Syncretism and Shinto:  A Short Examination

Syncretism and Shinto: A Short Examination

Syncretism is something that is not restricted to any single culture, time period, or religious viewpoint: every religion syncretizes, or has syncretized, in their long histories. Often, when we are examining how syncretism works within our own modern polytheist traditions, it is good to look at the examples of religious cultures that are still active and thriving to see how they handle certain issues. One such example came to prominent light in my own life recently, as I alluded to here, and this column will explore it further.

For most Western peoples, whether secular or specifically spiritual, the new year has begun. From the viewpoint of traditional Chinese and Japanese cultures, however, we’re in the liminal period leading up to it at present. My last column was somewhat focused upon the end-of-year celebrations we often see in Western polytheistic contexts, many of them focusing on the rebirth and return of light and the deities associated with light or the sun. Such a myth of the sun’s disappearance and return (whether over the course of a year and solstice-focused or more of an allegorization of solar eclipses being equally possible and non-exclusive options for one’s own interpretation) does exist in traditional Japanese Shinto in terms of the solar goddess Amaterasu-Omikami, but the end-of-year and new year festivals of the Shinto tradition do not focus on the figure of this particular kami or any of the others, they instead focus on various acts of purification, which is a basic focus and theme throughout all of Shinto’s ceremonies.

Perhaps some of you saw, in the 1990s, the common e-mail forward which listed different world religions, and described each of them in terms of the phrase “shit happens.” Shinto itself tops the version of that list I was most familiar with, and was expressed by stating, simply, “Shit happens.” It took me many years to see how this was at all applicable to the religion–and, whether one likes it or not, it is! There are many concepts within Shinto that are closely related to certain conceptions within various Western polytheisms, and the concept of kegare is one of these, closely paralleling the Greek concept of miasma. Kegare is impurity, and it happens simply as the result of going through life and being in contact with the things of life, up to and including all the small deaths which are required to continue life. There are also forms of kegare known as tsumi which are actively cultivated by impure actions, as well as ritual violations and unethical behavior; but even if these grave errors of tsumi are avoided, everyone accumulates kegare (and, often unwittingly, tsumi), and thus going to a Shrine to engage in Shinto ceremonies is important, because all of them include rituals of purification, and oftentimes even several pre-purifications before the main one takes place. Other than the deliberately tsumi-accumulating actions which one might do, there is no moral negativity attached to kegare in Shinto, and thus it is nothing at all like the concept of “sin” that pervades so many Western monotheisms, even though it is often translated as if these concepts are equivalent.

At the end of the year, and at its mid-point, rituals of purification are especially important to Shinto practice. The Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America in Granite Falls, WA–which is the place where my engagement with and education on Shinto has mostly occurred–celebrates the end-of-year purification ceremony, Oharahishiki, usually in mid-December. The Shrine grounds are in an amazing spot of nature along the headwaters of the Pilchuck River (near the mountain of the same name), where evidence of Native American activity has been found dating back thousands of years. The river, which is considered a kami in physical form, is used for various ceremonies during the year, and for the regular practice of misogi-shuho purification (involving near-full bodily immersion in its cold waters), which I’ve participated in on one occasion, and which has formed the basis of a water-based purification practice we now perform in the Ekklesía Antínoou. During the Great Fall Ceremony a few years ago at the site, I watched salmon in the river who were spawning right before me! It is truly a place that is literally the “source of life” for the salmon and much else in nature, and thus is a great location to serve as the focus and actively-cultivated source of communal spiritual life for local Shinto practitioners. At this Shrine, which serves the large Japanese diaspora in Western Washington state, as well as a growing number of Western people (many of them polytheists, pagans, and occultists of various stripes), major seasonal festivals are held on Sundays before noon, which is an obvious accommodation to prevailing religious sensibilities in this country, and in itself represents a syncretistic reckoning of sacred time on the local Shrine’s level. The Oharahishiki takes place on the Sunday in mid-December, and represents the first of four ceremonies that mark the passing of the old year and the beginning of the new, and which stretch from mid-December to early February.

A gohei–a wooden purification wand with two paper shide or paper streamers representing the spiraling energy (ki) of the kami‘s presence. They are used for purification, as well as marking sacred areas.

In the Oharahishiki, each person (and, hopefully, their home) is purified by a special small hand-held gohei (“purification wand”), and the oharae-no-kotoba or “great words of purification”–a prayer that occurs in many Shinto ceremonies–is read facing the gathered people rather than directing it toward the enshrined kami. This peculiar “direction” of the prayer of purification occurs only twice during the year, at the mid-year and end-of-year purification ceremonies. In my own experience, the energetic effects of this are palpable, and the cold and white character of Shinto’s purifying energies, and of the presence of the kami generally speaking, washes in a wave over the people at various points during the recitation of the norito (“prayer”). By this ceremony’s completion, the accumulated tsumi and kegare of the latter half of the year is purified, and fresh ki (“life-energy”) from the abundance of nature around the Shrine, as well as the direct involvement of the kami (and especially Sarutahiko-no-Okami–the head of the earthly kami and the giver of ki–in the case of the Tsubaki Shrines in Japan and the U.S. where he is enshrined), is infused into the participants for the close of the year and the beginning of the new year.

Next in time is the Hatsumoude, the first Shrine visit of the year, on which thousands of people come to the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America at times ranging from midnight on New Year’s Eve to late in the afternoon on January 3rd or 4th (depending on the year). While this is the busiest festival of the year at the Shrine here in the U.S., major Shrines in Japan can receive literally millions of visitors over those few days. Many people participate in a ceremony, but many others simply come and make small monetary offerings and pray before the Shrine only, and then obtain omamori (amulets) and other items for their personal or domestic practices, and often also have divination via omikuji for the year-to-come. The atmosphere over those few days is festive, and there is also food available on the Shrine grounds, as well as tea, and fires are kept going outside to warm people who are waiting for a ceremony or are simply enjoying their tea in the intensified energetic environment of the Shrine. I will come back to a particularity of this festival in a few moments.

Following this, on a Sunday in mid-January, is the Kosatsu-Takiage-Shiki, which is a ceremony that expresses thanks, purification, and then proper disposition of all of the sacred instruments used in the previous year. In Shinto, many things are renewed on an annual basis–not unlike the movement of nature itself–and this includes all gohei and haragushi purification wands, all the shide that mark sacred areas of the shrines, the shimenawa ropes that similarly indicate sacred areas or objects, and all of the omamori that were used by people during the previous year, as well as many other such items. The culmination of this ceremony is the burning of all of these items in a grand purifying pyre while all present chant Harae Tamae Kiyome Tamae Rokkonshyojo, which translates very roughly as “purify me completely through the six roots of my being,” and which is used in a number of different purification ceremonies and other practices in Shinto.

The final ceremony of these four is Setsubun and the Mamemaki, which is usually right about the time of Imbolc, and at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, usually falls on the morning of that greatest of secular sporting holidays, Super Bowl Sunday. (As I am not a football fan, this has never made any difference to me!) Setsubun simply means “season-division,” and it was the old new year festival, and likewise Chinese New Year usually takes place around that time as well. Several important actions are taken on the part of the Shinto kannushi (“priest”) on this occasion, including firing misfortune-dispelling arrows in various auspicious or inauspicious directions for that particular year. But, the real fun for the gathered people occurs in the Mamemaki, when two brave Shrine volunteers, dressed as oni, come menacing and attacking, and (due to cultural puns) the people mercilessly pelt them with roasted soybeans to dispel the negative energies they bring while yelling “Oni wa soto!” This is literal fun for the whole family, as you can imagine. Once the oni are driven away, some soybeans are thrown toward the Shrine itself to bring good fortune to it, as people shout “Fuku wa uchi!” The two phrases together essentially mean “Out with the bad, in with the good!”

We can see an evolution here, however, in how these various festivals eventually stacked up in this order, and how the secular new year as observed in the West came to be influential in all of this. Though the older traditions are still preserved in terms of Setsubun, the major focus has shifted to Hatsumoude both in Japan and in Shinto as practiced elsewhere. Participation in the larger and more formal ceremony for those who come to the Shrine is pretty much the norm for all four of these festivals except for Hatsumoude, where simply coming to the Shrine, making an offering and praying, and obtaining various sacred items or other services is individual and though “formal” is essentially informal, and can be done without any difficulty or sense of it not being “odd” to have traveled all that distance without taking part in the official ceremony. And, the ceremonies themselves on each occasion demonstrate this. For the Oharahishiki, Kosatsu-Takiage-Shiki, and Setsubun ceremonies, there is a preliminary purification, followed by a great and reverent deep bow by everyone present to open the official ceremony, and then the presentation of food offerings and all the other activities of that particular ceremony occur, and at the end, there is a final deep bow as well to complete the ceremony. For Hatsumoude, the ceremony which is followed is exactly like any other ceremony that one might make an appointment for during the rest of the year at the Shrine, and is in fact one for purification (which is usually the ceremony I take first-time visitors, as well as my college students, to at the Shrine). There is a preliminary purification, of course, but then after that, there is no major formal bow, nor are food offerings given (though, since they are given daily at the Shrine, they are already present); it simply goes right to the appropriate norito for the occasion.

While the casual observer and participant in the Shrine’s rituals might not think this is a very major detail to focus upon, it speaks volumes to the student of religious history, of polytheist practice, and of syncretism. The three more traditional rituals, with their various distinctive characteristics and practices, are all accompanied by a formal bow at the beginning and end of the ceremony. Yes, there is bowing throughout the ceremony as well (especially by the kannushi), but also before the ceremony begins several times for those who approach the Shrine in a reverent fashion, but this additional deep bow, without clapping (as is done with praying), and a deep (ninety-degree) rather than slight (forty-five-degree) bow, really demonstrates the more ancient and traditional character of those festivals as opposed to the newer and less-formalized ceremonies on the several days of Hatsumoude‘s observance itself.

There are a great many things, and probably many more obvious ones, which Shinto can teach about syncretism (not only with Buddhism and Taoism, but also with Christianity), and thus this particular issue may seem like a very small matter to focus upon, but it is intriguing to do so in any case. What might this suggest for our own practices of syncretism? While the form of Hatsumoude described above, held on its modern dates, has been done for over a century in Shinto, really the concept of “first Shrine visit of the year” has been done for ages, and would entail any time this occurs, whether on January 1st or March 19th if that date happened to be one’s first visit of the year. The accommodation of this tradition to Western orderings of time, represents a major syncretistic innovation for Shinto in Japan and elsewhere based on contact with Western culture; likewise, the holding of ceremonies on Sunday at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America represents a similar innovation.

One of the major points of my last column here was to emphasize that holy days and festivals take place in real time, with real people (and, needless to say, honoring real deities!), and thus they have histories that can be traced and understood, instead of assuming that they are all part of some distorted romantic notion of “antiquity” and “tradition.” As we continue to research the ancient practices of our various Western cultures and the holy tides and days they observed, likewise innovations can and will occur based on any number of factors, whether personal or communal in nature. This process can (and, I’d argue, should!) also be taking place with the wider occasions observed both secularly and religiously in our wider overcultures. Chanukkah has only become a “major” Jewish holiday as a result of the over-hyping of Christmas in American culture; likewise, in Shinto, the secular New Year of Western society has become a multi-day festival amidst the constellation of traditional Shinto observances that has entirely eclipsed the others in importance. While such syncretistic innovations may not (and, likely, should not!) overshadow other observances that we have as modern polytheists, perhaps we should look to these examples as possibilities for how such innovations can become even more meaningful and important for us when they are consciously entered into, rather than simply relying on some reflected glory of an ancient and unchanging past–which, it should be pointed out, never existed and has never been a reality. History is not a record of unbroken continuity and sameness, it demonstrates that no matter how much matters may seem the same, or may continue similar themes, there is change of all sorts occurring at every point. Our traditions are not amazing dragonflies in amber, they are many types of salmon hatching, swimming downstream and out to oceans and returning to their native rivers to spawn once again–rivers that can never be swum the same way twice.

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  1. Very interesting… I touched on the kegare/miasma parallel in a guest post for Green Shinto last year (part 1 and part 2, if you’re interested), but I had no idea about the innovations in hatsumoude!

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