Taoism vs Shinto: A Brief Comparative Essay

Taoism vs Shinto: A Brief Comparative Essay

Introduction

Taoism (Daoism) and Shinto share many extrinsic commonalities and even a number of intrinsic similarities. Among numerous other equivalents that will be discussed within the body of this essay, both Shinto and Daoism are indigenous religions rooted in shamanism that lent to, and borrowed from, Buddhism in their respective countries (Japan and China).[1]  They were both given their present names by people from outside of the religions.[2] Further, the name given to both religious Daoism and Shinto contains the same exact Chinese characters, 神道. These shared Chinese characters, or Japanese Kanji, are significant to a comparative analysis of these religions for a number of reasons that will also form part of this essay’s appraisal of the similarities and differences between these native religious systems.

The biggest challenge posed by a comparative examination of these two religious systems lies in the struggle to define the very things being compared. A large and at first seemingly insurmountable amount of ambiguity exists in both the internal and external definitions of both of these religions, and so this essay will begin by identifying salient aspects and qualities that may be compared and contrasted.  Notwithstanding the fact that these two religions do in fact exist beyond vague discursive processes, there is considerable confusion arising from the fact that they have been variously and ambiguously defined throughout different historical periods, and have been largely defined in relatively recent years by contrasting them against other prevailing religious systems.[3] At times, Daoism was seen as anything that was not Confucianism, and Shinto,[4] at least as we know it today, some have argued, is little more than a medieval,[5] or according to Kuroda, a nineteenth-century imperial invention with no actual antiquity behind it whatsoever.[6]

 

What is Daoism?

The term Daoism is, with its nominalizing suffix, a Western invention used to describe a broad array of religious and philosophical phenomena in China.[7] For this reason, isolating Daoist thought and practice for the purpose of examination is hampered by relatively resolvable confusion.[8]  One of the means by which scholars have sought to resolve this confusion is to separate philosophical Daoism from religious Daoism, and it is religious Daoism with which this essay is primarily concerned.  Breen and Teeuwen argue:

‘When discussing Taoism as a religion, one should restrict oneself to the fifth century and later, when Taoism had been established as the national religion and the term “Taoism” (daojiao) had assumed the same meaning that it has today, otherwise terminological confusion will ensue’.[9]

The primary texts upon which rest both the Daoist religion and philosophy are the Dao De Jing, also called the Laozi (Lao Tzu),[10] after the alleged author, and the Zhuangzi, named after the fourth-century Chinese Daoist philosopher, Master Zhuangzi.[11]  A core principle that permeates both Daoist philosophy and religion is inaction (wu-wei – 無為).[12]  This principle should not be interpreted as complacency, laziness, apathy, or laissez-faire, but ‘letting go’, or ‘non-interference’.[13] The irony of Laozi’s wu-wei, when it came to the vain expression of the ineffable and incomprehensible dao, was not lost on the eighth-century Chinese poet Po Chu-i, who wrote:

‘Those who speak know nothing,

Those who know keep silence.”

These words, as I am told,

Were spoken by Lao Tzu.

But if we are to believe that Lao Tzu

Was himself one who knew,

How comes it that he wrote a book

Of five thousand words?’[14]

This exposed irony illustrates a fallibility that exists not only within Daoism but in all religions, and it reminds us that each and every religion, being fallible human contrivances, contain inherent and inescapable inconsistencies. Cooper notes that Wu-wei makes it a taboo to worship “false” gods for security, for in Cooper’s opinion; ‘The world’s sages have all taught the stupidity of the quest for security’.[15] If such was in fact the case, then this is where Daoism would come directly into conflict with Shinto – yet religious Daoism appears to be obsessed with security. One need only examine Daoist exorcism,[16] Taoist protective talismans,[17] or the various Daoist rituals that serve a variety of security-focussed and protective functions.[18] The concept of the false god is also worthy of brief mention, for, notwithstanding the fact that the idea of the false god is prevalent in most, if not all, religions, it is a feature that Daoism shares with Shinto. This concept in Shinto can be found in the Nihongi, which recounts the alleged account of an intelligent Koromonoko who refused to be sacrificed to an ancient Japanese river god, whom, he declared, was a “false god”.[19]

 

What is Shinto?

Shinto (神道), like religious Daoism (shen dao – 神道), share the exact same Chinese characters, and one of the earliest usages of this conjugation of Kanji in Japanese texts can be found in the Nihongi/Nihon Shoki (8th century).[20] Kuroda argues that the 神道 reference in the Nihongi did not refer to Shinto, but Daoism – which, Kuroda argues, was widespread throughout Japan at the time.[21] This is just one of the components of Kuroda’s argument for the nineteenth-century creation of Shinto.[22]  On the other hand, Breen and Teeuwen argue:

‘…it is vital that we remember that many shrines, priestly lineages, kami beliefs, and rites do display a remarkable degree of continuity over very long periods of time’.[23]

Although encompassing a variety of religious phenomena, differently defined over a variety of periods (jidai – 時代), Shinto, at its heart, is a nature religion, and its rites, rituals and beliefs, as we know them today, all centre around a deep admiration for nature.[24] For Shinto, the gods (kami 神) are each and every aspect of nature, or rather, each and every aspect of nature are the gods.[25]  Further, due to Daoism’s influence in early Japan, a number of Shinto gods appear to have been inherited from both the principles of Daoist philosophy and the gods of religious Daoism’s pantheon. Some scholars have noted that Izanami and Izanagi are the Shinto descendants of the Daoist principles of Yin and Yang,[26] and other scholars have convincingly argued that Juronjin, the Shinto god of wisdom and longevity, was also a Daoist deity.[27]

 

What is the Way ()?

Whether Shinto, as we know it today, is rooted in antiquity or whether it is a relatively recent invention, the more modern interpretation of the 道 in Shinto has come to carry heavy imperial and nationalistic overtones – qualities almost entirely absent from the more anarchistic Daoism.[28] Atsutane writes:

‘The Way of the gods (Shinto) is the great Way of our country. As the Way governed by the emperor, it is clearly to be revered above Confucianism or Buddhism’.[29]

This Way, according to Yukitada, is the original essence of the gods (honji-suijaku –本地垂迹), and Yukitada employed the Laotzi to argue that this undifferentiated essence existed conceptually beyond Buddhist conceptions.[30] According to the Laotzi, the essence (jing – 精) is contained within the Way (dao– 道), and as is the case with most, if not all religions, faith is a key component.[31] Prior to Yukitada’s attempt to circumvent Buddhism’s sovereignty over Shinto, the Japanese kami (神) were seen as the suijaku (trace manifestations – 垂迹) of Indian Buddhism, which represented the ‘original ground’ (honji – 本地).[32]  Here, it may be argued that the Way in both Daoism and Shintoism loosely equates to the dharma in Buddhism. So, in both Shinto and Daoism, the Way is the metaphysical principle that governs the world, and can only be perceived by maintaining an intricate balance of nature.[33] The primary distinction between Shinto and Daoism’s conception of this metaphysical principle is found in Shinto’s anthropomorphic depiction of this metaphysical principle, which is, for the most part, absent in Daoism.[34] Further, Hartz notes:

‘Shinto does not, however, include the concept of a vast overarching power, such as the Dao of Daoism…’[35]

 

The Afterlife: Zhuangzi vs Shinto

  A further difference between Shinto and Daoism comes to light with an examination of Zhuangzi’s materialistic and naturalistic reformation of Daoism in the fourth century.  According to the Zhuangzi, there is no life after death – the body simply decomposes and the energy (qi -氣) returns to the universe in an almost pantheistic fashion.[36]  Shinto, conversely, holds a variety of beliefs regarding what happens to people after they die – from an ascending apotheosis to a descent into the gloomy underworld, Yomi (黄泉), which is somewhat similar to the Greek Hades.[37]  Early Daoism, however, shared more closely Shinto superstitious visions of the afterlife, with one prevailing Daoist belief locating hell under the sacred Tai Mountain in China.[38] Locating an ethereal hell in a national, terrestrial location is also a belief propagated by Shinto mythology, which holds that the gates of Yomi (Yomi no Kuni -黄泉の国) are located in Tottori-Ken.[39]

 

Talismans in Daoism and Shinto

Both Shinto and Daoism employ crude and superstitious ‘magic’ in the form of amulets and talismans to ward off evil spirits and invite good luck and fortune. In Japanese, majinai (curse – 呪い) is the word used to describe this aspect of the Shinto expression phenomena.  Some scholars argue that Shinto majinai was either directly inherited from Chinese Daoism, or else indirectly through Buddhism, which, according to some, adopted Daoism’s preoccupation with ‘magical’ amulets and talismans.[40] Hosak, Luebek and Grimm argue:

‘Taoism probably came to Japan at the latest in the seventh century. The Japanese historical work Nihonshoki begins with the characters yin and yang and tells of the arrival of Taoist Masters. The height of Taoist practices such as divination and exorcism occurred in Japan during the Heian period (794-1185)…This mainly involved the making of amulets and magical practices. An office was even created at the Tenno’s court for this purpose’.

 

The Ground-Purification Ceremony (Jichinsai –地鎮祭)

The ground-purification ceremony is widely practiced in Japan. In fact, it is so widely practiced that a relatively recent court ruling held that it no longer constituted a religious practice, but a secular one.[41] Bocking remarks:

‘Once levelled, the site is marked out as a temporary shrine (himorogi) with shimenawa, sakaki branches etc. and then purified in a ritual which appeases the kami of the land and local spirits, calls on their protection for the future occupants and cleanses the site of any undesirable influences. Also called ji-matsuri and toko-shizume-no-matsuri, it is probably derived from Taoism’.[42]

Whether or not this Shinto ceremony shares ritualistic commonalities with potentially parallel Daoist purification rituals is unclear, however, the Daoist notion of the ‘sacred space’ lies at its heart. Everywhere, it is believed, is a potential dwelling place for the holy, which is a common aspect of the Daoist and Shinto expression phenomena that they share with Buddhism.[43]

 

Conclusion

 

 Shinto and Daoism appear at first glance to be impossible to define, much less compare. Neither of these religions defined themselves in the same way that other religions like Christianity, for example, did – and hence the first challenge in attempting to compare and contrast these religions is to define them.  If we restrict our examination of Daoism to the fifth century and thereafter, it is possible to cautiously delineate religious Daoism and separate it from various other anti-Confucian religious and philosophical phenomena.  Once such parameters have been clearly established, it is possible to define and describe some of the intrinsic qualities of religious Daoism, which, in turn, makes it possible to contrast it against other religions.  The core principle of Daoism, which it shares with Shinto, is an emphasis on a metaphysical Way.  Unlike Shinto, however, Daoism sees this Way as being overarching and incapable of description.  Shinto, on the other hand, anthropomorphizes this principle in the form of an undifferentiated godhead, who eventually gives birth to the Daoist principles of yin and yang, again anthropomorphized in the characters of Izanagi and Izanami.

Shinto, unlike the more anarchistic Daoism, eventually became a state religion, and in so becoming it took on an imperial component absent in Daoism. The infusion of this component led Kuroda to argue that Shinto, prior to the nineteenth century, was nothing but a non-existent fiction.  Other scholars argued that it truly became a definable religion from the medieval period, and so, like Daoism, needs to be examined by restricting the investigative parameters to, and from, a specific historical period.  There is little doubt that Daoism had a significant influence upon Shinto over the centuries, and this influence can be witnessed not only in Shinto anthropomorphized Daoist principles, but also in its purification ceremony, its employment of talismans and amulets, and, most significantly, in the very Kanji used to define it (神道).           

 

 End Notes

  1. Stephen R. Bokenkamp, Daoism: An Overview, cited in: Lindsay Jones (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd, Vol. 4, Detroit: Thomson-Gale, 2005, p. 2179; Brian Bocking, Shinto, cited in: Lindsay Jones (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd Ed., Vol. 12, Detroit: Thomson-Gale, 2005, p. 8359.
  2. Kuroda Toshio, Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion, Trans. James C. Dobbins & Suzanne Gay, ‘The Journal of Japanese Studies’, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Winter, 1981), 5; Stephen R. Bokenkamp, Daoism: An Overview, cited in: Lindsay Jones (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd Ed., Vol. 4, Detroit: Thomson-Gale, 2005, p. 2177.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Brian Bocking, The Oracles of Three Shrines: Windows on Japanese Religion, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2001, pp. 6-8.
  6. John Breen (ed.), Mark Teeuwen (ed.), Shinto A History: Ways of the Kami, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000, p. 4.
  7. Stephen R. Bokenkamp, Daoism: An Overview, cited in: Lindsay Jones (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd, Vol. 4, Detroit: Thomson-Gale, 2005, p. 2176.
  8. Ibid.
  9. John Breen (ed.), Mark Teeuwen (ed.), Shinto A History: Ways of the Kami, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000, p. 19.
  10. Michael LaFargue, The Tao of the Tao Te Ching: A Translation and Commentary, Albany: The State University of New York Press, 1992, p. 195.
  11. Liu Jianmei, Zhuangzi and Modern Chinese Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 3.
  12. Ibid. p. 5.
  13. Jean C. Cooper, The Illustrated Introduction to Taoism: The Wisdom of the Sages, Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom, Inc., 2010, p. 51.
  14. Ibid. p. 5.
  15. Ibid. p. 52.
  16. Julian F. Pas, The A to Z of Taoism, Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2006, p. 124.
  17. Ibid. p. 269.
  18. Ibid. p. 267.
  19. Genchi Kato, A Study of Shinto: The Religion of the Japanese Nation, Vol. 82, London: Routledge, 1926, p. 56.
  20. Daniel Wolf, A Global History of History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 106.
  21. John Breen (ed.), Mark Teeuwen (ed.), Shinto A History: Ways of the Kami, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000, p. 5.
  22. Kuroda Toshio, Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion, Trans. James C. Dobbins & Suzanne Gay, ‘The Journal of Japanese Studies’, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Winter, 1981), pp. 1-20.
  23. John Breen (ed.), Mark Teeuwen (ed.), Shinto A History: Ways of the Kami, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000, p. 5.
  24. Kuroda Toshio, Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion, Trans. James C. Dobbins & Suzanne Gay, ‘The Journal of Japanese Studies’, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Winter, 1981), 1.
  25. Hans Kung, Tracing the Way: Spiritual Dimensions of the World Religions, London: Continuum Press, 2002, p. 150; Tamra Andrews, Dictionary of Nature Myths, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 106; Paula Hartz, World Religions: Shinto, 3rd Ed., New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2009, p. 11.
  26. J. Boot, Spirits, Gods, and Heaven in Confucian Thought, cited in: Chun Chieh Huang (ed.) & John Allen Tucker, Dao Companion to Japanese Confucian Philosophy, New York: Springer, 2014, p. 94.
  27. Ju Brown, PhD, John Brown, China, Japan, Korea: Culture and Customs, North Charleston: Book Surge, L.L.C., 2006, p. 90; Karen M. Gerhart, The Eyes of Power: Art and Early Tokugawa Authority, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999, p. 175; John Renard, 101 Questions and Answers on Confucianism, Daoism and Shinto, New York: Paulist Press, 2002, p. 23.
  28. Fabrizio Pregadio (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism, Vol. 1, London: Routledge, 2008, p. 162; John Breen (ed.), Mark Teeuwen (ed.), Shinto A History: Ways of the Kami, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000, p. 206.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Mark Teeuwen, The Laotzi and the Emergence of Shinto at Ise, cited in: Jeffry L. Richey (ed.), Daoism in Japan: Chinese traditions and Their Influence on Japanese Religious Culture, London: Routledge, 2015, p. 112.
  31. “Laotzi”, Dao De Jing, cited at: http://www.taoism.net/ttc/complete.htm, accessed on 27th March, 2016.
  32. Stuart D.B. Picken, Essentials of Shinto: An Analytical Guide to Principle Teachings, London: Greewood Press, 1994, p. 21.
  33. George Alfred James, Atheism, cited in: Lindsay Jones (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd, Vol. 1, Detroit: Thomson-Gale, 2005, p. 577.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Paula Hartz, World Religions: Shinto, 3rd Ed., New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2009, p. 11.
  36. George Alfred James, Atheism, cited in: Lindsay Jones (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd, Vol. 1, Detroit: Thomson-Gale, 2005, p. 172.
  37. Sir Ernest Satow and Dr Karl Florenz, Ancient Japanese Rituals and the Revival of Pure Shinto, London: Routledge, 2002, p. 163.
  38. Mao Zhongjian (ed.), Taoism, Trans. Pan Jungliang and Simone Normand, Leiden: Brill, 2012, p. 140.
  39. Cornelis Ouwehand, Namazu-E and Their Themes: An Interpretative Approach to Some Aspects of Japanese Folk Religion, Leiden: Brill, 1964, p. 92.
  40. Mark Hosak, Walter Lubek and Christine M. Grimm, The Big Book of Reiki Symbols: The Spiritual Tradition of Symbols and Mantras of the Usui System of Natural Healing, Twin Lakes: Lotus Press, 2006, p. 123.
  41. Brian Bocking, A Popular Dictionary of Shinto, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1995, p. 156.
  42. Ibid. p. 53.
  43. Jean Holm (ed.) & John Bowker (ed.), Sacred Place, London: Continuum Press, 1994, p. 189.

 

 

 Bibliography

 

Ancient Sources

“Laotzi”, Dao De Jing, cited at: http://www.taoism.net/ttc/complete.htm, accessed on 27th March, 2016.

 

Secondary Sources

Andrews, Tamra, Dictionary of Nature Myths, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Bocking, Brian, A Popular Dictionary of Shinto, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1995, p. 156.

Bocking, Brian, Shinto, cited in: Lindsay Jones (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd Ed., Vol. 12, Detroit: Thomson-Gale, 2005.

Bocking, Brian, The Oracles of Three Shrines: Windows on Japanese Religion, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2001.

Bokenkamp, Stephen R., Daoism: An Overview, cited in: Lindsay Jones (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd Ed., Vol. 4, Detroit: Thomson-Gale, 2005.

Boot, W.J., Spirits, Gods, and Heaven in Confucian Thought, cited in: Chun Chieh Huang (ed.) & John Allen Tucker, Dao Companion to Japanese Confucian Philosophy, New York: Springer, 2014.

Breen, John (ed.), Teeuwen, Mark (ed.), Shinto A History: Ways of the Kami, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000.

Brown, Ju, Brown, John, China, Japan, Korea: Culture and Customs, North Charleston: Book Surge, L.L.C., 2006.

Cooper, Jean C., The Illustrated Introduction to Taoism: The Wisdom of the Sages, Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom, Inc., 2010.

Gerhart, Karen M., The Eyes of Power: Art and Early Tokugawa Authority, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

Hartz, Paula, World Religions: Shinto, 3rd Ed., New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2009.

Holm, Jean (ed.), & Bowker, John (ed.), Sacred Place, London: Continuum Press, 1994.

Hosak, Mark, Lubek, Walter and Grimm, Christine M., The Big Book of Reiki Symbols: The Spiritual Tradition of Symbols and Mantras of the Usui System of Natural Healing, Twin Lakes: Lotus Press, 2006.

James, George Alfred, Atheism, cited in: Lindsay Jones (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd Ed., Vol. 1, Detroit: Thomson-Gale, 2005.

Jianmei, Liu, Zhuangzi and Modern Chinese Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Kato, Genchi, A Study of Shinto: The Religion of the Japanese Nation, Vol. 82, London: Routledge, 1926.

Kung, Hans, Tracing the Way: Spiritual Dimensions of the World Religions, London: Continuum Press, 2002.

LaFargue, Michael, The Tao of the Tao Te Ching: A Translation and Commentary, Albany: The State University of New York Press, 1992.

Ouwehand, Cornelis, Namazu-E and Their Themes: An Interpretative Approach to Some Aspects of Japanese Folk Religion, Leiden: Brill, 1964.

Pas, Julian F., The A to Z of Taoism, Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2006.

Picken, Stuart D.B., Essentials of Shinto: An Analytical Guide to Principle Teachings, London: Greewood Press, 1994.

Pregadio, Fabrizio (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism, Vol. 1, London: Routledge, 2008.

Renard, John, 101 Questions and Answers on Confucianism, Daoism and Shinto, New York: Paulist Press, 2002.

Satow, Sir Ernes and Florenz, Karl, Ancient Japanese Rituals and the Revival of Pure Shinto, London: Routledge, 2002.

Teeuwen, Mark, The Laotzi and the Emergence of Shinto at Ise, cited in: Jeffry L. Richey (ed.), Daoism in Japan: Chinese traditions and Their Influence on Japanese Religious Culture, London: Routledge, 2015.

Toshio, Kuroda, Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion, Trans. James C. Dobbins & Suzanne Gay, ‘The Journal of Japanese Studies’, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Winter, 1981).

Wolf, Daniel, A Global History of History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Zhongjian, Mao (ed.), Taoism, Trans. Pan Jungliang and Simone Normand, Leiden: Brill, 2012.

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