Shinto shrines, like Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, honor Nature.
Shinto shrines, like Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, honor Nature.

Shinto is indigenous to Japan, having existed since prehistoric times, while monks from China and Korea introduced Buddhism in the 6th century. Shinto is an animistic religion with no central deity and few sacred texts or formal religious practices, such as meditation. Nevertheless, visitors to the many Shinto shrines across the country often engage in periods of informal meditation while communing in silence with the gods.

Shinto

The word "Shinto" means the path of the gods, and can also be rendered in Japanese as kami no michi. Its origins are unclear, and although there are no formal texts, two compendiums of Shinto mythology date as far back as the 8th century. In this mythology, Izanagi and Izanami gave birth to Amaterasu, the sun goddess, who is in turn the direct ancestress of the Emperor. This relationship gives Shinto political overtones and is the reason the sun appears on the Japanese flag. Right-wing political parties traditionally identify closely with Shinto and regard it as the state religion of Japan.

Buddhism in Japan

A Japanese folk saying states that the Japanese are born Shinto and die Buddhist. Buddhism came to Japan under the auspices of the nobility, and in feudal Japan its culture remained distinct from that of the common people until the time of the Meiji restoration. Today, Buddhist culture is evident in the multitude of temples that exist throughout the country. The temples, with their pagoda-shaped roofs and distinctive gardens, are as different from the orange-colored Shinto shrines as the disciplined practices of Buddhist monks are from the annual Shinto matsuri, or festivals, that occur throughout the country.

The Practice of Meditation

Meditation is central to Buddhist practice. The name of one of the main Buddhist schools, Zen, comes from the Sanskrit word dhyana, which means meditation. Buddhist temples are designed to promote meditation, and there is usually more than one room devoted to the practice. Shinto shrines, on the other hand, usually lack any type of formal meditation space, and people seldom go there to meditate. People go to the shrines, which are typically outdoors, to visit the souls of the deceased, pray for good fortune and honor the spirit of Nature. These activities may involve contemplation, but rarely formal meditation.

The Role of Shinto

Shinto occupies a ceremonial function in Japanese society more than it does that of a formal religious practice, and the function of the Shinto priest is usually to preside over the ceremonies. Purification, renewal and communion with the Divine through Nature can come to those who participate in Shinto ceremonies, as well as reconciliation with ancestral spirits and a strengthened sense of community. All of these timeless benefits serve to keep people unified in spirit and aware of sharing a common purpose. Thus, although Shinto doesn't make much room for the refined practice of meditation, it remains an important vehicle for religious expression.