zen and shinto

So, I finished Zen and Shinto...

Some context: the book was published in the early sixties, so it contains some injunctions against the anti-shinto legislation in the constitution of Japan that was ratified post World War II. Aside from that, the book purports to use Shinto’s natural tendency towards syncretism, illustrated by the explication of how Shinto allows one to be both Shinto and another religion simultaneously, as a middle ground between the competing economic forces of Capitalism and Marxism.

This point, of using Shinto as a meeting ground, isn’t taken in the specifically theological (if we can even say Shinto is theological, which the author refutes) sense, but in the sense of methodology: as Shinto is seeking a place without dogma, one that finds it’s origins in the vitality of natural existence, Shinto is a way focused on living in harmony with nature.

In this vein, he goes on to describe Shinto as a sort of communal religion, one that is practiced in part by living in a Japanese community, and in part through the specialized rituals. This communal religious notion is metaphysically solidified from the argument that all things are descended from the Kami and, as such, we are all participants in Shinto, albeit unconsciously. It is at this point that the author explicates the politics of Shinto, making the argument that the divinity of the people of Japan flows from the Kami, through the emperor, and into the people in much the same way that the sun illuminates all that it shines upon.

One of the interesting observations that the author makes is with regards to Marxist theory. Now, this isn’t something I know practically anything about, however, the author makes the point that Shinto theory would reject any kind of alienation from man’s product of his labor because, at ground level for Shinto, man is not distinct from nature: it is from nature that the raw materials of man’s products arise concurrently with man himself, so the author asserts that in the Shinto perspective, one can never be alienated from his products.

I can’t claim to agree or disagree with some of the points raised in the text without a thoroughgoing re-read and breakdown of the book, but upon just finishing it, I find it an interesting application to Shinto theory: especially interesting is the way in which the author weaves Jung, Heidegger and Marx into his discourse on Shinto. In essence, the author, through his conversation about Shinto syncretism, turns the traditional philosophical game on its head: rather than watering down the Eastern tradition and forcing it into the West, the author preserves the integrity of the Western traditions and views them through the lens of Shinto.

One of the better passages in the text has to do with self-expression and analytic skill: the author states that the Japanese internal thinking can be of no benefit unless the Japanese find better ways to express their internal thought. That is, the author argues for education in Western forms and modes in order to develop a universal capacity for self-expression: his point is not that the Japanese should abandon their own self-expressions, but it is necessary to learn to communicate Shinto through the words of the west.

I find myself in slight agreement with this proposition: there is much to be learned from Eastern philosophy by the West, if Western intellectuals would pause to attempt to treat the East as valid in its own right. Barring a sudden upheaval in the traditional canon and the discourse of Western thought, learning to communicate clearly the ideas of the East through Western language may be the best bet. However, I, like the author, would beg caution in that the language of the West does not come to supplant the essence of the East.

What is necessary, as derived from this text, is an understanding of western means of self-expression: the nature of Shinto, it has been argued, is such that it will be made manifest through the expressive capacity of the individual in such a way as to allow others to rightly ascertain the essence of that is being communicated. I think, in the author’s discussion of Kotodama, this is what they were getting at: no matter what the mode of self-expression, Shinto’s nature is such that the essence of Shinto will be communicated through the words of the practitioner.

These are just my quick thoughts on the book: when my copy gets here, I’ll probably produce something more refined.

On Questions, Answers, and the Wabi-Sabi Universe

When I started applying for colleges, I knew I was going to have to deal with a lot of uncomfortable questions, what to major in, how I’m going to pay for this, what friends do I make, ect. But these questions, I think, are not nearly as important as questions like “What do I think about God?”, “What do I think about morality/the afterlife/religious experience?” “Why do I believe those things?”, questions that do not concern the people I interact with as much as they should.

It’s easy to take the college questions and give them a positive spin, thinking of them as an adventure rather than an crisis. I suppose one could think the same way about their spiritual journey, but for me these questions never fail to be endlessly confusing, frustratingly vague, profoundly unsatisfying to examine. What’s even more uncomfortable is realizing that you don’t identify with beliefs about the world that you used to hold dear. To look at beliefs that you’ve had for years and to say “that’s not me anymore” is in itself an accomplishment, to look for new beliefs, is a hurdle ten times as high.

This is where I was when I was applying for colleges, and to be honest I’ve never really left, even though I’ve chosen a spiritual path to follow. But given that that path is Shinto, I’ve just opened up a door with a thousand more questions. Shinto is a religion that is practiced almost exclusively in Japan, has only a small presence in the United States (a presence which, helpfully, is mostly located in Washington and Hawaii both hundreds of miles from where I live), and only has a limited amount of resources in print, along with helpful but somewhat dubious online ones. It has no scripture, no clear doctrine, and is closely tied to local Shrines and the landscape of a country which I am descended from, but have virtually no other connection to. It doesn’t mean that I can’t learn about my religion, it means that the answers to my daunting questions are very hard to find, which can be really hard sometimes.

But my experience with Shinto hasn’t been all frustration, otherwise, why would I be attempting to follow it? In my research I have uncovered a philosophy that acknowledges and even celebrates the ambiguities that have so baffled me in the past. It is a path that emphasizes awareness of one’s actions and awareness of the divine in nature, in the Gods, and in ourselves and the people we interact with every day. We call this divine energy “Dai Shizen”, or “Great Nature”, and the way we interact with it is by nature shifting, vague, and impermanent.

In Zen, there is a concept which has carried over to all aspects of Japanese life including Shinto, called wabi-sabi. It, like most Japanese philosophical concepts, is extremely hard to translate into English, but I like to think of it as a kind of “eternal impermanence”. We must acknowledge and appreciate that the world we live in is ever changing, ever shifting, and always impermanent, and although we can have religions doctrine and codes of morality, we cannot possibly think to understand everything. It is most commonly understood in Japanese art and aesthetics,particularly the tea ceremony invented by Sen no Rikyū and the simple but devastatingly beautiful haiku of  Matsuo Bashō. The roughness and irregularity of nature are celebrated in these, not honed out or proportioned away as they are in western art. They ask you to look at the cracks in a cup, the bending of a sakura branch, or the irregularity of a group of leaves strewn across a path, and see that it is beautiful. The imperfection is where the art derives it’s beauty, and likewise the universe derives its beauty from it’s imperfection and refusal to be easily understood.

Wabi-sabi asks you to look calmly and sympathetically on the intricacies and iperfections of the universe around us, and approach it with awe, reverence, and non-judgement. Spirituality in Shinto and for the Japanese in general is more of a purifying appreciation of the divine rather than a prostrating submission. Every religions path involves some sort of “surrender” or “leap of faith”, but in Shinto it’s a different kind of leap than in western paradigms of religion. It’s quiet, mysterious, and impossible to describe, and that not only doesn’t make it less hard to make, but 100 times more hard. But that, I suppose, is wabi-sabi.