Popular among the Japanese, Shinto is an indigenous religion. The word Shinto means “The path of Gods”. It’s a polytheist religion with an infinite number of Gods known as “Kami”. Shinto has its roots in the beliefs and traditions of rural Japanese life. Its origin can be traced back to ancient times.
The essence of Shinto spirituality is keeping oneself pure in thought and action. Shinto followers believe that Gods and spirits are found in everything. Purity is at the core of the Shinto religion and it reflects in the sincerity with which the devotees are expected to clean themselves before entering the Shinto shrine. There are many types of Shinto shrines based on the region where they are located.
However, most shrines have two main halls, with the inner hall accessible only to the priests. Usually, it is in the inner hall that Kami or Shinto gods are believed to be. People pray and worship Kami both at home and in the shrines. Most Japanese homes have a tiny Shinto shrine where they offer their prayers. They also make offerings such as flowers, foods, and money to the Kami.
Shinto as a Way of Life
With about 100 million followers, Shinto is a mainstream religion in Japan, coexisting alongside Buddhism. People who visit Shinto shrines and take part in its ceremony constitute nearly 80% of the population. Because of the extremely large number of Shinto Gods or Kami, Shinto is also called “the religion of the million gods.”
It’s believed that there are 80 million Shinto gods or Kami in Japan.
As Buddhism is another mainstream religion in Japan, it’s interesting to notice how Shinto did not come in the way of Buddhism’s growth and popularity in Japanese society. For centuries, Shinto and Buddhism have coexisted, sometimes each complementing the other. A Shinto believer does not have to do anything, in particular, to be accepted as a Shinto follower.
Teaches Respect for Nature
In this light, Shinto spirituality is worth exploring for more as it holds the key to peaceful coexistence. In essence, it teaches love and respect for nature. It believes the devil or the evil spirit is the root cause of all that is wrong, and these negative spirits can be banished from one’s life by worshipping Kami.
This ultimately boils down to keeping yourself pure and respecting what surrounds us. This is a great spiritual philosophy that can solve many of the problems that mankind faces today.
What is Shinto’s Essential Belief System?
In many ways, Shinto holds the key to the Japanese culture and lifestyle. To many people, Shinto is more a way of life than a religion in the strict sense of the term. It’s because the Shinto religion sees God in everything – mountains, rivers, winds, people, plants, rocks, and even Sumo fighters. Shinto followers believe that God or spirit exists in everything. That’s why each of them should be treated with respect.
Shinto spirituality believes that all human beings are essentially good and they like to live with peace and harmony. But sometimes, some people are possessed by bad spirits and that makes them behave in unacceptable manners. So, Shinto would want the people to be alert and avoid getting possessed by evil spirits. This is possible by following the Shinto spirituality more strictly. People can also go to the Shinto shrines and worship the Kami to get rid of evil spirits.
Like all religions, Shinto also has its rituals and festivals but it doesn’t have a central God or an all-important holy scripture. People accept new gods or Kami on their own. So, somebody who has done extremely well in public life is accepted as the Kami and revered after his death by the people in his area. A Kami ceases to exist if there is no believer but it is resurrected the moment a believer appears and begins worshipping it.
Similarly, an important person in a family is treated as Kami by the family members after his or her death. Someone who dies a tragic death due to an accident or illness is also accepted by the family as Kami. This is done to please the spirit of the dead person and dissuade it from bringing misfortune to the family.
The Path of the God
Shinto ceremonies and festivals are organized to symbolically open the path of the material world to that of the Kami. No human has ever seen the world of Kami but it has vivid descriptions in the Japanese folktales.
Most Japanese believe in both Shinto and Buddhism and both Shinto and Buddhist shrines have the presence of deities from both religions within their premises. Death is considered a sign of impurity and, therefore, Shinto does not have much to offer in the matter. Most Japanese follow Buddhist rituals while performing funeral rites.
There is no restriction on the marriage of priests and priestesses of Shinto shrines. They can marry and have children. The Shinto spirituality is not based on dogmas. Rather, it is an inward-looking religion that’s rooted in respecting all forms of life and existence.
Shinto in Daily Life
Most businesses will organize a Shinto ceremony to mark the opening of their business. It’s believed that the ceremony will please the Shinto gods who in turn will bless the devotees with success in their ventures.
It Does not Believe in Publicity
What’s most interesting about the Shinto religion is that nobody from the religion will try to convert you. You may choose to believe and follow it. As an outsider, if you do so, it will help you understand the Japanese culture.
There are not many Shinto shrines or Shinto believers outside Japan. It’s because the Shinto religion does not have any particular teachings to offer to the world or an icon to talk about. It’s more of a way of life where God is to be seen in everything. Shinto spirituality only believes in the need to stay pure and keep the spiritual powers — that exist in everything nature — happy.
Shinto followers think worshipping Kami brings success in business, education, health, and everything else that they strive for in life.
While entering the shrine, Shinto followers are expected to maintain proper etiquette. For example, they are expected to bow before the torii gate before passing through it. Also, they should walk through the sides, rather than the center. Just outside the shrine, a basin of flowing water is set up for the devotees to wash their hands. The devotees fill the ladle with the water and wash their hands, starting with the left hand. Usually, the shrine has a bell above the donation box that is rung before donating.
· Located in southern Kyoto, Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of the most famous Shinto shrines. It has thousands of torii gates that form into an arcade and link the many buildings that constitute the Shrine complex. Inari is the Kami of prosperity and it is symbolized by foxes, tea, agricultural, and industrial products. The shrine has many fox statues.
· In terms of importance, Ise Grand Shrine is perhaps the most important Shinto shrine and it’s located in the Ise City. Believed to be built around 2,000 years ago, this shrine is dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu. There is a very interesting aspect about this shrine. Every 20 years, the shrine is completely torn down and rebuilt in line with the Shinto philosophy of life and death. The process is called Shikinen Sengu and the last time it was performed in 2013 and the next time, it will be in 2033. Despite repeated renovations, the original design of the shrine is still maintained. So is the tradition of not using any nails in the rebuilding of the shrine.
· Toshogu Shrine is one of the most extravagant and beautiful Shinto shrines in the entire country. Located in the middle of the Nikko city which is famous for its raw natural beauty, Toshogu Shrine is a clan shrine that features the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu. In the early 17th century, the shrine was renovated with liberal use of adornments made of gold and wood carvings by Tokugawa’s grandson. Here, you can see Buddhist elements in notable measure sitting inside a Shinto shrine.
The Mysticism of Torii
Of all things, the beautiful traditional Japanese gate called torii in all its colors and amazing construction looks mystic and fascinating in a Shinto shrine. Nothing defines the Shinto spirituality better than this gate that all Shinto shrines have. These gates can be situated both outsides and inside the shrine. Devotees are expected to pass this gate before entering the shrine. Symbolically, it marks the transition from the routine material world to the world of Kami and spirituality. Besides the torii, there are many other bridges, gates, and fences to pass through in large shrines.
The worshipping constitutes hand-clapping, offerings, and silent prayers. In the early parts of the last century (20th), the Shinto faith included worshipping the Japanese emperor as well.