Through the Torii
An Introduction to Shinto
What is Shinto?
“Being Shinto” and ”Feeling Shinto”
Throughout Japan’s history, there has been an orientation in living — a manner of feeling about the world and of feeling one’s way through the world — that has deeply affected Japanese culture and resonates profoundly with Shinto spirituality. Much of this is not so distinctively Japanese, however, that people from other cultures and traditions cannot empathize with it. Indeed, like other foreigners who have spent time in Japan, I have at times “felt Shinto.” This does not mean I am Shinto, but I have felt in Shinto settings certain responses congruent with Japanese accounts of their own experience. ... Incidentally, being Shinto (unlike feeling Shinto) is almost exclusively a Japanese phenomenon: very few people outside Japan identify themselves as Shinto. When asked in polls or a census, however, the type of data compiled for encyclopedias and almanacs, almost all Japanese (over 90 percent) identify with Shinto. For many Japanese, “feeling Shinto” and “feeling Japanese” are barely distinguishable. (SWH, 3-4)
“Existential” & “Essentialist” Sprituality
We will distinguish two kinds of spirituality: existential and essentialist. The first proceeds by finding an appropriate label for what a person values, believes, and does. “Because I behave or feel in such-and-such a way, I am Shinto,” for example. We can call this an “existential” Shinto spirituality. It is a self-identity that arises from naming a way of living: the patterns of one’s existence in the world. The second type of spirituality arises from an intuition about an inner core of one’s being — one’s essence, soul, or innate character — that defines or drives one’s values, beliefs, and actions. “Because I am Shinto, I behave or feel in such-and-such a way.” We will call this an “essentialist” Shinto spirituality because one’s identity as Shinto precedes and determines (rather than merely names) one’s patterns of religious behavior. ...

When people say they are “Shinto,” are they giving a conventional name for how they happen to think, feel, and act? Or are they designating an essential part of themselves that leads them to think, feel, and act in certain ways? If the former (the existential identification with Shinto), the connection with the religion is ad hoc and flexible. Their Shinto spiritual identity would then be a conventional name applying to some of their typical ideas, values, and practices. To change such an existential identity would be akin to a change in preference, taste, or habit. If, by contrast, the identification with Shinto spirituality is of the essentialist form, the situation is more prescriptive than descriptive. Insofar as the essentialist identity is based on people’s true nature, they must (or should) behave in certain specified ways. The essentialist Shinto spirituality determines and prescribes, rather than simply describes, their thoughts, values, and actions. (SWH, 4-6)
Is Shinto a Religion...
... and are the Japanese “Religious”?
Suppose we are sitting on a hill in a Tokyo park, not far from one of the commuter train stations used by literally millions of Japanese every day. We overlook a Shinto shrine located in the middle of the most direct path from one sector of the park to the train station. In the morning rush hour, gray-suited businessmen rush through the park to catch their trains and we observe a curious behavior. Some go many yards out of their way to avoid cutting through the shrine precincts. Others take the shortcut through the grounds, but many of this group slow to a walk as they traverse the graveled area of the shrine. Once they hit the grassy region outside the shrine, they again break into a run. A third group behaves differently yet. They reach the grounds and not only slow down but walk up to the shrine building, stop at the trough to wash their hands and mouth, then go up to the shrine, clap their hands, bow formally with hands held together in prayerlike form, clap again, and then leave the shrine grounds. As soon as they leave the precincts, they again break into a run.

“Why did you stop at the shrine?”
“I almost always stop on the way to work.”
“Yes, but why? Was it to give thanks, to ask a favor, to repent, to pay homage, to avoid something bad from happening? What was your purpose?”
“I don’t really know. It was nothing in particular.”
“Well then, when you stood in front of the shrine with your palms together, what did you say, either aloud or silently to yourself?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Did you call on the name of the kami to whom the shrine is dedicated?”
“I’m not really sure which kami it is.”
(SWH, 28-29)


Feeling Shinto
Motoori Norinaga

The word kami refers, in the most general sense, to all divine beings of heaven and earth that appear in the classics. More particularly, the kami are the spirits that abide in and are worshipped at the shrines. In principle human beings, birds, animals, trees, plants, mountains, oceans — all may be kami. According to ancient usage, whatever seemed strikingly impressive, possessed the quality of excellence, or inspired a feeling of awe was called kami. (The Sacred Paths of the East, 247)
In many religious traditions — and Shinto is no exception — spirituality resonates with the mysterious and wondrous. ... [T]he mysterious stirs a reaction: an “ah!” This “ah!” is not an “ah ha!” or “Eureka” — that is, an exclamation of discovering an answer. The “ah!” response to mystery is more a dumbfounded recognition and appreciation of an inexplicable power or presence. The “ah!” venerates something we do not (perhaps cannot) fully understand. Shinto spirituality treasures the mysterious as something awesome. ...

Most people acknowledge having had such powerful encounters in their lives. The experiences intrigue, startle, or frighten. Shinto spirituality is about learning to feel at home with them — feeling we belong with them and them with us — even if we do not fully understand why. Indeed, to go too far in trying to explain them becomes a way of explaining them away, robbing them of their initial power....
In ancient Greece some twenty-four centuries ago, Aristotle said that philosophy, too begins in wonder or awe. Yet his reaction differed from Shinto’s. Aristotle hoped to use reason to root out the ground of this wonder; for him, philosophy’s purpose was to lead us from awe into understanding. For Shinto, though, the point is to accept the awesome as part of the world in which we live. To deny or try to eradicate the wondrous mystery is no less than to run away from home. (SWH, 10-12)
Holographic Entry Points
A Closer Examination of Torii and Shimenawa

... [T]hink of the relationship between the human body and DNA. Ordinarily a strand of hair is just a part of what a person is. In a forensic investigation, however, this single strand of hair reveals the basic pattern of the whole person’s genetic constitution. All of the physical body — not only hair but also eye color, height, body shape, blood type, and even susceptibility to certain diseases — is blueprinted in every single cell of the person, including the cells of that strand of hair. The part reflects the whole; the whole is in every part. To see this form of connectedness, the vantage point is not at a distance but through close examination of a single piece of evidence. This bit of evidence functions as a holographic entry point opening to a grasp of the whole.
The torii frames such holographic entry points. Insofar as the whole world is kami-filled and tama-charged, of course, every single thing in our world in some way reflects the wondrously mysterious power of kami. Yet Shinto uses markers to designate specific sites where the holographic nature of kami is easier to sense. These sites, often set off by torii and shimenawa, somehow manifest the presence of kami more explicitly than do other sites. Thus the significance of Mount Fuji, the married rocks at Futami, even the emperor himself, is not that they are merely isolated sites of kami — to the contrary, they are holographic entry points for experiencing kami everywhere. By entering the specific, the person’s holographic relation to all reality becomes manifest. (SWH, 21-23)

Makoto no Kokoro
Makoto” means “truth,” “genuineness,” or “sincerity,” that is, being as one truly is. ... The traditional understanding of kokoro ... regards it as a resonant responsiveness within the overlap  between the world and the person. The kokoro’s response is an engagement arising from being among things. Whereas it is certainly possible, as the stimulus/response model exemplifies, to distinguish the world and the person as two independent entities, Shinto instead emphasizes the world and the person as interdependent poles within a single field of resonance. Consider how one might respond to an awe-inspiring tree, for example. As we noted earlier in our discussion of the experience of mystery, the awe is not simply in the person or in the tree but in their interaction. The tree must somehow be extraordinary; its tama must catch the person’s attention (the shimenawa helps this to happen); but by the same token the person must also be willing to be drawn into this context. If you are lost in thought about something else or are running through the woods to escape a bear, you may not be sensitive to the tree as a holographic entry point. Under the right conditions, though, the shimenawa both embraces the tree and ropes the person into an internal relation with it. In short: kokoro suggests an affectively charged cognitivity. Thinking and feeling occur together in the person’s engagement with the awe-inspiring tree. (SWH, 24-25)
... [W]hat happens when a poet writes a classical poem about, say, the mist on the mountain? If the poet’s responsiveness is genuine — that is, if there is makoto no kokoro — the poet’s kokoro resonates with the kokoro of the actual mountain mist and the kokoro of the Japanese words. Through the interpenetration and common responsiveness of these kokoro, the poem is produced. From this perspective, the poet alone does not write a poem about the mountain mist. More precisely, the mountain mist, the Japanese words, and the poet write the poem together. In a parallel way, if people go through the torii and enter the precinct of the kami with a pure, genuine kokoro, they enter the holographic entry point reflecting the whole in themselves and thereby reflecting themselves into the whole. They feel connected. They feel at home. (SWH, 26-27)

Existential vs. Essentialist Spirituality

So, Was the Japanese Businessman Religious?
If the businessman’s identity as “Shinto” were essentialist ... he would be doing what he does because he is Shinto. In this case, his stops at the shrine would be something he felt he had to do, at least if he were going to be a sincere Shinto person. When asked his religious identity, there would be no pause in his answer and it would not require reflection. He would take care to perform his Shinto praxis properly, and he would probably have some grasp of the doctrinal analysis of that praxis. He would be concerned if others perceived him as not living his life according to Shinto values. This would amount to him not being “sincere” either to himself or to Shinto. He would probably also be less likely to identify himself as a “Buddhist” as well. Existentially, he might occasionally take part in some Buddhist family activity, but essentially he is Shinto.
          Let us explore the more likely interpretation — namely, that the businessman’s Shinto spirituality is of the existential rather than essentialist sort. If we were expecting him to express an essentialist spirituality in response to our interview questions, we might have left with the impression that his shrine visits are religiously superficial or lacking in spiritual depth. We might have concluded that if he were really Shinto, he would know a lot more about his praxis (such as the name of the kami at the shrine) and be able to explain more clearly the rationale behind his behavior. But this attitude tells us more about our expectations than our businessman’s spiritual experience. So let us go back to the experiential side of Shinto as we analyzed it earlier in the chapter and try to use it to explain the man’s experience at the shrine.
       If the shrine is a holographic entry point and the businessman’s kokoro is pure (symbolized by the washing of mouth and hands), then the visit to this particular shrine opens him to a general connectedness with mystery, power, and awe. In this case, it is not terribly relevant which kami is associated with the particular shrine and it is not surprising that he may not even know. The name of the entrance is less important than where it leads: to being in the midst of tama and experiencing an energized relation to all things. The man’s focus may not have been on the part (this particular shrine and its kami), but on the whole it contains. (
SWH, 32-3)