Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Shinto Folklore

I have been looking into Shinto folklore, which is the Japanese belief in spiritual beings and powers known as Kami. The most accurate western translation for Kami is spirits, and each Kami is related to a different natural force or power. Kami can also be elements of nature such as, mountains, lakes, rivers,   earthquakes or storms.

Overall the Shanti belief is very complex and many meanings can be withdrawn. As I explained before, some Kami can be described as the different elements and forces of nature, including ancestral spirits. Also, Kami are the guardian spirits of the land, occupations and skills. Kami spirits are not only superior beings to man, but can also be spirits that are considered pitiable or weak. Within modern Shinto, there are no clearly defined criteria for what be considered Kami.

The objects described as Kami are not symbols of the spirits, more abodes in which they reside.
The spirits worshipped in Shinto are always increasing in size, as said in the Japanese phrase Yaoyorozu no Kami 八百万神.. literally meaning 'the eight million Kami'. 

Although the ancient designations are still adhered to, in modern Shinto many priests also consider kami to be anthropomorphic spirits, with nobility and authority. These include such mythological figures as Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess of the Shinto pantheon. Although these kami can be considered deities, they are not necessarily considered omnipotent or omniscient, and like the Greek Gods, they had flawed personalities and were quite capable of ignoble acts. In the myths of Amaterasu, for example, she could see the events of the human world, but had to use divination rituals to see the future.

The ancestors of a particular family can also be worshiped as kami. In this sense, these kami were worshiped not because of their godly powers, but because of a distinct quality or value. These kami are regional and many shrines (hokora) have been built in their honour. In many cases, people who once lived can thus be deified as gods; an example of this is Tenjin, who was Sugawara no Michizane (845-903) in life. Within Shinto, it is believed that the nature of life is sacred because the kami began human life. Yet, man cannot perceive this divine nature, which the kami created, on his own; therefore, magokoro, or purification, is necessary in order to see the divine nature. This purification can only be granted by the kami. In order to please the kami and earn magokoro, Shinto followers are taught to uphold the four affirmations of Shinto.
The first affirmation is to hold onto tradition and the family. Family is seen as the main mechanism by which traditions are preserved. For instance, with marriages or births, traditions can be practiced repeatedly. The second affirmation is to have a love of nature. Nature objects are worshipped as sacred because the kami live within them. Therefore, to be in contact with nature means to be in contact with the gods. The third affirmation is to maintain physical cleanliness. Followers of Shinto take baths, wash their hands, and rinse out their mouths often. The last affirmation is to practice matsuri, which is the worship and honor given to the kami and the ancestral spirits.
Additionally, Shinto followers believe that the kami are the ones who can either grant blessings or curses to a person. Shinto believers desire to appease the evil kami to 'stay on their good side,' and also to please the good kami. Therefore, as the four affirmations are values that Shinto believers strive to practice daily, they also wear omamori to aid them in remaining pure and protected. Mamori are charms that keep the evil kami from striking a human with sickness or causing disaster to befall him.
The kami are both worshiped and respected within the religion of Shinto. The goal of life to Shinto believers is to obtain magokoro, a pure sincere heart, which can only be granted by the kami. As a result, Shinto followers are taught that humankind should venerate both the living and the nonliving, because both possess a divine superior spirit within, the kami.

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