Monday, November 26, 2007

Applied Shinto: An Introduction

Part of the reason I started this webpage was to give me an outlet for some essays centered around a certain concept that I've become fairly obsessed with. I've been collecting notes for these essays, expanding outward from this central concept, but I've been increasingly hindered by one problem: I couldn't think of a word for it.

This has irritated me to no end for two reasons.  First, that the English language, which I'm kind of a fan of, hasn't seen fit to develop a word for this concept that I believe to be very important; and second, that it's damn hard to write about something you don't have a word for. So to solve the latter problem, I decided to pick a more-or-less arbitrary word, "umami", for a while simply because it was a word in Japanese for a concept (a fifth taste sensation) that apparently the English language also hasn't seen fit to develop a single word for. I even started to justify the choice by likening the "meaty" umami flavor to the "meatiness" of topic of my essays, but that just made me more frustrated not less.

Otorii at Itskushima Shrine

I think I've found my word however, and in discovering it I learned that I (unsurprisingly) am not the first person to become obsessed with this concept. I was on the right track though because the word is at least in Japanese, and the concept seems to underlie much of Japan's native religion, Shinto.

I will make this clear up front: I am not a Shinto scholar, and I probably can't even be rightfully called a Shinto student. Like most religions, Shinto has many interpretations and meanings to different people. But that very fact combined with the seeming open-mindedness of Shinto's followers makes me feel a little bit better about taking hold of it and building my own philosophy atop.

I also want to make clear that I do not feel Shinto lends any sort of theological or supernatural weight to my arguments. My belief is that most religions arose from man attempting to make sense of the universe, intuiting explanations for the world around him and laws to create harmony between people in the absense of enough data. To a greater or lesser extent, I think most major religions do a good job of making sense of what's important in life and how people should relate to one another, although most seem to accumulate parasitic dogma that distracts from the central truths that make the faith useful.

Shinto has its share of spirituality and mythology and I believe these stories are best taken as parable rather than literal truth. I am certain that there was a time when people believed them to be literal, but as we have pushed back mythology with science, I think the philosophical thinking behind the myth can still be relevant as a framework for looking at the world. I find this to be particularly true with Shinto, but the important thing is the useful framework itself, not any inherent mystical truth in the faith.

Okay, all that out of the way, I'll define my new word (and a second bonus word!) and begin describing this concept that has taken hold of me.

Continue reading here.