Kami and Shinto

1.) Originally Shinto was a polytheistic, tribal religion that originated somewhere among the peoples of Korea and Mongolia brought to Japan during the Yayoi period by migrants from the mainland and combined, possibly, with aspects of the religion of the indigenous peoples living there. Since writing doesn't appear in Japan until Chinese culture is imported into Japan, we know very little about this original form of Shinto.

   2.) Shinto during most of Japanese history was combined with other religions and world views. When Chinese culture is imported, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and the Yin-Yang or Five Agents school were all embraced by the Japanese while still holding onto their indigenous religion. Gradually Japanese Buddhists began to incorporate Shinto rituals and festivals into their practices. In 768, the greatest and most sacred Shinto shrine at Ise also became a Buddhist temple; eventually most Shinto shrines would be overseen by Buddhist monks or priests. Buddhism and Shinto would come to be regarded as equivalent religions, so each one took on aspects of the other. This union was called Ryobu Shinto , or "Dual Shinto, and was made possible by a doctrine called honji suijaku , which means "original substance manifests traces." The gods of Shinto were regarded as "traces" of Buddha, that is, they were avatars of the various bodhisattvas, or previous incarnations of the Buddha. From that point onwards, Shinto would incorporate many of the ceremonies, spells, and teachings of Shingon, or True Words, Buddhism.

   3.) During the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), when Japan enjoyed a long and unprecedented respite from civil war, a group of scholars began to study what they called kokugaku, which roughly translated means something like "Native Studies," or "Nativism," or, less accurately, "Japanese Studies." The kokugakushu set about the task of recovering what they thought to be original Japanese culture from all the foreign accretions—Chinese and European—that had built up over that original Japanese culture. The central object of their study was Shinto as the original religion of Japan. These scholars methodically chipped away the Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian elements from Shinto to arrive at what they believed to be the central element of Japanese culture. This Shinto is unquestionably different from the original, mainly because the kokugakushu were trying to invent a national religion out of what was originally a tribal one, trying to unify what was originally fragmented. >   What all these versions of Shinto have in common is belief in kami, or "divinities"; Shinto itself is a Chinese-derived word which means "the way of the gods" (Shin="gods"; To, from Tao="the way"). What these kami are is hard to pin down. They range from the original creating gods to lesser gods, from the spirits of ancestors to any natural force or aspect of nature which inspires awe.

In pre-literate Japan, society was divided into autonomous clans, or uji , each of was headed by a chieftain (uji no kami ). Each of these clans worshipped a divinity, a kami , that was associated with the clan; it was the job of the chieftain to see to the proper ceremonies devoted to the clan's individual kami . Should one clan overrun another, the kami of the conquered clan was made subject to the kami of the victorious clan. Each clan still worshipped their respective divinities, but the hierarchy of those divinities shifted. When the Japanese began to centralize government around an emperor along Chinese lines, this tribal form of Shinto served as the means to legitimate the authority of the Emperor. The clan of the Emperor was descended from the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, who originally created the land and the people; this descent from the original kami made the clan more powerful than the others and so justified their rule, but also made the emperor, in Japanese, Tenno, a direct descendant of this creating god, a "manifest kami ." That is, Tennoism is theoretically rule by a divinity, a theocracy. So, have we answered the question about kami ? Not really. The world view of tribal societies which organize themselves along kinship lines, tend to regard the world, both physical and metaphysical, along the same lines, that is, as one large kinship group. The kami are more than just a plurality of gods or forces; since the world is a creation of Amaterasu, you might say that the whole world partakes of divinity. That is, although we translate kami as "gods," it may be more accurate to think of the word as meaning something like "kami-nature," or "the sacred in things." The life force in humans are kami , as are the spirits of ancestors, the organization of social groups, the forces that bring health, disease, longevity, and death, the gods themselves, geographical places, and the stars and planets. The whole of the universe for the early Japanese was suffused with the sacred, from one end to the other partook of kami nature. Anything, then, could potentially become the object of worship.

Richard Hooker For information contact: Richard Hines
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