Shinto: A Celebration of Life

by Aidan Rankin

Published in the Watkins Review: Mind Body Spirit, issue 27 (summer 2011).

Join us on July, 14th 6.30-7.30pm - Aidan will be signing books and giving a talk at Watkins Books, London. The event is free. His latest book, "Shinto: A Celebration of Life" is a study of the Shinto religion and in particular its concept of Kami (Deity and deities), Kannagara (similar but not identical to Wu Wei in Daoism) and Musubi, or organic growth, which points to a more eco-centric way of living and thinking.

Shinto: A Celebration of Life by Aidan Rankin

For orthodox economists, the relegation of Japan to ‘third largest’ economy in the world after the United States and China is bad news for the Land of the Rising Sun. This is because they measure success by how far and how quickly the economy can expand. Strength is equated with ever-increasing consumption of ‘things’ and the continuous generation of ‘wealth’, defined in exclusively material terms. Weakness, in turn, is equated with contraction or stasis.

This process of expansion is held to be limitless and eternal, and yet everything must be measurable or quantifiable to ‘count’. Progress is viewed in terms of a straight line, moving inexorably forward. Inevitable and unstoppable, it demands that individuals and nation-states alike compete with each other in a constant struggle to ‘keep up’.

From this conventional standpoint, Japan is in a state of prolonged crisis. Orthodox measurements suggest that it is failing to progress. In the west, the concept of economic expansion as an end in itself has held sway for several centuries, underlying the European Enlightenment, the industrial revolution and the present technological age. There has been a presumption in favour of mechanistic ‘models’ of economics and society over more holistic world views that emphasise the spiritual as much as the material dimension.

The assumption behind this form of economics has been that humanity is ‘the measure of all things’, separate from and independent of the natural world. This approach has been imported to areas of the world that have chosen to copy the west or had western values thrust upon them.

Undoubtedly, the post-Enlightenment era has brought many benefits to artistic creation, scientific research and political thought. Repressive dogmas and distorted traditions have been challenged with a great measure of success. The concept of human rights remains the world’s strongest emancipatory force: I write at a time of political ferment in the Middle East. However, the negative aspects of the linear and mechanically ‘rational’ approach to progress are becoming increasingly apparent. In particular, the sense of disconnection from nature is wreaking environmental havoc and harming the human psyche.

As a species, we are discovering that the Earth’s resources are finite and that we cannot plunder them indefinitely. There is a search for alternatives to the ideology of unlimited economic expansion. With this comes a growing awareness that continuous material accumulation is no longer viable for us as a survival strategy. Moreover, it is also quite literally not enough.

Far from making us feel stronger and more confident, materialism has left us with a sense of unease about the direction in which humanity is going. Narrow individualism has, in reality, diminished us as individuals, because it has undermined the sense of community that is integral to being human. Uncontrolled economic ‘growth’ has failed even to deliver material security, while greatly increasing global inequality and placing our ecological balance in peril.

Viewed from this angle, Japan’s slowdown might be seen as more of an opportunity than a crisis. It is offering a whole society, and especially the upcoming generation, a chance to reflect on its long-term values and goals. In post-recession Japan, the move towards a more balanced, ‘steady-state’ economy is generating a more profound interest in the quality of life, including the environment. There is evidence of a renewed emphasis on co-operation and a re-evaluation of our true needs as human beings, as opposed to what we have been conditioned to ‘want’ or demand. In October 2010, for example, the Financial Times journalist Harry Eyres reported that there was a spate of books by younger writers with titles like Rebellion of the Simple Lifestylers and The Young Generation That Doesn’t Want Much.

This radical new movement draws (consciously or otherwise) upon a rich cultural inheritance. Central to this is Shinto, the indigenous spiritual tradition of Japan. Shinto is as much a disposition or sensibility as it is a philosophy or religious faith. There is no doctrinal orthodoxy, no concept of ‘sin’ and more emphasis on appreciation of life than preparation for death. Shinto practice is known as ‘the Way According to Kami’ – the divine presence innate in everything that is alive.

At the heart of Shinto is a sense that all living systems are intimately connected and dependent on each other as parts of Dai Shizen or Great Nature. In the words of Yamamoto Yukitaka, of the Tsubaki Shrine, ‘Dai Shizen is the vast cosmic setting into which we are born, where we live and within which our lives find any meaning’.

Shinto has much in common with Native American and Aboriginal Australian belief systems, as well as those of pre-Christian Europe. Yet unlike them, it has been able to evolve freely, without being violently interrupted or suppressed. Therefore, it is fully in tune with a modern, technological civilisation. One of Shinto’s most important – and relevant – ideas is Musubi, or organic growth. This is a cycle of expansion and contraction that governs all ecosystems, and by so doing ensures the continuity of life. Musubi can teach us as much about economic and social as ecological balance. It reminds us to live creatively, but without setting out to ‘conquer’ or separate ourselves from Great Nature.

In Shinto, our lives are seen as part of a continuous natural process, connecting past, present and future generations. We are asked to show ‘sympathy with all creatures’ – including fellow human beings – because they are extensions and reflections of ourselves.

Whatever our cultural backgrounds, we can find beauty and wisdom in this gentle, subtle but highly practical view of life. I hope that my book will increase understanding of Shinto and its relevance to the modern world.

Addendum: This article was written before the earthquake and tsunami, events which show that Great Nature can be swift and terrible as well as benign.

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