O Books, 2010, 162 pp
ISBN 978-1-84694-438-3

Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain


Like most people in the Western world, I’d had little or no exposure to Shinto, the ancient, traditional spirituality of Japan. It was never included in my mental list of wisdom traditions and, I am now ashamed to say, if I thought about it at all I’d dismissed it as merely a set of rituals that Japanese people traditionally observed out of habit rather than conviction. How wrong I was.

The author traces the history of this ancient tradition (whose origins date back  an astounding 16,000 years) and introduces its key concepts of Kami (creative energy), Kannagara (going with the flow) and Musubi (organic, sustainable growth). But Shinto cannot be reduced to simplistic terms. When you try to put these concepts into rational boxes, as I was doing at first, they jump out again, switch boxes. Eventually I realised they can only be understood properly at an intuitive, ‘aha!’ level. It occurs to me that Shinto is a lot like water. You can drink it, bathe in it and use it for a hundred and one different purposes but you can never actually grasp it. Just when you think you’ve understood it, it shape-shifts again, trickling out through your clutching fingers. And that’s because, like life itself, it never stops growing, moving changing, adapting…which is why it is still alive and well after so many millennia.

I had just finished reading this book when the devastating  earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. People here were marvelling at the way the Japanese people handled this tragedy. Was it stoicism? Far from it. It was Shinto in action: flowing with what happens: staying grounded: staying deeply tuned to Nature, tempestuous aspects and all. Like a rooted tree, bending in the wind. Saying ‘yes’ to life.

As Rankin says, “Shinto is a life-affirming faith that embraces tradition and innovation equally and helps us to reconnect with nature. It is a spiritual pathway for our time.”