Hoffman on Shinto

On the adulteration of Japan’s oldest religion

BY .  JAN 20, 2018. Japan Times

Rudimentary, vague, undefined, undefinable, Shinto for centuries didn’t even have a name. It didn’t need one; there was nothing to distinguish it from, nothing it was not. One good sentence can say everything there is to say about it — this one, for example, by historian Takeshi Matsumae: “In some rural areas even today (1993), elderly villagers face the rising sun each morning, clap their hands together, and hail the appearance of the sun over the peaks of the nearby mountain as ‘the coming of the kami.’”

The scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) | Public domain

That’s Shinto — the way (“to”) of the kami (“shin”). As to the kami — who might they be? “Gods,” we say in English, the language offering nothing better, but it’s too freighted a word, too suggestive of power rather than innocence, of something specific as opposed to anything, one knows not what.

“I do not yet understand the meaning of the word ‘kami’” wrote Motoori Norinaga in 1771. If he didn’t, who did? Norinaga was the foremost scholar of his age; he devoted his life to studying the native literature from its ancient beginnings. “It is hardly necessary to say,” he continued, “that it includes human beings. It also includes such objects as birds, beasts, trees, plants, seas, mountains and so forth. In ancient usage, anything whatsoever that was outside the ordinary, which possessed superior power or which was awe-inspiring, was called kami. … Evil and mysterious things, if they are extraordinary and dreadful, are called kami.”

Shinto teaches nothing, enjoins nothing, demands no submission, works no miracles, effaces evil by cleansing it, transmutes dread into joy. There is no heaven, no hell, no nirvana — just “the rising sun each morning,” “the coming of the kami.”

Troubled times such as ours evoke many longings, not least the one known as primitivism. Why couldn’t things have remained in their pristine state? It’s a mood as old as progress “Take away our baneful progress …” wrote the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1762, “and all is well.”

A Japanese variant of that mood is traceable back to the sixth century. A civil war fought in 587, says historian Ivan Morris, was “one of the decisive clashes in Japanese history,” though the fighting was on so small a scale that “the battle has not even received an official name.”

At issue was the advent of a strange, foreign religion — Buddhism. Some years earlier a Korean ambassador had come bearing images, books and news of “a wonderful doctrine … of all doctrines the most excellent … hard to explain and hard to comprehend,” but through it “every prayer is fulfilled.”

Norinaga Motoori and his disciples of the Kokugaku school (source unknown)

Emperor Bidatsu (reigned circa 572-585) “leaped for joy” to hear it, says the eighth-century chronicle “Nihon Shoki.” “Never,” said Bidatsu, “from former days until now have we had the opportunity of listening to so wonderful a doctrine.” Wonderful, but unsettling. What would the native gods — the kami — think? What might they do, what havoc unleash, in their anger?

Powerful clans ranged on both sides of the ensuing controversy. The Nakatomi and Mononobe, hereditary ritualists and hereditary warriors respectively, both claiming descent from gods, joined forces in defense of the kami against the upstart Soga, who, on behalf of Buddhism, pleaded, “All the Western frontier lands (China and Korea), without exception, worship it. Shall Yamato (Japan) alone refuse to do so?”

Why not? countered Nakatomi and Mononobe: “Those who have ruled the Empire in this our state have always made it their care to worship … the 180 kami of heaven and earth, the kami of the land and of grain. (If) we were to worship in their stead foreign deities, it may be feared that we should incur the wrath of our national kami.”

Bidatsu leaned toward Soga. A pagoda was built, Buddhist images were worshipped — and pestilence broke out. The kami had spoken. A Buddhist statue was flung into a canal, three foreign child-nuns were publicly whipped in the market-place, and the new faith went underground — only to resurface when, shortly afterward, a recurrence of plague gave it a second chance. Bidatsu’s successor, Yomei, “believed in the law of Buddha and (simultaneously) reverenced Shinto” — seeing nothing mutually irreconcilable in them, worlds apart though they are in spirit. This “Nihon Shoki” passage gives Shinto its name.

Yomei died. A quarrel among would-be successors flared into the war of 587. Soga triumphed. Buddhism was in. Japan’s childhood was over.

Through Buddhism, Japan — primitive, almost prehistoric — entered the dazzling orbit of Chinese civilization. The pivotal figure was Crown Prince Shotoku Taishi (574-622), whose famous “constitution” of 604, fusing Buddhist and Confucian moral precepts, marks Japan’s coming of age.

Harmony, hierarchy and willing obedience from those below to the wise commands of those above became the main themes. On the kami, the document is mute. No wonder, perhaps; the kami had no moral precepts, no morality at all. “All things in heaven and earth are in accordance with the august will of the kami,” said Norinaga 11 centuries later. Good or bad, good or evil, is beside the point: “Among the kami there are good ones and bad ones. Their actions are in accordance with their different natures, so they cannot be understood by ordinary human reason.”

Norinaga’s work contains passages of great beauty. The heart, not the mind, emotion, not reason, lead man to wisdom, he taught. It’s a concept known as mono no aware (the pathos of things). There’s an appealing innocence in his writing. But eschewing “ordinary human reason” is a dangerous business. How he would have felt about the later xenophobic militarists who drew much of their inspiration from him is an open question.


Michael Hoffman is the author of In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan and Other Worlds.

Adulteration: Paramilitary group worshipping legendary first emperor Jimmu at Kashihara Jingu

Tsurugaoka shrine uniforms

Security guards at Japanese shrine stand out with anime-like uniforms for New Year

By Dale Roll, SoraNews24   (Japan Today Jan. 14, 2017)

Japan requires uniforms for everything. High school uniforms, of course, are the most famous, but spend any amount of time in Japan and you’ll notice that not just students but employees are also required to don clothing of uniform style and color, from train attendants to office workers to servers at fast-food restaurants. There’s even a book illustrating 150 years of Japanese uniforms.

So it’s no surprise that a squad of New Year’s security guards at Kamakura’s Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine would require a uniform to distinguish themselves from the crowd. What is surprising, though, is how popular their bright red, long, trench-coat-like uniforms became on Twitter.

They call themselves “The Redcoats”, which is appropriate since they look very much like anime versions of really cold English Redcoats. Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, which is the most prominent shrine in Kamakura, recruits new Redcoats every year, and according to their recruitment web page, they are a “special guard formed to ensure the safety and security of the many guests who visit the shrine during the New Year.”

Though they used to have navy blue uniforms, they have been wearing these red ones since 1996, because they stand out in the dark and at a distance, and also because they “preserve the dignity of the shrine”. They were custom-ordered by shrine management, so you can only see these red-uniformed security guards at this particular shrine.


Photo: @sakuravert

Some of the guards wear armbands, as is common practice in Japan to signify staff members at big events, and the TSG logo on the uniform stands for “Toukai Security Guard”. Though some people might see a resemblance between these uniforms and those used during WWII, there’s no real connection intended between the two.

Japanese netizens like the practicality of the uniforms too, leaving comments like: “The long coats are nice. I bet they’re super warm, but more than that, they’re super cool!”

“I think it’s good that it’s a color and design that New Year’s shrine visitors probably wouldn’t wear, so it’s really practical considering they need to be clearly visible to direct the visitors.”

“I didn’t know they were actually called Redcoats! I get that the red is for visibility, but it’s a shame that the color isn’t related to Hachimangu’s history or anything.”

If you think they look pretty cool yourself, you may have missed the window for New Year’s, as they were mostly around from the 31st to the 5th, but netizens also say they’ll be back again for Setsubun next month, so you can head on over to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura to see them for yourself.

Winter treasures

Winter gives us respite to turn inward and reflect

With snow in Kyoto today, thoughts turn to the beneficial role of winter in the annual round. Rainer Maria Rilke was a prolific letter writer, whose insights into life have been much treasured, and the extract below comes from a 1922 letter to a young woman named Heise reflecting on what winter teaches us about life’s riches (tr. by William Needham). For Shinto, living in the here and now, enjoying the paradise on earth is something to be grateful for in the depths of winter, just as on the sunniest of spring days…

Tending my inner garden went splendidly this winter. Suddenly to be healed again and aware that the very ground of my being — my mind and spirit — was given time and space in which to go on growing; and there came from my heart a radiance I had not felt so strongly for a long time… You tell me how you are able to feel fully alive every moment of the day and that your inner life is brimming over; you write in the knowledge that what you have, if one looks at it squarely, outweighs and cancels all possible privations and losses that may later come along. It is precisely this that was borne in upon me more conclusively than ever before as I worked away during the long Winter months: that the stages by which life has become impoverished correspond with those earlier times when excesses of wealth were the accustomed measure. What, then, is there to fear? Only forgetting! But you and I, around us and in us, we have so much in store to help us remember!

Snow man at Shimogamo Jinja 2015

Lining up to pray for ‘good connections’ at a Shimogamo Jinja subshrine

Another person to explore the benefits of winter was Henry Thoreau, as a recent edition of Brainpickings makes clear. The writer considered winter’s rewards in a meandering meditation entitled “A Winter Walk” (in his Excursions). It captures something of the sense of awe that underscores the nature worship of Shinto.

Writing in the winter of 1843, the twenty-five-year-old Thoreau awakens to a snow-covered wonderland and marvels at the earthly paradise:

The wind has gently murmured through the blinds, or puffed with feathery softness against the windows, and occasionally sighed like a summer zephyr lifting the leaves along, the livelong night. The meadow-mouse has slept in his snug gallery in the sod, the owl has sat in a hollow tree in the depth of the swamp, the rabbit, the squirrel, and the fox have all been housed. The watch-dog has lain quiet on the hearth, and the cattle have stood silent in their stalls. The earth itself has slept, as it were its first, not its last sleep, save when some street-sign or wood-house door has faintly creaked upon its hinge, cheering forlorn nature at her midnight work, — the only sound awake twixt Venus and Mars, — advertising us of a remote inward warmth, a divine cheer and fellowship, where gods are met together, but where it is very bleak for men to stand. But while the earth has slumbered, all the air has been alive with feathery flakes descending, as if some northern Ceres reigned, showering her silvery grain over all the fields.

This quieting of the outside world, this kindling of the inner hearth, is winter’s great reward for Thoreau. A century before Albert Camus captured the essence of winter’s treasures — “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

Thoreau writes:

There is a slumbering subterranean fire in nature which never goes out, and which no cold can chill…. What fire could ever equal the sunshine of a winter’s day, when the meadow mice come out by the wallsides, and the chicadee lisps in the defiles of the wood? The warmth comes directly from the sun, and is not radiated from the earth, as in summer; and when we feel his beams on our backs as we are treading some snowy dell, we are grateful as for a special kindness, and bless the sun which has followed us into that by-place.

This subterranean fire has its altar in each man’s breast, for in the coldest day, and on the bleakest hill, the traveller cherishes a warmer fire within the folds of his cloak than is kindled on any hearth. A healthy man, indeed, is the complement of the seasons, and in winter, summer is in his heart. There is the south. Thither have all birds and insects migrated, and around the warm springs in his breast are gathered the robin and the lark.

Thoreau believed that “every walk is a sort of crusade.” As he walks through the meadows blanketed in white, up the hills draped with snow-bowed branches, through a world enveloped in delicious quietude and covered in a “pure elastic heaven,” he returns to the invaluable inward focus which winter alone invites — a quiet conquest of one’s interior world. A century before Rilke painted winter as the season for tending to one’s inner garden, Thoreau wrote:

In this lonely glen, with its brook draining the slopes, its creased ice and crystals of all hues, where the spruces and hemlocks stand up on either side, and the rush and sere wild oats in the rivulet itself, our lives are more serene and worthy to contemplate.

In winter we lead a more inward life. Our hearts are warm and cheery, like cottages under drifts, whose windows and doors are half concealed, but from whose chimneys the smoke cheerfully ascends.

On Christmas Day of 1856, he issues an exhortation central to his philosophy and his daily practice:

Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.

Four days later, Thoreau amplifies his point:

We must go out and re-ally ourselves to Nature every day. We must make root, send out some little fibre at least, even every winter day. I am sensible that I am imbibing health when I open my mouth to the wind. Staying in the house breeds a sort of insanity always. Every house is in this sense a hospital. A night and a forenoon is as much confinement to those wards as I can stand. I am aware that I recover some sanity which I had lost almost the instant that I come [outdoors].

There is nothing so sanative, so poetic, as a walk in the woods and fields even now, when I meet none abroad for pleasure. In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it, — dining with the Governor or a member of Congress!! But alone in distant woods or fields, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful.

In the embrace of winter, we see from Thoreau’s words, is not simply a health-restoring remedy, but deep spiritual insight into the wonder and grandeur of the universe. It’s this sense that Shinto does so much to celebrate and treasure.

Snowman at Shimogamo Jinja, celebrating the joys of midwinter

Primacy of primal religions (Barnett)

Green Shinto supporter, Ray Barnett, runs a lively blog in which he writes from a Taoist viewpoint of mankind’s relationship with nature. He has also published Earth Wisdom and other books on the subject. In this specially penned piece he notes the appeal of Shinto and Taoism as ancient forms of  Immanence (rather than Transcendence) that have unusually survived into the modern world. It was something that struck Joseph Campbell too when he visited Japan in 1956.

“History” has usually meant “history since writing and written records,” but when you include the neolithic you can clearly see 3 Ages of Humans. First is the 10,000 years of the late Paleolithic and entire Neolithic when abundant archaeological evidence indicates nature-venerating cultures sustained by early low-intensity agriculture complementing hunting/gathering/fishing. These were egalitarian cultures where women were honored a bit more than men, cultures where violence was relatively rare–for 10,000 years!!  I term this the Age of Immanence, to recognize its this-world, here-and-now worldview.
Then as cities cut themselves off from the natural world with walls, and the “hard metal ages” began with iron weapons, the peaceful, egalitarian cultures were replaced with patriarchal, mysoginistic cultures engaged in virtually unending war.  Agriculture became intensive and coercive under the urban elite rulers (to produce large numbers of soldiers, clearly indicated by Chinese dynastic records), initiating (at about 2,500 B.C.) a far different Age of Transcendence (named for the transcendent, other-worldly religions underpinning this age) that lasted about 4,500 years.
The Third Age dawned about 1914 with modern science maturing, the early stirrings of women’s liberation, and John Muir’s creation of the modern environmental movement in his battle (unsuccessful) to block the city of San Francisco from building the Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite Park. This inagurated the Third Age of Humans: the great Age of Conflict between the returned Immanent and the reigning Transcendent worldviews.  The fate of human civilization and quite likely the human species itself will hinge, in my humble opinion, on which worldview emerges victorious from this conflict.
Sagacious readers will have noted that among today’s major religions, only Shinto and Taoism (in which, with Schipper, I include Chinese Folk Religion) accord with the earlier Immanent nature-centered outlook. Both in fact represent ancient religions that are relicts of the earlier Age of Immanence, having somehow survived from the Neolithic into the Age of Transcendence and persisted (though not without changes, some positive, some not) to the present.

Torii – gateway to Immanence

For a piece about the psychological force of animism and its match with human brain patterns, please see here.

Horse skills and Shinto

Kokugakuin University, which specialises in Shinto studies, produces articles in association with the Japan News. This one, updated on Dec 3, 2017, features the role of horses and horse-riding skills in Shinto. (For a description of horse archery at Kyoto’s Kamigamo Jinja, see here.)


The horse, messenger of the gods

Sumiyoshi-taisha Shrine

Sumiyoshi-taisha Shrine

Because horses are thought to be animal messengers that the Gods ride when coming down to the human world, there are many Shinto rituals that use horses. Thus, a deep relationship exists between horses and shrines. Since horses are also closely linked with people’s lives for transportation, farming, and so on, people took good care of them. Consequently, there are Shinto rituals in which people focus on horses.

One such ritual is the “Aouma-shinji,” held at the Sumiyoshi-taisha Shrine. Two white horses are brought to each of the main shrines. It is said that those who see a blue horse (having black and bluish colors) at the beginning of the year will be free of evil spirits for the year and enjoy longevity. This belief originated in a Chinese historical event. Although white horses replaced blue (gray) ones later, they are still called aouma (blue horses).

There is also a ritual known as “Shinme-kenzan” (referring to the honor of seeing a sacred horse) at the Ise-jingu Shrine. It is considered good luck to see the sacred horse led by a Shinto priest to both the inner and outer shrines early in the morning of a day with a 1 in it.

As you can see from the history of kurabeuma and yabusame, a unique culture centered around horse-related practices in Japan has developed from two different sources. First, the Shinto rituals and military arts performed at shrines regarded the horse as sacred, and second, ceremonies related to horses held in the imperial court were later inherited by shrines.

Last, the ema (ritual wooden tablets inscribed with wishes and prayers), often found at Shinto shrines, feature a representation of a horse. These replaced the use of a living horse in modern ceremonies.

Ema (ritual wooden tablet)

Ema (ritual wooden tablet)

Kurabeuma and yabusame attached to martial arts and Shinto rituals


Sumiyoshi-taisha Shrine

Equestrian competitions can be found in the modern Olympic Games. Japan also has several equestrian events, kurabeuma (traditional horse racing) and yabusame(horseback archery), which have a long history.

Yabusame features shooting kaburaya (whistling arrows) while riding on a running horse. It is a traditional riding technique in Japan that was originally performed as a form of mounted archery, but also became associated with ritual events at shrines.

Emperor Uda ordered Minamoto no Yoshiari to establish the arts of archery, horsemanship, and courtesy in 896. Yabusame was performed as practical horseback archery in the Heian period, as written in 1096 in the diary Chuyuki. It became popular to dedicate martial arts displays at shrines among Kamakura samurai, who respected military prowess and arms. Later, this spread nationwide, especially after a display at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine by Minamoto no Yoritomo.

The Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan) in an entry for the year 679 describes kurabeuma as a horse race held to appreciate fleet-footed horses. This event is thought to be the origin of the practice in Japan. Later, in the Heian period, races became part of the annual Tango no Sekku (the modern Boy’s Festival in May) and were performed at shrines. In fact, horse racing takes place every May at the Kamowakeikazuchi-jinja Shrine (the Kamigamo-jinja Shrine) as part of the Kurabeuma-e-shinji ritual (also known as Kamo Kurabeuma) according to tradition.

Shinto rituals to ward off evil, pray for children’s growth, and for a good harvest



The most famous yabusame is held every September at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, but it can be seen at shrines all over the Kanto area. For example, the event held at the Samukawa-jinja Shrine is performed to pray for peace and prosperity and a huge harvest. Shinto priests also serve as archers.

Although yabusame events declined temporarily after the Muromachi period, the eighth Tokugawa shogun, Yoshimune, revived the custom in the Edo period by dedicating them to shrines on many occasions and using them as prayers for cures for illnesses and to celebrate the birth of children in the shogun’s family. After the Meiji period, yabusame rituals were carried on as dedications to shrines, and such events continue today.

Kurabeuma was also held at shrines around the capital in Kyoto and in suburbs as a Shinto ritual to pray for peace and prosperity and a good harvest. For instance, “Ageuma-shiji”—held at the Tado Taisha Shrine in Mie Prefecture—is believed to have started during the Northern and Southern Dynasties period. One youth is chosen from each of six areas to be jockeys. They then run horses up a steep hill in the local precinct. More jockeys getting over the slope is thought to signal a better harvest for that year.


Please be advised: Green Shinto has written previously of the cruelty involved in the Ageuma-shiji and joined the campaign to protest against the animal abuse. Please see here and here.

Shinto garden

Shinto inspired art in the grounds of Shimogamo Jinja

What would a Shinto garden look like? One might presume there would be a sacred tree, possibly striking in some way such as being ancient, or having an unusual form, or for being a fine example of the life-force. One would expect too on entry a water basin or fountain for purifying hands and heart. Perhaps there would be a place to hang ema (wooden votive plaques), and even some means of having one’s fortune told. Above all, one would expect a small shrine honouring the tutelary guardian, where one could pray in ritual fashion to the spirit of place.

In the piece below Green Shinto reader, Sally Writes, has come up with some ideas of her own about how to create the right atmosphere for a garden of devotion. (Photos by John Dougill)


Garden shrine and torii

Creating A Shinto Inspired Garden (by Sally Writes)

According to ancient Eastern principles Shinto-inspired Zen gardens represent nature in miniature format, and creating your own outdoor retreat can bring peace and happiness to your life. This is linked to the healing benefits of nature; scientists have found that being around trees reduces stress levels in the human body, helping us to relax.

Here are a few tips to help you create a Shinto inspired garden.

Add A Water Feature

Many people like to add a water feature to the garden to create a serene Zen effect. Water has a positive energy that is well suited to a Zen garden, and water is linked to the most pertinent purifying ritual of the Shinto faith. Studies have also found that the sound of water has a relaxing effect on humans, which is ideal for a Shinto inspired garden.

Include Other Shinto Inspired Features

You can also add stone or Shinto-inspired art to your garden, or you could add piles of rocks to create a Zen-like boulder pile. Stone lamps can also be used to illuminate the beautiful features in your garden – and it will also make it easier for you to appreciate your garden at night time.

Inari hokora, perfect for garden usage

Add Plants And Paths

The most important part of any Shino-inspired garden are the plants and pathways. It is important to add bright flowers for yang energy and dark green plants for yin energy, such as bonsai tree, as this will ensure that your garden has positive energy, rather than negative energy. You can also create a winding path that goes through the garden to imitate ancient Japanese gardens – just make sure that you know how to dig out a path before you start.

Once you have created a path you can also add stones and boulders to the edges to give you garden even more of a vibe.

It is easy to turn your garden into a Shinto-inspired garden without spending too much. This will make your garden more peaceful and relaxing, but that isn’t all; the beauty of the garden will also help you to connect with nature and ancient Japanese culture.

Not every sacred tree needs a shimenawa rice rope to sanctify it. Even the simplest of arrangements will do.

Hatsumode (New Year visit) 2018

Every year I like to visit my local shrine, which just happens to be a World Heritage site. Shimogamo Jinja in the north of Kyoto is surrounded by an ancient grove known as Tadasu no mori, and during the more than twenty years that I’ve been attending Hatsumode I’ve seen changes in the way the shrine markets itself. This year, as previously, I noticed small additions and alterations designed to make the shrine more appealing. Here’s my photo report of this year’s visit…

All dressed up for the year of the dog. Notice the hand-paws pose…

Shimogamo’s main ema this year shows a champion Tosa fighting dog, awarded the top sumo rank of Yokozuna with a shimenawa neck decoration. (The Shinto-sanctioned Tosa dog fighting is based on sumo rules: see https://www.dog-breeds-expert.com/Japanese-Tosa.html)

First time I’ve ever seen this intrusive sign at the shrine entrance. A far cry from the friendly and peaceful atmosphere that prevails at Hatsumode. What could have motivated the authorities? A cynic might suspect it is part of the climate of fear exemplified by the anti-terror notices that have appeared not only here in the middle of Kyoto but at remote rural stations. A climate of fear conducive to the election of right-wing politicians…

First time too I’d seen these fragrance bags on sale, much as in a souvenir shop.

First you have to read the fortune slips…

… then tie them up

But wait a minute! This notice says the fortune slip is the voice of the kami and should be carefully preserved for a year. How odd!

Not only the fortune slips, but the offerings of sake are carefully and aesthetically arranged

Rock offering for the new year… kagami mochi with a daidai orange on top. The rice cakes (mochi) are shaped like a mirror, pleasing for the kami, double decked so as to double the good fortune. The daidai fruit promotes longevity, from one generation to the next.

This year was the first time I’ve see the back entrance of the honden opened to the public – for a fee of course.

A warming fire for the midwinter visitors

… and a warming cup of sweet sake too.

Zen rocks (Book review)

The famous garden at Ryoanji shows how Zen Buddhism absorbed the native tradition of reverence for rocks

Reading Zen in the Rocks by Francois Bertbier (translated with a philosophical essay by Graham Parkes) Uni of Chicago Press, 2000

Understanding the role of rocks in Japanese culture, and specifically in Shinto, has been something of a quest for Green Shinto. Here is a book which does much to throw light on matters that have long intrigued us. Though the focus is on the dry landscape gardens (karesansui) so beloved of Zen, the book has much to say about the wider subject and its background.

Whereas Green Shinto has previously asserted that the cult of rocks came over with Korean shamanism (the result of southern migration from Altaic shamanism), this book makes no mention of that but looks instead to the Chinese tradition of litholatry. And in the philosophical essay by Graham Parkes, there is the assertion of origins too in the ancient cosmology of China.

For early Chinese, humans lived in a giant cave of which the sky formed the ceiling. That the sky should be made of rock can be seen as a logical conclusion from the way meteorites fell to earth, for they were presumed to be bits of the celestial covering that had fallen off. In similar manner mountains were seen as huge blocks or stalactites that had descended to earth. Their heavenly provenance was not their only distinguishing feature, for in the precipitous fall they had accumulated huge amounts of energy (known as chi or qi). It helps explain why rocks that fell to earth are traditionally treated as divine in Japan.

Another vital point the book makes is that whereas the West has an established dichotomy between animate and inanimate, for the Chinese there was a continuum of existence with chi energy running throughout. The dichotomy such as there was rather between yin and yang. The earth was yin, mountains thrusting upwards were yang. The landscape was thus pulsing with energy, seen graphically in the Japanese word for landscape sansui (mountain – water).

Since rocks constitute the very material of a mountain, they came to be seen as a microcosm of it. They were thus held to possess the same properties and energy as the original mountain. Though the book does not go into this, as it is concerned with Zen, the notion sheds light on Shinto practice. Kami in ancient times descend from heaven into mountains, the nearest point on earth, and Amaterasu’s offspring famously descended on Mt Takachiho in Kyushu. If kami could descend into mountains, they could also descend into the representation of a mountain, i.e. rocks. And here we can understand the possible evolution of iwakura, or sacred rocks.

In this way we can see that in ancient Chinese thought the rock was of a mountain, and the mountain was of heaven. Small wonder that Daoists liked to retreat into caves to seek the ultimate reality. Small wonder too that Bodhidharma spent nine years meditating in front of a rock face. The result was that Buddhists came to incorporate the nature of sacred rock into their philosophy. Zhanran of the Tiantai School for example claimed that even non-sentient beings have Buddhist nature.’ And in Japan Saicho, founder of Tendai, spoke of ‘the Buddha-nature of trees and rocks’.


Garden development
In Shinto it is usual for the area to the south of the main shrine building to be flat and covered with white sand or gravel. It is a place of purity where the kami will be honoured and entertained. Much of Zen in the Rocks is concerned with decoding the famous garden of Ryoan-ji in Kyoto, and it is pointed out that the dry landscape there lies to the south of the main building in Shinto fashion and is on a piece of level land covered with gravel. The Shinto preference for purity, simplicity and naturalness was woven into the Zen tradition.

Sand cones at Kamigamo Jinja. The Zen temple of Daisen-in has a similar pair in its front dry landscape garden.

Buddhism incorporated other aspects of Shinto too. One example is the use of sand cones at Kyoto’s Daisen-in, which is located in the Zen monastery of Daitoku-ji. Its rock garden contains two sand cones which mirror those at Kamigamo Shrine. These may have originally served a purpose similar to the use of red carpets today, in other words prior to the visit of an important dignitary or to the holding of a ritual event the sand from the cones would be spread over the forecourt as a form of purification and renewal. In other words, the cones were a means of storing spare sand, and over time they came to be seen as agents of purification in themselves. Something similar happened at the Zen temple of Ginkaku-ji, where the famous tall cone of sand, said to represent Mt Fuji, was originally just a garden device to keep extra sand when needed.

Zen in the Rocks is relatively short and though it focusses on the rock garden, it offers a range of unexpected insights in the role of rock in Japanese culture. It shows for instance how the Heian garden of pond and vegetation transmuted into the bare rocks and pebbles of Muromachi times. This was part of the Zen concern with pointing to the root of things and stripping away the inessential. In this way the Buddhist emphasis on perpetual change and the transience of life, given emphasis in the Heian garden, was replaced in the Zen garden with symbols of permanence and the eternal.

‘Brother rock’ may seem an odd concept to Westerners, but if you think in terms of the Big Bang, we all share common origins. In considering the changing attitudes to nature in the Sino-Japanese tradition, this book helps us to look at rock anew. Not as something dead, sterile or alien. But as fundamental to our place in the universe. Fundamental to ourselves. As Alan Watts pointed out, the giant rock on which we travel through space is ultimately the source of our existence. The spirit in the rock is ourselves.

For more on rocks, please see the list of categories in the righthand column and browse through the relevant section. For Alan Watts on rock, see this entry here.


New Year zodiac animals

In Japan the Chinese Zodiac calendar was officially adopted in 604 AD.  The lunar-solar calendar lasted for some 1200 years until 1873, with the New Year being celebrated on the second new moon after the winter solstice.  Each year was associated with one of the twelve Zodiac animals and one of the five elements: Metal (Gold), Wood, Water, Fire or Earth.  So each animal appears in five different guises: 2017 for instance was the Fire Rooster.  The full cycle of the traditional calendar is therefore 60 years, which is why the 60th birthday is celebrated in a special way.

Since 1873 the adoption of the Gregorian calendar means that the new Zodiac animal is celebrated on January 1st.  The Chinese however still continue to celebrate according to the old lunar calendar, meaning that it usually falls sometime in February.  Fireworks, lion dances, food and family get-togethers take place in Chinese communities around the world.


2018 will be the Year of the Dog. For followers of the Five Elements, it is presided over by the Earth Dog, and for Yin Yang followers it is a Yang year. Three, four and nine are auspicious numbers; green, red and purple auspicious colours.

For those into fortune-telling, Dog is a symbol of loyalty and honesty. People born in the Year of the Dog possess the best of human nature. They are honest, friendly, faithful, loyal, smart, straightforward, venerable and have a strong sense of responsibility. On the negative side, they are likely to be self-righteous, cold, terribly stubborn, slippery, critical of others and not good at social activities.

A happy new year to all Green Shinto readers, and a big thank you for the feedback and helping sustain this site over the years.

Happy New Year to all Green Shinto readers!

New Year traditions

New Year beginnings
The way Shinto and Buddhism complement each other is never more clearly seen than on the night of Dec. 31. Buddhism is other-worldly, concerned with individual salvation. Shinto is this-worldly, concerned with rites of passage and social well-being. At New Year the two religions come together like yin and yang, either side of midnight. Buddhism sees out the death of the old; Shinto celebrates the birth of the new.

In the dying minutes of the year, people line up at a Buddhist temple to hear the bell riing, or to ring it themselves. By tradition it is rung 108 times, once for every attachment that plagues the human condition. The atmosphere is solemn, and in the darkness the booming of the large bell carries with it a mournful feel that is carried for miles in all directions.

Once midnight strikes, by way of contrast, it’s time to head for a shrine to pick up arrow and amulets for protection through the coming year. The contemplative pre-midnight atmosphere is now replaced by a celebratory mood. Suddenly there are laughing voices, bright kimono, and gaudy lights. Stalls with wannabe yakuza sell candy floss and goldfish. Here all is jollity and smiles.

Arrows in red and white, celebratory colours of vitality, to ward off evil spirits throughout the coming year

Akemashite omedeto’ (Congratulations on the New Year) is heard on every side, as people toss coins into offertory boxes over the heads of those in front. Hot saké is served spiced with ginger, while young women in kimono stand huddled over their fortune slips. With the blessing of the kami, the Year of the Rooster will surely be a good one.

Traditions and customs
New Year is a time of special food – osechi ryori – beautifully displayed in lunch boxes as only the Japanese can do. The custom originated with the Heian aristocracy, for whom New Year’s Day was one of the five seasonal festivals. Since it was taboo to cook during the three day event, food was prepared beforehand.

The New Year food is a feast for the eyes as much as the stomach, full of symbols and auspicious elements. There’s tai fish to signify ‘medetai’ (congratulations), and black beans as a wish for good health (mame can mean bean and health). Broiled fish cake (kamaboko) is laid out in red and white layers, traditional colours of celebration and suggestive of the rising sun.

Although the first shrine visit of the year (hatsumode) is supposed to be done within three days, people continue to pay respects for several days afterwards. Each year has its own auspicious direction, calculated by Chinese astrology, and the custom was to visit a shrine that lies in that direction (though few follow that these days). According to statistics, it seems the vast majority of Japanese visit a shrine at some point, though the percentage is skewed by the number of people who visit two or more shrines (for example their closest, their favourite shrine, and their ujigami).

Numbers are published and scanned with great interest, as if like GDP they reflect the well-being of the nation. Meiji Jingu invariably tops the rankings, with just over three million visitors (though one wonders who counts them). In the Kansai region Fushimi Inari comes top with over two and a half million – one reason why I’ve never dared visit it at New Year, though it’s a personal favourite.

From now on the New Year is all about firstness and freshness. There’s the first dream of the year, which if it is about Mt Fuji, a hawk or an aubergine (!) is held to be particularly auspicious. There’s the first snowfall, the first sign of spring, and the year’s first haiku…

A new year dawning:
First snow upon the mountains
Forming a fresh sheet

One interesting custom is the giving of money to children, known as toshidama. Toshi is the year, and dama is its soul or spirit – so it’s as if one is renewing the spirit of the year through the gift. No doubt the money helps give extra vigour to the young!

The traditional New Year decoration is a length of shimenawa (sacred rice rope), festooned with ferns and the stem of a bitter orange, which is hung on the door (see pic at top). For Lafcadio Hearn, the shimenawa was the true ancient symbol of Shinto, other elements such as the ofuda and the torii having come in later. The fern is an evergreen and a symbol of the lifeforce, while the bitter orange is called daidai, which can also mean ‘generation to generation’. It indicates awareness of the ancestral continuity of the household.

It’s customary at this time of year to have steamed rice cake (mochi). This was traditionally done by pounding it by hand and eating fresh, but nowadays supermarkets are filled with plastic packages containing two circular rice cakes on top of each other surmounted by a bitter orange.

A pair of kagami mochi with daidai bitter orange and urajiro leaves

Rice is a symbol of fertility, and the mochicakes symbolise renewal of vitality through the eating of rice. Circular cakes are known as kagami mochi (mirror rice cakes). According to tradition, the sun-goddess Amaterasu presented her grandson with a circular mirror and told him to treat it as if it were her very self. It’s why mirrors are often used in shrines as the sacred ‘spirit-body’ of the kami. In this sense partaking of the round mochi is a kind of sacrament, the Japanese equivalent of communion.

The prime symbol of the New Year are the kadomatsu decorations seen in front of stores and large buildings. These can be grandiose affairs, consisting of three upright pieces of bamboo of differing length to represent the Taoist triad of heaven, earth and human.

Pine and plum branches complete the arrangement – pine not only as a symbol of constancy and vitality, but because the needles ward off evil spirits. The plum symbolises the promise of spring (before cherry blossom, the plum was Japan’s favourite tree for its early flowering amidst the austerity of winter.) Bamboo stands for persistence, a much admired trait among Japanese.

Kadomatsu in traditional style. Bamboo (for perseverance), pine (for evergreen), with nanten berries (red vitality), habotan (bad things become good) and plum (promise of spring) are the basic materials

Who’d have thought so much symbolism could be packed into a simple New Year decoration of natural elements? It’s indicative of just how important a role the New Year plays in Japan, and how much renewal, reinvigoration and revitalisation are written into the culture.

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