Shinto and the Spirits of Nature

Shinto (神道) is the folk-religion of Japan. Intrinsic to it is a belief in the spiritual power of nature and the protective energies of plants, trees, mountains, and other forces of the Earth. All of these are known as kami (神) – the “genius” of “divinity” of nature – which may be a particular form like a flower, a place like a forest, or a natural process, like the turning of the seasons, which brings different plants and energies to prominence, or, indeed, the blowing of the wind, which has a spiritual and psychological effect such as the clarity of mind brought about by its refreshing qualities which ‘blow away our cobwebs’ and help us see more clearly.

Kami, then, are the guardian spirits of the land, but also of occupations, skills, talents, virtues, deeds or admirable actions, as well as our ancestors and sacred dead, all of which have an ‘essence’ which infuses our lives. In short, they are the divine forces of nature, representing the beauty and power of life in all its forms.

Kami traditionally have two souls: one gentle (nigi-mitama) and one aggressive (ara-mitama) and so – as we know – a spirit such as the wind may behave differently according to which soul possesses it at the time. The spirit that manifests may be the gentle breeze of a Summer’s day, bringing us peace and a sense of calm, or a hurricane which carries all before it and brings sudden change and violent breakthroughs. In this, the kami have ‘personalities’ or predispositions which are very human in nature.

The word Shinto is a conjunction of two kanji or ‘word-pictures’: shin (神), meaning ‘spirits’, and tō (道), meaning a philosophical way or ‘path’. Hence it is known as “The Path of Spirit”; the understanding, that is, that the divine is everywhere around and within us, and that there is a way of connecting with all of these spirits – both interior and exterior – through reverence of nature.

The first – and still the most powerful – Shinto ceremonies were performed outside, in forests or before rocks, which formed a naturally sacred space and a natural altar. These ceremonies did not incorporate icons, as, for example, Catholic rituals use bread and wine to stand for the flesh and blood of Christ, or images of the Virigin to represent Mary, because the spirits are formless essences, not the form itself: inhabitants only of the tree (or rock or waterfall) and not the tree itself.

In this sense, Shinto is shamanic and regards all things as alive, aware, sentient, and of spirit – just like us. As a consequence, kami are seen as closer to human beings in their nature and temperaments, thoughts and feelings, than ‘gods’, and all of them occupy the same world we do, not distant from us or inhabiting some far-off Heaven. To quote a phrase used by Terence McKenna in a different context: “Nature is alive and talking to us. This is not a metaphor”; within Shinto it is a reality.

The most obvious theme in Shinto, therefore, is respect for nature, and its rituals are designed to mediate relationships between the Earth, its spirits, and its human inhabitants. Any twisted branch or unusually-shaped stone might be a kami, as might a waterfall, a cloud, a wildflower, or the moon, or, indeed – more abstract but still nature-related – concepts like growth and fertility, and we must therefore tread lightly on the Earth and make the proper observances so as not to disturb or upset these spirits. Nature rituals ensure that we do so and part of the reason for them is that human beings, upon death, become a part of the kami too, irrespective of their ‘good’ or ‘bad’ deeds on Earth – so that the tree branch you carelessly break could be the spirit of an ancestor or, indeed, could be your own spirit in a few years time!

Knowing this, as soon as a child is born in Japan, his or her name is added to a list at a Shinto shrine, which makes that child a “family spirit”, or ujigami – which means they are already a ‘kami-in-waiting’ and will become one of the ‘geniuses’ of the place they are born to once they die. Those whose names are not on this list become “water children” (mizuko), who, upon death, are restless and unsatisfied and may cause troubles and plagues.

Shinto has no commandments as such, but there are four ‘Affirmations of Spirit’, which have their origin in the natural order:

1. The Shinto adept must love nature because it is sacred and brings us closer to spirit.

2. He or she must recognise the family as sacred because it is the main way in which traditions are preserved and spirit can be felt.

3. He or she must attend festivals dedicated to the Kami, of which there are many each year.

4. And he or she should give attention to cleanliness. Purity of mind, body, and spirit are all important. Certain deeds can create impurity or “dirtiness” (kegare), such as killing, or partaking in the death of, a living being. This should only be done with reverence – even if you are just eating a take-away meal of meat or vegetables – in the knowledge that you are consuming a life to continue your own. Failure to show respect demonstrates a lack of concern for others and can create problems for everyone because animals or plants killed without gratitude for their sacrifice may hold a grudge (urami) and their kami will seek revenge (aragami) on the entire community. One purification ceremony to avoid this is to stand beneath a waterfall or cleanse yourself in the sea if you have not made your thanks before now to nature. Another variant is to wash oneself in water and herbs which have a spiritually cleansing property. In the West, these could be vervain, marigolds, rose, or valerian.

Another way of honouring the spirits and gaining their support is to erect an altar in your house, which in Shinto is called a kamidana, or “spirit shelf”. This is hung on the North or West wall of one of your family rooms, just above head height. Before it you may pray and make offerings to the spirits of your home and the kami of nature in return for the favours they will then offer you.

To make a kamidana, first clean and purify your home, then choose a site that is light and quiet. On each side of the kamidana place evergreen banches for purity and longevity, and hang rope above the shrine as a protection for the spirits who live there, so only good energies may enter. You can also place items on your shrine that mean a lot to you, or for which you seek blessings and protection – such as family photographs and heirlooms that connect you with your ancestors and their love for you. On some shrines, a mirror is also positioned to reflect bad energies and keep your home and family safe. Very often plants, flowers, or small branches are placed on the shrine to represent the purity and power of nature and the spirit it contains.

Food offerings, called shinsen, are left to the spirits on this altar, as a mark of respect and to empower them so that they have the energy to help you. These generally include rice, wine (sake), water, and salt. For new beginnings, a rice gruel made with the seven herbs of Spring (parsley, shepherd’s purse, cottonweed, chickweed, henbit, turnips, and radish) are left at the shrine on January 7 during the celebration of Nanakusa-gayu. The food is removed from the altar next day and eaten as part of a family feast. By doing this, you and your loved ones will not suffer illness for a year. After making your offering, face the kamidana and give thanks for the gifts of your life. Then bow twice, clap twice, and bow once again. This ends the ceremony.

Shinto teaches that everything is alive and has kami or “spiritual essence”. There is a kami for everything and for all groups of things, so every rose has a kami, every species of rose has a kami, and there is a kami for all the roses and then for all the flowers of the Earth. All of these are collectively called Yaoyorozu no Kami, an expression literally meaning “eight million kami”, but which actually means ‘an infinite number of spirits’.

And this is a good way to look at life: to recognise the spirit in all things, to appreciate that nature is alive and talking to us, and that the richness of the Earth – in all its myriad forms – can be our ally, helping us to reconnect with the planet we live on and to know our place as we expand our horizons and empower our dreams to come true.