The other day a Japanese friend asked me if I had done hatsumode, the first temple or shrine visit of the year, yet. (Take a look at a post I made a few days ago about looking for a suitable place to do hatsumode.) There are plenty of Buddhist temples in the Bay Area but no Shinto shrines. I explained this to my friend, born and raised in Japan, and she asked, "What's the difference?" For me, everything.
Buddhist temples are interesting, and I find the teachings of Buddha fascinating from a philosophical and psychological standpoint. I like the architecture of temples, I like their tranquility. But I am not spiritually moved by them. I am, however, spiritually moved by Shinto shrines.
That my Japanese friend was not sure of the difference of her country's twin religions wasn't all that surprising. Indeed, for more than a thousand years there was no difference. Buddhism and Shinto existed syncretically, supporting and completing each other. Shinto, Japan's native religion, is about life as it is lived in the here and now, Buddhism about life later (or after life). Shinto ceremonies cover children and weddings, and Buddhism funerals. Shinto is animistic and pantheistic, with room for ever more gods. Buddhas, come on in. It was only in the late 1800s that Shinto was separated from Buddhism as part of a political movement to deify the emperor and legitimize a new form of government. This lead to State Shinto and all sorts of unfortunate Imperial expansionist policies.
But getting back to the matter at hand, there are no Shinto shrines in California. The nearest one is the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, in Washington, near Seattle. Not being able to go all the way there myself, I sent away for two omamori, amulets blessed and purified by the shrine. I got one for business, as this is the year I start working again, and one to make sure I choose the right path in life.
That I, raised as an athiest, should care about these kinds of things at all is evidence of how much I feel an affinity with Shinto. What started as a fun way to participate in Japanese culture has become something important to me. Do I really believe that a god will help me get a job? No, not really. Do I believe that by making a commitment and focusing my energies on something, I can help it to come true? Yes, surely.
But there's more. In Shinto, I feel awe. This is harder to explain. In fact, I think that's part of the definition of awe, that it's unexplainable. Let me give you an example. For hatsumode in 2008 I traveled all day from Oita, in southern Japan, to Matsue on the Sea of Japan coast, to visit Izumo-taisha, an ancient Shinto shrine. Set in the forest amongst mossy trees, its beautiful, pre-Buddhist architecture a reminder of a Japan long past, the shrine complex so moved me I couldn't help but cry. It was as if I had been there before. The experience of awe was incredibly palpable.
The Tsubaki Grand Shrine has this to say about Shinto:
Shinto emerged and developed spontaneously as an expression of the deep intuitive connection with Divine Nature enjoyed by human beings in ancient Japan. Shinto, as natural spirituality, is based on a harmonious primal relationship with the "infinite restless movement or Great Nature" rather than on the written or reveled teachings of human beings.
That last part is especially important to me, and until reading this pamphlet that accompanied my omamori I had never heard it said about Shinto. I have long felt that, for me, for a religion to have validity I must feel it directly. To be told how and what to feel by a person, whether that person be the Buddha, Jesus Christ or Muhammad, even should one of those people appear before me to deliver a special message, is still one person removed from me. Shinto, however, does not proscribe. These are no saints or teachers. There is only nature. And this makes sense to me.
I was not able to find a local shrine to visit this year, but I was able to find the Tsubaki Grand Shine online, purchase omamori, and thus receive this message that helped validate my feelings about Shinto. Sounds like a pretty good tradeoff to me.