“Shinto Intertwined” by Ken Apple

Today we continue our late winter theme “Order and Structure”, with Ken Apple’s account of his visit to a Shinto shrine.  Kenneth Apple and HP would like to thank Rev. Koishi Barrish for his courtesy and permission to publish this article.  Ken would like to note that any mistakes in the representation of Shinto or Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America are my his own and that one cannot portray all the nuances of a deep rich cultural tradition in a short blog article.

photo by Kenneth Apple

A Visit to the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America

We had been warned before the Kannushi walked behind us to the back of the shrine hall; it didn’t help; we were still taken by surprise. The thunder of Great Drum vibrated through us, huge, shocking, a wake-up call that could not be ignored.  

Granite Falls is a town of 3400 in Snohomish County in Washington State. It began as a logging town and now houses folks who commute to Seattle and Everett. Tsubaki Kannagara Jinja was built by Rev. Barrish in 1992 then in 2001 the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, the first Shinto Shrine built on the mainland of the U.S., moved to Granite falls from its then home of Stockton, California and combined with Kannagara Jinja — operating as America Tsubaki Okami Yashiro. The Shrine holds six enshrined spirits, or kami. It is a branch of Tsubaki Okami Yoshiro, one of the oldest and most notable shrines in Japan, which celebrated its 2000th anniversary in 1997.

We drove through a large Torii/shrine gate onto the Shrine grounds and headed downhill through the forest. At the base of the hill we passed through a second traditional gate, the torii, and having passed through, entered sacred space. The hall, unmistakably Japanese, sits on the flat land between the hill and the Pilchuk River. Surrounded by statuary, I felt some cross between being in a Zen garden and camping in the Pacific Northwest.

Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan. Before the arrival of Buddhism in Japan in the 500’s, Shinto had no name and no unifying bodies. For 1200-1300 years after the arrival of Buddhism the two merged and mixed until the 1700’s when availability of Shinto texts ignited an interest in the older, native traditions. In 1868, the Shogunate was brought to an end and the Emperor re-enthroned. Shinto became the official state religion of Japan in 1871, a position it held through WWII.  At the end of the Second World War, Shinto was abolished as a state religion and founded its current ruling bodies.

You don’t mark out sacred space here, you enter it. The torii reminds you, the fountain for ritual purification (with helpful illustrated poster) reminds you. We take off our shoes before taking the short stairway to the main body of the hall. The buildings and the dress of the Priest are from the Heian period of Japan. It’s like worshipping in a medieval cathedral while the priest wears period costume, or going to mass at the Vatican.  Within the building all signs of modernity, electrical outlets, wires, lights, are artfully hidden so as not to break the spell.

Shinto is defined, at least academically, as Kami worship with related theologies, rituals and practices. Kami has no direct English translation and may mean spirit, essence, deity or “the Spirit of Divine Nature.”  The heavenly Kami closely resemble the gods of various European pagan pantheons, while some nature Kami might live in the big cypress tree or a lake or a mountain. Wherever you feel awe, there the Kami dwell. Practitioners may have altars, called kamidana, or spirit shelves, in their home where they worship the Kami and the ancestors. They undergo rites of passage at the shrine, pay for certain rituals to be performed at the home or at the shrine on their behalf. They may visit the shrine to pray or leave offerings. There are a host of other practices that most western Neo-Pagans would readily label as magick.

For an insider’s much more articulate, and poetic, description, the Reverend Barrish sent me this:

“Shinto is not Religion per se, but a manifestation of the profound realization that our Human Lives are part of Daishizen-no-meguri/the endless flow of Divine Nature. Divine Nature is imbued with the dynamic power of renewal. Kannushi/Shinto Priests conduct rituals following and seeking harmony with the movement of Great Nature through the four Seasons. Shinto is the teaching of Nature, in contrast to revealed Religion which can be said to be the teaching of Man. Shinto originating in Japan’s deep prehistory and existing in the present is a subconscious amalgam of attitudes, ideas and ways of living and relating to all aspects of life. Shinto means to touch the divine Earth, to receive the life giving power of the Sun and to “catch the whisper” of Nature.

We are greeted warmly by the Rev. Koishi Barrish and two attendants who guide us through the purification and into the shrine building. We are seated on what appear to be folding camp chairs facing the front of the hall, where the Kami are in residence.  The stools are, perhaps, a concession to westerners and I am happy not to have to sit kneeling.

The parallels with modern western Neo-Pagan movements are many. Shinto is a nature based, polytheistic religion more concerned with ritual practice than with belief centered theology. It was a dormant undercurrent for a thousand years until revived by those looking for an authentic, indigenous religion.  Unlike modern Neo-Pagan movements, and like an earlier Christianity, it became linked with the ruling elite which funded and protected it, for good or ill. Today it is an integral part of Japanese life and culture, but little known outside of it.

The ties of Shinto to Japanese nationalism parallel the ties of budding Neo-Pagan movements to the National Socialist Party in Germany, and to many rightwing groups today who cling to an indigenous European religion as an excuse for racism and general xenophobia. It has taken European Neo-Paganism and Germanic Reconstructionist movements a long time to break those ties, and that struggle goes on in Pagandom as it does in society as a whole.

Drumming begins the ritual. Prayers are made in a deep gravelly chant. The chanting is in archaic Japanese of which modern speakers pick up about 60%. We, of course, pick up none of it, but the sound of it resonates. Offerings are given and we are purified with magical implements. The Rev. stops here and there to give us short description of what is going on. The drums speak again. The screens on our left are open to the air. During quiet moments in the ceremony we can hear the river just a stone’s throw away. In the end we are given a small libation of sake. Afterwards tables are put up where magical talismans are set out for sale along with books, tea and sake, and slips of paper to write prayer on.

The weekend I wrote this, the Shrine was having a celebration at Bellevue Community College. They will be having a fall festival about a month later, as part of the yearly procession of rituals and celebrations they host.  There are groups like ours that come to the shrine for ceremonies.  The Reverend can also come to his parishioners for certain rituals. The Rev. teaches aikido classes and wades into the river every morning to do a purification ceremony called misogi shuho. You can join him on Saturdays if you e-mail ahead of time. The Rev. is busy with his community; this is what professional clergy do.

Shinto as a Model of Interreligious Harmony

I would like to take note of Shinto’s relationship to other religions in Japan. As my humanities professor put it many years ago, in Japan, 80% of people are Shinto and another 80% Buddhist, 70% are non-religious. These numbers are not meant to be precise, but to be illustrative of what a truly multi-religious culture might look like. It doesn’t look like Shintoists and Buddhists living side by side and tolerating each other; it looks like a culture that participates in both and more.  Neither Shinto nor Buddhism requires any declaration of faith or adherence to a single path. Most people in Japan will take part in both Shinto and Buddhist rituals at different times. Shinto is sought out for coming of age ceremonies, Buddhism for funerals, and western style weddings are becoming very popular.

I don’t mean to make it sound like the history of Asian religion is free of bloodshed and jockeying for secular power — it’s not that simple — but to note that persecution isn’t inevitable. In Japan today, Shinto exists side by side with Buddhism. In China, Taoism and Buddhism also exist in peace. They have survived long term by becoming part of the culture, not by setting themselves apart.

To look at it from the opposite end, being intolerant means we look at these competing ideas and it freaks us out.  Our culture is one of monotheistic gods and the one true way to look at things. Scientism feeds us facts, which have one interpretation and encourage acceptance rather than generate questions. Thinking of science as a series of “facts” undersells how messy and vague working science really is.  We have come to expect certainty; grey areas become a source of psychological discomfort. They become threatening.

This is one of those aspects of Christianity that many contemporary Pagans dislike so much. For example, I was always confused by the Christian use of the word “cult”. They used it in ways that I couldn’t figure out at all. Buddhism is a cult? Really? But their definition is “any non-Christian religion, and any Christian one that believes something different from me.”  I am paraphrasing here, but that is the definition that many groups use. This is how mainstream Mormonism becomes a cult. However you define it, everyone knows a cult is “bad”.  The use of the term is meant to belittle. But we act that way amongst ourselves too, don’t we, seeing anything different as threatening.

The arguments that flame on the internet between Pagans  and the tone in which they are carried out, leads us to believe that if those other sorts of Pagans get the “upper hand” then the rest of us won’t be treated well. You know, we’d be looked down on and ridiculed by the over-culture. Sort of like … the way it is now. When people are afraid, they commit acts they wouldn’t normally commit. When people are afraid of you, especially when the fear is unwarranted, it makes you scared of them because you’re never sure what they are going to do.

The Japanese, in some ways, are a model. Shinto, Buddhist, it’s all part of life. If we want to become part of the culture and be established and accepted by a larger chunk of the population, and, hey, maybe we don’t—that’s a conversation to have—we have to have some rules of civility when congregating and discussing. More than that, the civility must start from not being afraid of each other,  from not being afraid of things we can’t pin down.

I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I think it’s a fair guess that the number humanistic/naturalist/atheist Pagans is pretty small and will remain on the small side. I don’t feel the need for anyone to believe exactly as I do in this regard. What I would like is to make sure there is a place in most Pagan groups for me and those like me. I don’t demand that you change. I would like the same in return. To make any real cultural inroads we are going to have to work together. We have to realize that believing in divinity or the supernatural is a legitimate way to interpret experience and so too is the opposite. There is no right answer. Maybe someone needs to walk behind us and bang on a real big drum until we all just calm down. Then in the silence afterwards we can hear the river and breathe.

The Author

My name is Ken Apple. I am fifty years old, I live in Puyallup Washington with my wife and youngest son. I attend the Tahoma UU congregation in Tacoma, WA. I have worked in book sales for almost twenty years, because I can’t imagine trying to sell anyone something else.

See Ken’s other posts.

Next Sunday

Put your thinking caps on folks!  Next Sunday, we hear from professor of philosophy, Eric Steinhart: “Axiarchism and Paganism, Part 1”.

One Comment on ““Shinto Intertwined” by Ken Apple

  1. I really enjoyed this, Ken. I took a class on Japanese religion when I was in college. It’s always stuck with me as a way of viewing religion that is so fundamentally different from the way common in the west, but still must be achievable (because we’re all human).

    Getting comfortable with gray areas, especially those places where something both is true and isn’t, is key. I think naturalistic Pagans potentially have a leg up at achieving that because many of us walk that line all the time within our own practice.

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