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  • Shinto: The Way Home: Dimensions of Asian Spirituality
  • Jason M. Wirth
Shinto: The Way Home: Dimensions of Asian Spirituality. By Thomas P. Kasulis. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2004. Pp. xx + 184.

Thomas P. Kasulis wrote his fine new book Shinto: The Way Home: Dimensions of Asian Spirituality as the result of a promise made over a glass of scotch to Henry Rosemont, who is currently editing a series of volumes highlighting various Asian spiritual traditions. These volumes promise to be strong, advanced introductions, and it is already clear that they should be seriously considered as introductory texts for courses in the Asian spiritual traditions. However, feeling "queasy" about his promise, Kasulis confessed that he was "primarily trained as a scholar of Japanese philosophy and there is simply not that much Shinto philosophy to write about" (p. xvi). Yet it appears that the scotch did not inspire frivolous behavior. The book is written by someone who has much love-perhaps even a pure heart and mind (makoto no kokoro)-for the Japanese spiritual heritage, and hence it makes an outstanding introduction to the basics of the Shinto tradition and its many practices. "Reading this book should help readers begin, not end, their study of Shinto" (p. xvii).

Kasulis argues that Shinto is for the most part not a religion in the conventional Western sense. In fact, the Japanese word for "religion," shūkyō, is a neologism to designate the teachings (kyō) that comprise a shū, that is, a "discrete religious community with common practices and teachings" (p. 30). Yet Shinto operates in the background for most Japanese people, and so does not necessarily originate or result [End Page 358] in a clearly articulated doctrinal position. It comprises part of the cultural ambiance of Japanese life. It shapes the Japanese wedding ceremony and governs the Japanese relationship to rice (including sake).

More significantly, it helps ritualistically inculcate the rudiments of what might be called something like a deep ecology. Certain remarkable locations in nature, certain foci that are spectacularly aberrant or startlingly exceptional, are marked off by a sacred portal (torii) or rope (shimenawa). They are designated as places of awe and wonder, as places inhabited by the kami (gods). In this way, a Shinto ecological aesthetic contrasts directly with a classical Western sense of beauty. The latter is achieved when an object is in maximum proximity to its idea-when it deviates as little as possible from its inherent nature. In Shinto the kami are present in an awesome deviation from the norm (as in a gnarled pine or a wondrously twisted rock).

Yet Shinto does not necessarily ghettoize the sacred space, truncating it from its circulation with all of nature. Rather, sacred spots (like sacred practices) are isolated in order to serve as an opening into nature as sacred. They are sacred portals to the sacredness of the whole-"they are holographic entry points for experiencing kami everywhere" (p. 23). Kasulis traces these themes from Japanese prehistory, including their eventual appropriation in the early-eighth-century chronicles the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki, both of which were commissioned by imperial decree. Furthermore, there was much in Shinto that was compatible with the emergence of Buddhism in Japan. The latter helped Shinto remain dynamic and nondogmatic (p. 93), and Shinto helped make some of the more difficult aspects of esoteric Buddhism (Shingon and Tendai) more accessible to commoners (p. 99).

However, in the isolationism of the Tokugawa period, Shinto was slowly wrested from its ensconcement in Japanese Buddhism. The influences of Neo-Confucianism and the Japanese code of the warrior (bushidō), the demilitarization of Buddhist monasteries, the relegation of monasteries to census taking, and other measures helped the Tokugawa clan consolidate their own power and enervate Buddhism's hold on Japan. Shinto itself would have to be freed from its Buddhist housing. The most fateful instance of this purification process transpired inadvertently with Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) and the dawning of the kokugaku or "native studies" movement. Norinaga spent more than three decades deciphering and annotating the linguistic labyrinth of the Kojiki. Yet this was not a mere scholastic exercise. Norinaga assigned the Kojiki the status of scripture...


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