When misfortune confounds us
in an instant we are saved
by the humblest actions
of memory or attention:
the taste of fruit, the taste of water,
that face returned to us in dream,
the first jasmine flowers of November,
the infinite yearning of the compass,
a book we thought forever lost,
the pulsing of a hexameter,
the little key that opens a house,
the smell of sandalwood or library,
the ancient name of a street,
the colourations of a map,
an unforeseen etymology,
the smoothness of a filed fingernail,
the date that we were searching for,
counting the twelve dark bell-strokes,
a sudden physical pain.
Eight million the deities of Shinto
who travel the earth, secretly.
Those modest divinities touch us,
touch us, and pass on by.
—Jorge Luis Borges
Shinto, meaning ‘way of the gods,’ is the oldest religion or way of life in Japan(c. 300 BCE – 300 CE). The faith has neither a founder or prophets and there is no major text which outlines its principal beliefs. The peoples of ancient Japan had long held animistic beliefs, worshiped divine ancestors and communicated with the spirit world via shamans.
For example, certain natural phenomena and geographical features were given an attribution of divinity. Most obvious among these are the sun goddess Amaterasu and the wind god Susanoo. Rivers and mountains were especially important, none more so than Mt. Fuji, whose name derives from the Ainu name ‘Fuchi,’ the god of the volcano.
Key Concepts in Shinto
- Purity – both physical cleanliness and the avoidance of disruption, and spiritual purity.
- Physical well-being.
- Harmony (wa) exists in all things and must be maintained against imbalance.
- Procreation and fertility.
- Family and ancestral solidarity.
- Subordination of the individual to the group.
- Reverence of nature.
- All things have the potential for both good and bad.
- The soul (tama) of the dead can influence the living before it joins with the collective kami of its ancestors.