Publisher: Tenchi Press
Author: Ann Llewellyn Evans
Pages: xxvii + 138 pp.
Price: $17 US
When people from creedal religions (particularly Christianity and Islam) meet people from other religions, they usually ask them, “What do you believe?” When people from practical and experiential religions meet people from other religions, they tend to instead ask, “What do you do?” Modern (and ancient) pagan religions are practical and experiential in nature, as are most animist and polytheist religions. In our attempts to understand and recreate polytheistic religions, great utility can be found in examining forms of polytheism that are uninterrupted by Christian or Islamic domination and suppression, and which have been practiced continuously for several thousand years.
One such religion is Shinto, the traditional religion of Japan — which, very interestingly, doesn’t even qualify as “religion” in the minds of most Japanese people today, as that term tends to be reserved for Buddhism and Christianity. Shinto, or kami no michi (“the way of the kami”), is simply understood as the way of nature and the best practices by which humans can be in harmony with nature — in other words, it is a spirituality, which I would define as the practices by which people put themselves in contact with their perception of divine realms and divine beings. (Though, I would note, spirituality and religion are not inherently incompatible; religion is simply the systematized articulation of the divine experiences of a group of people, and spirituality is therefore the practice of religion.) For the Shinto viewpoint, divinity need not be sought any further than one’s own body and soul, and in every natural force found in the world.
There are a relatively limited number of books on Shinto that are available in English, and of these, the majority often assume a somewhat embarrassed stance about the religion, calling it simple or unsophisticated, lacking in theology or intellectual rigor, and filled with “strange” and “weird” elements. Unfortunately, these treatments, written by well-meaning individuals who are both from Western scholarly and native Japanese backgrounds, usually are burdened with comparing the intricacies of Shinto practice to Christian doctrine, which is heavily worked out (perhaps even overly so), over-intellectualized (and even pseudo-intellectualized), and supposedly “more civilized” because of its monotheism rather than the “less advanced” polytheistic and animistic religions that have existed for most of human history, and elements of which are still found in a great majority of religions around the world. Of these various books that are available, one stands out as not only a succinct and accessible introduction to the Shinto religion, but particularly one from a practical viewpoint: it is Ann Llewellyn Evans’ Shinto Norito.
After a brief Foreword by Yamamoto Yukitaka Guji, the 96th High Priest of the Tsubaki Okami Yashiro (Grand Shrine) in Japan’s Mie Prefecture, Rev. Evans gives a brief overview of some of the concepts involved in daily Shinto practice, including the all-important concept involved in reciting Shinto norito (“prayers”) of kotodama, or “word-soul.” The kanji characters for words, and the sounds of the syllables themselves, are considered meaningful and resonant within Shinto practice. Thus, though very useful and poetic translations of the various prayers are given by Rev. Evans in the book, the actual recitations must take place in Japanese for the prayers to be effective. Anyone, however, who is familiar with the Hermetic and theurgic practices of late antiquity, and in particular with the Greek Magical Papyri, will be used to such concepts. Indeed, some of the prayers given in this book contain strings of syllables which simply cannot be translated, not unlike the voces magicae in some of the PGM and other ancient magical texts. Not only are English translations given for each norito, but the kanji and the Romaji (Romanized Japanese) is also given, so that the basic meaning can be understood alongside the proper pronunciation when these prayers are recited. A handy pronunciation guide, as well as appendices on basic ritual procedures encountered at Shinto shrines — misogi (cold-water/river/waterfall purification),kamidana (home shrines to the kami) maintenance and offerings, and chinkon meditation — are also provided in the book, with step-by-step instructions for each.
Furthermore, there are several diagrams depicting body postures and hand positions, which are very useful in exercising these practices. The book itself is spiral bound, so that it can be easily opened and set in front of oneself for reading and recitation without difficulty.
Rev. Evans is one of several Western practitioners who has had the good fortune to be involved with Yamamoto Yukitaka Guji, a truly visionary individual who lived through World War II, and whose deep involvement with and dedication to Shinto drove him to making Shinto in general, and the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of Japan in particular, open to the wider non-Japanese world. There is a branch of the shrine in Granite Falls, Washington in the U.S. (about 30 miles from Seattle), which is called Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America. I have had the good fortune to live near this shrine for many years, and it is the only Shinto shrine in North America at present (there are over eighty-thousand Shinto shrines in Japan, and a small handful in Hawai’i). As Shinto is not an exclusivist religion, and syncretism is not only encouraged, but is actively practiced within Shinto, both currently and historically, Rev. Koichi Barrish of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America has been extremely welcoming and grateful for shrine visits, support, and participation by people in the pagan, polytheist, and occultist communities of the area, and worldwide. If you happen to be in Western Washington and can manage a visit to the shrine, whether for a look around, to have a special ceremony, to take part in one of the seasonal festivals, or to do misogi (a truly unique experience!) or aikido training, I would highly recommend doing so.
If reading this book gives one a good sense of some of the poetry and the simultaneous simplicity and yet great profundity of the Shinto religious tradition’s practices, there are several other books I would recommend to supplement one’s initial readings. Yamamoto Yukitaka Guji’s book, Kami no Michi: The Way of the Kami (Stockton, CA: Tsubaki America Publications, 1999) gives a basic overview of Shinto practice, as well as detailing the life of this most extraordinary priest and his outreach to the wider world. His son, Yamamoto Yukiyasu, the 97th High Priest of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Japan, has also written a book called Introduction to Shinto: The Way of the Kami(Suzuka City, Japan, 2008), which reports on the seasonal cycle of the shrine over several years, and intersperses bits on its history (as it is one of the oldest recognized shrines in the country) and wider Shinto mythology in the process of doing so. (These two books, as well as those by Rev. Evans and several others, can be purchased from the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America’s website.) A shrine in Nagasaki is approached in a similar fashion in John K. Nelson’s A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), and includes information on the active syncretism of Shinto that, for example, turned a Christian saint into an enshrined kami at that shrine. Finally, further norito can be found (unfortunately, without transliterated Japanese) in Donald L. Philippi’s Norito: A Translation of the Ancient Japense Ritual Prayers(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).
[Phillip A. Bernhardt-House is a guest professor in the history department of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Phillip’s academic publications include articles in Béascna, Foilsiú,Cosmos: The Yearbook of the Traditional Cosmology Society, Journal for the Academic Study of Magic, and the Celtic Studies Association of North America Yearbook, as well as several anthologies and conference proceedings volumes, and articles in Parabola and Thorn. He is also the author of Werewolves, Magical Hounds, and Dog-headed Men in Celtic Literature: A Typological Study of Shape-Shifting, published in 2010 by The Edwin Mellen Press.]