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American Shinto

September 25, 2013

Writing about Harrison’s American Gamelan reminded me of another tradition of the East that I would like to see naturalized: Shinto. This country needs more shrines, ceremonies, sacred spots, ritual dances, public ablutions, talismans, and peculiar spiritual practices. We don’t need more people going around believing things and worrying about what other people are believing. We don’t need more proselytizing, sermonizing, scolding, or snake-handling (okay, maybe a little more snake-handling). So we should look to our friends in Japan, and try to imagine an American Shinto.

What is Shinto? If you don’t know, don’t feel bad — nobody does. It will not confirm to definition. There is no Truth to it. It is simply the collection of traditional ways the Japanese have come up with to live in harmony with the world of spirit. Shinto acknowledges the kami, the spirits that infuse all things. Special attention may given to the kami that dwell in nature, those of mountains and streams, rocks and trees. The kami of the dead are also important. But there is an endless profusion of kami, in all things. Mostly we don’t have to worry about them. They do their thing, we do ours, the world carries on. But how sad life would be, and unpropitious, if we did not give them a nod sometimes. So the Japanese have built shrines to house them, places to meet them. They have rituals to greet them and ceremonies to celebrate them. It is only polite, after all. Shinto is a religion — if you must call it a religion — of politeness. The world is not ours alone; we share it with countless other forces. It is right to pay them their due. We should approach them politely, after cleansing ourselves, with offerings in hand, speaking in the correct language of prayer. And it is neighborly to throw a party for them from time to time, with music and dance. When we need their help — and we always need their help — we should be polite in asking for it, and in expressing gratitude for what we receive.

To acknowledge the kami is simply to acknowledge reality. There is a great deal of confusion about this, but I am hardly going to go through the trouble of clearing it up here. That would take several blog posts, each of inordinate length. I will just say that kami are not some hypothetical addition to reality as we commonly perceive it, but the essential fullness of reality that gets subtracted as we commonly perceive it. When you glance at Mount Fuji you encounter it only glancingly. You may be willing to testify most confidently to its reality — I saw it with my own eyes! — but that reality was was never more than barely present to you. But when a Shinto priest directs worship to Mount Fuji he encounters more, a greater presence, increased apprehension of reality. This something-more is the kami of Mount Fuji.

Of course you can encounter and acknowledge that something-more without Shinto or any related practice. It is just a nice, familiar way of doing it that people can share together. And a great thing about Shinto is that it does not really claim to be more than that. It does not have the pretense of necessity that is so common in religion. There is an appealing modesty to Shinto. Everything is about the local and the particular. People can be in such a hurry to meet God, become One with the All, stare Being in the Facelessness, establish the Universal Law, or Know Truth. But isn’t a sacred grove of trees enough? Or a quiet moment in a simple shrine? Isn’t it enough to dance? To celebrate with your neighbors? To be proper in your ablutions and respectful in your prayers? To give offerings, tokens of appreciation, to the forces that maintain us? To partake of the sacred herb? (Though that last one is not actually Shinto, as far as I know.)

What would American Shinto be? Not authentically Shinto, obviously, as Shinto is quintessentially Japanese, utterly tied to the land, the people, and their history. But we are an ersatz nation and it is entirely proper for us to embrace ersatz religion. We could borrow from Japan as we please, as they have from us. Shinto is already highly syncretic. I would like to keep the most familiar symbol of Shinto, the shrine gates (torii), but perhaps we could outline ours in neon, in honor of American tradition. American Shinto will have to develop organically, locally. People will need to find the sacred spots where they live, get to know the kami of their land, build their own shrines, and evolve their own traditions. We will be a little less polite in our ritual, I imagine, given our nature, but we will find our own forms of propriety, our own American harmonies. This land will become, in its own way, Shinto, and our kami will be honored as they have never been before, or at least not since most of the Indians were obliterated.

So goes the dream.

I would like to make clear that I am no more than a humble aspiring priest of American Shinto (as far as I can tell, Shinto priests don’t have to do a whole lot, which makes it an appealing vocation and I need a job; plus, they are not celibate, and that would be a welcome development). I do not actually know anything about Shinto beyond what I have learned from reading the Wikipedia page (partly), listening to the relevant episode of In Our Time With Melvyn Bragg (not recently), and communing with some of the kami of Charlottesville (mostly drunkenly). I am no authority on Shinto or, for that matter, America. Caveat lector.

For more pro-polytheism, see my post Digital Monotheism.

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