Joseph Anderson

Japan: Shinto and Shamanism

As a practitioner of shamanism I am especially intrigued by Shinto, the Japanese version of indigenous religion that remains a prominent part of contemporary religious life. 

This is a sticky thicket to wade through: at the root of it, I believe, must have been a set of encounters very familiar to me and others who engage in shamanic practice: connecting with that powerful pine tree, that sacred waterfall, that vision of a fox spirit, flitting on the edges of consciousness and then showing up vividly to bring healing to some proto-Japanese tribal person in the distant prehistoric past.

Like all things Japanese (better: all things human) it has gotten more complicated since then. Early on these core experiences of the numinous in nature were co-opted and absorbed into the emerging imperial state; then centuries of tussles and uneasy reconciliations with Buddhism; then emergence as a core element of the identity of the new imperial state in the 19th century and further developed under the fascist regime in the 1930s. It’s a long, complicated, and contested story – but down below all that, as the heart of it, in the natural stone and wood and water, in the paper and hemp used to adorn nature, I know and recognize that devotional urge to connect with and honor the power of nature in its purity.

As with Buddhism, I have my hopes to find meaningful engagement with these energies – but actually I’m not really worried. My practice every day is to connectd with the spirits that are there for me. I will keep doing that and what needs to happen will happen. Whether that will be some connection with the kami that is special and unique, I have no idea (though I cannot deny being curious). But I am confident that some connection will be there, and that’s all that really matters.

When Victoria and I celebrated our 25th anniversay (an astonishing 6 years ago) we invited a Seattle-area Shinto priest to come and do a blessing ceremony.  Reverend Barrish, who is the head of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Granite Falls, WA, is quite a treasure, the first Westerner, I am told, to be ordained as a full Shinto priest – and he is warm and sweet and knowledgeable and mysterious all at once. That’s him there to the right, waving a wonderful paper fan in our backyard.

As he was reaching the critical moment in the anniversary blessing ceremony (with about fifty guests looking on) a swarm of bees suddenly appeared in the sky over our heads. It amazed everyone and create a bit of anxiety, but to Rev. Barrish and to us it felt like a profound blessing: of our marriage, of our work, of the communities we are part of.

That blessing energy still hovers over us today, manifesting all sorts of interesting and continually changing ways. So we will bring some of that with us to Japan – and perhaps bring back some more, maybe gleaned from a fox statue, a pine tree, a waterfall…