Living Shinto
Everyday Connectedness

From Early Shinto... the Fushimi Inari Shrine


A Holographic Entry Point
“The Japanese may associate tea with Zen Buddhism, but rice is unquestionably the province of Shinto.
In a formal ritual, the emperor plants the first rice seedlings of the year
(while specially selected groups plant the rice that will be used in the harvest festival (niiname sai 新嘗祭) at the imperial palace and shrines throughout the country);
in another, he eats the first grains of the annual harvest.
The Niinamesai or harvest festival is enacted every year by the emperor in his capacity as chief priest of Shinto, but the first celebration after his accession, when this Thanksgiving or Harvest Home becomes the Daijosai, acquires very special rituals and meaning. ...
Entering the ritual hall, the sovereign will seat himself on a mat, before which are two sets of food offerings, one for himself and one for the kami: rice, two kinds of rice wine (sake), seafood and other common substances. The rice had been grown in two selected fields, chosen by divination early in the year. Planted, nourished, and harvested with old Shinto ceremonies, they were then brought to the palace in great religious processions. Now, in the quiet Yukiden, solemnly as though in communion with the deity, the Emperor consumes three balls of rice and takes four sips of each kind of sake. (IJR, 25-6)

Sake (rice wine) barrels stacked on high at Shinto shrines
represent (usually symbolically) gifts from donors.

At a Shinto altar, rice and sake are common offerings to the kami.

The sacred rope discussed in chapter 1, the shimenawa,
is typically made from rice straw.

Because Shinto and rice enjoy a most intimate ritual connection, it is hardly surprising that as an entry point in Japanese culture, rice carries with it values commonly associated with Shinto as well.” (
SWH, 40)

Entering the Holograph
 A Cluster of Shinto Values
In general, “naturalness” has two senses for the Japanese: either a close connection between humans and nature or the cultivated ability to make things natural. The first sense is fairly obvious and follows from the idea that kami are an intimate, inseparable part of the natural world. ... The second meaning of naturalness, however, might surprise some Western readers who think of human artifice as by definition not natural. Yet if we join Shinto in considering human beings as part of nature instead of separate from it, even human inventiveness can be natural — at least if performed with the genuine mindful heart. (SWH, 42-3)

There is a story of two chefs, one Chinese and one Japanese, who were boasting of their respective skills. The Chinese chef was trumpeting his talent for making sauces, using spices, and controlling texture, so that he could make chicken taste like duck.
The Japanese retorted he could make a carrot taste more like a carrot than any other carrot anyone has ever eaten. The Japanese chef exemplifies the virtue of “making something natural.” That is: the value in this sort of naturalness is not leaving things untouched but working to bring out something of the natural state. (SWH, 43)

Kanso 簡素
Simplicity as a primary value follows from Shinto’s emphasis on naturalness. ... The best way to make something natural is to keep it simple. The idea is that the natural expresses itself through the simplicity of materials and artist. If simplicity is valued, the natural will be able to express itself most directly through the hands of the cook, the potter, or the chopstick maker. Only the person’s makoto no kokoro can open itself so egolessly as to create together with nature. The plain clay may speak for itself, but its voice is so soft that the potter of the mindful heart amplifies it so we all can hear it. (SWH, 44)
Most commentators associate the Japanese emphasis on naturalness and simplicity with Zen Buddhism rather than Shinto. In such books as Zen and Japanese Culture, D.T. Suzuki popularized this view in Japan as well as in the West. Suzuki was correct to point out that many arts associated with Japan have a close connection with Zen Buddhism, especially through the tea ceremony and all its accoutrements including ikebana, calligraphy, poetry, gardens, and pottery. Suzuki accurately portrayed Zen’s historical significance in the development and institutionalization of these arts. At times, though, he seemed to imply more — namely, that Zen Buddhism introduced the aesthetic of simplicity and naturalness to Japan. This claim, if he indeed meant to make it, is wrong. (SWH, 44-5)
Violation & Pollution
Tsumi & Kegare
The Western idea of sin generally involves intent; sin usually cannot be accidental. The Shinto idea of defilement, by contrast, is more akin to what we find in taboo cultures — that is, the contact itself is the polluting factor regardless of whether the person knew about the offense or undertook the action voluntarily. ... In the symbolic language introduced in the previous chapter, we could say the mirrorlike mindful heart is soiled (perhaps through no fault of its own) and cannot reflect the kami-filled world. Things will not go right from this point forward — the only solution is a purification ritual to eradicate the pollution or defilement. (SWH, 47-8)
The appropriate response to pollution is purification. Shinto purification rituals commonly involve water, salt, or fire. Of these three, water is the most widely used. In Japan, fresh water comes either directly from the heavens or from mountain streams winding their way down to villages below. Since both the heavens and the mountains are common sites of kami, the association between kami and water is understandable. In chapter 1’s analysis of a typical shrine visit, we mentioned the water troughs used by visitors to purify themselves before approaching the front of the shrine.
One of the most dynamic practices of water purification, however, takes place in the ritual called “misogi.” While walking mountain paths, one may sometimes happen upon a secluded waterfall and witness the ritual. Although it has levels of complexity and variation, the basics of misogi are simple. Usually dressed entirely in white, the participant enters a mountain pool at the base of a small sacred waterfall. With the water pounding down on his or her head, the devotee stands beneath the waterfall and chants a formulaic incantation. Through the tama of the sacred water and the kotodama (the tama of words) in the chant, the person’s impurities are washed away. (SWH, 50-2)
Although water is probably the most common purifying agent in Shinto rituals, salt or fire is also used. Salt is white and associated with the sea and with life. It repels demonic or defiling presences. In the Japanese sport of sumo, for example, the wrestlers use salt in  this way. As they approach the ring, they throw handfuls of salt in the air to purify the area of the contest. The Shinto resonances in the ritualistic setting of this sport are unmistakable. In choosing their professional names, the wrestlers usually include references to natural objects such as mountains or trees. The ring itself is marked off by a shimenawa shaped into a circle — designating the area as a sacred space. The match determines who stays within and who is pushed out of this circle. The sacred nature of the contested space is heightened by the presence of a Shinto shrine roof suspended above the ring. The referee waves a fan to ward off disruptive spirits and signal the stages of the bout. In receiving the winner’s prize, wrestlers make a waving gesture resembling that used in Shinto ritual to ward off evils from the four directions. However subliminal some of the symbols may be, the entire event is resplendent with Shinto imagery. (SWH, 53)
Sometimes fire, too, may be used to purify. Some Shinto festivals feature participants running through the forest carrying fiery torches. Fires of purification in formal Shinto ritual must be ignited from a spark created by rubbing together sticks of sacred wood or by striking a flint. (No matches or cigarette lighters allowed.) The sacred shrine at Ise follows the ancient tradition of using a wooden mortar and pestle. The ignition techniques obviously draw on the idea that the purifying power behind the fire — in this case the spark — is being released form nature rather than created. The fire, therefore, burns off impurities and returns the person to the primordial spark of spirituality always present in nature. (SWH, 53-4)

Part-Whole Solidarity
Separateness and communal solidarity, although seemingly opposed, actually work together. The holographic paradigm of the whole-in-every-part makes this possible. ... Unlike the Western notion of society as a contractual connection established among individuals, in Japan people find their solidarity by recognizing the internal relations binding them with others. For Japanese, in being individual, one is intrinsically communal: the whole is in every part.

Much is made of the idea that the Japanese are homogeneous or at least see themselves that way. This is only partially true. The Japanese are intensely regional as well. ... Even today the Japanese celebrate their regional differences with television segments on the daily early morning news and talk shows. Each day takes the viewer to a different locale where the commentators report on the local foods, handicrafts, customs, and tourist sites. Department stores and large supermarkets often showcase the goods from a different district of Japan each week. Even the bullet-train staff may sell varying foodstuffs in the aisles as the train travels through the different regions. In short: regional differences are part of Japan’s homogeneity. In being regional, the person is sharing in being Japanese. ... By the specific function of the holographic, the more deeply one enters the particular, the more inclusive the connectedness. Therefore one may feel most connected to all other Japanese even when — maybe especially when — participating in the most local of Shinto events. (SWH, 54-6)