SHINTO: The Way Home, by Thomas P. Kasulis, preface by Henry Rosemont Jr. Honolulu: The University of Hawaii Press, 2004, 188 pp., $15.00 (paper).

One day several years ago, the author of this new book on Shinto took an early stroll through the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine. After “feeling the connectedness associated with Shinto,” he was accosted by two uniformed groundskeepers who solemnly bowed and, in polite Japanese, thanked him for his visit and the respect he had shown.

Later he began to think about this encounter. Their expressions of gratitude were offered because he was a foreigner — none of the Japanese there had been thanked. They also had little to do with the feelings that Shinto had lent the author during his visit. Perhaps the keepers saw in him an endorsement of their own political agenda.

He would like to have explained this to them. “I’m just using this place as an entry point to access reality as a whole,” he would have said. “Don’t assume my actions were in any way a political statement related to the Yasukuni controversy. My Shinto-related behavior was strictly existential, not essentialist.”

Perhaps, with this observation, the author saw the paradigm through which he could most profitably describe Shinto — the duality between existential Shinto and essentialist Shinto. Just what these are become clear during the reading of this original and interesting book. The differences are all spelled out on page 150, which I advise the reader to first peruse.

Loosely, the existential implies syncretism, inclusiveness, and stresses the mysterious or wondrous nature of the “gods” (kami). Its practices are not correlated with a metaphysical or even fully articulated doctrinal system. Obversely, the essentialist aspect emphasizes distinctiveness, uniqueness, exclusiveness; sees the kami as a protective force for the nation; and has an articulated metaphysical system with whole layers of doctrinal meaning.

From this fruitful duality (active everywhere in the book) emerges a twofold description that explains the structure(s) of this much analyzed but still misunderstood religion. And also why its status as being a religion at all is frequently challenged. It behaves more like a philosophy. The existentialist says: “Because I believe or feel in such-and-such a way, I am Shinto.” The essentialist says: “Because I am Shinto, I behave or feel in such-and-such a way.”

The result of this distinction is a philosophical analysis of Shinto spirituality and a consideration of everyday practices, historical developments, textual readings, and political ideology. At the same time this is not a difficult book, just as Shinto is not a “difficult” religion. The author’s argument is tautly logical, but he explains slowly and illustrates every stretch of the way with examples and anecdotes. He wants his book to “help readers begin, not end, their study of Shinto.”

Shinto — as differentiated from State Shinto, that aberration (my opinion, not the author’s) that hijacked the religion before and during the years of World War II — is properly concerned with life. That is, with fertility, health, creation and abundance. It is embodied in everything, but some things are composed only of it. Take ki (vital force), for example, that complex concept that is here ironed out for us by one of the author’s inimitable asides: “The notion of the ‘Force’ in the ‘Star Wars’ films is said to based on the idea of ki.”

Eric Talmadge recently quoted, in this newspaper, a reply from a person who was encountered in a shrine and questioned about her presence there. ” ‘It’s just something that we Japanese people do,’ she said. ‘It’s a kind of event, a tradition. And you never know. If there’s something that I can do to help ensure that my baby will be born healthy, it’s worth a try.’ “

This matches well with Thomas P. Kasulis’ observing a business- man at a shrine and coming to the conclusion that he “presented a spirituality without an agenda.” The “way home” of which the subtitle speaks is the way back to the original and proper existential nature of the religion.

Through illustration and example, Kasulis explains Shinto as have few previous scholars. As in his earlier “Zen Action/Zen Person,” the author demonstrates without recourse to jargon and agreed-upon models. His concern is not that you be impressed but that you understand, and the result is one of the finest books on Shinto now available.

At present, the author is working on a history of Japanese philosophy. That will also be another book well worth the reading.

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