Sunday, March 8, 2009

Shinto - The Gentle Religion

Shinto, The Gentle Religion

Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion. Starting circa 500 BCE. It was originally an amorphous mix of nature worship, fertility cults, divination techniques, hero worship, and shamanism.
Its name was derived from the Chinese words "shin tao" ("The Way of the Gods")
And what is unique about Shinto is that unlike many other religions, Shinto has no real founder, no written scriptures, no body of religious law, and only a very loosely-organized priesthood.
The Shinto creation stories tell of the history and lives of the "Kami" (deities). Among them was a divine couple, Izanagi-no-mikoto and Izanami-no-mikoto, who gave birth to the Japanese islands. Their children became the deities of the various Japanese clans.
Amaterasu Omikami (Sun Goddess) who was one of their daughters is regarded as the chief deity. As such she became the ancestress of the Japanese Imperial Family.
In addition to Amaterasu Omikami, there are numerous other deities who are conceptualized in many forms: They are associated with natural objects and creatures.
They are seen as generally benign, and they sustain and protect the people.
Another interesting note is that within Shinto, the Buddha was viewed as another "Kami" while in Japanese Buddhism the Kami are seen as being manifestations of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, though both of these are seperate belief systems. Most weddings are performed by Shinto priests; while funerals are performed by Buddhist priests.
Shinto does not have its own moral code and its members generally follow the code of Confucianism.
Their religious texts discuss the "High Plain of Heaven" and the "Dark Land" which is an unclean land of the dead, but give few details of the afterlife. Ancestors are deeply revered and worshipped.
All of humanity is regarded as "Kami's child" and thus all human life and human nature is sacred to the Shinto.
Believers revere "musuhi", the Kamis' creative and harmonizing powers. They aspire to have "makoto", sincerity or true heart. This is regarded as the way or will of Kami.
Morality is based upon that which is of benefit to the group. Shinto emphasizes right practice, sensibility, and attitude.
There are "Four Affirmations" in Shinto:
Tradition and the family: The family is seen as the main mechanism by which traditions are preserved. Their main celebrations relate to birth and marriage.
Love of nature: Nature is sacred, to be in contact with nature is to be close to the Gods. Natural objects are worshipped as sacred spirits.
Physical cleanliness: Followers of Shinto take baths, wash their hands, and rinse out their mouth often.
"Matsuri": The worship and honor given to the Kami and ancestral spirits.
When entering a shrine, one passes through a "Tori" a special gateway for the Gods. It marks the demarcation between the finite world and the infinite world of the Gods.
In the past, believers practiced "misogi,", the washing of their bodies in a river near the shrine. In modern times they only wash their hands and wash out their mouths in a wash basin provided within the shrine grounds.
Shinto believers respect animals as messengers of the Gods. A pair of statues of "Koma-inu" (guard dogs) can be found facing each other within the temple grounds.
The shrine ceremonies, which include cleansing, offerings, prayers, and dances are directed to the Kami. The ritual dance called "Kaguri" is accompanied by ancient musical instruments. The dances are performed by skilled and trained dancers. They consist of young virgin girls, a group of men, or in some instances, a single man.
Mamori are charms worn as an aid in healing and protection. They come in many different forms for various purposes.
Followers of Shinto often have a altar, the "Kami-dana" (Shelf of Gods), which is located in a central place in their homes.
Adherents of Shinto are expected to visit Shinto shrines at the times of various life passages. For example, the Shichigosan Matsuri involves a blessing by the shrine Priest of girls aged three and seven and boys aged five. This ceremony is held on November 15th.
Many followers of Shinto are involved in the "offer a meal movement," in which each individual bypasses a breakfast or another meal once per month and donates the money saved to their religious organization for international relief and similar activity.
Origami ("Paper of the spirits"), which is a paper folding art form, is also associated with Shinto. Out of respect for the tree spirit that gave its life to make the paper, origami paper is never cut.
The Shinto religion exists in four main forms or traditions:
Koshitsu Shinto (The Shinto of the Imperial House): This involves rituals performed by the emperor, who the Japanese Constitution defines to be the "symbol of the state and of the unity of the people." The most important ritual is "Niinamesai", which makes an offering to the deities of the first fruits of each year's grain harvest. Male and female clergy (Shoten and Nai-Shoten) assist the emperor in the performance of these rites.
Jinja (Shrine) Shinto: This is the largest Shinto group. It was the original form of the religion with its roots dating back into pre-historical times. Until the end of World War II, it was closely aligned with State Shinto. The Emperor of Japan was worshipped as a living God. Almost all shrines in Japan are members of Jinja Honcho, the Association of Shinto Shrines. The association urges followers of Shinto
"To be grateful for the blessings of Kami and the benefits of the ancestors, and to be diligent in the observance of the Shinto rites, applying oneself to them with sincerity. brightness, and purity of heart."
"To be helpful to others and in the world at large through deeds of service without thought of rewards, and to seek the advancement of the world as one whose life mediates the will of Kami."
"To bind oneself with others in harmonious acknowledgment of the will of the emperor, praying that the country may flourish and that other peoples too may live in peace and prosperity."
Kyoha (Sectarian) Shinto (aka Shuha Shinto): This consists of 13 sects which were founded by individuals since the start of the 19th century. Each sect has its own beliefs and doctrines. Most emphasize worship of their own central deity and as such, some some follow a near-monotheistic religion.
Minzoku (Folk) Shinto This is not a separate Shinto group; it has no formal central organization or creed. It is seen in local rural practices and rituals, where small images are often seen by the side of the road, agriculture rituals are practiced by individual families. A rural community will often select a layman annually, who will be responsible for worshiping the local deity.
These four forms are closely linked. Shinto is a tolerant religion which accepts the validity of other religions. It is common for a believer to pay respects to other religions, their practices and objects of worship. A trait not often found in many of the other religions of the world.
And yet;
On the surface this would appear to be a religion that I personally could resonate with, were I to choose to belong to a religion. However no religion is altruistic as it has the hand of man involved in its creation. In this instance it is connected to the emperor of Japan. And during both "World Wars" the type of folks who are members of this religion were also members of one of the most voracious combatants of these wars.
My question is; how does one make the transition from such a peaceful and accepting religious belief to that of a vicious and unrelenting combatant and then back again?
Is religion simply followed only when it is convenient for its followers to do so? How does the Deity associated with each of the worlds many religions view such hypocrisy?
Or does religion in all reality, give sway to human ideals and goals rather then to the desires of Deity?

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