be a Pagan for no other reason than it feeling “right,” and that one could still follow a religion and hold scientific fact to be just as valid. As I grew to learn more about Neopaganism and the Pagan community, I realised that many other Pagans in fact feel exactly the same way.
What do you think paganism and Shinto have in common?
I believe they are far more alike than unlike! To summarise, both have roots in pre-Christian (and in Shinto’s case, pre-Buddhist) folk beliefs, both have elements of polytheism, nature worship, ancestor worship and animism, and both place more emphasis on ritual and living in the “here and now,” rather than abstract philosophies or preparing for the afterlife.
Why do you fuse the two in your practice?
Mainly for the reason that I find both paths speak to me equally so I cannot choose just one to follow exclusively! What’s more, they tend to reinforce each other, lending each other elements and therefore, for me, leading to a more “complete” path. For example, Shinto has little to say about death, other than the idea that it is taboo. But Paganism has lots to say on the subject and how one can honour the deceased and the gods that bring about this natural phenomena. On the other hand, Shinto has a lot of ideas about how nature-based animism can translate into the modern urban lifestyle (Paganism has these ideas too, but they feel a little more well defined in Shinto).
Could you give us an example of how you combine the two?
I often blend Shinto elements into Pagan ritual. For example, when I am purifying the sacred space I want to use, I’ll chant the “Hi-Fu-Mi” norito, which is said to have purification powers. I’ve found this particularly effective at group rituals – whenever I’ve chanted this norito at the beginning, it seems to put everyone in a quiet, contemplative, spiritual mood.
I’ll also blend the traditions for particular festivals in the Pagan and Shinto calendars. For example, the Pagan festival of Imbolc (Feb 1 or 2) is very close to the Japanese festival Setsubun. So I’ll combine them together; I’ll light candles in the Imbolc tradition and scatter beans as is traditional at Setsubun – both rituals are related to banishing negative energy and attracting positive energy. The more you look into the symbolism behind festivals close to each other in the Shinto and Pagan calendars, the more parallels tend to emerge. For example, both Imbolc and Setsubun are associated with a female figure representing fertility and happiness – Brigid for Imbolc, and Otafuku/Uzume for Setsubun.
Do you have a name for the path you’re following, and do you see potential for it spreading more widely?
For want of a better term, I just call it Shinto-Paganism! The term “Eclectic Paganism,” which describes Pagan paths that draw from many different cultural traditions, is already well known and would also be an apt description.
Some people might say that combining practices from opposite sides of the world is strange or wrong. How would you respond?
There will always people who find mixing elements from two different cultures strange or wrong. Certainly it’s strange, but then all religion is strange! (That’s sort of the point, religion is about exploring what’s beyond “normality”). As for it being “wrong,” I cannot see it being any more wrong than any other of the many examples of syncretism between religions we see throughout the world. Japan is perhaps the ultimate example of this – hardly any Japanese practise Shinto in isolation. It is almost always combined with Buddhism, a religion that originally came from India. In fact, the two are so intimately intertwined that it’s become practically impossible to say for sure where one religion ends and the other begins. Combining spiritual beliefs, or any other cultural practices, is just a natural result of cultures coming together, learning from each other, and copying one another’s practices that are found to be beneficial. This results not only in greater understanding and appreciation, of other people but also the creation of entirely new and exciting practices that increase the rich diversity of our cultural heritage as human beings. I can’t see how this can be a bad thing.
For Megan’s blogging, see http://www.patheos.com/blogs/pagantama/
Pagan, Shinto & Spiritual Book Reviews August 2016
Joseph Cali & John Dougill, Shinto Shrines: A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan’s Ancient Religion
(University of Hawai’i Press, 2012)
This book is by two of the most generous and enthusiastic non-Japanese specialists on Shinto. Joseph Cali is the creator of Shinto Shrines of Japan Blog Guide, a very useful website for those looking for information about specific jinja (Shinto shrines). John Dougill is the author of Green Shinto, which I consider an essential resource for international followers of Shinto and especially those approaching Shinto from a Neopagan perspective. I’ve therefore had Shinto Shrines: A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan’s Ancient Religion on my wishlist for some time, and I’m really glad I’ve finally got to read it. I was not disappointed.
Booksellers would not be wrong for putting Shinto Shrines in their “Travel” section. It looks and feels very much like a Lonely Planet-style guidebook – one that covers, in considerable detail, 57 prominent jinja (shrines) located all over Japan. Like a Lonely Planet book, Shinto Shrines is packed with full-colour photographs and the entries for each shrine all feature a table of useful information.
What makes Shinto Shrines stand out from Lonely Planet, and in fact many other books on Shinto, is the attention given to details about the shrines – there’s information here that you just won’t find elsewhere, at least in English. The key information about each shrine not only includes its contact details, but also information on which kami are enshrined there, what kind of prayers are usually offered, and key dates in the shrine’s calendar. Perhaps the most attention is given to the shrine’s architectural features, so if that interests you in particular you’ll be in heaven (and if you don’t, you can just skim-read these parts). This, coupled with the excellent introduction to Shinto (with some really helpful illustrations) at the beginning, means that Shinto Shrines transcends being a mere travel guide and is in fact a solid resource for more serious students of the Shinto religion and its shrines.
Friendly, detailed and clearly written with a lot of love, Shinto Shrines is a reference book for a new generation of Japanologists and other enthusiasts of Japan and Shinto – those who are not content with simple armchair research, and want to go out there and experience Shinto for themselves.
Alan Watts has a ‘godlike’ status for those of us who prefer spirituality to religion. He of course was the first to deny guru status for himself, but as a teacher he continues through his recordings to shed light on what is otherwise obscure and confused. One area in which he sheds illumination is on the spiritual significance of rocks. In the third of a sequence on the subject this month, I should like to quote a short passage from Watts.
“Where there are rocks, watch out! Watch out, because the rocks are going to eventually come alive and they are going to have people crawling over them. It is only matter of time, just in the same way the acorn is eventually going to turn into the oak because it has the potentiality of that within it. Rocks are not dead. You see, it depends on what kind of attitude you want to take to the world…
You cannot get an intelligent organism such as a human being out of an unintelligent universe. So in any lump of rock floating about in space, there is implicit human intelligence. Don’t differentiate yourself and standoff against this and say ‘I am a living organism in a world made of a lot of dead junk, rocks and stuff.’ It all goes together, those rocks are just as much you as your finger nails.”
~ Alan Watts
To get the full force of this, listen here to Watts himself explaining the living force of rocks. The ancients must have sensed this in choosing them as a focus for their worship, not only in Japan but throughout the world. Was there an unconscious realisation that life itself had emerged out of rock?
In the Shinto tradition kami descend to inhabit rocks. In other words, the rocks act as containers for the invisible and intangible spirits. This concept could be taken in modern terms to symbolise the way the rock of earth nurtured the lifeforce.
The notion of living rocks is a potent ancient mystery that modern Shinto has largely subjugated. In their place Meiji modernists have substituted ritual reverence for a divinely descended emperor. Those of us with inclusive inclinations look rather to the animist roots of the tradition, and in so doing we must reclaim the true spirit of rock – the kind of shrineless worship in the heart of nature. The kind of rock, in short, that really can ‘save your mortal soul’.
Where there are rocks, watch out!!
My holiday reading this summer includes a Japanese novel by Hikaru Okuizumi that won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize after it came out in 1993. The Stones Cry Out is the English translation by James N. Westerhoven, published in 1999 by Harcourt under their Harvest Book imprint. It’s a short story of a WW2 soldier who survives harrowing experiences and finds postwar solace in collecting rocks. But then violence strikes his family and he’s forced to confront his memories of the past to overcome the tragedies of the present. The writing is deceptively lucid, masking hidden depths and profound feelings. (For an excellent short review, see here.) Remarkably, the author was born in 1956, but he is unafraid to tackle the realities and consequences of Japan’s wartime struggle.
What interested me most about the book was its treatment of stones, which play a crucial role in the protagonist’s life as he becomes consumed with collecting different kinds of rock. ‘Even the most ordinary pebble has the history of this heavenly body we call earth written on it,’ runs the narrative. In the passage below the author expands on the theme, casting light on the rock worship from out of which early Shinto developed. For those of us with a sympathetic interest in the pre-imperial roots of the religion, the writing here is compelling and fully bears out the dictum of Alan Watts that ‘rocks are not dead’. This is simply the best piece of writing about the deeper significance of rocks that I have come across.
Here is how the book begins…
Even the smallest stone in a riverbed has the entire history of the universe inscribed upon it. The reason Tsuyoshi Manase became a fanatic collector of stones can be traced back to words spoken to him by a dying man during the Second World War, in mid-December 1944, in a cave in the middle of the tropical forest above the Bay of Carigara in Leyte.
The man was wasted by malnutrition and amoebic dysentery, and his face resembled a skeleton of wires covered by parchment. Only his eyes moved, restlessly. These eyes he now fixed on Manase. With his emaciated fleshless fingers that seemed more like roots to Manase, the man picked up a stone from the ground. This should be classified as green chert, he said in a magisterial tone, as if he were addressing a group of students. The cave was formed when bedrock from the Paleozolic era rose to the surface and was eroded by the sea. Later, during the Quarternary era, the sea withdrew and left the cave in the midst of jungle. Thus the walls around them were probably full of fossilized marine organisms. If you were to examine this little piece of rock under a microscope, the man informed Manase, you would be sure to find radiolarians and the like. His lecture continued more or less as follows:
“You normally don’t pay much attention to the stones you see by the side of the road, do you? Oh, perhaps if they’re stones you can use for your garden, or your house, say, but in general you don’t give much thought to them. You just think of them as meaningless objects scattered in the mountains, rivers, and fields. Even if they’re in the way, it doesn’t occur to you that they might be worth picking up and studying. Well, you’re wrong, you know. Even the most ordinary pebble has the history of this heavenly body we call earth written on it. For instance, do you know how rocks are formed? Rocks are formed when red-hot magma cools off and solidifies into rock; rock erodes under the influence of wind and weather on the surface of the earth. That’s how you get stones. Stones are eventually ground into sand, sand into soil; then stones and sand and soil are carried away by streams and settle on the bottom of lakes, fens, or the sea, where they once again harden into rock. That rock crumbles and changes back into stones and sand and soil, or it may be pushed deep beneath the surface of the earth and, under the influence of heat and tremendous pressure, reborn as rock, in all shapes and sizes; or sometimes it melts into magma and returns to its origins. The form of minerals is never static, not for a second, on the contrary it undergoes constant change. All matter is part of an unending cycle. You know of course that even the continents actually move, though at an imperceptibly slow pace.
“What I’m trying to say is, the tiny pebble that you might happen to pick up during a walk is a cross-section of a drama that began some five billion years ago, in a place that would later come to be called the solar system – a cloud of gas drifting idly through space, growing denser and denser until after countless eons it finally gave birth to this planet. That little pebble is a condensed history of the universe and keeps the eternal cycle of matter locked in its ephemeral form.”
The words have such an impact on Manase that in a later passage when talking to his younger son, he repeats them verbatim. The son is a 1960s revolutionary, and far from being impressed he berates his father for stating the obvious and missing the point. ‘Fooling around with pebbles is not real science… it’s people like you that are making a mess of this world, with your indifference to what’s essential. You’re the ringleaders.’
Taken aback by the surety of youth, Manase is unable to answer. What he wants to say, however, is a tribute to the allure and awesomeness of rocks:
The feel of each separate stone in your hand. Its smell. Its taste. The mysterious colors and shapes of crystals and groundmass polished to a section. The miraculous accumulation of strata slumbering under the darkness of the forest, sculpted by water over millions of years. The breathing of minerals, noticeable only to those who venture alone and on foot into the deserted mountains. The order of the universe, unknowable until you have experienced it with all five senses. That wonder, that exhilaration, that awe, and more than anything, that endless sea of summer light – if only he could make his son see these things. But they were impossible to express in words. His eyes burnt with regret and sadness.
Ironically, I myself was once something of a 1960s revolutionary who thought political change would right the wrongs of the world. Those harsh words of the son could have been mine. However with the experience (wisdom?) of age, I’m more inclined to share the perspective of the father. My generation used to believe rock was a means of revolution; now I see it rather as something that speaks to the eternal. The ancients who roamed Japan’s coastlines and riverways also realised that, for they could see beneath the surface of the rocks by which they were surrounded. Unlike urbanised modern man, they well knew that stones cry out to those who listen.
For more of Green Shinto on rocks, please look at the relevant category in the righthand column. For the best overview, take a look at this one, and for the inspirational words of Alan Watts click here.
The awesomeness of rocks
Green Shinto has written several times of the spiritual significance of rocks in Shinto (see the righthand column for previous postings). It’s a much overlooked subject. Why? Partly because it is associated with the kind of primitive superstition that Meiji era Japan sought to put behind it. But also partly, I suspect, because rock worship leads back to Korean shamanism and shows that far from being unique, Shinto is inextricably linked with continental nature worship. Just how this conflicts with the insularity of mainstream Japan will become evident in the remarks below.
It was with some delight that I recently came across a video entitled “Okayama: the profound spirit of the rocks” (28 mins). 70% of Japan is covered in mountains and forests, so it’s not surprising that ancient Japanese felt some kind of kinship with them. They even named tribes after the protective mountain beneath which they settled.
‘Since ancient times,’ runs the commentary, ‘people in Japan have felt a deep sense of awe towards particularly impressive rocks.’ It’s not limited to Japan, of course. The same could be said for ancient cultures around the world – you only have to think of Stonehenge, the pyramids and Machu Picchu for example.
The commentary goes to feature a cave and group of rocks in Okayama, where according to local folklore a demon is said to live – reminiscent for me of the ‘demon’ said to have lived in the Shaman’s Rock on Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal. Rocks as an abode of spirits was part of the Ural-Altaic culture that spread down into the Korean peninsula. In Japan’s syncretic tradition, it is a Buddhist temple rather than Shinto shrine that guards the area, though in times gone by there would have been no such artificial division.
‘In Japan we believe that massive rocks such as these are occupied by divine spirits,’ says the guide, typically emphasising the singularity of Japan rather than its continental heritage. It is in such beliefs, deliberately furthered by Japan’s education system, that the roots of Shinto nationalism lie.
‘In the face of this massive power of nature, we can only put our hands together in awe,’ continues the guide, perfectly expressing the animistic roots of the religious impulse in cultures throughout the world. The belief that Japanese are somehow unique in this stems from a binary opposition of ‘we Japanese’ versus ‘Christian Westerners’, so deeply ingrained in Japanese education. Is it too much to hope that one day school textbooks will talk of ‘we East Asians’ and of Shinto as part of ‘shamanistic cultures worldwide’.
Rock of ages
Kitagi Island in the Inland Sea is famous for its granite rock (which was used for building Osaka Castle). One of the quarrymen there says, ‘My father would always tell me the rock is alive,’ and the discussion goes to suggest that newly cut rock is like a baby, freshly brought to life. After hundreds of thousands of years, the pieces of rock are liberated from their deep seclusion by being severed from the base of the parent mountain.
The programme notes that the grandeur of rocks gives humans a sense of their insignificance in the grander scheme of things. Perhaps it is from this that their spiritual power emanates. As in Zen, the effect induces a diminishing of the ego in face of the sheer immensity and longevity of the rocks. And in the end all we are left with is ‘Gratitude’, as an ink-stone grinder puts it.
Rocks are thus shown to be a true object of worship, and it is to the larger rock on which we live that we owe our very existence. As the programme shows, rocks truly rock. We can only live in awe.
(For more of Green Shinto on the mystique of rocks, click here.)
‘Climbers like me tend to view history via geology, a primordial time before man. Each type of rock tells a different story about the history of the earth. Much like the people I have shared special moments with, rocks come in all kinds of forms, compositions and hardness: just like the characters I have met.
On this trip, I learned to appreciate rocks that I can’t climb, which was a first for me. I met Sugita-san, an old-school climber who has put up over 150 routes in the world-class limestone Bichu climbing area, which now has 400 routes. Climbing his first ascents was a real pleasure because he designed the routes. It felt like picking his brain or dating his ex-girlfriend.
Formed underwater in ancient coral reefs and from shells and skeletal fragments of living organisms, those limestone cliffs I climbed were once underwater, before Japan was ever Japan. I promised Sugita I’d return to develop some of my own routes – and I will.
There is nothing like a ferry ride, and Kitagi Island [out of Kasaoka port] is a real gem. Tsuruta-san was all smiles as he showed me an old quarry for limestone and marble, that s now filled with crystal clear water. Watching limestone being quarried using the old fashioned method was quite something. And the death-defying ladders I had to climb down were scarier than any mountain I’ve climbed.
Finally, finding an inkstone was special. But more than that, I got to make one, together with the master, Nakashima-san. To create something from rock, and to make something that has been used for over 700 years – it felt so primitive. Without this rock, there would have been no written world, no literature, no history.
As the musician Bob Dylan said, “How does it feel? To be without a home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.” Okayama felt like home.’
Places spotlighted in the NHK programme (see here):
Takahashi City in Okayama Prefecture is a popular destination for sports climbers. Rock climbing courses were first set up here in the late 1980s, and the area is now known by the name Bichu. TV producer Christian Storms is an avid sports climber. On this edition of Journeys in Japan, he scales one of the rock walls of Bichu. He visits an island that has a long history of producing high quality granite and inspects an existing quarry. He meets a traditional craftsman who uses the local slate to carve calligraphy inkstones by hand. And he discovers the profound connection that people here have long felt for their rocks.