Lessons in Eternity from Japanese Kami

A divine life-force energy permeates the natural world. In some cultures this is called chi, others prana or awen; in ancient Japan, that energy was given definition with kami.

The indigenous faith of Japan, Shinto, is not unlike other shamanic traditions found among human cultures. Expression of faith typically takes the form of showing honor and reverence for ancestors as familial and individual guardians, as well as showing deep respect for the abundance of kami, or gods, that occupy the islands.

Modern paganism typically tries to fit kami into the concept of the pantheon that has been defined by classical studies rather than a spiritual experience. Kami are often described by scholars as having been derived by nature. I would argue that kami are emergent rather than derivative; they are a natural phenomenon resulting from the cosmic mix of this sphere in the same way the Gulf Stream or glaciers are. Kami are found within all elements of nature, which includes human beings. Philosophy in the modern world places the Human being below the gods and above the natural world; in Shinto philosophy, much like most animistic systems around the globe, the Human being occupies the same definition of nature that the sea, a rock, or a flower does.

Kami may be worshiped anywhere at any time and with any intention and prayer, or lack of one. Many people choose to make a pilgrimage to large, sacred Shinto shrines while others may not. Worship is characterized by an act of cleansing the body, mind, and soul. This is often done through washing the hands and mouth at the entrance to a shrine, bathing before paying homage to ancestors at a home shrine, or showing general respect for cleanliness and tidiness. The emphasis on cleansing permeates into the expected character of a person, where honesty and purity are regarded as virtues of the most value.

So, where did kami and Shinto come from? The answer is, quite fittingly, lost to a time unreachable to our contemporary lenses. There is no founder nor origin of Shinto, nor are there any specifically divine texts, dogmas, or doctrines. Shinto, the way of the kami, is a legacy of how the ancient Japanese experienced the natural world of their lands, and the kami that emerged from those natural forces.

There are a few kami of particular importance. Izanagi and Izanami who birthed the islands of Japan are well known, but Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and Inari are likely the most widely worshiped. Amaterasu’s shrine, Ise-Jingu, is a must for any pilgrim. She is the thread that unites the Human world with the kami as an ancestor of the Japanese people, the royal lineage, and the one who bestowed grain cultivation to the people. Then, it is Inari who keeps watch over agriculture. Shrines to Inari are dotted throughout the landscape, on mountaintops, edges of rice fields, or alleyways in the city.

Like Loki or Set, a kami that often plays a trickster or even antagonistic role in Shinto folklore is Susano’o, kami of the seas. As anyone living near a body of water knows, those natural forces from which kami are emerged are not committed to keeping human comfort on this planet in mind. Nature is severe. Tides rise, rivers flood and destroy crops, lightning sets ablaze a sun-baked forest. Even nature’s creatures, from small insects to wolves, can cause havoc to our homes and livestock, devastate our crops, or bring illness to our families. While the Human being is meant to strive for purity and honesty, they’re also meant to seek the blessing of kami in control of nature, as well as tolerate the hardships they might bring.

Much like the druids of Celtic lands, the ancient Japanese would gather in sacred spaces deep in nature to commune with the kami and seek these blessings of safety, bountiful harvest, and prosperity. These spaces could be a sacred river or waterfall, a boulder, or an ancient tree. Today, of Japan’s 80,000 shrines are surrounded by woodland. While visiting, you may notice a few boulders or tree stumps roped off in the gravel pathways. These are relics of power spots or places where the kami themselves descended. Holding your hands out to the aura of these objects – but not touching them physically – is a common method to directly connect with the power of kami and sacred space.

Of all the elements that make up the folklore and power of kami, what I have found the most interesting is the relationship Shinto has with wood. The islands of Japan are thick with forest, so it isn’t hard to see why, in a practical sense, this renewable and sustainable resource became a favorite for both Human civilization and creation of sacred shrines. The architecture is a stark contrast to what is typically associated with ancient religious belief, where stonework and grand megalithic structures come to mind. In Japan, it is wood; and that wood is thoughtfully and routinely replaced, beam for beam when it ages. Why?

Because, in modern terms, wood is sustainable. The trees that are selected to create the beams of Ise-Jingu are renewable; this is, in essence, an expression of the eternity that the kami symbolize. Permanence has never been a staple of Shinto, or even Eastern, philosophy. Though the design of Ise-Jingu is the same with each passing generation, the physical wood witnessed has changed, signifying the passing of things within a grander scale of eternal time.

This is perhaps the greatest lesson that we in contemporary times can take from the kami. We build cities and extract resources with such ferocity, such speed and disregard for the future, that we’ve severed our connection to eternal time. Rather than participating in the natural sphere of eternal time, we’ve removed ourselves from it; by considering ourselves outside of nature, we’ve not doomed nature – but doomed ourselves.

Nature will find a way. Life will always grow. But if we are going to be the ancestors of tomorrow, we need to earn that through working with the flow of kami, of awen, to create it.

The Unexpected Alleys on the Divine Path

My plans for pilgrimage have crumbled. I’ve booked a trip to somewhere other than I had planned – again.

In six weeks, I’ll be boarding a plane bound for the United Kingdom. I’ve never been to Europe nor the British Isles, and the opportunity to go has come about through a complicated web of fates at work. It’s interesting to me that I have been journaling and planning for a visit to the United Kingdom in 2019 for years, but was unable to make it happen myself. The plan was to apply for graduate school in Scotland, spend as much of the year as possible in the Highlands, and return home. Unfortunately, other things worked against me that made this dream, this goal, crumble away. Yet, a month ago at the height of summer, I was given an opportunity to visit the United Kingdom for work and extend my trip to travel freely. That, to me, felt like a blessing of the Goddess – or that I had written down autumn 2019 as my first time to Europe so many times that the universe was compelled to make it true.

I have a very romantic view of ancestry. I’m Jew-ish and Scott-ish on my mother’s side and have felt a great pull to the landscape that fed the human beings whose lives ultimately created mine. Beyond a love for classic English literature, Welsh folklore, and Irish poetry, I’ve never been particularly invested in the idea of traveling to any country; my aim with the Isles has always been Scotland’s Highlands where my grandfather claimed heritage.

So you can imagine my surprise at myself when I, once again, have chosen to go somewhere completely different than my original goal. Last night I booked stays in Brighton, Glastonbury, and London – and that will be all.

I did this before, in 2017. After my two years in Japan came to a close, I shipped all my belongings to America, purchased a backpack, filled it with journaling materials and t-shirts, and planned to stay in a Cambodian village. The idea was that I would have two weeks to write, take a few yoga classes in town, volunteer on a farm, and recover from the drama from my life in Japan before going home.

When I sat down at my computer in my emptied bedroom to book a ticket, my mind and memory is blank. It was as if some unseen force descended on my body, took control and, within a few minutes, I had a nonrefundable one-way ticket to Kathmandu, Nepal. I was beside myself. I knew nothing about Nepal – quite literally – except that Annapurna was there.

Yet that one-way ticket turned into a month-long stay in a village in the valley, where I didn’t take yoga classes nor do all that much in the way of writing. I spent a lot of time with people, volunteering, taking photographs and, most importantly, experiencing the presence of God.

I firmly believe that the reason I was overcome with the intent to go to a country I knew nothing about against all plans was part of a Divine plan. The village I stayed in was actually named for Vishnu and housed the oldest temple in all of South Asia to Him. Vishnu plagued my dreams and I was, at first, afraid. Over the course of a month, I became a new person; that experience with Vishnu’s energy was the defining time that led me on an authentic spiritual path. I guess it could be thought of as my first true, life-altering Spiritual Awakening.

As a polytheist, I’ve done as much research as I possibly can on the pre-Christian religion of the Scottish Highlands in an effort to incorporate the same Divine patronage of my ancestors into my current spiritual life. For anyone familiar with Celtic, Brythonic, and Gaelic paganism, you probably know just how near-impossible this is. I felt a great aversion to settling for the Irish pantheon. Though I knew from a scholastic sense that these Gods and Goddesses were very likely worshiped in Scotland, the general lack of temple proof frustrated me. Though Brigid and the Morrigan felt on some level to be a spiritual match for me, I decided to put off the whole idea until an experience of some sort came through. Well, I have that experience on the horizon. It’s already begun.

There is one reason I booked a stay in Brighton: colorful queer culture.

There is one reason I booked a stay in Glastonbury: I remembered a YouTuber I respect, Kelly-Ann Maddox, mentioning it was her favorite spiritual place in England.

That’s it. I knew nothing else yet felt compelled to go; to skip Stonehenge, to skip Scotland or Wales, to skip London or Manchester or Cornwall. Just Glastonbury. It may not come as new information to others but for me, when I learned that there is an active temple to Brigid there, that Mary Magdalene – one of my favorite Jewish women from history – is said to have lived and died there, that the Earth’s heart chakra Anahata resides there… I was dumbfounded. My journey to Nepal had turned into a sort of cosmic guidance to the arms of Vishnu at the location of Earth’s crown chakra. Now that I think about it, my first experience in Japan was actually a visit to Mt. Fuji – the 9th Gate – with my new host family. That experience, too, was a spur of the moment. I had one month off from school and took out a loan to visit Japan.

I’m starting to wonder if my world travels should simply follow leylines! More curious, though, is the timing of these trips and shifts. Thinking back to my journals and planners filled with the goal of autumn 2019 in Great Britain, my first journey to Japan, or how Japan pushed me out of it with such force that I landed in Nepal…. I wonder if these weren’t manifestations at all, but a kind of foresight of the course of my life. Indeed, if we plan our lives before birth there must be echoes of those decisions dancing within us from the very beginning.

For Isis

She carries her pain like flowers.

There are few women whose
grief can hold back the flood;
fearsome to behold, all wait in
bated breath for her to shed the first
tear.

None loved him more than she.
She doesn’t cry at the funeral, nor
in the night as she caresses her
growing belly. The first tears are
reserved for labor, for the first cry
of their child. And they do.
Even still, she does not
grieve.

The pain of Isis seeded into
something
new
something
of magic and wombcraft and cloud walking

She placed him in the arms of her sister

gathered the lillies and the scorpions
and departed for war.