Friday, April 15, 2011

World Religions: Shinto

Last week we looked at Shinto as another example of Earth-based Religions in our World Religions class.  Shinto is so entwined with the Japanese culture that there are very few native Japanese who don't practice some aspect of that ancient belief (one book I read said about 92%).  The flip side of that is the fact that it is so associated with Japanese culture that it is hardly practiced anywhere else in the world other than by Japanese people living in other lands.

Shinto, like many of the other Asian religions, is focused on living a good life--one of simplicity, beauty, purity, and gratitude, honor, and respect for others.   There is little or no focus on an afterlife or what happens after physical death, so modern Shinto often observe in combination with Buddhism, which deals with those questions.  This is another aspect of Asian religions; most of them are very accepting of other faiths, and allow, if not encourage, their followers to combine the beliefs and practices of that religion with others.

Perhaps an example of this is the fact that name "Shinto" actually comes from a Chinese phrase that means "the way of the kami."  Kami is the name given to any of the naturalistic deities or spirits that are thought to abide in outstanding natural features of Japan, in Shintu shrines, and in altars and other sacred spaces within properly Shinto homes.  These spirits are generally benevolent and bring blessings to those around them, but they are not to be taken for granted, or they will move on.  Therefore, much of the Shinto worship involves thanking, honoring, and respecting the kami through actions, pleasing words, proper observance of Shinto practices, and physical gifts left at shrines, altars, or places in nature.

We had several activities that we did with the students.  We had them envision where in their own environments they think their personal kami (sort of like a guardian angel) might live, and to draw that place and how they could develop a shrine that would be pleasing to that kami.  We went through the proper procedures for approaching a Shinto shrine, including cleansing, getting the kami's attention, respecting the kami, and, of course, leaving an appropriate gift.

Finally, we made our version of a Shinto prayer tree.  Most Shinto shrines have a sacred tree upon which worshipers tie their prayers or blessings.  While the real Shinto sacred trees are usually evergreens, we made ours a model of a Japanese cherry blossom, since it is around our national Cherry Blossom Festival, one of our greatest observations of our connections to the Japanese.  I followed the instructions for a Chinese Blossom Tree from one of the blogs I love, Fairy Dust Teaching , except that we added wishes and blessings to ours:

All in all, I think it was an interesting and engaging class about a spiritual tradition that not a lot of people know much about, but which is really quite lovely.

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