One can't begin to understand a culture without understanding their religious and spiritual systems. I've been somewhat remiss as I have referenced Heian religion several times but have yet to take the time to talk about it much. Of course, religion, spirituality, and metaphysics is a complex topic, so like all these blog entries, I shall only be briefly skimming the surface.
The important thing to keep in mind about Heian-era Japan, and for that matter Japan for most of its history, is that its religious culture has been defined by an incredible amount of syncretism. Though they had the occasional bout of resistance to outside ideas and religious conflict, overall the people of the islands of Japan have had little lasting issue with integrating elements of different imported and native belief systems into something they did not find internally inconsistent.
During the Heian era, the culture was defined by a mix of the homegrown Shinto belief system and Buddhism imported from China. As the imperial family claimed descent from Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess, and many important families were involved in Shinto rites and/or temples, there was never a strong effort to push aside the beliefs, particularly as Shinto and the imported forms of Buddhism didn't demand much in the way of religious exclusivity from the common adherent.
Today I want to focus on Shinto (lit. The Way of the Gods or Spirits). It's important to note that Shinto, in contrast to Buddhism, can't be traced back to a single prophet or teacher. Instead, it is the accumulation of supernatural and spiritual beliefs that mostly originated, based on archaeological evidence, as least as far back as the late Jomon period (roughly 2000 BC to about 300-400 BC). It's unclear how much of Shinto beliefs developed independently versus being the result of influence by people emigrating to Japan from other parts of East Asia. In the centuries of the following Yayoi period, many elements of Shinto belief became somewhat more formalized. The imperial family, incidentally, claims descent to this period.
There were various iterations in Shinto belief between the Jomon and Heian eras. As this is a blog series about the Heian era, and not earlier Japanese history, we'll skip those and talk about the form Shinto had comfortably settled into during our period of interest.
Actually, we'll cheat and take a slight step back to the Nara period (710-794 AD). During this period, two vary important works were written: the Kojiki (712) and the Nihon Shoki (720). The Kojiki was mostly a book of myths and legends. The Nihon Shoki, although it includes some mythological material, was written more as a more dedicated history work. These works are relevant because they described (and more importantly recorded on paper) various extant myths, legends, and spiritual practices. At the time, Shinto was not thought of some sort of unified method of religious practice, but instead just the sum total of the collected beliefs of the people in those classical and pre-classical Japanese. The word Shinto itself was used in the Nihon Shoki to contrast it with the imported Buddhism. It wasn't until about the 12th-century that it came to be associated with somewhat more formalized, yet still accepting of syncretism, religious doctrines. So, in that sense, for a good chunk of Japanese history, Shinto was just whatever they believed in and certainly wasn't perceived as some sort of formalized religion. Shinto was just the way of the world, not special revelation.
Given that Shinto was just a way of understanding the world around them, the classical Japanese had little trouble, in general, taking up Buddhism at the same time. This is not to say, however, that no one ever had metaphysical struggles nor rejected, on some level, syncretism. Such issues are attested to in period fiction, period diaries, and other primary source historical material. That being said there was no wide-scale displacement of Shinto by Buddhism like there was with many other religions of the world as they spread into areas with extant folk religions. The two forms of belief both infused themselves into the spiritual DNA of Japan and to this today there are huge numbers of who follow both Shinto and Buddhist practices in Japan.
A key aspect of Shinto thought is a lack of separation in the spirit world and the human world. The fundamental root of Shinto is reverence and worship of kami. This is a very nebulous term. Sometimes it's translated into English as spirits and sometimes as gods. In a sense, it's both. Kami can be the inherent quality of certain things in nature. Kami also can be what Westerners would typically describe as some sort of animistic spirits. Some kami are also closer to what would typically be referred to as gods. Even these beings, however, are not quite the omnipotent and semi-omnipotent gods that defines say, the various Abrahamic faiths.
You could have a kami that dwells within a tree or a kami that literally was the tree. You could have a kami that is the a human who after death becomes the embodiment of the godlike embodiment of a concept (i.e., Tenjin-sama, kami of scholarship) or you could have a kami like Ame-no-Uzume-no-mikoto. This goddess was married to another kami and roughly speaking was the embodiment of merriment and revelry. A famous myth relates how when the sun goddess Amaterasu retreated to a cave after her storm god brother attacked her temples and servitors darkness fell over the world. Ame-no-Uzume-no-mikoto performed a comical dance that caused other kami to laugh. A curious Amaterasu ended up emerging from the cave to see the source of the entertainment, and others nearby blocked the cave, thus keeping the sun goddess outside and returning light to the world.
The basis of the worship of various kami were (and are) shrines throughout Japan both larger complexes and smaller more personal shrines in places like homes or in places like roads or the forest. Some of these shines are rather grand and scope (such as those associated with Tenjin-sama) and therefore would attract attention from many people, and some may be focused on some extremely local kami and might only be of interest to a particular village. Again, the important thing, metaphysically, is that these kami are not separate from the rest of the world even if, on occasion, they are insubstantial or physically intangible. They do not dwell in a separate spiritual plane or Heaven whether they are a goddess of merriment of the spirit of a river.
Another bedrock concept in Shinto is purity. In Shinto belief humans are born pure and become impure through physical, spiritual, and moral corruption. Many forms of Shinto rituals are based on purification. As I'm running long, I'll just keep in simple and note wicked behavior is an easy form of corruption under Shinto belief. Disease is one thing associated with physical corruption. There are a variety of forms of spiritual corruption, but one major constant is death and dying. The presence of death or the handling of the dead was often considered a major form of corruption. Certain jobs, such as being an undertaker or tanner, were considering incredibly spiritually corrupting and assigned to low-caste outcasts. Arguably, this contributed to the formation of the burakumin social caste that in many way lingers even in modern Japan.
Like many topics I've covered, Shinto could be an entire blog series by itself, so I'll stop here and just reinforce the twin themes of kami and purity. I shall be revisiting certain aspects of Shinto in the future in more detail as well.
Next week, I'll briefly survey Japanese Buddhism. All the same caveats will apply.