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Thread: Book: "Shinto - At the Fountain-head of Japan"

  1. #16
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    Shinto as a component of Buddhism? I studied Japanese religion briefly when I was in Japan and was told of a theory that allowed Shintoists to believe that the Buddha was a manifestation of the kami and allowed Buddhists to believe that the Shinto kami were manifestations of the Buddha (the Honji Suijaku theory, or something like that).

    Anyway, the religious practices we now know today as Shinto, though perhaps on a less organized level, predated Buddhism, or so I have been led to believe. At what point, and how, was Shinto subsumed into Buddhism?
    Last edited by Earl Hartman; 14th February 2002 at 23:52.
    Earl Hartman

  2. #17
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    Los Angeles, CA USA
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    Professor Bodiford,

    Thanks very much for your response!

    Insight such as this is why I posted the subject here. I've wasted a great deal of time over the last twenty years or so reading what is published on martial arts, and then re-learning what I thought I knew after the proper "filters" were developed.

    I'm hoping to avoid this tiring learning curve when reading about other subjects! I'll take what Herbert says with a grain of salt and search for supporting references. I look forward to finding the other references you listed as well.

    On a more personal note, I hope you had a good holiday season and new year. I meant to write to you earlier, but have been bogged down with responsibilities and travel.

    Thanks again,
    Nathan Scott

    "Put strength into your practice, and avoid conceit. It is easy enough to understand a strategy and guard against it after the matter has already been settled, but the reason an opponent becomes defeated is because they didn't learn of it ahead of time. This is the nature of secret matters. That which is kept hidden is what we call the Flower."

    - Zeami Motokiyo, 1418 (Fūshikaden)

  3. #18
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    Originally posted by Earl Hartman
    . . . the religious practices we now know today as Shinto, though perhaps on a less organized level, predated Buddhism, or so I have been led to believe. At what point, and how, was Shinto subsumed into Buddhism?
    Dear Earl:

    The complexity of this topic (and my own busy schedule) prevents me from attempting to address it with the adequacy it deserves via such a limited medium (electronic bulletin boards). The construction of social identities, their transformation over time, and their labeling by observers for various purposes (political, religious, economic, academic, etc.) cannot be discussed without careful stipulation of methodological assumptions and definition of terms (etc.). When I teach courses on Japanese religions at UCLA, I assign my students to read many books (such as the ones cited above) as well as many more articles. I lecture day after day. I answer student questions inside the classroom and meet with students during my office hours. Nonetheless, even after all of that effort, when I read the final exam essays written by those students, I always discover that 10% to 20% of them have misunderstood key points.

    Let it suffice to say in this forum that specialists in the history of religions begin with the methodological assumption that something that they can identify as "religious" plays an important roll in all human societies in all places and in all times. (Of course, they cannot agree on a definition of what they mean by "religious.") Therefore, they assume that there must have been some kinds of religious practices among the various communities who populated the islands of Japan prior to the arrival of Buddhism (ca. 6th century). The question is not the existence of pre-Buddhist religion, but what to call it. Since the 18th century it has been called "shinto." Recently, a number of scholars have challenged the usefulness of that designation. In other words, they ask:

    Does it really help our understanding of Japanese culture to use the same name for the practices commonly associated with "shinto" today (20th & 21st centuries) and for religious practices of the 4th and 5th centuries?

    There are a number of reasons why I argue that the answer is: "No, it is not helpful." I will list these reasons in the following order: pre-Buddhist Japan, Buddhist Japan, modern Japan.

    1. Reasons why the label "shinto" is not helpful for understanding the religious life of pre-Buddhist Japan.

    The label "shinto" implies a country-wide unity which probably did not exist. Archaeological evidence suggests a wide diversity of different cultural groups located in different geographic regions with different lifestyles. Usually differences in lifestyles find expression in differences in religious practices. Modern ideologies that assert the racial purity and homogeneity of the Japanese seek to divert our attention away from religious regionalism. Thus, applying the label "shinto" to ancient Japan helps that ideological agenda succeed.

    The label "shinto" implies a cultural uniqueness which probably did not exist. Archaeological evidence reveals that among the geographic variations of north-eastern Asia there are many parallels among the grave goods, tomb wall paintings, jewels (magatama), etc., found in pre-Buddhist islands of Japan, in the peninsula of Korea, and in plains of Mongolia. We never talk about the shinto of pre-Buddhist Korea or the shinto of pre-Buddhist Mongolia. Why, then, should we do so in the case of Japan? Modern ideologies that assert the uniqueness of Japan seek to divert our attention away continental parallels. Thus, applying the label "shinto" to ancient Japan helps that ideological agenda succeed.

    The label "shinto" implies that we know more than we really do about pre-Buddhist Japan. The texts usually cited for knowledge of pre-Buddhist Japan (e.g., Kojiki, Nihon shoki, Man'yoshu) all were written for political purposes during the 8th century. By that time the ruling elites already had been promoting Buddhism as a state religion for several generations. Those early texts are full of information about Buddhism and Confucianism and other Chinese cosmological and religious concepts. Previous scholars attempted to exclude those elements from consideration and to regard anything remaining as evidence of "shinto." The problem with that approach is that if we compare the remaining elements with what we know about the roles of local gods as described in the literature of other Buddhist and/or Confucian societies, then we can find similar examples in those texts. These comparisons show how impossible it is to separate "cultural survivals" from "cultural imports." Thus, the label "shinto" encourages an inadequate study of early Japanese texts in isolation from the study of non-Japanese Asian literature which would otherwise help illuminate them.

    The label "shinto" tends to conflate the imperial mythology described by texts like Kojiki and Nihon shoki with all other religious phenomena of early Japan. Imperial mythology describes a social order in which the head of the royal family enjoys a divine right to rule over regional lords who, in turn, enjoy the divine right to rule over lands and people. Ordinary people have no connection to the gods of the ruling elites and in many cases are expressly forbidden from worshiping them. The political agenda of this mythology probably bore little connection to the religious practices of ordinary people. Nonetheless, applying the label "shinto" to ancient Japan effectively obscures any attempt to notices these kinds of distinctions.

    The label "shinto" implies the existence of something that developed independently from Buddhist and Chinese influences. Instead, almost every feature that has or can be associated with anything that ever has been called Shinto developed through the combination of continental elements, usually combined according to Buddhist systems of association. From physical features (architecture, cosmological orientations, decorations, etc.) to social practices (professional priesthood, rituals, music, chants, etc.) to linguistics (sacred texts, chants, prayers, etc.) to mythology (deities in anthropomorphic forms, many of which came from Korea, China, or India) to concerns (purity vs. impurity, oracles, hierarchy, etc.) and so forth, Japanese religious life exhibits adaptation and development of religious practices already prevalent in Korea, Mongolia, and China. The label "shinto" promotes the study of Japanese religious practices in isolation from the study of similar religious practices elsewhere in Asia which would otherwise help illuminate them.

    2. Reasons why the label "shinto" frequently is not helpful for understanding the religious life of Buddhist Japan.

    The label "shinto" implies that Buddhism lacks any concern with local gods. In fact, just the opposite is the case. Buddhist cosmology assigns various roles to local gods, Buddhist temples are populated with local gods and their shrines, Buddhist scripture discuss local gods, and Buddhist rituals direct prayers to local gods. The label "shinto," however, promotes the study of local gods without reference to Buddhism and promotes the study of Buddhism without reference to local gods. Such an approach frequently results in misunderstanding both.

    Using the word "shinto" as a label (as a proper noun) inhibits us from questioning the meaning of that word when it appears in premodern texts. The graphic signs that we read as "shinto" is a word of Chinese origin. In Chinese Confucian classics the word "shinto" (shendao) implies cosmological regularity. In Chinese Taoist scriptures the word "shinto" refers to methods of immortality or to spiritual powers. It was used by Chinese to refer to Buddhas, to Taoist gods, to Indic (Hindu) gods, and (much later) to the Christian god. In Chinese Buddhist scriptures the word "shinto" refers to the generative life force, to Buddhism itself, or to non-human realms of rebirth. In common Chinese it refers to the "spirit tablets" used in rites of ancestral worship or even to the road leading to a cemetery. In Japanese history, many other meanings --- some mutually contradictory --- were attached to the word "shinto." During the 18th century, for example, some Japanese authors asserted that shinto concerns only the royal family and that ordinary people should not be allowed to worship local gods. Thus, casual use of the label "shinto" encourages us to assume a singular meaning and ignore alternative possibilities.

    The label "shinto" is anachronistic since little evidence suggests that premodern Japanese ever were aware of a separate religion called "shinto." When the Buddhist monk Kukai (774-835) described the religions of the world, for example, he mentioned: hedonism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Nothing else. The Buddhist monk Nichiren (1222-1282) wrote that Japan is superior to India and China because only Japan is without any non-Buddhist religion whereas India has Hinduism and China has both Confucianism and Taoism. Of course both of those monks knew that shrines to local gods played an indispensable role in Japanese society. But they also knew that the priests of those shrines were themselves Buddhists who also studied Buddhist scriptures, who performed rituals at Buddhist temples, who received Buddhist funeral rites, and who frequently received Buddhist tonsure when they retired from their responsibilities at the shrine. A Buddhist temple could not exist without a shrine (or shrines) to local gods who protected the temple and who promoted Buddhist teachings. Shrines, therefore, played an indispensable role in Buddhism. Of course shrines also played many other political and social roles not directly related to Buddhism. Nonetheless, frequently the earliest accounts we have of the legends, miracles, and rituals of local gods were written by Buddhist monks. In fact, many of the famous Shinto shrines of present-day Japan were Buddhist temples prior to 1868. When people of the time period being discussed did not distinguish between Buddhism and Shinto, then scholars should not insert that distinction without sound reasons. When people did identify something called "shinto," then scholars should try to determine what was or was not implied by that word. Blindly applying the label "shinto" to Buddhist Japan prevents us from clearly investigating how earlier people themselves viewed their worlds.

    Using the word "shinto" as a label (as a proper noun) for all of Buddhist Japan inhibits us from investigating the emergence of Shinto as a distinct discourse over the course of Japanese history. Literate Japanese did not begin to write about phenomena that they labeled "shinto" until the medieval period, probably not until the 11th century. At that time, the earliest extant texts about Shinto were written by Buddhist monks who described the roles of local gods in promoting Buddhist teachings. Over time non-Buddhist or Confucian or even anti-Buddhist treatises about Shinto appeared, but that process required centuries of evolution and exerted little influence on popular notions until the 18th century. Even then, the word "shinto" probably did not make the transition from being a literary term to becoming a word used in conversation until the 19th century. The historical emergence and development of various kinds of Shinto discourse is a major feature of Japanese history, one that deserves much closer attention than it has received.

    The label "shinto" implies that the relationship between local gods and Buddhism in Japan is unique or an isolated case. In fact, Buddhism has promoted articulation of local religious systems in many parts of Asia. The anthropologist Stanley Tambiah (professor at Harvard) has shown how non-Buddhist spirit cults in Thailand owe their religious structure to Buddhist models. Likewise, the Buddhist influences on Bon in Tibet and on Taoism and Confucianism in China have been enormous. Our understanding of the emergence of Shinto in Japan would benefit immensely from comparative study of Buddhism and local religions elsewhere in Asia.

    3. Reasons why the label "shinto" frequently is not helpful for understanding the religious life of modern Japan.

    Use of the label "shinto" for pre-Buddhist Japan implies our acceptance of the imperial mythology, which states that Japan began in 660 BCE when Jinmu, the first tenno, founded the nation. ("Tenno" is a Taoist religious term that literally means "heavenly sovereign" and today usually is translated as "emperor.") The absurdity of that date becomes immediately apparent when we note that the 1st emperor of China did not found his state (the Qin empire) until more than 4 centuries later in 221 BCE. No Western scholars have ever accepted the impossible ancient dates asserted in Japanese histories, but until recently they nonetheless (and against all evidence to the contrary) accepted the historical framework which posits the existence of an ancient Japanese state with an ancient Japanese religion (Shinto) that developed independently of China and Korea. In modern times (and even today) the imperial mythology of an unbroken royal line going back to Jinmu has held tremendous political power. Use of the label "shinto" for pre-Buddhist Japan inhibits our ability to understand that imperial mythology for what it is: an ideological construct.

    Use of the label "shinto" for pre-Buddhist Japan implies a naive acceptance of the image promoted by Meiji-period (1868-1912) rulers that their policies merely "restored" ancient customs. It reinforces their xenophobic obsession with promoting "pure Japanese-ness" in opposition to unwelcome foreign influences. They saw Shinto as being native to Japan while Buddhism and Confucianism were denigrated as foreign imports. They ignored the fact that all civilizations develop in interaction with their neighbors. They ignored the fact that Buddhism and Confucianism exerted formative influences on every aspect of premodern Japanese life and culture. (Just imagine someone arguing that Christianity is foreign to the United States simply because it was not invented in America.) Use of the label "shinto" for pre-Buddhist Japan helps foster acceptance of their assertion that they had accomplished the restoration of ancient Shinto instead of the invention of something new, which, though clad in ancient garb, had never existed in that way before.

    Use of the label "shinto" for modern Japan implies an unchanging essence that helps render invisible the radical transformation of Japanese religious life between 1868 and 1945 --- a transformation that Allan Grapard (a professor at UC Santa Barbara) has rightly called "Japan's Ignored Cultural Revolution." (See his 1984 article by that title in: History of Religions vol. 23 no. 3: 240-265.)

    Today neither we nor most Japanese can readily imagine just how much the Shinto we know has changed from what it used to be. Here is a brief summary of some of those changes. In 1868 the new Meiji regime ordered local gods to be dissociated from Buddhism. In other words, all worship halls for gods were stripped of their Buddhist names, Buddhist powers, Buddhist religious rituals, Buddhist art, and Buddhist symbols, and given new "Japanese" identities. Thousands and thousands of Buddhist temples were destroyed to create what subsequently became known as "Shinto." In 1873 the Meiji government outlawed many so-called "superstitious" religious rites performed at the newly independent Shinto institutions. In 1882 the government ruled that Shinto is NOT a religion but a civic duty. They defined Shinto shrines as "civic centers," the rituals of which bond together royal subjects and government officials with the mythological ancestors of the royal family. They forbad Shinto celebrants from performing private religious rituals. In 1906 the government initiated a nationwide program of shrine "mergers," a euphemism for the elimination of shrines that were too small for government supervision. Nationwide more than 52% of Shinto shrines were destroyed, thereby depriving rural villagers of local worship halls. In 1945 the occupation GHQ forbid Shinto shrines from exercising any government-controlled civic role. Deprived of their nationalist and ideological purpose, most shrines were forced to adopt new identities as primitive nature cults, dependent on private individuals. This is the reason why in 1947 the famed folklorist and scholar Orikuchi Shinobu (1887-1953) wrote that Shinto as a "religion" is only 2 years old. In short, first the Buddhist roles were stripped away, then the religious roles were stripped away, then the local roles were stripped away, and finally the national role was stripped away. What was left? Thus, use of the word "shinto" without historical qualifications begs the question: Which Shinto?

    The first person to attract widespread attention to the problems with the label "shinto" was a Japanese scholar named Kuroda Toshio (1926-1993), whose work has revolutionized the way that scholars examine medieval Japan. For a brief English-language summary of his view of Shinto, see:

    Kuroda, Toshio. 1981: "Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion." Translated by James C. Dobbins and Suzanne Gay. Journal of Japanese Studies 7: 1-21.

    Kuroda's article has been reprinted in at least two books:

    Religions & Society in Modern Japan. Edited by Mark Mullins, Shimazono Susumu, and Paul Swanson. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1993.

    Religions of Japan in Practice. Edited by George Tanabe Jr. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

    More of Kuroda's scholarship can be found in a 1996 special issue of the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, vol. 23 nos. 3-4, edited by James Dobbins, which consists almost entirely of translations from a few of his more influential essays. This entire issue is available on-line:

    In spite of the fact that many scholars like Kuroda and Grapard have published widely on this topic, most Western-language textbooks and reference works still describe Shinto in terms of the 19th-century ideological framework which sought to portray it as "Japan's native religion."
    William Bodiford
    Dept. of Asian Languages & Cultures

  4. #19
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    Thanks very much for this post-cum-lecture. Most excellent e-budo indeed.

    I have not researched this subject much, but I had a feeling that something was up when I visited Eiheiji (for those unfamiliar with this temple, it is the headquarters of the Soto Zen sect, located in Fukui Prefecture) and was greeted with the sight of what was obviously a Shinto shrine located within the grounds. From things like this, and other cultural practices of the Japanese in general, it was quite clear that most Japanese did not perceive a clear distinction between Shinto and Buddhism, and were comfortable with a kind of syncretism that most Westerners find confusing.

    That's why I didn't ask about Shinto, but about the "religious practices we know today as Shinto", since I had long suspected that there had been some serious syncretistic hanky-panky, so to speak, going on, especially with the construction of State Shinto as a tool of "pure" Japanese nationalism, essentially "Ware-ware Nipponjin Ron-ism" taken to a ridiculous extreme.

    It sounds very much like Buddhism co-opted the deities of local, loosely organized, so-called "primitive" religious practices and incorporated them into Buddhist practice, much in the same way that Catholicism absorbed pagan deities and holidays, Christianizing the deities as saints and establishing Christian holidays on the sacred days of the pre-existing pagan religions.

    Anyway, very interesting. Thanks again.
    Last edited by Earl Hartman; 27th February 2002 at 19:55.
    Earl Hartman

  5. #20
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    Austin, TX
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    Holy thread necromancy, Batman. Sorry to chime in on this one so late, but I just read Dr. Bodiford's most excellent post putting the term shinto into historical perspective. A very good read indeed, Professor Bodiford, and I look forward to reading the books and articles that you recommended. Any newer works since this thread died in 2002?
    Joe Cheavens

    Time flies like the wind.
    Fruit flies like bananas.

    Mushi mo atsui hodo

  6. #21
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    Quote Originally Posted by Matsuba
    Mr. Scott,
    You should try and find a copy of "Kami no Michi
    The Way of the Kami" by Yukitaka Yamamoto (Tsubaki
    America Press).
    This is one of the best books around on Shinto.

    Jason House
    "Kami no Michi" is available online at:

    Best wishes,

  7. #22
    Conor Guest


    I dont understand

  8. #23
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    Helsinki, Finland
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    Quote Originally Posted by TEA
    Any newer works since this thread died in 2002?
    A book by Thomas Kasulis came out in 2004, "Shinto - The Way Home" (ISBN 0-8248-2850-X). In it Kasulis talks about philosophical dimensions of shinto, so it's in no means a comprehensive work.

    Any comments on that one?

    Best Regards,
    Laeticia Söderman

    "No ma'am, talking to your plants is a completely healthy habit to have, research even shows that they grow better when you talk to them. However, when they start not only talking back to you... but telling you to kill the neighbors cat, then there might be a problem." -Vera

  9. #24
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    Quote Originally Posted by TEA
    Holy thread necromancy, Batman....Any newer works since this thread died in 2002?
    Buddhas and Kami in Japan: Honji Suijaku as a Combinatory Paradigm
    Author Teeuwen, Mark (ed.); Rambelli, Fabio (ed.)
    Publisher Taylor & Francis Group
    Year 2003


    Fall 2002, 29/3–4
    Tracing Shinto in the History of Kami Worship
    Guest Editors: Mark Teeuwen & Bernhard Scheid

    634. Teeuwen, Mark, and Bernhard Scheid
    Tracing Shinto in the History of Kami Worship: Editors' Introduction. [195–207]
    635. Grapard, Allan G.
    Shrines Registered in Ancient Japanese Law: Shinto or Not? [209–32]
    636. Teeuwen, Mark
    From Jindō to Shinto: A Concept Takes Shape. [233–63]
    637. Rambelli, Fabio
    The Ritual World of Buddhist "Shinto": The Reikiki and Initiations on Kami-Related Matters (jingi kanjō) in Late Medieval and Early-Modern Japan. [265–97]
    638. Scheid, Bernhard
    Shinto as a Religion for the Warrior Class: The Case of Yoshikawa Koretaru. [299–324]
    639. Maeda, Hiromi
    Court Rank for Village Shrines: The Yoshida House's Interactions with Local Shrines during the Mid-Tokugawa Period. [325–58]
    640. McNally, Mark
    The Sandaikō Debate: The Issue of Orthodoxy in Late Tokugawa Nativism. [359–78]
    641. Thal, Sarah
    Redining the Gods: Politics and Survival in the Creation of Modern Kami. [379–404]
    642. Inoue Nobutaka
    The Formation of Sect Shinto in Modernizing Japan. [405–27]
    643. Teeuwen, Mark
    Review of: Itō Satoshi, Endō Jun, Matsuo Kōichi, and Mori Mizue, Nihonshi shōhyakka: Shintō. [429–31]
    Don J. Modesto
    Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

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