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Shinto ends 2,000 years of isolation to help save the planet. What religion can offer the Sustainable Development Goals

2014 June 14
by Paul Vallely

14 June 2014

from Paul Vallely, in Ise, Japan


Under the double-barred gate posts, by the entrance to the bow-backed bridge, a solitary figure was waiting. He was white-robed and bare-headed. He was about to make history.

The Shinto priest bowed deeply to the group of men and women who approached the most venerated shrine in Japan. They too were enrobed – in the rich gold-embroidered red and blue of Chinese Daoism, in glorious Hindu saris, in simple white Islamic tunics and shifts, in bright yellow Sikh scarves and turbans, in the austere cassocks of Scandinavian Lutherans, the cream vestments of African Catholics and the black and red academic robes of American Baptists.

At any time in the past 2,000 years the job of the Shinto guardian of the  Hiyokebashi bridge would have been to prevent such aliens from entering this holiest of Japan’s sacred places. But now he bowed deeply, twice, and welcomed them to enter.

History was made at Ise Jingu in many ways this month. The ancient shrine has been completely rebuilt from new wood, as it has been every 20 years since the reign of the Empress Jito (686-697). The record 14 million visitors that has attracted reveals an extraordinary restoration of Japan’s ancient religion which, in the decades which followed the Second World War had reached a low point which was unprecedented in its 3,000 year history.

That revival has demonstrated a step-change in Japanese openness to the wider world – not just in welcoming in representatives of the faiths of foreigners including even the Confucians and Daoists of the two great religious traditions of Japan’s historic enemy, China – but in a new approach to what  Shintoism has to say to a world which is threatened by climate change and environmental degradation.

So much so that the United Nations chose the first international conference ever hosted by Shintoism this month as the forum in which to invite the world’s religions to help shape the debate on social, political and economic yardsticks which will replace the Millennium Development Goals when they run out next year.  The conference was named “Tradition for the Future” and its brief was to  discover “culture, faith and values for a sustainable planet”.

The rebuilding of Ise shrine is a potent symbol of that. The paradox at its heart is that the wooden buildings at its heart are impermanent and yet constantly renewed. The 20-year cycle allows ancient skills in forest husbandry and carpentry, thatching and metal-working, leatherwork  and weaving, to be passed on from one generation to the next in unbroken tradition. Those rebuilding the bridge, for example, hand down the skills of boat carpenters practised in fitting together the floor of the bridge so it is resistant to rain. Some 100 million people will cross the bridge, wearing it away to a half its 6 inch thickness, over the course of its 20 year lifespan.

The process is a metaphor for what “tradition for the future” can mean in our modern world – especially since it places a premium on how humanity can live in harmony with the world rather than through depleting the earth’s non-renewable resources.

Shintoism is an unusual religion. It was no creeds or dogmas, no doctrines or scriptures. It is rooted in an animist belief that spirits or deities, kami, reside in objects throughout the natural world – rocks, rivers, waterfalls, mountains – as well as animals and people, and that the spirits of the ancestors live on in the places in which they once dwelt. There are 80,000 shrines to such spirits throughout Japan.

But Ise is special. It is held that when the Ise shrine is rebuilt, and the old deities are transferred to a new dwelling – in a ceremony which takes place at night, beneath a large drape of silk, so profane eyes may not view the sacred objects in which they reside – they renew their power in a way which rejuvenates the strength of the nation.

Religion and politics have long been intertwined here but at no time more so than during the height of the Meiji period of imperial Japan which lasted from 1968 until 1945.  Then, in an attempt to end the old feudal shogun warlord culture and replace it with the thriving political and industrial models of Western Europe, the imperial family created state Shinto to unite the nation.

They decided to purge Shintoism of the Buddhist influences with which it had co-existed since the 6th century in an attempt to make it more nationalistic. Buddhist symbols and monks were expelled, many of the statues ending up in the British Museum thanks to the intervention of a far-sighted British diplomat.

Ise Jingu was the shrine in which the spirits of the imperial family’s own ancestors were enshrined dating back, the legend had it, to the sun goddess Amaterasu from whom the emperors claimed descent. The marriage of animism and ancestor worship found its high point in Ise.  Shintoism thus became an imperial cult in which everyone was compelled to venerate the emperor – a state of affairs which persisted until the Japanese were defeated in World War II and the Americans forced Emperor Hirohito to go on radio to declare to the nation that he was no longer a god.

In the years which followed the six-year American Occupation the old religion of Shintoism became discredited. Acts by ultra-nationalist Shinto priests, who enshrined even the spirits of Japanese war criminals at the Yasukuni shrine of the war dead, disillusioned many of the general population even further. Socialism began to replace Shintoism for many.

Five decades on things began to change. A new generation had grown up without the demoralisation and guilt the war had brought. Emperor Hirohito had died in 1989 and, since the date changes in Japan with the advent of a new emperor, the feeling of a new era dawned. The events of the 1990s only compounded that; Japan’s property bubble burst leading to a long decade of deflation and stagnation.

The old Shinto traditions, with their simplicity and piety, seemed an antidote to the failed consumerist materialism of the Japanese Dream. Unable to afford foreign holidays, people stayed at home. Pilgrimages to the ancient shrines revived. The numbers visiting Ise reached an all-time low, 5 million a year, in 2002. Thereafter numbers have climbed, to 8 million last year, and 14 million this.

The shikinen sengu ritual of transferring the sun goddess to a new shrine building is part of that. But there is something more. At the last rebuilding one of Japan’s leading newspapers, the Asahi Shimbun, ran a campaign condemning it as a revival of imperialism and a waste of money. Donations to the rebuilding dried up.  It is a measure of how much things have changed that the same newspaper supported the current rebuilding, with a few minor criticisms.

In 2000 Shinto representatives attended a conference of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation in Katmandu. There they had a revolutionary epiphany. They declared that they now realised that spirits and deities did not just reside in natural phenomena in Japan, but all over the world. Shinto has joined the global ecology movement.

Princess Akiki of the Japanese imperial family told the “Tradition for the Future” conference why. “Contemporary humans are going too much against nature,” she said. “But you should put yourself in the environment and enjoy it – and extend a sense of thankfulness to nature and the deity. That is the spirit of Shintoism.”

The acceptance of Shinto into the alliance of world religions prompted the United Nations to piggyback on the event in Japan to get some faith input into the Sustainable Development Goals which it is hoped world leaders will sign at the UN General Assembly in September 2015.  The SDGs are succeed the Millennium Development Goals which were the benchmarks for international attempts to reduce poverty in the developing world since 2000. They expire at the end of next year.

The SDGs are a good deal more ambitious than the MDGs which applied only to poor nations and succeeded in some countries more than others. The new benchmarks will cover all nations and include targets for curbing climate change with a rising world population.  They will be more expensive and harder to agree.

The UN has decided the world’s religions can help here.  It flew its Assistant Secretary General, Olav Kjørven, out to Japan to tell religious leaders that the shortcomings of the MDGs were in part due to the fact that they had been drafted by technocrats and economists whose focus was narrowly materialist.

The faith leaders will have some time to offer their input. But their initial responses were instructive. Some were uncompromisingly austere. “It’s about greed versus nature,” said one of the Chinese Daoist masters, Lei Gaoyi. “We need to follow a more natural way of living in stead of taking carbon that’s taken hundred of millions of years to acquire and spewing that back out into the atmosphere upending the delicate balance that Daoism teaches us is required for humanity to flourish.”

This was an interesting take from someone from the country which is the largest producer of greenhouse emissions in the world. But it may be a sign that things could yet change, even  in China. Ren Xuehua, 23, a Chinese Buddhist, confided that there were many among the children of the country’s affluent entrepreneur class, for whom material prosperity had not brought happiness. She was at the conference with her father Ren Ping, a Confucian, who is CEO of a £500m  hydroelectric company. “Young people now want values,” she said.

The UN may be looking for more than values. It wants help from religion with implementation. That is a realistic expectation. Some 75 per cent of Kenya’s schools are run by churches or faith groups, said Abdalla Kamwana of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims. “If the religions had been involved in devising the MDGs they would have been better delivered,” agreed Bishop Fredrick Shoo         of Tanzania.

“The UN needs a global workforce of volunteers who are altruistic, and passionate about saving our blessed planet for future generations,” said Dr Husna Ahmad, Secretary General of the World Muslim Leadership Forum. “Faith leaders have the trust of the people,” added Bishop Nathan Kyamanywa of Uganda. “What a religious leader says has weight.”

What gives that extra clout is that those involved with the Alliance of Religions and Conservation have for the past decades been running a variety of major projects worldwide using faith networks to improve farming, land management, health and sanitation, and to curb the illegal wildlife trade.

But religion has more to offer than delivery. “Religions preach a sense of contentment,” said Dr Rajwant Singh, a prominent American Sikh. “We teach competition, but with humility, a sense of inner richness and of sacredness.” The shortcoming of the MDGs was that they lacked passion, said Bishop Walter Thomas, a US Baptist. “They were just tasks on a tick-list. Faith would have made them come alive and got people excited.” That is because, said the Kenyan environmentalist Dorcas Otieno, “faith would’ve put emphasis on behavioural change, attitude and moral change. Life will be more sustainable if people are doing it because it is the right thing to do.”

The rebuilding of the Ise shrine offers a living symbol of that.  Each renewal needs years of preparation. More than 12,000 cypress logs are required, many of a thickness which requires them to be around 200 years old. The wood for the columns on either side of the shrine, four and a half feet in diameter, is from trees some 400 years old.

The last time any timber was taken from the shine precincts was in 1391. Some 800 years of deforestation followed.  But in 1923 Shinto’s Shrine Precincts Preservation Committee started planting cedars around the headwaters and set up a 200-year plan so cedar can once again be obtained from the shrine’s own forests. It will be another 120 years before they will be ready to be used. But this year around 20 per cent of the smaller trees used in the rebuild came from the replanting for the first time.

“Everything that is physical will be degraded,” said Tsunekiyo Tanka, president of Jinga Honcho, the association of Shinto shrines, “so we need constantly to make things new afresh. And we don’t just renew, we add something on every year.” Perhaps Shinto and the other religions will be able to teach that lesson to the rest of the world. If they have been left enough time.




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