A Modern View of Shinto:  Scholar and Shinto Priest Minoru Sonoda

Chichibu-Jinja

Entrance of Chichibu Jinja. Photo by Commons Wikimedia

Preface

Dr. Minoru Sonoda (薗田/稔) is chief priest of Chichibu Jinja (秩父神社) Shinto shrine in Saitama, as well as professor emeritus of Kyoto University and professor at Kogakkan University. His doctorate in religious studies is from Tokyo University.

Dr. Sonoda is chairman of the International Shinto Research Association for the exchange of research with people overseas who are studying Shinto. Although Dr. Sonoda is identified with Shinto, he promotes the idea that Shinto is not a “religion” in the Western sense of the word. Rather, Shinto is a type of community tradition that has naturally developed. Instead of being an individual faith-based activity, Shinto is community, culture, and heritage closely tied to nature. When put this way, doesn’t it seem that Shinto is far from being exclusive to Japan, and instead can be understood and practiced by people around the world?

Interview

An interview conducted by Satsuya Tabuchi appeared in SPF Voices Newsletter of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in 2006. Click here for the full report in English. An article about Dr. Sonoda appears here. Click here for Chichibu Jinja’s home page.

Here are some highlights of the topics discussed with SPF. We presume that Dr. Sonoda, as Shinto priest, used the term kami which was translated into gods. Since the word kami does not accurately translate into the Western word gods, we prefer to keep the term kami. 

Kami, unseen spirits behind the scenes

Kami abide in specific places such as sources of water or other places that are important to life. Kami are unseen to the human eye. What is sacred “lurks in the depths of the forest. It is a psychic center behind the community, not in the middle. Even if Japan’s gods don’t have form, they dwell within pure objects as spirits.”

Culture and agriculture

Shinto is the product of agrarian culture. The word culture comes from the Latin colere meaning to inhabit, cultivate, protect, and honor. People who settled peacefully in a particular place developed culture. People grow crops and receive their life. Receiving life and giving thanks for it is how Shinto views life. This world view developed naturally in the agrarian society.

Nature and life

Human beings, imbued with life by nature, live together with nature. Shinto honors the preciousness of life.

What is life?

“Life isn’t something that lasts just one generation. Life is life precisely because it’s passed on from parents to children. This is the most valid way for human beings to view life.”

Afterword

Dr. Sonoda is proactive in the chinju no mori sacred forest movement. What is chinju no mori? Mori means forest. Chinju is written 鎮守. The first character 鎮 is read as shizumeru, to calm the spirit; the second character 守 is mamoru which means to protect. Thus, we may say chinju no mori is a forest whose tranquility is protected. In other words, let’s protect the peace and serenity provided us by forests.

Related to this is the shinrin yoku trend, often translated as “forest bathing.” Shinrin is the compound word, forest-grove, and yoku simply means to bathe. People are going to forested areas for personal peace and tranquility as well as for proven health benefits.

 

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