“Of Matter, Spirits, and Places: Japanese Discourses on The Bodies of the Shinto Divinities (Kami)”
University of California, Santa Barbara
One of the striking aspects of Shinto is the vagueness and multiplicity that characterize descriptions of the gods (kami). The general understanding today is that kami are spiritual (immaterial) entities that attach themselves to particular things (rocks, trees, mountains, etc.); however, there are also beliefs that natural objects are divine in themselves. In addition, human beings can, in certain cases, be deified as well. The notion of kami also shares some semantic elements with concepts such as mono (entity endowed with supernatural powers), tama (spirit), and kokoro (mind). In this paper, I present some aspects of premodern Japanese discussions on the body of the kami (shintai), with their multiplicity and ultimate irreducibility, with special emphasis on medieval doctrinal texts and early modern philosophical treatments by Confucians and Nativists. I will suggest that a shared feature of the theology of the kami throughout history is a constant oscillation (and indecision) between materiality and spirituality, a structural oscillation that is responsible for both the constancy of certain themes and religious innovation.