The metamorphoses of Shinto

Wednesday March 9, 2016: The metamorphoses of Shinto by Alain Rocher, Director of Studies at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE).

Shinto is considered by some to be the oldest religion in Japan or, by others, as an aggregate codified and fixed at the time of feudalism, to the XIIIe s. The truth seems to lie between these two extreme theses. One can not deny the existence of an old shamanic and animist background that will be called "proto-shinto", which is important to distinguish from organized Shinto developed in the Middle Ages by the Watarai and Yoshida families.

Shinto is not something given entirely from the beginning, but a religion that is built over history, first by assimilating the other religious and philosophical currents rivals from the continent (Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism) and constructing themselves as opposed to them.

Proto-Shintoism is almost evanescent and could be defined by what it is not: it has no founder, has no canonical texts and there is no structured priestly body. It would be difficult to assign a particularly constructed dogma to it. Proto-Shintoism does not have an organized pantheon either. The very word shinto, which literally means the way of the gods (shen-spirits and Dao-voie) does not appear until 586 in the Annals of Japan and would be borrowed directly from the Yijing (book of changes). A characteristic of Shinto is the positive acceptance of all that is alive (birth, marriage, reproduction, etc.) and all the avatars of life are considered positive, even sacred. This vitalism goes hand in hand with the animist tendency which has long been associated with Shintoism: originally, there were not really great gods but a multiplicity of spirits (we). These gods exist at the ends of the earth in an evanescent way and it is only when men appeal to them that they enter a material object (rock, tree, object, etc.) in which they will settle. the time of the ceremony and they will be returned to their diffuse state afterwards. Another feature that perhaps has ancient roots is a layered, vertically and horizontally articulated worldview. On the vertical plane, space is considered as a tier: the "High Celestial Plain" from which certain gods, aristocrats and emperors originate and where they will return after death, below is the Earth, "Middle country du Champs de reeaux ”and finally the Land of Roots, an elusive beyond, a little dark, neither hell nor paradise. Along with this vertical vision, there is a horizontal vision which knows no radical borders and which imagines beyond the Earth a continuous horizon where an ultra-marine or underwater paradise would be located, the Japanese equivalent of the island of Taoist immortals. Certain elements such as the obsession with purification rites probably date back to before the constitution of the state in Japan as well as the rites of pacification of the spirit which coincide with the winter solstice. Shintô does not exist in the abstract and can only be thought of in and through an everyday social inscription: extremely dense holiday calendar, association with economic activities such as rice growing in spring and summer, hunting or fishing. in winter. Another form of its social inscription, Shintoism is somewhat the guarantor of generational continuity because, in the system of patrilineal clans, the clan chief was considered to be the descendant of a god. Just as Shintoism cannot exist without a social body which makes it live, it cannot exist without a geography: it can only function here or there, in a particular place and unlike other great religions it never has sought or never been able to universalize. This trend is so deeply rooted in Japanese thought that it has rubbed off on culture and even on literature: one cannot cite a place (town or village) without attaching to it a toponymic feature known for a long time.

Sacred Rope Around Tree © Institute for Sustainable Architecture and Environments - Kyoto

Sacred rope around tree. © Institute for Sustainable Architecture and Environments - Kyoto

Fushimi_Inari _-_ Main_gate © Chris Gladis from Kyoto

Main gate of Fushimi Inari Shrine - Kyoto. © Chris Gladis

ise_shrine_naiku_grand_shrine_roof. © jpatokal

Sanctuary of Ise. © jpatokal


Everything changes with the introduction of Buddhism in the middle of the VIe s. When it enters Japan, Buddhism has an ecclesial organization, a dogma based on a set of authoritative texts. In contact with this formidable adversary, the Shinto, which should have disappeared, will gradually acquire an architecture, an art, a set of texts and a priestly body. Although it is originally anicon, Shintoism will develop over time a specific art, a sort of demarcation or inverted character of Buddhist art. Thus, in architecture, the roofs of temples will be covered with shingles rather than tiles, to emphasize the rough and natural appearance. Proto-Shintoism will assimilate the elements of its great rival but by reversing the signs. Japan will gradually not only merge or bring together proto-Shintoism and Buddhism, but it will produce intellectual tools to justify this "marriage": we will pair a boddhisattva with a we (god of wind, sun, moon, etc.) based on the Indian notion of avatar. This extremely complex syncretism will produce its own theology and Proto-Shinto will be enriched by contact with esoteric Buddhism. The binarity of the two mandalas (Mandala of the Matrix-Material side and Mandala of the Diamond-invisible side) will be projected on the Shinto pantheon and even on the architecture since some parts of the temples include the Mandala of the Matrix and others the one Diamond. The integration between the two religions is such that a Shinto templion will be at the back of a Buddhist temple and conversely a small Buddhist temple is in the enclosure of a large Shinto shrine, as well as both. series of gods, boddhisattvas and we, are often integrated into the main building. During the thirteen centuries of Japanese intellectual history, Buddhism and Shintoism lived more in osmosis than as two distinct religions.

From the middle of the Middle Ages, in the great shrines and clerical circles of the clans, local theologies will be created that will claim autonomy from Shintoism in relation to Buddhism and will reverse the hierarchy. Yoshida Kanetomo (1435-1511), founder of a Shinto movement, will play his political protections to dispossess some priestly families of their religious legitimacy, will proclaim himself the sole authentic representative of true Shinto and decree that the gods of Shinto represent the essence, the invisible and the Buddhas are going to be sent back into the phenomenal. From that moment, Shintoism will emancipate itself and fly on its own. To give an example of diversion of notions, in Buddhism, all beings have in them the "nature of Buddha", they are buddhas in the making, the Shinto theologians will take up the concept and replace it with the "nature of we »: Thus all humans inherently possess a sort of divine spark, a particle of divinity. While "Buddha nature" enables awakening and empowerment, "kami nature" induces the notion that man is potentially divine. In the same way, we see the generalization of the divination of religious objects. While Proto-Shinto did not have a sacred text, the clergy of certain large shrines will invent sacred texts and discover secret revelations. Thus in the space of a few generations, end of the XNUMXthe-starting XIVe s., the great priestly families will concoct a properly Shinto corpus which is a mixture of ancient myths, purification rituals and alleged revelations of prophetic words. It was at this time that the sacredness of these Shinto texts to which we attribute a great antiquity is established. Japan is also considered a divine country following the convergence of certain factors: the two attempts to invade Japan by the Mongols failed in part thanks to fierce resistance but also thanks to miraculous storms (kamikaze-divine wind) and the development of a magical ritualization by an esoteric Buddhism which aims to protect the country against harmful external influences. If the country escaped the invader, it is because it is protected from the gods and Shintoism will induce that the archipelago was created first and that it is a part of the body of the gods.

Itsukushima purification basin

Purification basin. Itsukushima Shrine

Purification ceremony

Purification Ceremony, to observe ice fractures on Lake Suwa. © Japan Time News

Miwa-shrine_ceremony Yutateshinji_A

Yutateshinji Ceremony. Sanctuary of Miwa.

Another form of evolution will occur in the XVI-XVIIe s. when the code of esoteric Buddhism will be replaced by that of neo-Confucianism. Neoconfucianism claims to be constructed as a kind of ambitious metaphysics and postulates that at the top of the world there is the "supreme summit", a kind of keystone of the universe, sometimes assimilated to a divine entity without name and form. The Japanese will take up this notion and the two notions that are subject to it, the notion of energy breath (ki) and the notion of universal principle (li) in the cosmos. The Japanese did not adhere to the Buddhist notion of negation of the cosmos (everything is illusion) and Shinto priestly circles will first do a syncretic work within their pantheon and arrive at a quasi monotheism. The supreme god of Shinto exists as yet unmanifested, the chaos that is the living source of all dynamic phenomena, but it can manifest itself and will then trigger the dynamics of the world, the male-female opposition, the five phases etc. For the Japanese, this supreme god can at the same time exist as chaos and in identifiable forms. The vitalism of Proto-Shinto is now theorized. Shinto will also borrow from neo-Confucianism some of its ethical categories.

Priestly families formed currents and schools, built sanctuary networks that continued to function until the beginning of the modern period. Japan has demonstrated that a heterogeneous system can be built to make it something original and viable.

Faced with the modernity that settled in Japan in the space of a generation at the end of the XIXe Shintoism is at the same time more solid than the great monotheistic systems by its flexibility and its moving organicity allowing it to creep into all activities. The weakness of Shinto is that it can exist only in a social fabric located in a particular place. The depopulation of the countryside due to industrialization will gradually lead to the disappearance of village Shintoism, in addition to we are attached to a specific place and can not be moved. In a way, Shinto has lost some of its land features as a result of modernity.

The balance was restored when he found the means to resolve this contradiction, especially with the notion of charismatic founder who will claim to be the prophet or interpreter of such or such we of which he has received the confidence or of which he is the privileged descendant. This neo-Shintoism, much more popular, abandons some of the ancient theological elaborations but is reconstructed by borrowing certain techniques found in all neo-sectarian currents. This neo-Shintoism prospered all the more because it had the theological ability to recycle the great codes of western ecological discourse and pacifism. Sanctuaries focus on ordinary people by helping them maintain good relationships with their ancestors and we.


Enter a text and press Enter to search