Tuesday, January 01, 2008

America's First Shinto Priest

I thought I would start 2008 with a quick glance at the ever-expanding horizon of American religious experience, and was happy to find, in today's Washington Post/Newsweek On Faith Forum, an introduction to a Shinto shrine northeast of Seattle, WA. It was built and is headed by the first American to be named a Shinto priest, Koichi Barrish.
[H]ere, about an hour northeast of Seattle, the Rev. Koichi Barrish -- a former California surfer turned aikido teacher and Shinto priest -- prays, performs purification ceremonies, and teaches aikido, a Japanese martial art. The shrine itself consists mainly of a large open and airy hall with wooden floors, Japanese style doors, and windows that open out onto a statue garden. Beyond that is the Pilchuck River, which borders the 25-acre property.

I will submit that I know next to nothing about Shinto, other than it is the official religion of Japan. Tied to Japanese identity, it was Shinto that provided the impetus to anti-Christian violence in the 17th and 18th centuries, when missionaries were tortured and killed. Shinto provided the Japanese with a sense of uniqueness as they modernized in the face of western gunships forcing it to open to the world in the late-19th century; they adopted western industry and certain parts of western political structures, but did so in a way that made them uniquely Japanese. Shinto provided comfort and strength as Japan decided to enter the Imperial race of the 19th century, defeating first long-time rival China, then Russia in two wars (it should be noted the Japanese always felt a bit chagrined at the interference of US President Theodore Roosevelt, who intervened in the Russo-Japanese War, calling a Peace Conference at the White House. The Portsmouth Treaty was the reason Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize; it is also the reason militant nationalists resented American interference in Japanese Imperial policy until the end of WWII).

At the same time that Shinto is uniquely Japanese, its spirituality is one of peace with nature. There is none of the western "disenchantment" that is easily and historically identified with Christian ideas of stewardship. The harmony of human beings with their surroundings is evident in the style of Shinto temples. There is a peacefulness about them, a sense of sacred space that is similar to the feeling I have had in certain gothic and neo-gothic style churches (St. Anne's church on Nebraska Ave, NW; the National Cathedral; the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception). This sense of being apart, of a place that is both human, and yet dedicated to something more than human, is refreshing.

While I doubt Shinto will set the world on fire, it is refreshing to note that it does have a presence here in the United States. Our panoply of religious life can only be richer for it.

Virtual Tin Cup

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