Monday, June 11, 2012


This week, one of the religions we will be studying is the Japanese indigenous religion named Shinto.  This seems to have been a collection of beliefs involving animism, a kind of polytheism, ancestor worship, and nationalism, that solidified into a religious tradition as other religions came to Japan (particularly Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism).  It is commonly noted that the Japanese have no problem adhering to many religions and therefore it is hard to statistically explain how many Japanese hold to which religion.  More specifically, it is claimed that Shinto teaches what to do in this life, and Buddhism teaches about the afterlife, and therefore both are practiced widely in Japan without any tension.

Shinto, which means "the way of the Kami" is not simply polytheism.  The term "kami" is hard to translate, and is sometimes taken to be "gods," but also includes forces in nature, and even forces attached to items that seem to bring blessings.  It is sometimes likened to the Polynesian term "mana" which is a life force pervading the natural world.

In the creation stories of Shinto, there doesn't seem to be much interest in the idea of a creator.  Rather, two initial gods, a male and female, come into existence and then turn up the already existing sea to create the Japanese islands.  This doesn't settle the question about what has existed from eternity, it doesn't even seem to address it.

Furthermore, the purpose of life in relating to the kami, and seeking protection and blessing through appointed rituals, and then the synthesis of this with Buddhist teaching about the afterlife, raises some of the same questions considered in my posts on "basic religions" and "Buddhism."

Shinto developed as it was challenged by religions coming from China and India.  This same process of challenge continues in the modern world, notably in relation to science and WWII.  At what point are challenges sufficient to require a rethinking of the basic beliefs of a religion and change in these?