Shinto book cover

Shinto: A Celebration of Life (2011)

‘Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.’
Gary Snyder

Shinto is the indigenous spiritual tradition of the Japanese people. Like Daoism or Taoism, its Chinese counterpart, it is an aesthetic sensibility as much as a ‘faith’ or philosophy. The ‘To’ in Shinto is the same word as ‘Tao’ and so implies Way or Path – implication . ‘Shin’ is a synonym for ‘Kami’: deities or elemental forces. A more ‘authentic’ expression for Shinto is ‘Kami-no-Michi’ or ‘the Way of Kami’, and this is used throughout the book as well as the more familiar name.

One of the most interesting features of Shinto is that it is an unbroken ‘pagan’ spiritual path. Its relationship with Buddhism, which came to Japan from China, has been one of creative interaction and cross-fertilisation. While there have been periods of tension, there have never been the systematic programmes of containment, persecution and destruction of the kind pursued by Christian missionaries and rulers against the ancient nature-centred religions of Europe and subsequently the indigenous belief systems of the Americas, Australia, Polynesia and Africa. Shinto, therefore, has not had to be ‘reconstructed’. It shares the holistic perspective of Native American world view (as described, for example in F. David Peat’s Blackfoot Physics). However, it has been able to evolve freely and is fully compatible with the urban, technological society of modern Japan. Paul de Leeuw, one of the few non-Japanese Kannushi (Shinto Masters) frequently quotes the French philosopher Roland Barthes: ‘Nature is the city.’

Shinto practice fully accepts that the city is a valid and valuable form of human organisation and does not engage in ‘back-to-the-land’ nostalgia. Instead it creates oases of calm amid the pace and intensity of urban life. Its simply wooden shrines take the place of sacred trees and forests, which are still revered in the countryside and are places of pilgrimage. The evergreen Sakaki tree, native to Japan and Korea, is often used by practitioners as a portal to divine – or cosmic – energy. The Grand Shrine at Ise is rebuilt every twenty years, in keeping with a natural cycle.

Kami are found within the natural world: there are kami for animal species such as bears, as well as for mountains, waterfalls, forests and individual trees. Inari is a kami associated with the rice harvest, while Amaterasu, the ‘sun goddess’ is the kami of solar energy. As such, she is viewed as the origin of life itself. Some kami are tutelary deities associated with cities, towns or regions. Others can be viewed, in Jungian terms, as ‘archetypes’ from which humans can draw creative inspiration. Shinto polytheism recognises the diverse forces within nature and the universe, but ‘Kami’ is singular as well as plural, a unifying energy or life force. Other concepts at the heart of Shinto are Musubi, the principle and process of natural evolution and co-operation and Kannagara, the act of ‘tuning in’ to nature and seeing beyond the self.

Shinto has a special resonance for the modern world because it reconciles reverence for the environment with the ability to live in a technological society. It is sometimes referred to as a ‘green’ spirituality because it reconnects humanity with Dai Shizen (Great Nature), based on Mono no Aware (sympathy with all creatures).

Aidan Rankin studied with Paul de Leeuw at the Shinto Europe Foundation in Amsterdam, although the ideas and thoughts in this book are his own.

Praise for Shinto: A Celebration of Life

‘This is an excellent book about the indigenous spirituality of the Japanese people.’
Stafford Whiteaker, Good Retreat Guide


‘It occurs to me that Shinto is a lot like water. You can drink it, bathe in it and use it for a hundred and one different purposes but you can never actually grasp it. Just when you think you’ve understood it, it shape-shifts again, trickling out through your clutching fingers. And that’s because, like life itself, it never stops growing, moving changing, adapting…which is why it is still alive and well after so many millennia.
‘As Rankin says, “Shinto is a life-affirming faith that embraces tradition and innovation equally and helps us to reconnect with nature. It is a spiritual pathway for our time.”
Marian Van Eyk McCain, Green Spirit magazine


‘This exceptional and timely book brings the primal wisdom of Japan into the global arena.’
Paul de Leeuw, Kannushi and Director, Shinto Europe Foundation Amsterdam