Greetings from Japan

Running up through the torii gates, which mark the boundary between the sacred and the profane.


There are two kinds of religious buildings in Japan: temples and shrines. Temples are Buddhist. Shrines are holy places, spiritual emanations, of traditional Japanese culture, which is often called Shinto — or worse, Shintoism — in the West.

In my experience, your average Japanese person wouldn’t know what to make of the question “Are you Shintoist?” — unless they had spent time in the West, with its tireless emphasis on dogma (to the point that most Christians and Muslims and Atheists don’t even consider it dogma, simply rational belief).

There is no such thing as Shintoism, just as there is no such thing as Hinduism, which was invented by British observers of India as a means of translating the native religious experience for the people back home, who require their faiths to be rational: clearly demarcated, nominally consistent, hierarchical.

India’s case is somewhat unique in that the advent of Islam forced, by conflict, some demarcation. Hindus self-identify as Hindu (whereas the Chinese, who also have a traditional religion with no name and no dogma, do not self-identify as anything but Chinese). If you spend time in India, you learn quickly there is no such thing as Hinduism, at least as we imagine it in the West. There are only Hinduisms — nearly as many as there are Hindus.

Each village in India will have its own deity, for example. That deity may be shared with other villages or it may be unique. That deity may be identified as an emanation or avatar of some wider deity, like Shiva or Vishnu, but if so, he or she is rarely worshiped that way. Villagers will have bhajans and festivals, which are shared worship, as will households, but the deity is open to all and each person will conceive of him or her in their own way.

Gurus, then, are insightful men who have conceived of some new way and who preach it to others. For this, they are not nailed to anything.

Most Japanese have an innate and unspoken reverence for nature, and beyond it, what you might call the deep roots of the universe, whose growth and movement one can never fully comprehend. Japanese society is highly structured. Her students excel at math and science. But even the most logical among them will talk casually about a certain something that it is almost impossible to render into English. We might say forces, but the word force implies moment and direction. Tides might be better. Tides of history. Tides of society. Tides of the cosmos. We are caught in these tides. They are not invisible, but neither are they easily explicable.

In the West, religious tribes gather every week and speak words in unison that both identify and distinguish them, even from other sects of the same faith. Collectively, they are like the tiles of a Roman mosaic, each neatly abutting the next with no overlap.

The sects of Japanese Buddhism — zen, for example, which is the Japanese version of the Chinese chan school — might disagree with each other about which is the best path to enlightenment, but none of them would suggest theirs is the only path.

And Buddism itself is somewhat agnostic about the divine structure of existence. Its texts speak of many gods, innumerable gods from this universe and others, who watched the Buddha attain enlightenment. In that sense, Buddhism can be adapted to almost any religion. It is not so much a faith as an exit.

What we call Shinto is the native Japanese religious experience which grew organically on the islands and which, while having certain characteristics, is not a dogmatic system. It does not have adherents, only believers.

To that is added Buddhism, which neither extends nor contradicts its partner. It merely offers another way out.


I am in Japan through the end of the month. Posts might be sporadic for the next few weeks.