Religion of the Forest
Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, can be characterized by the fact that it has kept the religious vision of the ancient Japanese until nowadays without changing it very much. The life of the ancient Japanese had been deeply rooted in the forest. And through their everyday life, the religious concept was fostered and it was handed down from generation to generation. In other words, Shinto is similar to other ancient religions which have long ceased to exist in the world of today. It is a religion of the forest, or a religion of rituals which well suites the ancient life style. This leaflet will introduce Shinto by stressing its character as “a religion of the forest”.
The Sacred Forest
C.W.Nicol, a writer born in Wales and now living in Japan, in Kurohime Heights of Nagano, writes about his experience in Africa in an article titled “The Sacred Forest” *1. One day, he was guided to the holy place of Pygmies (Mubutians) who live in Ittouri, the tropical rain forest of Zaire. He introduces an episode as follows;
There was a rock cave surrounded by tall trees, and we could hear only birds, monkeys and the sound of a beautiful cascading waterfall. It was a wonderful place. A short, brown skinned hunter who guided us to that place was wearing only a piece of waistcloth, holding a bow and poisonous arrows. He plucked off a flower and put it in his hair. Somebody asked, “How do you know that God is here? Can you see the figure of God?” I thought it was nonsense to raise such a question, but the hunter answered with a smile. “I cannot see the figure of God. But I know God is here.”
Deeply touched by the response of this hunter, Nicol writes, “I am mature enough not to doubt the existence of the invisible when I am in a holy place or a sacred forest, whatever religion they represent and in whatever country they belong.” He concludes his article, saying, “If you are a Japanese, whatever the faith you have, visit a Shinto shrine when you have a problem.”
*1 An article written for ‘Jinja Shimpo’ of July 22, 1991.
Image of the Forest in Europe
Unfortunately, however, the forest never was a sacred place for Europeans. In the ancient Europe before Christianity, the Germanic race and the Celtic race hunted in deep forests and practiced the ‘religion of the forest’, revering deities that they believed to live in the forest. But when they were christianized after the Roman conquest, the forest was made into an abominable place where evil spirits or fearful wild animals like wolves were thought to live. In the mediaeval ages, cities and farm villages under the control of the Christian church represented a part of the holy world of God, that is distinct from surrounding natural environments such as the dark, wild places which should have been conquered and controlled by the glory of God.
Robert Harrison, Professor of Stanford University, writes in his book, The Forest – Shadow of Civilization *2 that in western civilization, from ancient Greece and Rome to the present day, the image of the forest as a chaotic, negative place has persisted in literature, philosophy and the arts as the shadow of civilization-as-cosmos.
Augustin Berque, a French scholar who specializes in cultural geography, writes in his book, Le sauvage et l’artifice-Les japonais devant la nature *3 that Japanese traditional culture shows a tendency of ‘physcicophily’ having strong affinity towards the forest and surrounding nature in general, and this phenomenon is totally opposite to the Christian tradition. He points out that Christian culture is traditionally ‘physicophobiac’. It formed the concept that both natural environments and human beings exist in this world as evil objects. Therefore, they should be conquered, tamed, and evangelized by Christianity.
So, it was impossible for the Westerners, whose way of thinking was based on Christian concepts, to consider the natural landscape or the forest to be the sacred places. For them, nature was an object to which the glorious order of God should be introduced by hewing off the forest, building churches, and transforming the wilderness into orderly gardens of God.
*2 Published by Chicago University Publishing Department in 1992.
*3 Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1986.
The Grove of the Village Shrine
In Japan, natural environments such as steep mountains, deep valleys, forests, landscapes and even planted forests were considered to be sacred places where deities or divine spirits dwell.
Accordingly shrines are to be surrounded by a grove, or even the grove itself was considered to be the shrine as a sacred place for the village. This is because the village shrine was originally considered to be a place for the deity to occasionally visit, traveling from its original place in deep mountains or valleys, and to stay for some time.
A Spanish philosopher, Diez del Corral, writes about this in his book, A Journey Through Asia *4, especially in the chapter titled “The Grove of the Village Shrine”. He writes;-
The most impressive sight repeated in every place throughout the breadth of this country is nothing other than union of forest and shrine… Almost as though the Japanese ‘kami’ is just a drop coalesced from the sacred flow, teeming with all of nature. The Japanese shrine is the most compressed architectural expression of the forest as the home of the sacred.
This is precisely the essence of the shrine, and it is the holy place of Shinto, evoking a nostalgic feeling for many Japanese towards their own home or country.
*4 Del Nuevo Al Viejo Mundo, Revista De Occidente, Madrid, 1967.
Civilization of the Divine Forest
When we think of the sharp decrease of forest in the world, or of the destruction of the tropical rain forests which have a grave influence for the environment of planet, we can say that it is remarkable that 67 percent of Japan is still covered by forests. This is not only due to the Japanese monsoon climate, or due to its mountainous geography. It is rather due to the influence of Japanese ancient civilization which respected the forest, utilizing it as holy trees as well. This long continuing value system of Japan made it possible to keep the forests as its fruits until now.
For example, the Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan) describes a myth which explains how the land of Japan became a green land. One day, Susanoo-no-mikoto, the deity who founded the culture of Japan, pricked one of his beard hairs and transformed it into a cedar tree. He also pricked one piece of hair from his breast, one from his buttock, and one of his eyebrow, to make each of them respectively a cypress tree, a black pine tree and a laurel tree. And he ordered his offspring deities, Itakeruno-mikoto, Ohyatsu-hime, and Tsumatsu-hime to spread these trees in order to make the whole land gree. Later, those deities were enshrined in Itakiso Shrine of Kii-no-kuni (presently in Wakayama prefecture), the place named after ki-no-kuni which literally means the country of trees.
Since ancient times, the Japanese have cultivated rice and carefully preserved mountain forests as the water source for rice cultivation. At the same time, mountain people venerated those mountain forests as the divine works of the deity. They enshrined the mountain deity in the deep mountain forest as well as the deity of water in the water source, and they are still worshiped by people who are living in mountain areas. Nowadays, these people are in a difficult situation due to the decline of traditional agriculture and forestry and also due to the decrease of the population in the mountain areas resulted accordingly. However, their traditional way of life to worship those deities is a valuable spiritual asset handed down from our ancestors, and city people should not ignore this inheritance as part of their own cultural backbone.
The Social Order and the Shinto Shrine
In an occidental community, there is a plaza in the center of a village where the church or the temple is located, and it forms the center of the village both physically and spiritually. In Japan, on the other hand, a traditional village is formed along streets without any central place for the village. Even the village shrine, which is considered to be the spiritual core for the village people, is located in a secluded place. And those streets function only as means for everyday activities. However, there is a certain time and occasion when the streets are transformed into the center of the village community. That is the time of the village festival.
As previously mentioned, the ancient Japanese believed that deities lived in remote places such as steep mountains or deep forests. However, since these places were not accessible to the village people, they began to construct a building near their village where the deity could visit and stay temporarily so that the deities could be accessible and people could conduct rituals and festivals in the grace of the deity. When the deity visits the village shrine, traveling from its original dwelling place in the mountains or forest, the deity is carried in a procession through the village streets.
On such an occasion, the deity crosses the everyday streets, and the streets are purified, becoming a sacred area. The divine road, which is usually invisible, appears and a market is set up along the streets as a part of the festivity. At this moment, the whole village becomes a holy open space, where village people can share their happiness and joyfulness with each other in being blessed by the deity. The feeling for the community is especially confirmed through the visit of the deity. It is confirmed when the village is transformed into a holy place. It is not confirmed in a human-made building like a church which is usually situated in the center of the village. So, the traditional social order of a village is not symbolized by the antagonism between human beings and a natural world to be conquered. It is symbolized in a social order which constructs a society where the deity dwells, usually in the depth of nature, with which human beings can communicate. Through this divine communication, the village people feel peace and enlightenment which support their life.