Three lessons about nature, water, and spirituality from Japan's Shinto and Buddhism practices
Ever since traveling through Japan last spring, I have been meaning to write about the interaction between Shinto and Buddhism. Seeing it manifested throughout Japan’s landscape and culture everywhere I went, I was really mesmerized by its deep influence on daily life. Learning a bit more about the Shinto philosophy, taught me a great deal about how people in Japan connect to nature, and how especially water is perceived as something integrated into spirituality. From old and bendy trees in urban settings - kept upright with wooden canes - to the cemetery in Koyasan - dressed in moss and misty evening lights - to the many temples in Kyoto - where flowing water would welcome and purify visitors before entering - the marriage of Shinto and Buddhism in Japan is an interesting case when searching or new (and old) ways to restore our broken relationship with the land and water. Here are three lessons I took home with me from Japan, about Shinto and Buddhism.
1. Nature is a living, sacred sanctuary for the divine and the human alike
Shinto and Buddhism are two ancient belief and philosophy systems, that have become interwoven in the cultural fabric of Japan, as of the 6th century. These two systems found each other in the prevalent perception of nature as a perfect metaphor for the cycles of existence: where at the heart of the Indigenous Shinto beliefs we find a profound appreciation for nature; we see that in the teachings of Buddhism, the impermanence of life and the interconnectedness of all beings is paramount. In the 6th century, nature became a teacher mirroring the ephemeral nature of human life to the Japanese, while Buddhism’s emphasis on mindfulness opened the doorway to a deep appreciation of the natural world in return.
Up until this day, this dance between spirituality and nature is visible in Japan. From visiting natural landscapes to the big cities, it became clear to me that Shinto practitioners and Buddhists perceive nature not merely as a physical realm but as a living sanctuary where the divine and the earthly intertwine. One might notice it as a sublime interplay between the earthy and the sacred, where both are often being or becoming one another, rather than a strong separation between the two. This ethereal reverence is especially encapsulated by the recognition of nature “spirits” (entities for which a perfect translation does not exist), known as the Kami. Perhaps easiest described as spirits or deities, Kami can embody various natural elements and spaces, from a majestic mountain to a gentle river stream or ancient tree. These sacred entities are perceived to exist in every aspect of nature, including animals and people, instilling life and vitality into the very essence of the lands and waters of Japan.
What is so special about the Indigenous belief of Kami, is that over the years, the merging of Shinto and Buddhism led to a syncretism where Shinto Kami and Buddhist Bodhisattvas found themselves dwelling side by side. The recognition of the Kami within Buddhist practices further reinforced the sanctity of nature in the hearts of practitioners in a very tangible way. Buddhist temples integrated the natural world into their architecture, too, incorporating elements such as waterfalls and gardens, providing serene spaces for meditation and reflection. And even as I’m writing this, I remember how nature would be an elegant and dominant presence everywhere I went. I would often have to bow my head when entering a sacred site such as a monastery, because an overhanging branch of an old tree would graciously guide visitors like myself into showing respect and humility. And I also noticed how people would find a profound solace in the tranquility of forests, the serene flow of water, and the beauty of the seasons changing in color… Nature is an integrated part of Japanese culture on many levels.
2. Water as a metaphor for our emotions, psyche, and life's energy
Growing up in the Netherlands, a water-rich country below sea level, I have always felt magnetized to bodies of water in general. From the water currents in big rivers to the flow of water in small creeks... from the ocean's waves to energizing waterfalls. As water informs and inspires my art practice in nearly every painting today, it is inseparable from creativity for me. So when visiting Japan, I was especially drawn to learn more about the ways in which water is part of spirituality, and how people connect to it.
What I found was that water, in fact, forms an integral part of the sacred relationship between Shinto, Buddhism and nature. One way this is expressed, as is often the case with water, is through ritual. In Shinto rituals and Buddhist practices alike, the essence of water is one of purification. So at Shinto shrines, water basins called temizuya welcome visitors, inviting them to cleanse their hands and mouths before approaching the sacred space. The practice is done to cleanse the body and the soul, but also to restore a state of harmony with the natural world every time this is done. The mere connection and touch of the element, is a sacred practice. In a way, it is a ritualistic gesture of respect towards the Kami and the spiritual realm they inhabit.
This brings me to my point: water’s omnipresence offers a gateway to the divine in Shinto beliefs. It is an element where the spiritual and the earthly, quite literally, merge and converge. A prominent and revered entity part of the Shinto-Buddhism-tapestry that truly embodies this notion, is the water goddess Benzaiten for example. She is also known as Benzaiten-sama (or Saraswati in other Asian traditions) and embodies the fusion of indigenous Japanese beliefs and the influence of Indian Buddhism. She is described as the goddess of everything that flows—rivers, streams, music, knowledge, and eloquence… And it is thought that her divine presence intertwines with the harmonious melodies of nature. It is not strange, therefore, that Benzaiten’s blessings are sought by artists, musicians, and scholars alike.
So as the reverence of water in Japanese Shinto and Japanese Buddhism transcends the mere recognition of its practical significance related to purification, it is a reminder of the interconnectedness of humans and the natural world. Being the goddess of water, Benzaiten personifies the intangible currents of wisdom and inspiration that run through all of us. As a Kami, she makes us understand that the flow of water is symbolic of the “flow” of life; the flow of inspiration; and our creative abilities as humans. For me personally, she embodies the connection between creativity, water, and the importance of feminine voices in environmental discourses.
I found this notion of water enlightening, because it allows us to look at the essence of water, of nature, and see a metaphor for our own human experience. One we so often disconnect from our natural environment. The rivers, for example, teach us the art of adaptation and resilience, while the vast oceans remind us of the boundless expanses of consciousness. Water shows us the importance of flow and of grace, of nurturing qualities and the significance of connecting, and the power of creativity by not obstructing what is.
With each ripple that travels through the water's surface, we are reminded of the interconnectedness of our actions, traveling and transforming across the fabric of existence, while shaping the world around us. Regardless of our religious beliefs, philosophical convictions, culture, age, or sex: going back to the elements allows us to find simplicity in the complex, example in the face of challenge, and inspiration in creation.
3. Transcending the divide with our natural environment (and ourselves)
Thinking about it, I felt that the heart of Shinto's philosophy might be well described by the word 'interconnectedness'. Humans and the divine are both connected by the sacredness of space, of nature, and the energy exchange that takes place in it. More than that, human life is intricately woven into the web of nature, not the other way around, and it is inseparable from the divine forces that sustain it. And yet this reverence for nature is not just limited to grandiose landscapes but extends to the smallest manifestations of life, from a single blade of grass to the gentle caress of the wind… Can you imagine a world, where we honor and protect ancient trees the same way, that we honor and protect ancient churches or artifacts?
It really made me contemplate how there’s a profound value in looking at the world around us in such a sacred, maybe even magical way. As such, the Kami are prevalent symbols of hope, as they inspire us to live in harmony with the natural world and to protect and preserve the sanctity of it through daily practice.
Especially in a world where the delicate balance of nature is increasingly threatened, the wisdom of Shinto and Japanese Buddhist practioners can remind us of the interconnectedness of all life and the divine essence to be found in nature. Noticing how Shinto- and Buddhism's sacredness of nature extends beyond the realm of faith and religiosity, I personally experienced how this permeated daily life and influenced ethics in Japan on a daily level. I could recognize how it had inspired architecture, urban planning, inspiration for art and literature… from the way one moves and behaves in public, to the manner in which old age is perceived (think of Wabi Sabi for example).
Perhaps most of all, I feel that the presence of nature spirits and the reconciliation of kinship with the natural world in a way, breathes life into the sacred essence of the natural world around, and within us. It does so, without separating the entity from the place of worship: we are the very nature we move around in, as it moves through us.