Shinto: One is Many
In the year 712, the Kojiki was compiled. Japan’s oldest chronicle told the story of creation from the viewpoint of O No Yasumaro. Similar to the Sumerian myth of a deity descending to the underworld, it was also akin to the search of the Greek Orpheus in his quest in Hades to find his wife Euridice. This might seem odd or even strange but the traditional beliefs of Shinto, sometimes called the indigenous religion of Japan, stress the one existing as the whole and vice versa.
Think of a flower. We seldom mean a single petal when we call a rose a rose or a tulip a tulip. We speak of the flower as one entity, even though it actually is made up of several parts. Shinto emphasizes the individual but his/her strength is not in being an individual but in being a part of a whole. Central to Shinto beliefs is the creation and harmonization of power of the kami or ancient spirits. It is a belief system best described as polytheism with over three to four million spirits or gods.
Like many ancients belief systems, the root for the kami came from the elements of nature. Particular mountains, jagged cliffs, bent trees, and other out of the ordinary landmarks were considered to be spirits. Fok tales were told regarding such. Animals were said to have powers over humans, The kami were relegated to things on earth and the stars and other celestial bodies held no allure or special powers. Truth would be seen to be manifested by these kami and it evolved as man would.
Shinto advocated the goodness and purity of man. Purification rituals aided in turning away evil for the Japanese. Though the kami were many in numbers, it was believed that the various kami worked together in ways impossible for man to understand. Man was seen as the child of the kami and respect and rituals were devoted to the kami. The emphasis in Shinto was about living since death was seen as something impure and seldom discussed.
Respect for all of life was paramount in Shinto. A person was expected to respect another and the community Shinto was described as “tsunagari” which translates as continuity or community. Shinto recognized the individuality of a person but no one stood alone. Each person was one of a long line of ancestors and descendants, one small part of a history of both the individual family and the larger community. Japanese mythology had no final end of time but rather, viewed the world as a continuous cycle of history. The present was described fittingly enough as “naka-ima” or middle present. In this way, after periods of destruction such as war or death caused by disease or natural events, Shinto has served to unify the Japanese people. The General Principles of Shinto Life proclaimed by the Association of Shinto Shrines in 1956 has the following article: “In accordance with the Emperor’s will, let us be harmonious and peaceful, and pray for the nation’s development as well as the world’s co-prosperity.”
Shinto shrines are still found in Japanese homes today. Sometimes they sit alongside those for Buddhist rituals or Confucianism since Japan does have other religions. Shinto is often seen as more of a system of beliefs rather than a theological religion. It has no start date nor a specific founder. Once the official state religion of Japan, it lost that designation after World War II.
Today both men and women cab become Shinto priests. The shrines are distinctive in their architecture but there are no Shinto cemeteries. The Japanese saw no problem in a person having several religions so death is considered best handled by the Buddhist faith. The dance, theatre and even the calligraphy associated with Shinto remains an integral part of Japanese culture, just as it has for centuries and will do in the future.
Shinto speaks of an interesting part of our lives that we often forget in today’s hustle and bustle of twenty-first century living. We are today what we are because of our past and both will form what we will be tomorrow. We may dislike events of our past but they serve to make us what we are today. Rather than run from them, we need to recognize their value, embrace their lessons, and gain strength from them. Each second of today passes quickly and the value of it becomes the foundation for the future. We can only strive to be our best in the here and now without lamenting over yesterday or worrying about tomorrow.
We are indeed all children. Together we form the family of earth. Just as the petals of a flower combine to make the whole, so we complement each other. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said: “The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers & cities; but to know someone who thinks & feels with us, & who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.”
Miso soup is a traditional Japanese soup made with dashi soup stock, a clear sea broth base, and miso paste, a soy bean paste. You can purchase instant dashi granules at most markets that sell miso paste. However, it is easy to make your own by placing some kombu (kelp) in 1 cup of water and letting it soak. After about twenty minutes, transfer it to a pan over a medium heat and add two more cups of water plus one cup of katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), iriko/niboshi (dried baby sardines), or dried shiitake mushrooms. Bring it to a boil and then let it simmer for another thirty minutes. Strain the broth (coffee filter works great!) and add desired vegetables and place over a medium heat to cook the vegetables. Put ½ cup of the broth in a cup and add 3-4 tsp miso paste. After the miso paste is stirred into the broth, add the mixture back with the rest of the soup. Stir and combine, then serve.