A Book of Little Traditions
These are notes clarifying various issues that have been raised either in online discussions or in person at discussions and presentations. They are in no particular order, although I have tried to group them by subject matter.
About The hokora kami
While most of the gosaijin in the shi-yaku-jin no hokora are referred to by Japanese names, they are in fact not Japanese kami, but rather local kami specific to the Twin Cities and surrounding areas. Generally speaking, the hokora does not address kami that are identified with specific locations in Japan. *It doesn't make sense to call on Japanese kami, some 6000 miles away, to affect local conditions. Like spirits of place in most folk religions, the kami names are more like job descriptions; indicating the people or place or process or profession they influence. Although these functions are universal human concerns, their specific manifestations are culturally and geographically determined. So the kami enshrined in the hokora are definitely Metro-Minnesotan... yasureyoubetchuu-san.
This in no way denigrates the Japanese kami. When I'm in their country, I'll honor them. Until then, I'll stick to dealing with the local kami I have to live with.
About The shi-yaku-jin
I usually give a quick and 'dirty' definition of the shi-yaku-jin as, "the Japanese equivalent of the four horsemen of the apocalypse". On the surface it's more true than not. However, if you know anything about the concept: kami, it's not exactly correct from most viewpoints.
You could map shi-no-kami (kami of death) to death, ekibyô-no-kami (kami of plague) to disease, kyô-no-kami (kami of disaster, especially crop failure) to famine, and if you think about it as class warfare, binbô-no-kami (kami of poverty) to war. But there are several differences between the horsemen and the kami.
Not surprisingly, given the mythology they're embedded in, the horsemen are generally thought of as being singular and universal. The kami on the other hand are both multiple and extremely location specific. Just as each location is different from all other locations, so the kami of each location are different.
Another difference is that the horsemen are viewed as disasters as something "inherently evil and unnatural". The kami are instead viewed as natural processes certainly unpleasant to experience and to be avoided if at all possible, but also necessary to the functioning of the world, and not "evil".
And finally, the horseman are apocalyptic a terminal ending of things. The kami are parts of a great cycle neither beginning or ending, but in continuous transformation.
And If You Believe That, I've Got A Bridge
If you're going to listen to spirits, be prepared to take what they say with a small Siberian salt mine, or maybe even a large one. This may come as shock, but not all spirits are truthful, and a great many think it's hilarious to mislead gullible humans. kitsune, tanuki, and mujina specifically, but most yôkai in general enjoy that particular pastime.
Even when they are truthful, they're not omniscient. They tend to be focused on a particular subject. Their pronouncements can generally be trusted when they speak about their area of expertise, but get them outside that area and it's anybody's guess as to the accuracy of their information.
And speaking of being focused, their agenda is almost always non-human. So answers given may or may not be applicable, or even healthy for humans to apply. So when it comes to listening to those voices in your head, caveat emptor defintely applies.
Any Port In A Storm
I had a near perfect day for tabling at TC Pagan Pride, and enjoyed spending time in the park. During that time I had a bit of an unusual interaction; I was asked for advice by a nichiren shû practitioner. Given that I'm a minzoku NEO-shintô practitioner and knowing the exclusionary tendencies of nichiren shôshû, this is the last sort of thing one would expect.
Long story short he's been nichiren shû since he was six and is happy to be so, but lately his temple has been pressuring him proselytize more and to get his pagan partner to convert, neither of which he is comfortable with doing.
This sort of thing is yet another example of why I don't join more organized religions and remain a folk religion practitioner. When a religion, any religion, starts focusing on its organization and numbers, that's when it loses sight of its religious goals and its members' needs. Intolerance creeps in, and dogma is simplified to 'our way is the only right way'. Followers are presented with a choice: stay and do it our way, or leave and be damn. When that happens, the members' spiritual life inevitably suffers.
Fortunately, there is another option switch to a folk religion practice. Remember temples, shrines, and churches are exciting options, not necessities. With the increasing recognition and acceptance by mainstream religions, it has become easier to 'keep the baby, and dump the bathwater'. Sure there are still hard-line holdouts, but most civilized countries have laws limiting their actions and vitriol.
Oh my advice?
Be a folk practitioner dump the temple, keep Buddha and the teachings of nichren.
He seemed to satisfied with that answer.
Are You An Existentialist Or Essentialist?
Although most shintô is actually a mixture of the two viewpoints, most people's praxis tends to lean one way or the other. Here's how to tell which side your praxis leans toward.
Derived from: Shinto:The Way Home by Thomas P. Kasulis
Freedom Of Religion
Let's talk about freedom of religion and what it means in America. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion
The Supreme Court has interpreted the Establishment Clause (and the Free Exercise Clause embedded in it) to mean "Freedom of religion means freedom to hold an opinion or belief, but not to take action in violation of social duties or subversive to good order" In other words, "While the right to have religious beliefs is absolute, the freedom to act on such beliefs is not absolute."
What this means is that neither the Federal Government or the signatory State Governments can determine what constitutes a religion or what its beliefs may be. They can on the other hand pass laws that regulate the actions of members of a religion, provided the laws are applied equally to all religions. You are perfectly free to believe in human sacrifice, but if you try to act on that belief you have committed an act of murder and violated your social duties.
This standard applies to discriminatory actions. Again, you're free to believe what you want about any group of people, but when you act on those beliefs and violate state or federal laws you can't expect to justify your actions with, "But it's allowed in my religion." When it comes actions, your religion ends at the tip of your nose.
Go! Fight! Win!
And call me when you get back... I miss our little chats.
In the hardly breaking news category, here at the shi-yaku-jin no hokora, we unabashedly practice one of the multitudinous forms of minzoku shintô. And while it is uniquely tailored to fit the people of this particular area of the Midwestern United States, still it contains many practices that can be found all over Japan. We have long championed the idea that if religious practices and ideas are to remain useful, they should reside in the hands of the common people and not in those of a few vested "experts". Not that we're discounting the value of experts, but rather we feel that these practices are among the things everyone should know how to do. Towards that end, if people are interested in shintô, we encourage them to not wait for a shrine to be established in their area, but rather to go out and start practicing. Realistically, there is no wrong or right way to practice shintô; there is just you and your community's way.
Notes On Tradition
The Director's Lectures Anthony Giddens
Runaway World: The Reith Lectures revisited
Lecture 3: 24 November 1999
Tradition involves a different claim to truth from other kinds of behaviour, such as those associated with science, rational understanding of the world, or democracy. Tradition's truth is ritual and bound up with its practice. Taking part in a tradition doesn't involve the cognitive question of whether what you're doing approximates to something valid in the world. Tradition's truth and authenticity is carried in its ritual, and it is the ritual which gives it its power.
Tradition is primarily social and collective, and it's something to do with the relationship between ritual repetition and collectivity that defines something as traditional. I don't think you could have traditions which were wholly individual patterns of behaviour. You sometimes have personal rituals, but you wouldn't call them traditional.
Traditions always have guardians and guardians are different from experts. They have access to the ritual truth of tradition and are like priests or shamans. To get at the truth of tradition you would need an interpretation by one of the tradition's guardians. The key role of the guardians of tradition is that they are the repositories of the knowledge which the ordinary lay individual in the ceremonial does not have. In more encompassing traditions you always have some group of people who are believed to have special knowledge related to the ritual which defines the tradition. This is different from expertise because expertise is, in principle, available to anyone.
Tradition is the emotional element, the emotional engagement with the ritual of a traditional ceremony. Without this, then I don't think the ritual is working. It's not like sitting in a library reading a book, trying to get more knowledge of the social sciences. Tradition has a hold because it's something to do with personal identity and how we locate our emotions, and it's even something to do with a sense of self, especially in more 'traditional' cultures where a sense of self is strongly defined through the ritual properties of tradition and the emotional relationship to the wider society which this gives you.
The Nuts And Bolts Of Running A Shrine
shi-yaku-jin no hokora is a small family shrine in the middle of the midwestern United States. We're really just a tiny lump floating in the cultural stew that makes up America. There aren't a lot of people practicing shintô here, so our local support base is rather limited. As a result we rely heavily on the internet and social media to inform people about shintô and the hokora, thereby growing our support base. This in turns allows us to reach more people.
Our posts fall into two broad categories. The first has to do with the daily and yearly routines of the shrine. These include prayers, offerings, and celebrations. The second concerns the practices, rituals, festivals, and history of shintô both minzuko and jinja. It also is pertains to Japanese culture and folklore.
While it's always exciting when one of our posts gets widely spread, its also a bit of a pain, as it throws a serious monkey wrench in the tracking machinery. The problem is that FaceBook only keeps track of top 45, counts by city, that have viewed a post. So for the two or three weeks following a popular post the new top responses pretty much bury those from our loyal fan base. That single statistical outlier obscures the data for the people we're most interested in serving, and makes it harder to discern what they're interested in learning about.
On Belief And Faith
minzoku shintô, NEO- or otherwise, isn't about believing or faith. I don't have to believe in you for you to exist, and the same is true of kami. I experience you and I experience kami.
minzoku shintô is all about practices. My experiences lead me to engage in certain practices and not engage in others. I avoid pollution when I can, and perform purification rites when I can't. I do misogi daily, not only at the hokora, but also at the sink and in the shower. I honor my ancestors daily at the butsudan in the hokora, and at the small shrine in the kitchen. I make offerings to the kami, the hotoke, and the Ancestors. I say "itadakimasu" ((For what) I am about to receive) at the beginning of meals and "gochisô sama deshita" (It was an honorable feast) at the end.
On Cultural Appropriation Or Rather Misappropriation
Cultures in contact have always borrowed from each other minzoku shintô is a prime example of this. In the past, this wasn't a problem as each culture would adapt the borrowed idea to their own usage. However, with the rise of commercialism and the concept of exclusivity of form and ideas, this borrowing has become problematic. Here are some guideliness that should govern your use of a cultural symbol.
1) As an insider (one who engages in the practices of a culture), you have the right to use cultural symbols in any way that is culturally appropriate to be negotiated within the culture.
1a) The authenticity of any particular version of a cultural symbol is ALWAYS negotiated within a culture.
2) As an outsider (one who does not engage in the practices of a culture), you have a right to protect your product, based on cultural symbols, from other outsiders copyright and/or trademark. However, you DO NOT have the right to interfere with any insider use of their culture symbol see #1 above.
2a) Exclusivity of production of a product CAN NOT be claimed against any insider of a culture.
2b) The cultural authenticity of any commercial product CAN NOT be claimed, unless it has been negotiated with the particular culture see #1a above.
On Feeling Like You Don't Fit In...
Many people feel they don't fit in the culture they're born into, or currently live in. The Japanese are very conscious of the group and their place within it. To all of which I can only reply:
"Do not worry about fit or not fit,
Do your best to do the right thing,
Towards kami, towards people, towards nature,
Which in the end are all parts of a whole,
Always strive and fit will follow."
On jinja And tera
If you have the impression I'm opposed to jinja shintô, please know that it is very much the opposite. I quite like jinja, and for that matter tera. If you are fortunate enough to have one by you, you should both avail yourself of their services and support them. There is an aesthetic to the buildings, grounds, and rituals that makes it much easier to sense the kami around you; and not just the gosaijin, but also all the other kami in that location. And of course the ones in Japan have a air of human history around them that is sadly lacking in much of the New World where it is rare to find sites that are more that a couple of hundred years old.
The following statement was made during a discussion of where to obtain ofuda, "... ofuda needs to come from a jinja since there are purifications and energies that are unique to those coming from jinja."
Which is true as far as recognizably Japanese kami and jinja are concerned. But it does present something of a conundrum for those of us who practice one of the many forms of minzoku shintô outside of Japan. Many of us aren't of Japanese descent or for that matter members of an upper-class. *Does it make sense for us to revere kami from over 5000-plus miles away, or exalted kami that are unlikely to hear us or pay attention to us if they do hear us. Wouldn't it better for us to attend to the local kami our neighbors? Japanese jinja don't have ofuda for these kami or for that matter even know them well enough to make ofuda for them. And few us overseas have a local jinja or a shinshoku to go to, so where are we going to get ofuda for our kamidana?
The obvious answer is to do as our ancestors have done and rely on our local spiritual resources those members of our community who have some experience with dealing with those of our neighbors who are other. They may be your grandparents or the old person across the street or down the road.They'll be recognized by their attunement to land and its occupants. These are the people who should be creating, purifying, and blessing the ofuda to the local kami. That ofuda may or may not be as "good" as one from a jinja. Craftsmanship is as much a matter of experience as of knowledge; someone's possession of a degree is no guarantee of the ability to apply what knowledge they have.
Speaking of the lack of local shrines; let's remember that many shrines started out as family or village shrines. They were created to fill a local need, and so it will happen for those of us overseas. When groups decide to invest the effort, our shrines will appear; staffed by locals.
This is the comment that brought down on me the wrath of the "Shinto Police" a small group of essentialists who apparently believe that their way is the only way to practice shintô. This in no way denigrates the Japanese kami. When I'm in their country, I'll honor them. Until then, I'll stick to dealing with the local kami I have to live with. I have to say in an odd way I'm grateful to the SP as it made me more aware of all the different ways existentialists practice shintô.
On Respecting Other Traditions
" enshrine a whole bunch of made up kami and mythological figures from European folklore " from a comment made about the shi-yaku-jin no hokora.
Disregarding the fact that it's false local versions of all their enshrined kami are also enshrined in Japan and there is no pan-European folklore as implied; although the figure of Baba Yaga does exist in a number of different Slavic folklores what's most disturbing about this statement is the lack of respect for other traditions it displays.
There's nothing particularly wrong about being "made up". Every single religious practice in existence was made up at some point usually to solve a problem at the time. Creativity is hardly the death knell of religion, but rather a source through which it renews itself and makes it relevant to the current times and issues. New religions and new versions of old religions are being created all the time. Every religion being practiced today was itself new once.
Nor is somebody else's mythology automatically wrong. Myths are a culture's stories about why things are the way they are and how they came to be so; about how one should or should not act. Myths support cultural mores. Myths are always "true" within their cultural context. Myth, or more specifically other peoples' myths, does not equal "false". It's only when they're pulled out of context for "comparision", usually by some one antithetical to that culture, that they become "false".
A kami is anything which inspires feelings of: reverence, awe, gratitude, or fear / terror. From a shintô point of view, kami are both mythic and real, and other cultures' mythic figures are kami and real. The kami of Europe, or the Americas, or Australia, or Africa are just as deserving of our respect as the Japanese kami, and their mythologies shouldn't be discounted.
Remember, respect comes from understanding and empathy. It doesn't mean you have to agree with or follow the other group's practices, just understand them. To act ethically, you do have to allow them to "show up at the table". Ultimately, if you can't respect another's practices, traditions, and mythology, how well can you respect your own?
In case you haven't noticed, the shi-yaku-jin no hokora is not a member of the
神社本庁 [じんじゃほんちょう/ jinja honchô] or of any of the other shrine associations. As such, I neither need or seek their accreditation for the hokora minzoku NEO-shintô practices. I have nothing against these associations, but simply don't need what membership in them would have to offer. Also I'd rather not accept any limitations they might try to place on my practices. The idea being that these are my practices as validated by the local community instead of being imposed from without. And so my shintô practices remain uniquely mine; as it should be.
I'm not trying to be provocative with the above. (Okay maybe just a little.) What I am emphasizing is that like all folk religions, "minzoku shintô belongs to its practitioners." It has only a passing agreement with the "orthodox" versions, and while it may be influenced by, it is not controlled by them. The local community negotiates and shapes its particular sets of practices. Notice I said "sets" there. Folk religions tend to have several sets of overlapping practices. There are the group practices that the entire community agrees on. Then there are family practices that are followed within a, usually consanguineous, group of people. And finally, there are individual practices which tend to be more idiosyncratic. None of these sets require external validation by an "accredited" authority. They are all internally validated within the group, family, or individual. That is after all what makes it a folk (expression of) religion.
Pardon Me While I Mount This Soapbox
Here's the thing about folklore that oldguard academians tend to forget or ignore; everyone is folk! So that urban legend you just heard and repeated to your friends it's becoming folklore. That thing you do to help you get through your day and showed your friends how to do it's becoming a folk practice. Folk is not exclusively something that happened a long time ago or far away. It's not just what your grandfathers and granmothers did and believed. It's not just a quaint belief or simple practice for uncomplicated people. It is certainly not static, frozen in time; an unchanging bit of tradition. It is not just to be found in ancient tomes, mouldering in some university or museum basement, nor in dusty monographs residing in academic journals, only accessible to the elite few. And it does not need to be locked away in some bit of academic amber; its secrets to be finally revealed when the academics gain the tools to unlock them. Folk is also happening right now, right where you are. You are folk; and if you are not, then who is?
In norito, how important is getting the words right? I'm talking about kotodama. kotodama can be taken one of two ways: the soul or power of language, or the spirit or spiritual power residing in words.
The first refers to the ability to transmit ideas and information from one person to another; to help them see and understand in new ways. Language is also a record of the past, not just of the individual, but of the social group. To a large extent, language constrains how we think and what we think. It's hard to think about something we don't have words for hard, but not impossible. That's where the second meaning of kotodama comes in.
The second refers to the ability to transmit experiences from one person to another. When the words to describe an experience don't exist, words allow us to point towards the experience. Using words allows someone who's 'been there' to lead another to a place to place they've never been. "I can't tell you what it was like; I don't have the words, but go there, and you will experience it and know." norito are beautiful words poetry addressed to the kami. The key word there is poetry, which gives us humans a way to point at that which can be experienced, but which is inexpressible by language that which is a mystery. Mystery is not that which is not told, that's just a secret. Mystery is that which can't be told.
So yes, getting the words right is important, but mostly to us for the feelings they evoke in us; for allowing us to 'see' in new ways. It's been my experience that as far as the kami are concerned, they react more to your intention and sincerity, than the actual words. They don't expect perfection; they won't ignore you for a verbal stumble. If you're trying to do your best, they're satisfied.
Saw this question asked recently, "Is it really proper that he (the shinshoku) should be wearing electronics/modern luxury (a gold wristwatch) during ooharae?" There are a number of reasons why this is acceptable and proper behavior.
shintô is mainly concerned with living well in this world. That includes taking advantage of modern conviences, and those acting as priests are not required to forego those conviences. Of course our behavior is subject to kannagara-no-michi (the way in accordance with the will of the kami), but if the kami don't object, who are we to do so?
If kami are a part of everything, then that wristwatch also has kami as part of it. As such it basically starts out pure, and unless it comes into contact with kegare, there is no reason to exclude it. Of course you don't want your cellphone ringing in the middle of a ritual, but that's what the off button is for. So as long as it's not intrusive, having technology on your person is acceptable.
While shintô is by its nature tradition oriented, it is not static and unchanging. It's constantly re-inventing itself as it adapts to new challenges. This is especially true when it comes to technology. Now days you can get your car, boat, house, or computer purified and blessed. Shrines even sell omamori to protect your car, cellphone, or computer. Many shrines have their own websites and belong to various social media sites; many shintô priests are perfectly comfortable using a computer. Here in the Twin Cities area both local shrines are run by people who make their living with computer-based technologies.
Pulled Over By The Shinto Police
I just had a very odd interaction with an essentialist practitioner of shintô. In spite of the fact that I always make it very clear that I practice minzoku NEO-shintô and that I am not a 'licensed professional' priest, he seemed to think that I was claiming to be representive of jinja shintô. That I was "just making it up as I went along and calling it good", and that I was somehow leading impressionable naive young people away from the 'purity' of jinja shintô. He also seemed to believe that what I was practicing wasn't shintô.
This is what frequently happens when a essentialist practitioner usually of jinja shintô runs into an existentialist practitioner usually of minzoku shintô. (See Thomas P. Kasulis's Shinto: The Way Home, Table 1 for a comparison of the differences) Not that all practitioners of jinja shintô are essentialists; I've run across many that were more existential in their outlook.
shintô is based on neither belief or intellectualism, instead it is rooted in practices that spring from authenticity from the heart. As such it does not require that one be a professional or "licensed" to practice it the vast majority of practitioners aren't. Granted many of the larger shrines in Japan are currently run by "licensed" professionals, but certainly not all of them. In fact there are barely enough "licensed" professionals to staff a quarter of the 80,000 some shrines. And the term "licensed" is not entirely accurate. Licensed means officially or legally permitted; a more accurate term would be certified, which means that a certain level of ability is being guaranteed by the certifying body which is assuming that said body is trustworthy.
As someone from peasant stock, I have to say I have a bit of a problem with "professionals". My primary responsibility is to my community; it is my duty to do the best I can with what I have the Japanese phrase 'ganbatte' sums it up. Too many professionals seem to have their primary responsibility be to their professional organization; a self-perpetuation of their status. I understand the need for a bar, but the bar frequently seems set high more as an effort to limit competiton than from concern about the quality of services rendered.
As for the charge of, "making it up as I go along, and calling it good", at some point every single practice in shintô was "made up by someone as they went along". Existentialists have no problem with making it up. They experiment and pragmatically adopt whatever works. Tradition is fine, but it doesn't cover everything new; what does tradition say about handling problems like ecological disasters, over-population, and rapidly changing technologies? And I'm not the one who calls it good; my community and the kami are the ones who make that determination. If they don't like what I do, they let me know, I stop doing it and do something else.
95% of my set of practices are firmly based in shintô I can pretty much quote you chapter and verse on the various sources (if you doubt me, check out the bibliography). The fact that they don't match anyone else's is hardly a condemnation, given that almost no one's matches anyone else's. From an existentialist viewpoint, if many of your practices are shintô practices then you are a shintô practitioner.
On the issue of purity of shintô , I would like to point out that jinja shintô would be better called jinja shintôs. Each shrine has their own set of practices; frequently even when that shrine is a branch of a superior shrine. There is no one set of universal practices, no dogma, no commandments, and no central organization. This multiplication of sets of shintô practices extends down to the individual families (and even to the individual). When an essentialist talks about the "purity of shintô", what he really means is his particular set of practices.
For that matter, shintô itself is a complex weave of ancient practices; local customs; indigenous folk religion; folk magic; unoffical expressions of organized religions by lay people; and foreign Buddhist, Esoteric Buddhist, Religious Daoist, Confucian, and Neo-Confucian practices and ideas. The shear scope of its syncretism places it firmly within the existential category. The one thing it is not is pure.
And regrettably essentialists frequently either discount other sets of practices as 'not being the real thing', or simply refuse to let practitioners of those differing sets of practice 'show up at the table'. This insistence on a single way of practice only serves to fragment a community rather than unite it.
Finally, I'm hardly leading anyone astray. When I help someone understand a topic, I don't present just one way of looking at it; but rather give multiple viewpoints, not just my own. Of course this does tend to drive many of my 'students' to distraction but then if they didn't want to know, they shouldn't have asked. So if presenting options and giving enough information to make an informed decision is "leading the naive astray", then yes, I'm guilty and proud to be so.
Pulled Over By The Shinto Police Again
I have to say, I'm vastly amused. Given the predilection of the hokora gosaijin, and that it's my personal duty to shake the worlds of the complacent, I think I have succeeded well beyond any expectations... apparently I'm now the Anti-kami.
At least that seems to be the gist of a series of comments currently circulating on the internet. These contain unproven allegations, half-truths, misinformation, and outright character assassination. People are being warned to stay away from me, lest I "corrupt" the purity of their shintô. Wow! I had no idea I were seen as such a threat. As far as we can tell, this apparently stems from a comment we made along the line of, "for many minzoku shintô practitioners a jinja is not required in order to practice shintô; yes it's an exciting option, but not it's a necessity."
Really people? Have you nothing better to spent your time on? Your time would be best used purifying the tsumi your own actions pollute you with; frankly you're only succeeding in driving the kami away from yourselves. Someone needs to seriously reexamine their values.
To be fair, this is coming from a very small minority of shintô practitioners. The vast majority of practitioners I have encountered have responded quite positively to my efforts. Anyone who actually knows me, knows that over the past 50 years I've spent a great deal of time, effort and money working to better my local communities; and more recently to promote all forms of shintô in the area. I've always been upfront about who I am; and what, how and why I practice. And none of my many students over the years has complained about me, my teachings or my methods.
So once again... for those who would like to think of themselves at the Shinto Police:
1) I do not practice any of the many forms of jinja shintô; I practice minzoku NEO-shintô.
2) It does not require a jinja or a shinshoku to engage in minzoku shintô practices.
3) Like most shintô practitioners, I am not a member of the jinja honcho and as such am not in any way obligated to follow their standards of practice.
4) There is no central authority to determine who is or is not a shintô practitioner; that's up to each local community. And even then they only determine who will be included within that particular communal group.
5) The shintô I was introduced to was open to anyone who wanted to engage in shintô practices*, and certainly did not carry the caveat "as long as those practices are strictly limited to our offical set of practices".
* And by shintô practices they included: ancient practices; local customs; indigenous folk religions; folk magics; unoffical expressions of organized religions by lay people; and foreign Buddhist, Esoteric Buddhist, Hindu, Religious Daoist, Confucian, and Neo-Confucian practices and ideas. Not to mention all the Western ideas that are entering Japanese culture through books, manga, anime and movies.
Pulled Over By The Shinto Police Yet Again
And the essentialists have yet another run at the shi-yaku-jin no hokora...
This time they question my right to use the term kannushi. And in a very narrow sense where they conflate kannushi with shinshoku or shintô priest, they may be right. Although, I've never claimed to be shinshoku. However, kannushi also has an older meaning of one who maintains a shrine; which I do. As a side attack they also discounted my practices and mythology. Which is rather odd when you consider that 95% of my practices are the same as those engaged in by shintô practitioners in Japan and six of hokora's seven kami are also enshrined in various Japanese shrines. On the other hand perhaps not so odd when considering the all or nothing viewpoint of essentialists I am reminded of T.H. White's "Everything which is not forbidden is compulsory."
Anyway, their main argument runs: only people who have gone through the certification process of the jinja honchô have a legitimate right to call themselves kannushi by which they really mean shinshoku and I have not gone through it. Yep... I haven't.
There are a number of problems with this argument. Not the least of which is that the hokora is not a member of the jinja honchô and so like a number of shrines in Japan is not subject to their rules fushimi inari taisha and oomiwa jinja are notably independent of jinja honcho as are some fifteen smaller shrine networks.
As far as issue of legitimacy goes, what the jinja honchô issues is a certificate of proficiency, not a license to practice. The difference being that a certification means that someone passed a test for the way "jinja honchô think things should be done". It's a lot like getting an ISO 9000 it means your processes are all "properly documented"; it doesn't say anything about how good those processes are or aren't. On the other hand a license to practice is issued by a government body, who supervises the license holders; and can revoke the license for violating the terms of the license and forbid the holder from practicing. Both Japan and the United States have separation of church and state written into their constitutions. That basically means that religions can't issue licenses only certificates, and the state can't certify or license religions. So while kannushi can be a certified professional title it's not a licensed professional title.
I don't know what the law is in Japan, but in the United States the term kannushi pretty much falls in the public domain, both from general usage and the failure of anyone to defend their exclusive use of it. What this means is that realistically no one group "owns" it; anyone can use it and as long as they conform to one of its meanings (one who maintains a shrine in our case) they are using it correctly.
Furthermore in Japan with over 80,000 shrines, the larger of which require multiple priests, and with only 20,000 certified shinshoku, many shrines by necessity are maintained physically and ritually by lay people. In shintô anyone can create and maintain a shrine; it doesn't have to be a shinshoku. It could be a community, a family/clan, a company, an association, or an individual. It has been pointed out that many shrines were originally created by individual families/clans and that for many centuries the head of family/clan or one of their immediate family members acted as a priest for these. I am both the younger surviving brother of the head of my extended family and the head of a branch family; either of which qualifies me to lead shintô rituals at the family hokora.
So can I "legitimately" call myself kannushi? I think so.
Return Of The "Shinto Police"
Once again the self-appointed guardians of shintô purity question the "legitimacy" of shintô practiced in the Twin Cities area. It would be nice if they could at least get their facts straight before making accusations.
They conflate the Sacred Cedar Shrine and the shiyakujin no hokora. While the shrines are both family maintained by separate unrelated families they are on the opposite ends of the shintô spectrum, with the former leaning towards shimbutsu/jinja shintô and the latter focused on minzoku shintô. We know each other, but have independently encountered shintô on very different paths. Indeed, it wasn't until a few years ago that we found out that we both were shintô practitioners.
Then there's the question of the "legality" of our ordinations. First here at the hokora, I do not and have never claimed to be ordained priest shintô or otherwise. I feel that would invalidate my whole folk religion orientation. As an involved lay practitioner and head of my family, I mainly act as tôya for our family shrine and the local community. And as the "Shinto Police" have correctly pointed out, minzoku shintô neither does nor requires ordinations. As for the head of the Sacred Cedar Shrine, he is in fact ordained and his ordination is legally recognized by Wisconsin and Minnesota both of which both allow him to marry, bury, spiritual counsel, and otherwise function as a priest. As far as the law of the United States is concerned, you can't get more legal than that.
I'm not entirely sure what they mean by "legal ordination", but I suspect they mean "not certified as a priest by their particular branch, or branches, of shintô". Again they conflate all the various types of jinja shintô into a single monolithic jinja shintô, but there is no single certification organization passing judgment on the fitness of an individual to serve as a shintô priest. Instead there are at least fifteen associations and a number of independent shrines that each have their own sets of criteria. And the confusion about what's needed to be a priest gets even worse when you get to kyôha (sectarian) shintô and shintô derived religions. Many of these were founded by people who either weren't ordained, or were ordained in a different branch of shintô, or were even ordained in a different religion. Does this invalidate the ordinations of those who followed the founders? Fortunately, as far as minzoku shintô is concerned, no it doesn't. But it also means that certification (ordination) only applies within each particular group.
So yes, we don't belong to the "Shinto Police's" particular groups, but as such we are not obligated to conform to those group's certification process. As long as we fulfill the criteria of our particular groups, that's all that really matters, and arguments about legitimacy of practice are just another distraction on the way.
shintô And Pollution
While shintô places emphasis on purity and avoiding pollution, it isn't very clear on what pollution is and why it occurs. Instead it tends to list proscribed actions and the circumstances under which those actions should be avoided. Pollution is seen as more spiritual than physical. Because it is viewed as contagious, the main concern with pollution is that it not be spread across the ritualistic boundries that circumscribe the various parts of Japanese culture uchi (the inside) and soto (the outside), hare (the formal or extraordinary) and ke (the informal or ordinary). Here are three of the more commmon terms for pollution:
fujô Pollution and Impurity
Impurity obscures our ability to sense the kami within and without. Like dirt on a window, it makes hard for us to see what lays beyond. It's best to avoid being polluted in the first place, but fortunately, if you can't, pollution is not permanent it can be removed.
tsumi Pollution Arising From Our Actions
Actions that disturb the harmony and peace of the family and the community are a source of this pollution. To regain purity in these cases, it is necessary to restore the harmony and peace, and to make restitution to any you may have injured.
kegare Pollution From Contact With The Environment
Contact with something that is out of its normal place blood outside the body, premature death, even childbirth. Purity can be regained by engaging in harai, either by yourself, or at the hands of a purified individual, spiritual leader, or priest.
Myth #1 shintô Is The Indigenous Religion Of Japan
That phrase rather misses the mark as, in reality, shintô is a complex weave of ancient and modern practices; local customs; indigenous folk religion; folk magic; unoffical expressions of organized religions by lay people; and foreign Buddhist, Esoteric Buddhist, Chan Buddhist; Religious Daoist, Confucian, and Neo-Confucian practices and ideas. We estimate that roughly 75% of modern minzoku shintô practices are based on imported ideas, and that percentage is closer to 85% for jinja shintô.
Myth #2 shintô Has Existed Since Time Immemorial
shintô is not ahistorical, but instead has continuely evolved over its lifetime. The shintô practiced today is not the shintô your grandfathers practiced, and it will not be the shintô your grandchildren will practice. shintô has been subjected to multiple medieval and modern rescripts, as it was reinterpreted to support the prevailing power structures of the time. In point of fact, while these rescripts may have been used to shape modern shintô, they do not define shintô; shintô exists independent of them in the practices of the common people.
Myth #3 shintô Is shintô
shintô is also not monolithic as implied, and neither are the Japanese peoples. The Japanese still tend to think of themselves in terms of specific location first, and nation second. Because of these many different geographical groupings and their cultural roots, not to mention location specific foreign influences, shintô exists in almost as many variants as there are practitioners.
Myth #4 shintô Is Ecological
Certainly not in the sense of system dynamics and biodiversity; and most certainly not in the past. Until very recently, if shintô concerned itself at all with "ecology", it was that of a specific location, and mostly concerned with "cooking" raw nature to make it more palatable to the group. A funny fact of history is that almost all civilizations eventually collapse from resource depletion. The Japanese were no exception. Much of what drove the "Pacific" war was a need for new resources. And even before Western contact during the feudal eras, Japan was war torn for centuries as various clans struggled for control of resources. Until recently, the Japanese lived "in" nature, not "with"nature. The difference being that "in" is "at the mercy of", and "with" implies harmony. The ancient Japanese were more concerned with "cooking" nature, than understanding it in its raw state.
Myth #5 shintô Needs To Get Back To A More "Pure" Version
Every society has their version of a "golden age", when things were so much better that they are now. Of course, they had all the answers; it was easier when there were far fewer questions. But that doesn't mean that the answers, much less the questions, were correct. The world changes, society changes, you can't step on the same stream twice. There's no longer a back to go to; we need a shintô that can deal with the world as it is today. Living in the present, was always one of the strengths of shintô.
Myth #6 shintô Is Just For The Japanese
We're only going to say this once. shintô practices are culture. Culture is NOT genetically inherited. Culture is learned. Now granted, if you're not raised in a culture, you've got a lot catch up on. It may take you many years to develop the implicit knowledge that one acquires growing up embedded in a culture. On the other hand, you can choose which items of implicit knowledge to acquire; something a person raised in a culture doesn't always have the option of doing. In fact, even if you're Japanese, if you were raised in another country, most likely you have the implicit knowledge of that county's culture; not that of Japanese culture. So just forget about genetics. If you want to learn Japanese culture and practice shintô, 頑張って [ がんばって / ganbatte] Go for it!
Myth #7 You Really Need A jinja To Properly Practice shintô
Don't get us wrong. We really appreciate jinja and their aesthetic, but while jinjas are the most visible part of shintô, they are but a fraction of the cultural basis of shintô. Much like mushrooms being the obvious fruiting bodies of a much larger mass of the mostly hidden mycelium. Jinja are a nice option to have, but with the possible exception of jinja shintô, not really necessary to the practices. Many of the folk practices that were incorporated into minzoku shintô, originated before there were jinja. These were carried out in a grove, or on a mountain, or where the fields met the forest, or on the bank of a river or lake. There were no buildings; just a himorogi of poles and a rope to recognize that for that moment, the sacred could manifest there. So if you're near a jinja, great avail yourself of what they have to offer. However, don't let the lack of one interfere with your practice.
Myth #8 It's Not Really shintô Unless It's Lead By A shinshoku
Generally speaking, shinshoku are certified by one of the shintô associations, a particular jinja, or a university, as competent to perform a shintô ritual, and/or serve in or run a jinja. Mind you this is a certification of competence, not a license to practice. (Licenses are issued by a government; there are separation of religion and state issues when a state gets involved in licensing religion.) minzoku shintô has a different certification process. Instead of top-down like the jinja model, it uses a bottom-up model where a person's competence is judged by their local community. In other words, if your local community accepts your ability to perform, serve or maintain a shrine, you are in their eyes a "legitimate" shintô practitioner, and qualified to perform their rituals. So while it may not be jinja shintô, it still is really shintô.
Myth #9 They Should Bring Back kokka shintô
No! No! No! Government and religion are like an oil-fire and water. Mixing the two will almost always result in disaster for the common people. Governments WILL twist religion to justify their policies and power structures; and religious institutions WILL try to use government to enforce their particular view of how things should be at least, on any scale larger than a local basis. The primary focus of any institution is its own continuance; be it political or religious. Any "good" it may accomplish, intentional or not, is secondary to that survival. In a local community, both the "government" and "religon" are social, not political. The distinction being, social is about living together in a community, and political is about adminstration and control of a political entity the State or the Nation.
Myth #10 Japan Is The "Land Of kami"
The dubious part is the implication that being the "Land of kami" sets Japan apart from the other countries; that it is somehow more sacred. If as claimed, kami are everywhere and a part of everything, then all countries are the Land of kami. Certainly, none of the concepts that are thought of as being kami are unique to Japan. Ancestors, protective group spirits, spirits of place, forces of nature, natural objects, animals, plants, and mythic people all as kami; all also have analogous aspects in other cultures. These cognates as well fall under the rubric of kami. So yes, Japan is the "Land of kami" and is sacred, but then so is every other land.
Myth #11 shintô Can Be A Universal Religion
Well yes and no. By which we mean that, yes anyone can engage in shintô practices. However, shintô is definitly not a single monolithic whole, but rather it, and especially minzoku shintô, exists in countless variants, much like the yaoyorozu-no-kami. So, sorry there is no one "right" version to be universal. One size does not fit all. Each location will develop it's own version. All these different versions will be "right" for that location and its people, and apply nowhere else. And that's OKAY. We don't expect everyone to engage in the same practices as we do. The local kami we enage with are part of our family, and we have a particular relationship with them. For us, the only validation that matters, comes from them. You will have a different relationship with yours, and your validation should come from them, not us.
Some Sources Of minzoku shintô
If you've been following the shi-yaku-jin no hokora FaceBook page, you'll have noticed that over the past several years or so they've posted a wide variety of websites jinja, dôkyô, butsu, jukyô, shugendô, shingon-shû, zen, onmyôdô, inari, kannon, jizô, daruma, omamori, yôkai and obakemono.
One of the things they have in common is that they all contribute in some way to the folklore and practices that make up minzoku shintô. These are not the only sources, and the particular composition of the mix varies from location to location, and even from person to person. This is one of the greatest strengths of minzoku shintô: the ability to incorporate elements from different outside sources and in the process give them a particular local look and feel.
Some Thoughts On minzoku shintô And XOR Religions
For the most part the practice of religion in Japan is pluralistic one is born shintô, frequently married kurisuchan (Christian), and dies butsu. Each religion is used for those life events it is 'best' known for. Encapsulating nine or ten different sets of religious practices, minzoku shintô epitomizes this attitude, and in many ways is the antithesis of the XOR Religions.
XOR or 'eXclusive OR' religions usually approach life as a zero-sum game for someone to suceed, someone else has to lose. To join, one is required to accept their particular belief system and to eschew all others. They're 'right', and everyone else has to be 'wrong'. "It's either their way, or the highway."
On the other hand in minzoku shintô "Any way that works is a highway"; in large part because it is not based on belief, but rather on practices and feelings. Pragmatically, if a practice works, it is adopted and adapted. And if a practice, rite, or ceremony evokes feelings of awe, reverence, gratitude, or terror (evidence of the presence of kami) it too is adopted. While minzoku shintô practitioners have 'beliefs', these are on a personal basis and vary from person to person. minzoku shintô has no requirement to surrender one set of beliefs for another; and thus easily works with other religions instead in opposition to them.
In minzoku shintô, ethics and morals are also on an individual basis; there is no single set that all shintôists are required to adhere to. Most ethics and morals are based on jukyô, which has both good and some not so good points. While it provides a 'strong' moral compass for actions within the 'in' group, it is ambiguous about actions with 'out' groups. It promotes social cohesion and harmony within family and community, but sometimes does so at the expense of individual growth and freedom.
So What Makes It A Shrine?
Here are my notes of the 'Old Craft' shrine discussion and some additional thoughts:
Spirituality Or Religion?
In another group someone asked whether shintô was religion or spirituality. From my viewpoint spirituality is internal it's your connections to kami; to the ancestors; to great nature; to the sacred; to all that is wonderful, awe-inspiring, and magical in the world. Religion is external it's all the practices you engage in that express those connections and what they mean to you. Like all folk religions, shintô has both spiritual and religious sides. Without the spiritual, religion becomes a series of empty, meaningless acts; and without religious practices we have no way of sharing our connections with those we care about.
Syncretism And Pragmatism
If you've been looking at the shi-yaku-jin no hokora FaceBook photo section, you've probably noticed that the hokora and its contents don't look like the photos of many Japanese shintô shrines. There are a number of reasons for this, and they all tie back into the title of this note.
As a folk religion, minzoku NEO-shintô is syncretic and, as practiced here, contains Northern European elements that are not normally found in Japan. Ritual language is a mixture of Japanese, English and Old Church Slavonic. The kami enshrined are the local counterparts of Japanese and Slavic spirits. The ritual practices and life-events celebrated come from both Japan and Northern Europe. The way offerings are made and what is offered is part Japanese and part Northern European. Ritual clothing is mainly European for tending the hokora everyday with Japanese styles worn on special occaisions.
And like many folk religions, minzoku NEO-shintô is also very pragmatic you do what you can with what you have on hand. The building the hokora is located in is a older middle-American style house located in a Midwestern city. Its interior is laid out according to the usage of the times no hallways with rooms leading from one to the next. Short of building a Japanese style shrine, both prohibitively expense and utterly impractical for Minnesota winters, I make do by following a wabi-sabi aesthetic and keep the interior of the hokora simple, modest, and emphasize the natural beauty in the materials of its contents. Much that goes into the hokora is either obtained locally or made by us or commissioned from local craftspeople. Much of what was made, while based on traditional Japanese designs, has been adapted to current usage and available materials. We use wheat straw instead of rice straw, pine instead of cedar, and holly instead of sakaki. We adopt, adapt, improvise and move forward.
Syncretism Part II
If you're wondering about the all the bukkyô information on a shintô FaceBook page, please remember that this is a minzoku shintô page. As such, it is not pure shintô, whatever that may be. And it certainly isn't ancient shintô; it is instead the current practices engaged in by one of today's minzoku shintô practitioners.
minzoku shintô is a syncretic mixture of shintô, dôkyô, bukkyô, jukyô, folk magic, divination, shamanism, spirit possession, and ancient local traditions. Further, that syncretic mixture varies from location to location. In fact, it varies from one pratitioner to the next. Familes tend to have a core set of practices, but each family member also has their own set of practices that are unique to them.
Syncretism In minzoku NEO-shintô
minzoku NEO-shintô, is a mixture of Japanese minzoku shintô, Heathenry and Neo-Pagan practices. In this, it is a reflection of the movement of many, in the new religions, towards thinking in terms of a global village. With the advent of the internet and social websites, it has become commonplace to have daily interactions with people living in other countries, even those on the other side of the planet. Through these interactions we're becoming more aware of the differences in cultures, and we're being forced to re-examine many of our basic assumptions.
Looking at the cultural components of minzoku NEO-shintô: one's Japanese, one's Northern European, and the other is American. If you're wondering how these can work together without doing violence to each other, it's in large part because they are all composed of folk religion practices. That is, the vast majority of people engaging in these practices are all pretty much concerned with maintaining social structures, cultural integrity, and the transmission of practices to the next generation. In other words, living their lives; getting through the day-to-day challenges. These groups are not concerned with "deep" theological thoughts; they're more worried about those things immediately around them: shelter, food, clothing, raising their children. It's this focus on common everyday human concerns and a growing awareness of the similarity purposes, if not forms, that allows these groups to syncretize their diverse practices and come up with a form that satisfies everyone.
There Are Myths And Then There Are Myths
If you've done any reading in folklore, you may have noticed that mythic systems tend to be in one of two broad categories. Although like most things in life, there is some overlap between them.
One is what I call "state" myths; the myths of the conquerors and the rulers the powers-that-be. These are usually better organized, more coherent, and formalized. They mainly provide justification for conquest and legitimization for the right-to-rule, and as propaganda are widely and actively promoted within the area being controlled. Being largely politically motivated, they tend to be rewritten whenever there's a change in the balance of power. Groups that tie their identity to these myths rise to prominence or fall to obsurity with these changes. Behaviors associated with these myths are usually prescriptive: things that should be done, or proscriptive: things that shouldn't be done.
The other category is what I call "folk" myths; the myths of the conquered and the commons. These are fragmentary, informal, and localized, and tend to be discounted by those promoting "state" myths. They mainly focus on description of the way things are and how they got that way. They also are concerned with the identity of the local group. Transmission of the myths tends to be implicit; that is within the context folktales and festival events. Being largely tied to day-to-day survival, change is slow and mostly driven by natural events. Barring outside interference, groups that define their identity with these myths, are stable and slow to change with tradition acting as a brake. Behaviors associated with these myths are usually descriptive: things that are being done. The myths of minzoku shintô mostly fall within this category.
The Wonder Of minzoku shintô
Life is not static. Quite the opposite; life is about change. The changes of growth and social status: entry into school; entry into occupation; adulthood; marriage; parenthood; entry into an association social, professional or religious; and elderhood. The changes of the seasons and their accompanying weathers: thunderstorms and torrential rains, droughts, typhoons, and snowstorms. The changes in the environments: flash floods, landslides, wild fires, volcanos, earthquakes, tsunami, and man-made disasters. Changes in technology: new ways of doing, thinking, sensing, and communicating.
All these changes demand a certain degree of flexiblity of us, if we are to not only survive, but even thrive. The rigid will resist change and ultimately break. The flexible will bend and move with the change. This is one of the main strengths of minzoku shintô, and most folk religions for that matter. There is no one "right" way of practice, but as many ways as there are practitioners. And the wonder of minzoku shintô is that all these versions can be true, provided no one insists that their version is the only "true" version.
Each practitioner moves to the rhythms of their own set of practices based on their experiences of the world around them. Because they are sensitive to what was and is, as the world changes, their practices also change. They adopt, adapt and absorb. They are literally dancing thru life. Dancing with their bodies in new rituals and different ways of doing. Dancing with their minds to new ideas and different ways of thinking. Dancing with their words to new songs, new rituals and different ways of communicating. Dancing with their hearts to new relationships and different ways of feeling.
This Is Not Your Grandfather's shintô
shintô practices today are not those your grandfather knew, or rather not entirely, assuming your grandfather practiced shintô. Despite the many popular narratives, shintô is NOT ahistorical. It has not existed unchanged since the very earliest days of the Japanese people. For that matter, just who constitutes the Japanese people has changed multiple times throughout the history of Japan.
As the various peoples of Japan came into contact with other cultures, they adopted and adapted ideas and rituals from those cultures. Like most folk "religions", shintô is accretive; that is it evolves over time new ideas are added, older ideas are modified, and sometimes discarded as they are no longer relevant. Add to this the fact that folk religions are intensely local in their expression and exist in multiple variations, even within a single cultural group. So just which ideas and rituals were adopted and adapted also varied from location to location. Recently, another factor is the ready access to new cultures and their ideas through the internet. The result is a shintô, or more accurately shintô(s), that has continuously changed, and even now is in the process of changing.
And should you pass those practices on to your children, expect that once again those practices will change, as those children adjust to the changing world they live in.
Training, Huh, Yeah. What's It Good For?
Let's talk about training specifically "formal training" by which is usually meant university or theological training. Before we start, let's make it clear that I earn my living by designing training for adults, so I have more than a little experience in the subject. I'm not opposed to training; it's good for many things, but it's also not so good for some things.
It's good for transmitting facts and procedures the who, what, where, when, why, and how. And it's good for teaching us how to think. Although the caveat on that is that the "how to think" is actually "how we the trainer think you should think". So what any certification process is really doing is testing you on how well you think like how the certifier thinks you should. Does anyone see the potential control dynamic in that? To be fair many teachers are sincere in their desire to teach their subject, but unfortunately they frequently don't have the final say about what or how they will teach. Many training institutes are themselves subject to a certification process. Back in the 70's schools tried an experiment in teaching young people to actually think. It was eventually shut down when it resulted in a whole lot of awkward questions and even more awkward silences from those in charge.
What formal training is not so good for is all those things that fall under what I call the squishiologies or more properly the soft sciences and arts. These are about the ways and whys of human thought and emotion. Training can't make you honest, sincere, passionate, committed, awestruck, appreciative, or creative. It can't give you a vocation or calling. It can't make you ethical, empathetic or compassionate. These are human feelings and emotions that are difficult to quantify and measure. A really good teacher can lead you to these, but it's up to you to actually experience them. And that's based on his/her personal experience and not the training content. They can't give you their experience; all they can do is lead you to a place where you may have a similar experience, and try to help you interpret that experience.
Religion is one of those squishiologies. Universities and seminaries will give you the facts and processes, and teach you all about how to run a religion. What they won't give you is those things that make us human; that make for a good religious leader. Every year these institutions crank out religious leaders who are well informed, but perhaps not so oddly enough aren't very religious.
An Unintended Bullseye
I find myself in the rather odd position of having become the English language spokesperson for minzoku shintô/NEO-shintô. Odd because I'm of Slavic/German descent not Japanese, and not a priest but just a highly interested layperson. Of course you don't have to be Japanese or a priest to engage in shintô practices especially the folk practices of minzoku shintô.
I didn't deliberately set out to become the spokesperson, but instead seem to have inherited the position by default. Originally I just wanted to share what I had learned about minzoku shintô with other interested people, and explain a bit about how I incorporated that into my personal practices.
However, it turns out that, as a category, minzoku shintô is seriously under-served on the English language portion of the internet. Also, while there are some English articles on minzoku shintô, they tend to be short and unchanging. I on the other hand, maintain several web sites that are constantly evolving and expanding as I discover new information not terribly difficult given the enormous diversity of minzoku shintô practices. On top of that, I spend a fair amount of time promoting shintô, in all its forms, in social media. All of this seems to be what the major search engines look for when they rank websites relatively unique content, high activity, and information rich. So anything I post appears to bubble to the top of search results.
And that's how a small family shrine in the American Midwest unintentionally wound up as the English language voice of minzoku shintô on the internet. Frankly, if someone else wants the job, they're welcome to it.
What Does It Really Take To Practice minzoku NEO-shintô?
Surprisingly not a great deal. They're nice, but you don't need a sacred place like a sacred grove, shrine, or temple. It's good to have someone who knows the rituals, but you also don't need a theologian or priest. Religious paraphenalia can help you focus, but alters and sacred symbols aren't required. Religious texts and stories can expand your understanding, but holy books and mythologies aren't essential. And yes, there are culturally defining practices that identify it as shintô, but there is no one practice that is indispensible old practices are dispensed with and new practices are incorporated.
So what is needed? Just two things; the first thing is that you be one of the "folk" that is that you are a member of a community. Just that your social standing, your occupation, and your status within that community aren't important; only your belonging is. And the other needed thing is a sense of the sublime and a willigness to acknowledge it; an ability to recognize that something "out there" moves you to feel awe, reverence, gratitude, or even terror.
That's all there is to it... and it pretty much applies to all expressions of folk religion.
What Is shintô? Part 1
shintô is frequently declared to be: "The indigenous spirituality of Japan and the people of Japan, and the main channel through which many of the earliest religious forms of the Japanese people were handed down and preserved."
Well... not exactly. There are a number of problems with that statement.
The first of which is that the word shintô, as it is used today, is a relatively modern development, and was certainly not what most of the older practices that preceeded were called, if they were named at all. The term shintô has been used to co-opt all these different sets of practices in an effort to tie them together into a national cultural identity of being Japanese.
"Indigenous" rather misses the mark as, in reality, what is called shintô is a complex weave of ancient practices; local customs; indigenous folk religions; both indigenous and foreign folk magic; unoffical expressions of organized religions by lay people; and foreign Buddhist, Esoteric Buddhist, Religious Daoist, Hindu, Confucian, and Neo-Confucian practices and ideas.
"Spirituality" is not the best way to describe practices that are for the most part cultural and secular. People engage in these practices more because it's part of their cultural identity than from any sense of spirituality or religion. Frequently these practices are for a "this world" benefit. Many practitioners have little or no understanding of the theology or philosophy behind their practices, and most aren't concerned about their lack.
"Main channel" implies that there is a single version, when in fact there are many different, sometimes competing, sets of practices that are both location and time specific. Down through history, shrines especially have adapted their rituals, mythologies, and functions to changing circumstances. There are a number of versions of shintô, in various sects and shrines, that are the essentially the creations of an individual and later their followers.
"Handed down and preserved" suggests an old, unbroken tradition, however the meaning and practices of "shintô" have been redefined many times in it's history. Yes, it contains many old practices, but frequently the meanings assigned to those practices have been changed most often to further the political ambitions of those making the changes.
All of which isn't to say, "There's no such thing as shintô; it's pretty much a modern invention re-imagined after the second World War." Modern shintô does exist, not as advertised, but as constantly changing and evolving sets of cultural practices that re-engage people with their families, their communities, and the kami.
Which is where we'll pick up in Part 2
What Is shintô? Part 2
So what can we say about shintô?
First it's a modern construction, or we should say constructions, as there are many different sets of practices that fall within its boundaries. And it's in the process of being re-negotiated and re-defined daily. What exists today is not what existed 200 years ago, or 500 years ago, or a 1000 years ago, or for that matter what will exist 20 years from now.
There is no one set of practices that is central to shintô; that constitute its core. Rather these sets overlap to greater or lesser degrees. And while they are important within their own place and contexts, none are indispensible to the idea of shintô. It's these practices that determine what shintô is, and not shintô that determines what the practices should be.
The practices that fall within the boundaries of shintô come from many different sources; only some of which are Japanese. And while most these foreign practices have been "made" Japanese in their expression; thay have also in turn changed what it meant to be Japanese.
As sets of practices, shintô is mainly social in nature that is cultural. The practices are mostly related to maintaining and supporting one's relations to family, community, and nature. All of which means that while shintô can be religious, and intensely so at times, it's just a part of all that goes into making up a culture sometimes it's not a very large component. So shintô can be practiced either secularly, or religiously, or a bit of both.
Finally, the various kami, mythologies, practices and rituals, shrines, festivals, and folklore all exist independent of shintô; with many of them pre-existing the idea of shintô. While they may now lie within the boundries of shintô; shintô is not them, but rather is defined by them.
What Part Does The Emperor Play In shintô?
That largely depends on which version of shintô you're talking about and whether or not you're Japanese.
If you're Japanese, then the emperor and you have a lot of shared cultural baggage regardless of how you position him within your version of shintô. That's something you'll have to sort through and decide for yourself. And of course he ranks pretty high in the hierarchy in both kyûchû shintô and jinja shintô.
If you're not Japanese, it mostly depends on which version of shintô you practice. If you practice one of the jinja shintô you're most likely going to have to come to some sort of accomodation with the position of the emperor in your version. If you practice one of the many versions of minzoku shintô you have much more latitude. With no disrespect meant, he's just not that relevant to many of these practices, and you can choose to include or not include him. From my viewpoint it just makes more sense to attend to the local first and far distant last, if at all.
What's Needed For A Shrine?
Someone in another group wondered about what it would require to create and maintain a shintô shrine in their area.
The first thing is, why do you want a shintô shrine? If it's mainly for yourself, you're better off sticking to a kamidana in your home. If on the other hand it's for the benefit of your extended family, a community, or a social organization, a shrine may be the way to go.
Shrines are expensive to create and maintain, both in terms of time and money. Unless you're independently wealthy, that expense is best born by a group, and the larger the group the better.
Speaking of that group, you're asking the group to invest a great deal of their social capital in the shrine. Are you willing to spend the time required to help keep the shrine running for the group. Can you commit to the group and to a purpose that, in theory, will run the rest of your life.
You'll need a location that is publically accessible. You should own the location; renting may be a short-term solution, but rarely works in the long run. People tend to become attached to the institutions that are an ongoing part of their neighborhood.
Now somethings to think about having that fall in the exciting options category nice to have, but not absolutely required.
The first of which is a shintô priest. No priest? Heresy you say? Not in shintô. Many shrines are run and maintained by local communities without the benefit a formally trained shintô priest. The local practitioners can be lead by someone periodically appointed from within the community, or by a local family that are experienced laymen.
Next is the Japanese language both written and spoken. This is mainly for communication with other shintô practitioners. Although it is changing, much of the information about shintô is still only available in Japanese. It's nice, but not necessary for shintô rituals. Unless you choose to deal with the Japan specific kami in which case we do recommend you speak Japanese, most the kami will be local, and are quite capable of understanding the local language.
Finally, there's window dressing, props, clothing, and ritual items. If you can afford to get them Japan, go for it. However, feel free to substitute locally obtained or crafted items. It some ways these can be more meaningful as they are tied to a specific location.
So there you have what's needed:
Who Really Owns Your Religion?
I've said it before, but apparently I can't say it enough I practice minzoku NEO-shintô. It's a folk-based (minzoku) religion* and it's yet another NEW form of shintô.
* Religion in the sense of a set of practices that are engaged in order to connect oneself to this and others worlds.
In most folk religions it's the local community that validates a member's practices and the member's standing within it, not some external body of "experts". When new individuals are judged, by older competent members, to be competent in community practices they become members of that community. Detemining competence is more a matter of looking at their actions rather than their words words can mislead, even when that's not the intent, but it's much harder to mislead with behavior. So they're judged on their practices, not creed, dogma, or belief system. Mythology is treated as just stories important, but stories none-the-less and in oral traditions stories are almost never told the same way twice. Oh, there's a central framework, but the details are altered to fit the audience. Over time old myths are altered to fit new circumstances.
shintô has a very long tradition of encountering new ideas foreign ideas and then adopting, adapting and absorbing them; making them into unique local cultural expressions of the original idea. It's not static and unchanging, but instead maintains a dynamic equilibrium between local tradition and innovation. When local expressions persist over time, these new forms of shintô become tradition. And once that status has been granted, by the local community, it's not up to outsiders to question whether or not it's 'real' shintô. As far as the local community is concerned, "If it looks like a duck, and sounds like a duck, and tastes like a duck; it's a duck! Now stop spouting damn fool nonsense and pass the duck."
Why Does The shi-yaku-jin no hokora Exist?
The primary function of the shi-yaku-jin no hokora is to calm the four local kami of misfortune and moderate their influence on the Twin Cites metro area and Paganistan. Towards this end the hokora treats the kami as members of our family providing them with place to be sustained, refreshed, and entertained; a place where they will feel welcomed. The hokora rituals mainly focus on offering and entertainment the 'norito' are playful and satirical, dance is on occasion 'earthy' and even bawdy, and songs are based on modern cultural memes.
The results encourage me to continue down this path, but also present me with a bit of a dilemma what happens if I stop? Having grabbed the tiger by the tail, I'm loath to let go. So I'm in this for the forseeable future and am now thinking about who will replace me when I'm dead.
Why Is The Japanese Sun Red?
I've not found a solid reason yet, but I have several possiblities. First of which is Japan is known as the Land of the Rising sun, and the morning sun is red as it comes over the horizon. For the Japanese this powerful image may carry over into the rest of their day. So even though the sun is yellow later in the day, it's still thought of as being red.
Next red is a prevalent color in traditional Japanese culture, representing passion, energy, life force, vitality, power, and good fortune. Red is also connected with protection, and expelling evil or illness. Some of the popular bosatsu, kami, and shitennô associated with red are: jizô, kannon bosatsu, daruma, fudô, inari, and zôchoten.
Finally red is warmth and life literally; the red and infrared rays of the sun warm us and the earth. Much of Japan is mountainous, has humid temperate weather, and is subject to both Pacific storms in the south and east, and subartic storms in the north. This combined with the lack of central heating in many of the homes and buildings, even today, frequently makes staying warm difficult. So it's the sun's warmth that is prized more than its light.
It's most likely there is no one reason, but a combination of all these. There are many connections betweens these ideas that work to make the red sun a Japanese cultural meme.
Why shi-yaku-jin no hokora Is hokora And Not jinja
One of the ujiko wondered why shi-yaku-jin no hokora is called hokora and not jinja (or any of the other terms usually asociated with a shintô shrine). There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is it's are not tended by a shinshoku either full or part-time jinja usually have one or more attendant shinshoku, at least part-time. I do not and have never claimed to be shinshoku. I do use the term kannushi in its older sense of someone who keeps and tends a shrine (which I do), but not in its more recent conflation with shinshoku.
If you lookup the definition of hokora, it will say something along the lines of, "A small shintô shrine dedicated to folk kami, either found on the grounds of a larger shrine, or on the side of a street, or in the countryside. They usually enshrine local kami not under the jurisdiction of any of the larger shrines or networks." That pretty much fits shi-yaku-jin no hokora it's small, it's family owned, it doesn't belong to any of the shrine networks or associations, and it's dedicated to attending to the local kami of misfortune. So hokora is a much better fit.