Shinto Controversies Course — 9th Lecture

Today was the ninth lecture of the Shinto Controversies course at Kokugakuin University. Today’s topic was Ise Shinto, a variety of Shinto developed at the Grand Shrines of Ise, as you might have guessed. However, it was mainly promoted and developed by the priests of the Outer Shrine, not those of the Inner Shrine. The Inner Shrine enshrines Amaterasu, while the Outer Shrine enshrines Toyoukehime, a food kami, and the kami responsible for Amaterasu’s meals. Ise Shinto dates from the middle ages, at which time the priests of the Inner and Outer Shrines came from different families. The Inner Shrine was served by the Arakida family, while the Outer Shrine was served by the Watarai family. Because the Watarai family were largely responsible for the development of Ise Shinto, it is also known as Watarai Shinto.

Central to Ise Shinto are five texts known collectively as Shinto Gobusho (Shinto Five Texts). These texts all claim to date from the Nara period (eighth century) or even earlier, but they were all written in the medieval period; no-one dates any of them earlier than the twelfth century. I’m not sure whether it’s really accurate to call them “forgeries”; they are just lying about their age.

The oldest of the five texts is probably the Hokihongi, which seems to have been written in the early thirteenth century. This one may have been written by priests at the Inner Shrine, because two thirds of it is concerned with the details of the Shikinen Sengu, the rebuilding of the shrines carried out every twenty years, and it does not privilege the Outer Shrine in any way. However, it does show the influence of Ryobu Shinto, in that it puts the Inner and Outer Shrines on the same level. Each is assigned an Onmyodo correspondence, for example, but the two (fire for the Inner Shrine and water for the Outer) are not superior or inferior to each other.

This text contains a significant amount of information about the Shin no Mihasira, the most sacred point of the Grand Shrines. This is a wooden pillar, about fifteen centimetres in diameter, under the floor of the main shrine building. The floor of the building is raised about two metres off the floor, and the Shin no Mihashira is roughly in the centre (judging from the diagrams). It is permanently covered by a small wooden shed. Indeed, even when the shrine is not on one of its two sites, the Shin no Mihashira site is still covered; if you see aerial photographs of the Ise Shrines, you can see a small shed on the empty site. This is what it is covering.

Provided I understood him correctly, Professor Okada said that Ise Jingu will not let people look at the section about Shin no Mihashira in their copy of the Hokihongi, although you can read it in the copies in other libraries, because it tells too much. Until the Meiji Restoration, the offerings at the shrines were made under the buildings, in front of the Shin no Mihashira, and it is said that the column shows cracks and damage when there is a major threat to the state. Of course, as virtually no-one is allowed to see it, it’s a bit hard to confirm such stories.

Anyway, returning to the Gobusho, the second one was the Yamato Hime no Mikoto Seiki, which is thought to have been written around the middle of the thirteenth century, and the final three, known collectively as Jingu Sanbusho were probably written in the late thirteenth century.

The Jingu Sanbusho were almost certainly written by Watarai Yukitada, a priest of the Outer Shrine. He was a major figure in the development of Ise Shinto, and the first person to talk about these texts. In addition, a late-thirteenth century copy owned by Shinpukuji, a temple in Nagoya, has proved to have been signed by Yukitada on the scroll stick. Given the dates, there is a strong possibility that this is the original fair copy of the book, although it is, of course, impossible to be certain. Professor Okada was involved in the project to study this document, and others held by the same temple, over the last five years, and by tracing its likely route to Shinpukuji we can say that it was probably written in Kyoto, and from its content it was completed shortly after one of the secondary shrines at Ise was destroyed in a storm, in January 1287. This is a period when Yukitada is known to have been in Kyoto, and other known dates narrow the likely dates of composition of the work to between April and July 1287.

The Jingu Sanbusho have warnings on them that they are not to be read by anyone under the age of sixty. Remarkably, Yukitada seems to have written them just as he was turning sixty. I suspect this wasn’t actually to give himself special privileges; it was to provide him with an explanation for why he’d never mentioned these supposedly ancient documents before. Obviously, if he’d only just been allowed to see them, he couldn’t have talked about them earlier. (And, equally obviously, he could hardly talk about them before he’d finished writing them.)

So, what about the content of the texts? There are a few significant features of them, particularly of the later four, the ones most closely associated with the Outer Shrine.

First, the kami of the Outer Shrine is said to be the same as the first kami mentioned in the Kojiki, Amenominakanushinomikoto, or the first mentioned in the Nihonshoki, Kunitokotachinomikoto. Thus, the Outer Shrine enshrines a more ancient kami than Amaterasu. Further, there was a secret pact between Amaterasu and the Outer Shrine kami, before the beginning of the world, to jointly support the Japanese emperors and state. Thus, the Outer Shrine is just as much an imperial ancestral shrine as the Inner Shrine, and should be called an imperial shrine.

This is significant because, just about the time the books were written, the Inner and Outer Shrines were engaged in a debate over whether the Outer Shrine should use the character meaning “Imperial” in the shrine name. One reason for producing these texts, then, was to argue that it should.

The second point is an emphasis on Shinto’s support for the state and the emperor. Japan was not terribly stable in the thirteenth century; the central government was weak, and the Mongols tried to invade towards the end of it. (They were prevented by the Divine Wind, Kamikaze, a storm that scattered the invasion fleet.) Thus, these books made a point of Japan being the country of the kami, and that the kami would protect the state if the state properly honoured the kami. This is the period where the concept of Japan as the country of the kami first emerged, possibly within Ise Shinto.

A third point is a distancing of Shinto from Buddhism. The Gobusho say that Buddhist theories should be avoided or hidden when expounding Shinto. Obviously, there are still many visible influences from Ryobu Shinto, and thus Buddhism, but at this point Shinto priests started trying to put some clear distance between the two religions.

Finally, the texts from Yamato Hime no Mikoto Seiki onwards emphasise purity and honesty of heart, saying that this is what the kami truly value, more so than the rituals. The idea of revering the kami and honouring the ancestors is made explicit in them, as is the importance of continuing to do things as they were originally done, going back to the source. All of these ideas were very influential in later versions of Shinto, including current Shrine Shinto.

In fact, apart from the parochial debates between the Outer and Inner Shrines, all of the main ideas of Ise Shinto were extremely influential on later Shinto. Thus, it could be (and has been) argued that what we know as modern Shinto started in the thirteenth century, with Ise Shinto. I still tend to think that it’s better to see Ise Shinto as another important transformation of a living tradition, but its importance certainly cannot be denied.

Shinto: The Way Home, by Thomas P. Kasulis

The author of this book on Shinto is primarily a philosopher of religion, not a historian, and thus he approaches Shinto from a philosophical perspective. One result is that this book is not really a very good introduction to Shinto. It is easy to read, and assumes no background knowledge (as far as I can tell), but it is concerned with interpreting and analysing Shinto, not laying out the basics. However, once you know a bit about Shinto, I think it is a very interesting book, one I found insightful and thought-provoking.

The book starts and finishes with a discussion of contemporary Shinto practice, something that is often skimped and that makes it a valuable supplement to a more standard introductory text. In between, there is a philosophical history of Shinto; that is, a history that concentrates on its development as seen through the categories Kasulis is using.

Kasulis argues that Shinto, as currently practised by tens of millions of Japanese who claim to have no religion, is not concerned with explanations or doctrine, but with a sense of belonging, and a sense of contentment with mystery and wonder. The main distinction he develops, however, is between what he calls “essentialist Shinto” and “existentialist Shinto”.

Essentialist Shinto claims that there is a necessary core to Shinto, that it is a well-defined religion in distinction to other religions. Someone who subscribes to essentialist Shinto does things because he (or she) is Shinto. Existentialist Shinto, on the other hand, looks at practices, and says that someone is Shinto if they do certain things. The definition is very vague, and there is no necessary incompatibility between Shinto and other religions. Existentialist Shinto would see no problem with someone being both Shinto and Christian, although the Christian side might be less happy.

The main version of essentialist Shinto, Kasulis argues, is the nationalistic religion of emperor worship that dominated Japan from the Meiji period to the end of the second world war. We can find elements of it earlier in Shinto’s history, and, in so far as there is an essentialist version of Shinto, it seems to be the only one. Kasulis believes that the existentialist version of Shinto was dominant throughout most of history, up to the nineteenth century, and it is also clear that he favours the existentialist version. Indeed, in the final chapter he considers how existentialist Shinto could reclaim Shinto practice from the remnants of the essentialist version. His conclusion is that you need a neo-essentialist Shinto, with something like a sense of the kami as the essential element.

This is where I think he goes wrong. He argues that a completely undefined existentialist Shinto cannot stand up against an essentialist version, because an existentialist version has nothing to argue with. It is so fluid and tolerant that it cannot say that the essentialist Shinto is wrong, and thus cannot try to move away from it.

However, I think that it is possible to formulate an existentialist Shinto that can oppose certain elements of essentialist Shinto.

Let’s take a step back. The core difference between essentialist Shinto and existentialist Shinto is that the former requires something of anyone who is Shinto, while the latter doesn’t. On an essentialist conception of Shinto, if you know that someone is Shinto you can make some definite statements about them; they believe that Japan is the land of the kami, they revere the emperor as the descendent and representative of Amaterasu, they visit shrines on certain days, and so on. On an existentialist conception, however, two people who are Shinto might have nothing at all in common. However, an existentialist Shinto is not supposed to be a completely empty idea, applying to everyone. The Pope is not Shinto, not even existentialist Shinto. True, you could come up with a definition of Shinto that included the Pope, but it wouldn’t be very useful.

So, what would an existentialist conception of Shinto actually be? I want to suggest that it should be a collection of actions and beliefs that are Shinto. So, visiting a shrine, having a kamidana, having a Shinto wedding, believing the Kiki myths, revering the emperor as the descendent and representative of Amaterasu, and feeling the presence of something wonderful in nature might all be on the list. When deciding whether someone is Shinto, you look at what they do, and compare it to the list. The Pope does none of them, so he isn’t Shinto. Hillary Clinton might have visited Meiji Jingu, but that’s it, and that doesn’t make her Shinto. A priest at a Shinto shrine, on the other hand, does lots of them, so he is. The borderline cases might be difficult, and in those cases you can rely on what the person says. (You can’t always do that; “if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. Even if it claims to be a wolf.” People are not authoritative about their identities, even when honest. Simply saying “I’m not racist” does not guarantee that you are not, even if you believe it.)

However, nothing on the list is necessary. Thus, you could be Shinto without ever visiting a shrine. Suppose you live in Tennessee. Visiting a shrine is going to be rather difficult, because the closest one is in Washington State. However, you might have a kamidana, and engage in ritual purification derived from various Shinto beliefs. That might be enough to make you Shinto. Similarly, you could be Shinto without believing that the kami exist. If you have a kamidana, visit shrines frequently, and have Shinto rituals performed to mark life transitions (Shinto wedding, Hatsumiyamairi, and so on), then you are still Shinto, even if you think the kami are made up.

Another feature of the list is that doing something that is not on it is not directly relevant to whether you are Shinto. The practices of other religions are not on the list. There might be a couple of things on the list that are inconsistent with other religions, but they aren’t necessary. Thus, you could be Shinto while still counting as a follower of another religion, such as Buddhism. This means that this form of Shinto has the inclusivity that Kasulis identifies as a feature of existentialist Shinto.

A final feature is that we don’t have to approve of everything on the list. Because we can be Shinto without doing or believing everything on the list, we can think that some things on the list are false or evil, while still acknowledging that they belong on the list, because they have been an important part of Shinto in the past, at least. An example might be “believing that the myths in the Kojiki are literally true”. I’m sure they’re not, and the Shinto priests at Kokugakuin seem to agree, but it would be very strange to deny that someone who did believe them was Shinto. Motoori Norinaga was Shinto, after all, and he believed them.

So, how can this existentialist Shinto stand up to the imperialist essentialist Shinto? First, it cannot deny that people who follow this religion are Shinto. They do lots of things that are on the list, and self-identify as Shinto. This is, I think, the right answer. We might want to disapprove of this form of Shinto, but I think it is unreasonable to deny that it is a form of Shinto. However, this existentialist Shinto can take a strong stand against the claims of exclusivity. Revering the emperor might be on the list, but you don’t have to do that to be Shinto. Being Japanese might be on the list, but you don’t have to be Japanese to be Shinto. This account of Shinto allows us to say that imperialist Shinto is not the only form of Shinto, and frees us to criticise it.

Shinto Controversies Course — 8th Lecture

The eighth lecture of the Shinto Controversies course at Kokugakuin University was held on Wednesday. This time, Professor Okada started by saying that it wasn’t a very interesting subject, and there were more than the normal number of digressions in the course of the lecture. Clearly, this is a topic that is somewhat outside Professor Okada’s main field.

The subject was Ryobu Shinto. Ryobu Shinto is, broadly, the form of Shinto developed within Japanese esoteric Buddhism (Shingon and Tendai) in the medieval period. As a result, it has not been studied as much as might be ideal. From the Meiji Restoration in the mid-nineteenth century, there has been an emphasis on separating Shinto and Buddhism into two clearly distinct religions, and that’s simply not possible with Ryobu Shinto. From the sounds of things, separating the Shinto from the Buddhism is as hard as the reverse, so I suspect that Buddhist scholars have also not given it a great deal of attention. As a result, a great deal about Ryobu Shinto is still unclear.

The name, which means “both parts”, comes from Shingon esotericism, and the narrow use of the term is to refer to the versions of Shinto associated with Shingon Buddhism. Shingon esotericism has two worlds, the Kongo and Taizo worlds (Diamond World and Womb World, perhaps; I don’t know what the standard translations are), which correspond to different aspects of Dainichi Nyorai, the universal Buddha. Ryobu Shinto linked these two worlds to the Inner and Outer Shrines at Ise. The Inner Shrine corresponded to Taizo, the Outer to Kongo. The Grand Shrines of Ise were very important in Ryobu Shinto, and it appears to have had a strong influence on Ise Shinto.

This raises the controversy. When did Ryobu Shinto appear? Earlier scholars had placed it in the fourteenth century, but Professor Okada believes it appeared some time earlier, at the end of the twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century. This belief is based on the dates of works that were central to Ryobu Shinto, but also, I think, on the signs of mutual influence between Ryobu Shinto and Ise Shinto. Ise Shinto can be dated fairly firmly, because it was developed by identifiable priests of the Outer Shrine at Ise, and it started developing in the thirteenth century. While Professor Okada believes that the influence went both ways, he also thinks that the first influence was from Ryobu Shinto.

One reason for this is that, in earlier periods, Shinto had a strong tradition of not explaining things, of not putting things into words. Words had power (the so-called kotodama), and so should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Buddhism, however, had a strong tradition of sermons and explanations, and thus the first systematic explanations of Shinto came from the Buddhist side.

A central text of Shinto is the Nakatomi Harai, an ancient purification prayer that is still used today. It includes a version of important Japanese myths, a version that doesn’t quite match that in the Kojiki or Nihonshoki, and thus is ideal material for interpretation. The earliest (I think) surviving interpretation is the Nakatomi Harae Kungeh, which was written by a Buddhist monk, and interprets the prayer in Buddhist terms. It provides esoteric Buddhist interpretations of the main shrines at Ise, but also of the lesser shrines associated with them. This interpretation was central to Ryobu Shinto, and seems to date from the thirteenth century (again, I think; Professor Okada wasn’t entirely clear on this point).

In any case, Ryobu Shinto continued to develop, with several versions appearing, including Sanno Shinto, Miwaryu Shinto, and Goryu Shinto. Professor Okada said that when he visited Mt. Koya, the centre of Shingon Buddhism, earlier this year, he found that Goryu Shinto was still practised there, so Ryobu Shinto is not a purely historical tradition. The protecting kami of the mountain, Niu, apparently receives the same sort of reverence as Kukai, the monk who founded the sect.

Ryobu Shinto was also closely connected, through Onjoji, a very important Tendai temple, with Shugendo and the Kumano shrines. It also gave rise to the Shinto Kanjo, esoteric initiations based on Shinto symbolism rather than Buddhist. Professor Okada didn’t go into detail on these, I suspect, again, because research on them is not as advanced as it could be.

The overall impression I got from the lecture was that Ryobu Shinto is still poorly understood. People know it was important, but not really enough about it. It looks like a fertile area for research for someone with an interest in both Buddhism and Shinto. Since my interest is primarily in Shinto, it’s not going to be me.