• Spiritual Beliefs - Nature Worship

Spiritual Beliefs

Nature Worship

Being situated to the east of the Asian Continent, Japan consists of four main islands-Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. These islands stretch from the northeast to the southwest, together with about seven thousand smaller islands. Compared to its narrowness of land, Japan features a full variety of geographically diverse regions comprising seas, rivers, mountains, valleys, and plains. In addition, forests cover nearly seventy percent of the entire landmass. The climate is generally temperate, having clearly defined seasons of spring, summer, fall, and winter, though there is a significant difference in temperature between the northern and the southern regions. These geographic and climatic conditions are considered to have given rise to and influenced the development of the Japanese way of thinking and their attitudes towards nature as well as their conception of divinity.

Every culture has its own mythology and legends. They transmit the spirituality of ancient ancestors to their ascendants; accordingly mythology and legends are valued as the most important cultural heritage of the people.
In Japan, the Kojiki (The Record of Ancient Matters) is the oldest form of literature that presently exists. It was compiled in 712 A.D. by the order of the Emperor. According to the Kojiki, in the beginning of the universe there appeared various deities (kami) from the chaos. A male kami and a female kami appeared at the end and gave birth to the islands of Japan as well as the natural environment and several more deities who became ancestors of the Japanese.

The ancient Japanese considered that all things of this world have their own spirituality, as they were born from the divine couple. Therefore the relationship and connection between the natural environment and the people was that of blood kin like the one between siblings.

Agricultural society based on rice cultivation, like that in Japan, cannot exist without unification and harmony among all things on earth: mountains, rivers, the sun, rain, animals and plants, not to mention the cooperation among people. So, it was natural that people developed the idea that they could make their society flourish only when they worked together, fully performing their role, but at the same time, helping and supporting each other. There, the spirit of revering various kami, the land, nature, people, and, on top of that, the spirit of appreciation of the harmony among all these things was developed.

When we think of the sharp decrease of the world’s forests, or the destruction of the tropical rainforests which have a grave impact on the environment of the planet, it is remarkable that 67 percent of Japan is still forested. This is not only due to the Japanese climate or its mountainous geography, it is rather due to the influence of Japanese ancient civilization which respected the forest, treating it in a spiritual sense as well. This long continuing value system has made it possible to protect the forests in such a way until present day.

Regarding the reverence towards mountain kami, this began with an awareness of the mountain as an important water resource for rice cultivation. From this respect people regarded the mountain itself as a sacred object. This mountain faith prepared not only the way to preservation of mountain forests, but also the way to conservation of the ecosystem, knowing the fact that mountain forests provide rich nutrition to the seas through rivers and form an integral part of a healthy inshore fishery.

A shrine’s buildings and approach path are usually surrounded by a grove of trees. Since ancient times the Japanese people have strongly felt the presence of the sacred within forest groves, and they selected such locales as the sites for the performance of festive worship. In ancient times, a special tree or rock was selected within the forest, and the deities were entreated to make their spirit present and attend the site only for the period of the festival worship. Afterwards, the influence of permanent Buddhist temple architecture led to the building of permanent Shinto shrines as well, but even today, the shrine grove has an inseparable relationship to Shinto and its shrines.

The custom of ‘Chinju no Mori’ (the grove of a village shrine), highly valued in recent years for its role in preserving natural stands of trees, also serve as important opportunities for contact with nature, particularly for urban residents who have little chance to enjoy green areas.

Shinto has always made one of its highest priorities coexistence with nature. It could even be said that Shinto could not exist apart from nature. In Shinto, we believe that both humans and nature are children of kami, and live together as members of the same family.

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